For Sam Dempster, getting selected to the Tall Blacks squad was a dream come true for the 32-year-old forward.
After an ‘unreal’ week in Atsugi with the men’s national team for a preparation camp and a friendly game against Japan, Dempster made the personal decision to re-unite with his wife and children in Nelson, with the region heavily impacted by flooding over the past fortnight.
Reflecting back on his time with the Tall Blacks squad, Dempster says it was an emotional time and a ‘very special experience’ with a group of great people.
“The whole week has been unreal; every expectation I had of being a Tall Black was exactly what it was, the whole family culture, the environment of hard work and respect, everything,” says Dempster.
“The whole week with Reuben [Te Rangi] and [Shea] Ili and Isaac [Fotu] was great, and having Dion Prewster there – someone I’ve played against since I was 12 years old – was cool, to wear the black singlet alongside him was particularly special.
“Having [Mike] Fitchett and Mika [Vukona] in Japan too – that Nelson connection – was great. It was such an emotional experience when I got handed my singlet before the game, and then stepping foot onto the court and playing the friendly against Japan was amazing and is something I’ll never forget.
“I just soaked it all up – soaked up the culture and getting to know the guys – and focused on being part of the team and doing whatever they needed me to do. I’m about playing the game the right way, bringing intensity onto the court and giving it my all, so that’s what I did.”
Dempster says that he was surprised to get the call-up into the national team squad – especially at his age – and was excited to be part of the Tall Blacks culture for the first time.
“Being selected caught me off guard to be honest, I got an email to say I was in the squad and then I got a phone call from Pero [Cameron], someone who I watched when I was young, watched his career as a Tall Black. So to get my name called was surreal and it was extra special to have a phone call from him, as someone I’ve always looked up to. It was very cool to be able to tell my wife and kids about it.
“In all honesty I thought at this point of my career, I kinda thought I was past it [being selected]. So it was just an honour and a privilege to be recognised [for the Japan tour] for the effort I had put in this year, so I wanted to make the most of this opportunity.”
Dempster believes that his improved season with the Nelson Giants – being named the Sal’s NBL Most Improved Player – played a role in helping him get noticed by the Tall Blacks.
“It was awesome to be recognised as the Most Improved Player, it was a bit of a surprise but every summer I try and work on what I need to improve so I can be the best version of myself I can be.
“I want to keep improving, keep getting better and [the Giants] had a heck of a season, so I definitely think that helped me to be recognised.”
Dempster will hope to get another opportunity with the Tall Blacks in the future, but for now he is content to have experienced an opportunity that he grew up dreaming about.
“It was great to be part of the Tall Blacks culture; before this camp I was on the outside looking in, having played with Tall Blacks like Phill Jones, Mika Vikona and Mike Fitchett – people who had worn the jersey with pride.
“So I know how much mana there is in the way they wear the jersey, and it’s something I’ve wanted ever since I was young and was watching the Tall Blacks in the World Cup and the Olympics – it has always been a dream of mine.”