Reforming Perceptions of Basketball
Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) does not get a great deal of play in Australia’s crowded sporting scene. With the rugby codes and AFL dominating the winter months and cricket and football (soccer) sharing centre stage through the summer, basketball is sometimes lost in the shuffle.
It’s a sport that gets mentioned in the same breath as other ‘pseudo sports’ such as baseball and ice hockey. A sport that Australians play but, since they’re not necessarily world class at, don’t deem worthy of mainstream attention.
While the league enjoyed its halcyon days during the nineties with record levels of popularity and participation, the league has experienced a sharp downturn over the past ten years that has seen it reduced from fielding teams all over the country in front of packed arenas to its current reduced state of nine teams doing battle in half full entertainment centers.
In the past I’ve been guilty of taking the mainstream route and scoffing at basketball.
“It’s an American sport. It’s crap”
“It’s not a real sport. There’s no contact”
But, truth be told, my reasons for dismissing basketball are entirely more personal. I’m a guy who loves his sport, and a big part of that has been a modest level of aptitude in any sport I turned my mind too. I’ll never be Cristiano Ronaldo, Ricky Ponting, or Darren Lockyer – but I can kick around a soccer ball, hit a respectable four, and throw a semi decent pass in a muck around game of any of those sports.
But put the orange ball in my hand and I struggle to look human. I dribble like a nine year old girl, shoot with the accuracy of a sniper with Parkinson’s, and my defensive approach seems to be ‘foul the other guy until he’s in a coma’.
To put it bluntly – I don’t got game.
Rather than admit this personal defeat, it seemed easier to rubbish the game as irrelevant. Sure, I can’t play it, but who cares?
No really, who cares?
This is Australia! A country of manly men doing manly things. The land of rucks and mauls, spear tackles, melees, and… well… cricket isn’t very manly.
They still stop for tea breaks, for God’s sake.
One of the perks of working for iiNet is that, as the league’s main sponsor, we get a little special treatment when it comes to the National Basketball League. My immediate superior is Sydney’s NBL ambassador and even had a few of the Sydney Kings‘ more notable players come through the centre a few weeks ago to meet some of the staff and sign a few autographs.
It was like a preview for Skyrim. Giants towering over us while we tried to resolve billing inquiries.
I might not have known who the guys were at the time, but my autographed Sydney Kings poster still went up on my wall when I got home later that day.
Last night rolled around with my boss directing me to his recent blog about the Sydney Kings and the invitation to tag along to a game sometime. ‘Sometime’ ended up being later that day as the Kings played host to the Cairns Taipans at the Sydney Entertainment Centre.
I figured seeing some live sport with co-workers was a little more blog-worthy of slaying a few dragons in Skyrim…
My immediate thought upon arriving at the Sydney Entertainment Centre was one of surprise. There were more people lining up for Thursday night basketball than I’d have imagined.
My preconceptions of the NBL had me picturing crowds of several dozen, but here were just under 5,000 people turning out on a drizzly Thursday evening to see their team turn out. I passed merchandise stands selling real merchandise, children excitedly chattering about players they liked, and the kind of smoking hot cheerleaders who put rugby league’s listless tarts to shame.
The arena, decked out for Sydney’s legends inductions, slowly began to fill as people filed in with hot dogs and mini pizzas and sausage rolls mingling to make my poor empty stomach tighten in frustration.
Only six more hours until pay day…
The evening started with the inductions and, if I’m being completely honest, I didn’t recognize a single name until former San Antonio and Minnesota three point specialist, Shane Heal was called.
He would later play in a half time exhibition game and hit three pointers from almost everywhere. I don’t think I was alone in wishing he could have kitted up at halftime to help out the home team.
I might have lied to my co-workers and nodded knowingly at other names but truth be told, my knowledge of Australian basketball extends only as far as Heal, Bogut, and Gaze. Anybody else might as well just be a tall man in a singlet.
That would change by night’s end.
With the formalities done it was time for the tip off.
Far from the forced enthusiasm I hear from ground announcers at various codes across Australia, the Kings’ announcer’s passion for the team (or maybe for remaining employed) was obvious from the start. The crowd ate out of the palm of his hand every time he lead the chant for De-fence or began a round of Let’s Go Sydney.
The music, upbeat and blood charging, carried far better in the confines of the entertainment center than they do on the open air rugby league grounds.
The Kings’ mascot, a lion, prowled the sideline interacting with fans much like his counterpart might have in other codes – but in this smaller environment, I didn’t feel so far removed from the affair.
Time outs called prompted performances from the Royalty Crew break dancers or the aforementioned hotness of the Harlequins Superchargers, and breaks were greeted with everything from free throw competitions to bowling to the very popular Kiss Cam.
In a lot of ways, basketball can be far more engaging for the crowd than any other sport. Without the logistics of engaging a 20,000+ crowd in a vast colliseum, the NBL is able to make the entire affair feel inclusive.
You weren’t watching the spectacle, you were a part of it.
The game itself? I’m not really qualified to judge.
I can’t imagine that it even begins to approach the quality of America’s NBA. The game seemed to lack the personality and the ego that seems so prominent in its American counterpart. By night’s end I might have been shouting ‘Unleash the Beast’ to Aaron Bruce or cheering for ‘The Quickness’ Luke Cooper, but the big personalities and slam dunking that you see in the NBA weren’t really there.
Did that bother me? Not at all.
I don’t get to see LeBron James every week, so to compare would be pointless. There were some missed shots and some dire defending at times, but I still got a thrill out of seeing Ben Madgen sink a three pointer, Jerai Grant fly high for a dunk, or big Julian Khazzouh pluck up a rebound and move it quickly down the court to start another attacking movement.
The thrill of live sport is a universal thing, I feel, and by night’s end I found myself hanging on the near misses and swearing in frustration whenever a chance was squandered.
Sydney’s Newest Fan
The Kings might not have won (hell, they were hammered by the second last placed Taipans), but that was only a mild annoyance at the end of a night that turned out to be far more fun than I’d have imagined.
I doubt it will ever unseat the A-League or NRL as the sport for me, and I’m still God awful at it, but I think there’s room in my busy schedule of Skyrim, blogging, and work to fit in a few more Kings games before the season is out.
The Sydney Kings play out of the Sydney Entertainment Centre on Darling Harbour. It’s a short walk from the CBD.
Tickets for adults range from $22-$30, but discounted rates are offered for families and for groups of ten or more. Food and alcohol are available on site.