AVERT your Gaze to the horizon because here marches the resurgence of Australian basketball.
After years in the doldrums the former giant of the summer is on the rebound and it’ll be all thanks to the founder of Dodo Internet and a 19 year-old from Box Hill.
Australian basketball in the 1990s was big as The Castle, Pokemon and Sunnyboys. Huge crowds, even bigger names, it was ‘the’ sport for kids of all ages.
In Melbourne, centre court at the Tennis Centre would be full to see the likes of Gaze, Copeland and Bradtke take on Ronaldson, Anstey and Mackinnon.
It flourished on free to air television, one could argue that the NBL was as popular in the summer as AFL and NRL was in the winter for the southern and northern states respectively.
Then it all crumbled like your Grandma’s shortbread at Christmas.
Clubs folded, the Sydney Kings have made as many comebacks as John Farnham, clubs moved from major metropolitan stadia to small tin sheds adjacent to zoos; it all went downhill incredibly fast.
Not one young Australian boy could name you an NBL player let alone give you five to ten minutes on who his favourite was and that was a crying shame.
Former Australian legend Andrew Gaze at one point was so disappointed and saddened by what the NBL had become he, with reluctance, suggested publicly a league hiatus so that the stakeholders in the sport could allow themselves the appropriate time to pull it out of the grave and give it the mouth-to-mouth it so desperately needed.
No-one was going to games, the league had no sponsor, no broadcast deal. Heck, even the Boomers, a litmus test for the sport in this country, weren’t getting past the quarterfinals at the Olympics due a roster full of no-names and short blokes.
Enter Larry Kestelman.
Larry is from Melbourne and made a fortune off the property market. Such was his wealth he went on to found and own many major corporations and these days his value is well into the nine figures.
He likes basketball and after a few very controversial decisions it’s been the cut of his administrative skills and the size of his plums that has turned his club and its league a complete 180 degrees.
Kestelman three years ago bought the Melbourne Tigers and within two years sacked the highly-successful and highly-liked Chris Anstey as coach and then further, more controversially, changed the infamous branding from the red and yellow Tigers to the antiseptic blue and white United.
When the league was on the ropes in 2014 he then came up with a personal seven figure investment to buy and run the league himself.
Twelve months later and his masterstroke has paid off.
The Tigers were playing in State Netball Centre to crowds usually accustomed to Casey Donavon concerts. The Australian Open in renovating the Margaret Court Arena to an indoor 7,500 venue was seen as a positive lure to hopefully getting basketball back in front of more respectable but realistic crowds.
Such has been the unforeseen and surprising success of the Melbourne United they have almost entirely bypassed MCA and returned to Hisense Arena with crowds over 10,000.
And the resurrection of the Tigers nee United is felt all over the country. The Perth Wildcats often play to sell out 13,000 crowds at their new funky Perth Arena. The Sydney Kings are doing well enough for the NSW Government to build them a new 10,000 venue, even the Brisbane Bullets will be coming back next year.
The broadcaster de-jour in Fox Sports have made a massive, yet ultimately prosperous move in profoundly committing to the league, showing every game of the season live. The ratings are better at times than the competing A-League which is outstanding given the sport wasn’t even viewable on television 24 months ago.
Crowds are massively up, the league coffers are now reacquainting themselves with flowing dollars for once and the sport is on the precipice of returning to the big time. It just needs one final ingredient.
Enter Ben Simmons.
Ben is 19, born in Melbourne and he played both Aussie Rules and basketball as a kid.
He might have been ok had he pursued his love of footy but aren’t we going to be glad he chose the hoops instead.
Simmons is the bonafide top prospect for the upcoming 2016 NBA draft. He will go number one overall but more than that he has stardom written all over him.
He has been already likened as the new Lebron James, the next Magic Johnson, no greater comparisons could be made of a prospect.
He is currently plying his trade in the college system playing for Louisiana State and has the nation in awe. To suggest already he is our greatest ever basketball talent is premature but, inevitably, it will probably be resoundingly correct.
Simmons’ progress internationally will be felt here and it’s his, along with a few other ‘Boomers’ success, that will further drive the sport of basketball back up the pecking order here domestically.
It was mentioned earlier that Australian kids once could name their basketball heroes; they could rattle off superstar after superstar easily.
Whilst the NBL may never produce the class like those in the 90s, as technology continually shrinks the world the kids of today will have no shortage of ex-pat idols over in the States.
Simmons will be a huge NBA product joining the likes of 2015 champion Andrew Bogut, 2015 runner-up Matthew Dellavedova, 2014 champions Patty Mills and Aron Baynes plus 2014 5th overall pick Dante Exum, all immense Aussie talents plying their trade in the NBA.
Chuck in others such Joe Ingles, Cameron Bairstow, Chris Goulding and the potential number one pick in the 2017 NBA draft Thon Maker and the Boomers are going to be back preying for medals come the Olympics very, very soon.
A successful Boomers side goes a long way to driving the buzz back here and that reflected glory washes ever so well onto the NBL, a league that is already on the rise.
Aussies doing well on the NBA stage, the NBL reclaiming the imaginations of the nation’s sporting psyche, if Australian basketball was floated on the stock exchange it would be buy, buy, buy!