FROM THE PRESS BOX: basketball’s bid to be nationally relevant

Thursday, July 5, 2018

From the Press Box with Melanie WhelanON A Melbourne-bound train, it was interesting to listen to some young basketball fans play a knowledge-based game to while away the journey.

They took turns to name American NBA clubs – you were eliminated if you stumbled – until one kid was left standing and could recall no more.

Then they moved on to NBA players.

It was only when they attempted the same games but focusing on Australia’s National Basketball League that they started to stumble and decided to try a new game.

They stumbled not because there are less NBL clubs than American clubs but because they really struggled to remember Australian team names.

For a game that has courts bursting with players every night of the week in Victoria’s major regional cities,especially Ballarat, this exercise was a little sad.

Really, not much has changed from when this columnist was in the school yard and every second kid wore either a Chicago Bulls or Charlotte Hornets cap (most did not even know Charlotte was a city name rather than a girl who owned the Hornets).

That was an era when Michael Jordan was on the rise and cinemas were packed with kids watching Space Jam.

Basketball Australia’s new chief executive officer Anthony Moore says that for too long the sport in Australia has been a game of what-ifs and what could have beens – a game that has always been around but always publicly outshone by other sporting codes.

Moore, speaking in Ballarat on Thursday night, wants to make the game relevant and earn back respect.

He wants the nation’s governing body of the game to be on the front foot so that when a guy like Dante Exum goes number fi ve in the NBA draft, Australian fans will race to buy Boomers singlets with Exum’s name blazoned across the back (and for fans to know exactly where to buy such singlets).

He wants Australians to know the stories of how our home-grown talent is impressing on the international stage, including Europe and the American college system.

Moore has a clear, strong vision but a tough challenge ahead to make it happen.

He says the game in Australia is judged, fairly or not, on our national men’s and women’s leagues.

These have a whole separate set of issues to sort out.

But strengthening the game can start in places such as Ballarat.

Moore has been out on the frontlines this week with our city hosting the Australian under-18 national basketball championships, watching talent, meeting state officials and mingling among the stands.

These championships undoubtedly field future stars.

When Ballarat last hosted the championships in 2008, players in action included now-Olympians Patty Mills and Rachel Jarry. Both have also gone on to professional careers in the United States.

When Ballarat first hosted these championships in 1993, Sam Mackinnon played here.

Mackinnon went on to build a stellar career with the Australian Boomers and in our National Basketball League.

He is back this year to coach Queensland South’s men’s team.

Ballarat is also a well-established hub and pathway for talent in western Victoria through junior

programs and elite teams in the South East Australian Basketball League.

The Miners and Rush programs boast an impressive list of players they have launched onto the national

and international stage, including most recently Jarry, a former Lady Miner, and Lucas Walker, who moved into the Boomers program and established a firmer role with NBL club Melbourne United after his time in Ballarat.

Australian Opals coach Brendan Joyce’s first coaching job was with the Miners. Australian Boomers head coach Andrej Lemanis used to be a Miners assistant coach.

Home-made talent in Nathan Sobey, Ash Constable (Cairns Taipans), Anthony Fisher (Perth Wildcats), Abbey Wehrung (Canberra Capitals) and Kasey Burton (Melbourne Boomers) was recruited to NBL or WNBL clubs afterlast season.

Fisher, Wehrung and Burton have returned to the Minerdome and the SEABL in the off-season.

Moore said our national leagues and SEABL offered such promising young talent they constituted a sounder development base – playing against and training alongside experienced elite adults – rather than moving to the American college system and playing against elite players of a similar age.

Basketball Australia must reinforce and better promote such pathways.

Australia’s best talent will inevitably end up playing professionally overseas, but we need to take more pride in the game right here on our shores.

When Moore speaks, he sparks hope and optimism that Basketball Australia can be a great leader in an increasingly competitive national sport market. It will take time, commitment and the right people to ensure this hope becomes a reality.

Then maybe Aussie kids will be able to reel off a few more NBL names.

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