Image: Tall Blacks team v Brazil FIBA World Cup (Andrew Dewhurst far left)
From the outside looking in the recent World Cup campaign might appear run of the mill, about what people expected or for some, even a disappointment given our proud record of making the final 16 at the past four consecutive tournaments, starting of course with that historic run to the semi-finals in 2002.
What I hope I can offer is a perspective from inside the camp, based on our own expectations, the standards of the tournament and the obstacles we overcame along the way to end the tournament with three wins and two losses, and a final ranking of 19 for a team that came in with a world ranking of 38.
Let me begin by underlining this is a great team of New Zealanders, players, coaches and staff. Each sacrificing in their own way to support, facilitate or pull on the black singlet and continue the great heritage associated with the Tall Blacks. Staff are of course paid for their services, but without question all would be better off staying back in their regular jobs. Players are not paid other than a daily allowance, the budget simply does not afford Basketball New Zealand that luxury.
There has been much discussion in recent months about age-group teams having to pay a share to go on tours or play in tournaments. Sadly, that is the reality of the financial environment that we live in along with most other sports. Basketball NZ has limited resources to spread across an increasingly demanding schedule of tours and teams in Asia and the world. But forget the rights and wrongs of that, put it in context – the Tall Blacks do not get paid. They sacrifice time with families, and off-season on holiday, perhaps a European contract or as happened with Ike Fotu last year, an NBA call up to summer league with the Boston Celtics.
And in this you find one of the strengths of this team, something that underpins the culture around the Tall Blacks. Players and staff want to sacrifice to be here, they want to face and overcome those obstacles, they want to carry on the tradition and great record of this team, they want to be a band of brothers and take on the world.
We were missing key players, but once that heartache was dealt with, we focus on who we have, not who we don’t have. Mika Vukona and Reuben Te Rangi are crucial members of this team, leaders on and off the floor. No question they would have made a difference, but once they were out of the equation the focus was on ‘who is with us and what can they contribute’ – and boy did everyone contribute. This is a team that lives above the line, no excuses, just get on with the job and lean on your brothers to have your back on and off the floor.
The coaching staff are world class and a wonderful mix of three very different personalities and styles. Pauli is the genius that holds it together and leads us, inspirational, a great tactical brain, a great communicator. Pero is Pero, a colossus of a man and personality who inspires just by being around players, with his experience and insight into the game and ability to lead players into battle. Ross is a born coach; he lives and breathes the game and can talk X’s and O’s with anyone on the planet. His love for the game and thirst for knowledge and ability to pass that on to players is incredible to watch.
The plan put in place was indeed a master plan, devised from hours of conversation as to how our group can impact faster, bigger and more athletic teams. That plan was to play at pace with spacing and an incessantly up-tempo game that would create open looks and tire the opposition. The team was loaded with shooters throughout the lineup and in this system they all became world class players, led by the likes of Corey and Ike, but everyone was a threat and teams simply couldn’t guard the perimeter and the paint at the pace we were playing.
Other teams, coaches, players and media were commenting about the Tall Blacks and how we were playing. Private and public conversations were full of envy from opposing players that we were brave enough to play this way, coaches would talk in elevators at the hotel asking us ‘not to play so fast please’ as we headed to the stadium. The captain from Montenegro (an NBA player) said in the post-game press conference – ‘New Zealand plays too fast for us, always we are running, it is hard to put shots up when your pulse is so high’.
The support staff are equally world class and unbelievable in their commitment to this programme. Other teams travel with 15 to 20 support staff, we have four – five if you counted our media/comms manager Joe Wallace being with us to deliver and create so many great stories and footage for the media back home. Shelly Hiha is tireless and a wonder with her therapeutic massage treatment, often working long into the night. She then takes on anything else that needs doing around the team to make us better. Anousith Bouaaphone is a world class physio, part of this programme (like Shelley) for many years now, he knows the players and becomes a part time psychologist and sounding board for them when on the ‘table’. Doc Hamish Osborne is the newest of our support staff and brings a wealth of knowledge from various sporting systems and teams, further enabling us to best prepare and maintain our players throughout an arduous campaign. As a team we wouldn’t change them for any other group, you can keep your 15 staff of some of the others, ours is tight knit and passionate and skilled like no other country can boast.
