If basketball had an international ‘cup final’ the MBO Tall Blacks are treating Sunday’s vital FIBA World Cup Qualifier as just that, with victory over China seen as an important step towards qualification for the event hosted by China next year.
Not that the team is putting any extra pressure on themselves, they are after all sitting on top of their pool going into this final game of the first stage of qualifying. No, it is more a case of playing with the level of intensity required to win what will be a tough, physical and close battle.
And it promises to be an occasion rarely if ever seen before in New Zealand, with ticket sales already over 7,000 Spark Arena is going to be pumping – with plenty of ex-pat Chinese support out in force too.
And few understand how to embrace such an occasion better than Tom Abercrombie and Mika Vukona, two of the leaders in this team, both with plenty of experience in such big games, and against a regular foe in China.
Abercrombie says this is what you train and prepare for as a player.
“Short of the actual World Cup itself or the Olympic Games, it really doesn’t get much better than this. A home game in front of what will be one of the biggest crowds ever to see the Tall Blacks play in New Zealand and against a powerhouse basketball nation like China, bring it on,” said the New Zealand swingman.
“For most of the early part of my international career these sorts of games really only came around when we were overseas, or on the odd occasion at home against Australia in a one-off home and away World Cup or Olympic qualifier. This will be a treat for us as players, but also for what looks like being a packed Spark Arena crowd.”
Vukona is someone who thrives on such occasions, and trusts in his team mates to rise to the occasion, including those who already have a great deal of experience despite their relative youth.
“This is going to be a special day for the game and I for one am just honoured to be playing a role at a time when basketball is on such a high. I love being with this group, I love pulling on the black singlet, there is nothing in the game that means more to me, and I love the fact that we get to do this on Sunday in front of a large and hopefully passionate crowd.
“I have every faith in the team to meet the challenge, some of them might not have years in the game, but they are smart basketballers and we all share that passion for the singlet. Look at the group that won against Lebanon in the Asia Cup in Beirut, they still talk about the noise and hostility in the stadium that night, and they came up clutch to win the game, it is that sort of experience that shows the game is in such great hands with this group of players.”
There is also the David and Goliath nature of the clash, with little old New Zealand competing against one of the global giants in China. The Chinese team is essentially a club team such is the time they spend together and games they play in preparation for the World Cup and Olympic Games tournaments.
Add to that the Tall Blacks spirit and culture that rises above a lack of central funding, and you have a story that Kiwis love to be a part of.
“We know the limits that Basketball New Zealand has in bringing our programme together and appreciate all the little things that are done to help us on and off court,” said Abercrombie. “In a way that brings us together even more. We are used to turning right when we board planes, if we get an exit row we are delighted and appreciative.
“We share hotel rooms and live within our means on tour, whether overseas or at home. But all of that is empowering, it is part of our culture, who we are as Kiwis and as Tall Blacks, we just roll our sleeves up and get on with it. This is a special team that enjoys a special bond, and we will empty the tank in the black singlet on Sunday afternoon.”
Vukona knows China will be up for it and is ready to meet that challenge.
“China is a proud basketball nation, we have enjoyed some great battles over the years and of course they will be playing in front of their greatest ever with Yao Ming being in the stadium, his presence alone can lift them to another level.
MBO Tall Blacks v China
Sunday 1 July
3pm tip off
Tickets at www.ticketmaster.co.nz
Public meet and greet
Saturday June 30
1:30pm at SKYCITY Hotel, Federal Street
Meet and get signatures from MBO Tall Blacks and Team China