September 28th, 1997 – Mooloolaba
An awkward kid who has never picked up a football in his life watches on with his entire family as the Newcastle Knights snatch a dramatic 22-16 win against the heavily favored Manly Sea Eagles in the 1997 ARL Grand Final.
Prior to that day I hadn’t known the name of a single player in the squad, but I shouted myself hoarse at that television and fell in love with the better version of rugby that day.
November 16th, 2005 – Newcastle
John Aloisi’s strike sails past the out-stretched hands of Uruguay’s Fabio Carini to send Australia to their first FIFA World Cup in 32 years.
In the years leading up to the triumph, I’d told friends that football was ‘fine to play, but boring to watch’.
But I’d never wept tears of joy at a sport before that day, and I only have once since. I’ve considered myself a fan of the beautiful game ever since that day.
December 8th, 2011 – Sydney Entertainment Centre
Big Julian Khazzouh steps up to the free throw line. The clock has stopped and the Sydney Kings are two points behind the Adelaide 36ers. Two points to push it in to overtime.
The game has been too and fro. For all of their attacking fluency and tenacity, the Kings defense has leaked points in response to every point they could post. The lead had been Adelaide’s for the first three quarters and, after briefly falling behind in the fourth, the South Australian team had stormed back into the lead.
Khazzouh, who I’d later share a table with at the Yardhouse over post game beers, coolly slots the first point home. It’s 99 – 100.
I shouldn’t be as worked up as I am. After all, I’d never cared about basketball prior to a few weeks earlier.
But worked up I am. My palms are sweating and my heart is racing. Khazzouh shoots…
and nails it. It’s 100 all and we’re headed into overtime.
And just like Aloisi’s goal and Darren Albert’s try, that basket changed something in me. I was no longer ambivalent to the goings on of the sport – I had a team and I’d seen them triumph when triumph had seemed impossible.
A tad dramatic?
Maybe it is a bit dramatic to say it, but those defining moments in sport are what makes it such a big part of so many people’s lives. In a world where your biggest triumph of the week might be saying no to a slice of cake in the office or finishing a particularly challenging level of Angry Birds, the vicarious triumphs we take from our sporting heroes mean a lot.
And, for me at least, seeing a team win when victory seems almost impossible is the greatest feeling of all. In the grand scope of things, Sydney’s overtime win over Adelaide didn’t mean a lot. It took place in round ten of a twenty five round season against a side of no real consequence in the NBL standings.
But to see it happen and to feed on the energy of the crowd… that’s what draws people to their favorite sports. That’s why we go out rain, hail, or shine to see these modern day gladiators do the things we daydreamed about doing as children. I may never have had any ambitions of being a basketballer as a kid, but I don’t doubt there was somebody out in the crowd who saw a little of their childhood ambitions made flesh as Jerai Grant nailed three dunks in short order or Aaron ‘the beast’ Bruce worked tirelessly to keep his side in the game.
A visitor to Sydney might not have catching a game of the NBL high on their list of sporting priorities. After all – the Australian pastimes of Aussie Rules, rugby league, rugby union, and cricket are all on offer. Even football (soccer) boasts a greater cultural significance on Australian soil.
But like I said after my first visit to the King Dome, there’s something altogether more involving about live basketball. It’s the way the crowd all share a smaller space. It’s the way the mascot high fives fans and the way the entertainment almost universally involves the crowd.
And given the dire start to summer Sydney has had, it’s the way the sport is played in the warmth and dry of the Sydney Entertainment Centre. It ‘ain’t too expensive either.
The night had begun innocuously enough. My work had again provided me with a free ticket to the game and I joined up with my good friend Anthony (from the Art of Conversations) and his girlfriend to head to the game. But as Anthony and Nicole were ushered towards their corporate box seats, a funny thing happened. I was waved along with them.
Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, I put my head down and followed as my suited friend confidently took up his seat within shouting distance of the Sydney Kings’ owner. It was enough to make me wish I hadn’t worn khakis and a t-shirt to the affair.
And so it was that I somehow got to sit almost court side for the game. Rubbing shoulders with champagne drinking, $60 pizza eating folk while my stomach wished I’d packed a little something more into my backpack than a crushed Coles brand muesli bar.
It was a different experience altogether to my previous visit. I was close enough to hear the players disputing a call or urging their team-mates on. Close enough to reach out and high five The Lion if I so desired. It was, cliché though it may be to say it, like being in the game. Or as close as I’ll ever come.
I won’t be writing about the Sydney Kings or the NBL in here much more, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be attending more games or cheering any less. This is a travel blog and while there’s certainly a place for sport in my travels, I don’t want to choke this site up with too much parochial stuff.
But if you’ve ever fallen in love with a sport or a team, I’d love to hear the story. Have you found a team of your own on foreign soil that you came to cheer for?