The aim was to get out of a cut-throat group, a new system with just four in a group and only two qualify for the second round. We had one of the toughest with Greece, Brazil and Montenegro – all ranked much higher, and with Greece having the NBA MVP Giannis Antentokounmpo they were talked about as dark horses to win the tournament.
We were close in both games but not close enough, undone by turnovers and on occasion a shooting percentage not high enough – risk and reward this system and if you don’t shoot the ball, you won’t win the game. But both games proved a revelation to the watching world, who is this team that dares to run, that dares to take on such powerful teams and imprint their own game on them? With a little luck and perhaps in the Greece game a little less ‘star-gazing’ from the referees things might have worked out different. But we took it on the chin, defeated Montenegro in between and headed into classification play intent on securing a high finishing position and a spot at the Tokyo Olympics repechage.
Those two final games showed how far this team has come, with an absolute smashing of Japan (by 30) with Corey Webster and Isaac Fotu continuing tournaments that had them leading key statistical categories – both would not go amiss in any All Star selection in China, but also with great supporting and sometimes starring roles from other players.
The win over Turkey was a wonder to watch and witness from the bench. A team of young men playing with a freedom afforded them by a master plan from the coaches and a pace of game that had Turkey gasping for breath and on the final play not mustering the energy of mind or body to even try and foul with a one point deficit – the white flag was up, New Zealand secured a memorable first ever win over the proud Turks.
We have heard that coverage back home was sketchy – some media outlets aside. The notable exceptions were Darcy Waldegrave on Radio Sport Drive, Marc Hinton on Fairfax, Newshub’s evening and AM sports news, and the new Sky Sport breakfast show, and support from the Spinoff’s ‘The Bulletin’ with Alex Braae. But a special mention for Matt Chatterton from Radio New Zealand – the sole media outlet that committed to actually coming to the tournament. And of course, our amazing ‘Tu Kaha’ team from Maori Television: Ethan on camera, Rob on sound and Kereti as editor and producer – they were welcomed in as part of the team as they compiled documentary footage with us on tour. Other media reporting was infrequent and generally took the low hanging fruit if anything at all – despite all the metrics telling them New Zealand very much does care about basketball and this team.
That tends to be the way media operate these days – they go lowest common denominator, while New Zealand becomes more multi-cultural and sports like basketball continue to grow and overtake some of the more traditional sports in many metrics, there are still too many who only cover what they deem to be ‘popular’ or ‘sexy’ – often these stories have a celebrity or controversy element to them. Such a pity when our doors are very much open to the media, with some amazing stories of an amazing team of young men doing our country proud on the world stage. It is a fight we will continue to fight, always looking to generate coverage, stories and angles by providing as much open access to the team as we can. So a big thank you to those media organisations who supported us. And for Radio New Zealand Maori Televsion who sent people to China – just fantastic foresight for their current and future audiences.
As well as missing Mika and Rueben, we had a few injuries along the way, at one point with just three fit guards to cope with five games in six days during the build-up. Sadly, Jarrod Kenny was never able to fully recover his fitness and could not take the court in China. His attitude exemplified the team first approach though, never complaining, always working to get back on the floor and becoming a bench point guard for the coaches, doing all he could in a totally selfless act to help the team.
And so, we are heading home, some sore heads today after a deserved night of celebration last night after the historic win over Turkey. We will be ranked 19 at this World Cup but wonder what we might have achieved had we edged one of Brazil or Greece, but with that incredible win to ease everyone comfortably to sleep in the weeks and months ahead as we look back on a hugely satisfying campaign, one that in many ways overcame the odds.
This team has done New Zealand proud and should be applauded, they have made the basketball world sit up and take notice. The Tall Blacks are a special group of players, staff and coaches doing New Zealand proud, and will continue to do so whatever the odds and whatever hurdles are placed in front of them. To supporters, family and friends and staff at Basketball New Zealand who also sacrifice and help them live their dreams, thank you.