Baller move

GIVEN UP FOR DEAD JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, THEN B LI S EX­PE­RI­ENC­ING QUITE THE AFTER LIFE. AS THE LEAGUE MAKES ITS HIGH-PRO­FILE OUTREACH TO THEN BATH IS MONTH, THE ONE-TIME SPORT OF THE FU­TURE CHARTS A NEW COURSE IN THE BIG, WIDE HOOPS WORLD.

Inside Sport - - ONE ON ONE WITH... - By JEFF CEN­TEN­ERA

To lis­ten to Chris Gould­ing’s ac­count, it was a chance en­counter, like a waiter ran­domly land­ing a role in a Hol­ly­wood movie. Back in 2013, he had just fin­ished his first sea­son with the Melbourne Tigers, and he re­ceived a call. Kyrie Irv­ing, then the newly minted NBA rookie of the year, was on a good­will visit to the Vic­to­rian cap­i­tal, the city where he was born. “They wanted a work­out part­ner for Kyrie, so I worked out with him two or three times,” Gould­ing says.

Irv­ing was ac­com­pa­nied by one of his coaches from the Cleve­land Cava­liers, Phil Handy, who also knew Aus­tralia well – Handy played in the NBL for the Tigers and the West Sydney Ra­zor­backs over 2001 and ’02. “Phil was like, ‘Hey, this might be a long­shot, but if I can get you on the Sum­mer League team, will you come over to Ve­gas?’” Gould­ing re­calls, with a laugh. “And I was like: ‘What are you talk­ing about? I’ll be on the next flight.’”

Gould­ing did even­tu­ally join the Cavs’ Sum­mer League team for what he de­scribed as “an eye-opener” spent mostly on the bench, but it did lead to a sec­ond, longer stint in the NBA’s off­sea­son com­pe­ti­tion with the Dal­las Mav­er­icks. In the years since he hit the gym with Irv­ing, Gould­ing emerged as a Boomer and Rio Olympian, ven­tured to the leagues of Spain and Italy, and has be­come one of the most prom­i­nent lo­cal faces of the Na­tional Basketball League.

Gould­ing is some­thing of a clas­sic, al­most anachro­nis­tic, type in Aussie hoops – a bas­ket­baller who de­vel­oped for the most part at home. There was no de­tour to Amer­i­can col­lege, or bounc­ing around Eu­ro­pean clubs. He’s been on five dif­fer­ent NBL teams, and in a true sign of the league’s churn over the last decade­plus, three of those five have either died or dis­ap­peared. “I’ve been through some tur­bu­lent times with the league,” he says.

“IT RE­ALL Y DID ROCKET TO THE FORE­FRONT OF THE SPORT­ING LAND­SCAPE. AND IN JUS T ABOUT THE SAME TIME, IT FELL OFF THE F ACE OF THE EAR TH.”

“I was there when the Bul­lets folded, moved to Perth for a year. Came back to the Gold Coast a few years later, they folded. I’ve seen the dark­est parts of the league in the last ten years, and it’s re­ally re­fresh­ing to see where we’re at now.”

His faith in the NBL is about to be re­warded, and his next en­counter with the NBA not so random. Gould­ing’s Melbourne United will travel to the United States on Oc­to­ber 8 to play a pre­sea­son game against the NBA’s Ok­la­homa City Thun­der. The Sydney Kings will lead off this pre­sea­son se­ries, go­ing up against the Utah Jazz on Oc­to­ber 2, while the Bris­bane Bul­lets will meet the Phoenix Suns on Oc­to­ber 13. These matches are a land­mark deal for the NBL since its re­launch two years ago, a hat tip from basketball’s flag­ship and one of the strong­est sport­ing brands on the planet.

“A lot of guys can imag­ine them­selves go­ing over to play OKC ... it just wouldn’t be with Melbourne or the NBL logo on our chest,” Gould­ing says. “And that’s some­thing re­ally cool. It speaks vol­umes to how far this league has come.”

The Na­tional Basketball League be­gins its 40th sea­son on the heels of the NBA ex­hi­bi­tions (the Bul­lets will ac­tu­ally have to play their first reg­u­lar sea­son game be­fore head­ing to the US). It’s a mile­stone, and one un­der­lined by the no­tion that it was no cer­tainty to make it this far.

In­deed, the NBL’s arc is in­struc­tive about the life cy­cle of sports in Aus­tralia. With the old Na­tional Soc­cer League, which pre­dated it by a cou­ple of years, the NBL had na­tion­wide reach well be­fore the footy codes branched out in the early ’90s. And as the NSL trans­muted into the A-League in 2003, the NBL can claim pride of place as the na­tional league that has op­er­ated the long­est un­der its orig­i­nal name.

In ret­ro­spect, it’s re­mark­able to note how quickly the NBL’s suc­cess came, a sport­ing boom­town that would make cricket’s Big Bash blush. “If you think about the league be­gin­ning in 1979, it wasn’t very long be­fore it had that ex­plo­sions of pop­u­lar­ity and trac­tion in the late ’80s,” says NBL chief ex­ec­u­tive Jeremy Loeliger, who remembers it first-hand – he was a towel boy back in the days of the South East Melbourne Magic, the Brian Goor­jian-coached pow­er­house of the ’90s. “In less than ten years, it re­ally did rocket to the fore­front of the sport­ing land­scape. And in just about the same time, it al­most fell off the face of the earth.”

The NBL labours un­der the nos­tal­gia for its hey­day, caught be­tween a re­gret of missed op­por­tu­nity and a be­lief that it can be re­stored some day. What gets for­got­ten is how ram­shackle the league was in its growth phase, al­beit in a charm­ing way. Sub­ur­ban sides from Nu­nawad­ing, Bankstown and Forestville seeded the city fran­chises; there were three dif­fer­ent teams from Tasmania. The league played in dens such as Ade­laide’s Apollo Sta­dium, Perry Lakes in Perth and Al­bert Park in Melbourne.

Out back of the Al­bert Park sta­dium was a cot­tage for the man­ager of the state as­so­ci­a­tion, Lindsay Gaze, which is how son An­drew grew up on a basketball court. When the Gazes ar­rived in the NBL in 1984, their Melbourne Tigers team was not a pro­fes­sional side. “We were play­ing as am­a­teurs in tin sheds with very lit­tle re­sources for the play­ers, in all aspects of the game,” the younger Gaze re­calls. The Tigers fin­ished in the bot­tom two of the league in five of their first six sea­sons.

Melbourne’s rise to the cham­pi­onship in 1993 be­came an em­blem of the league’s own progress. Gaze and his NBL star ilk be­came house­hold names – Sydney Kings im­port

Dwayne McClain could find him­self in a na­tional McDon­ald’s ad that chil­dren of the gen­er­a­tion still re­mem­ber. With Michael Jor­dan reign­ing as the world’s most pop­u­lar sports­man, and an Amer­i­can ur­ban youth cul­ture mak­ing in­roads into Aus­tralia, the foun­da­tions of basketball’s pop­u­lar­ity ap­peared solid.

But a funny thing didn’t hap­pen along the way to the sport of the fu­ture. Into the next decade, the NBL was fac­ing se­ri­ous prob­lems. A global mar­ket for tal­ent pushed up costs, and some of the league’s best play­ers – not only im­port but lo­cal – headed to more lu­cra­tive leagues. At the same time, the foot­ball codes and cricket had re­asserted them­selves with bet­ter, more mod­ernised mar­ket­ing. The tran­si­tion from the old 2000- and 3000-seat are­nas of old to big­ger venues posed a fi­nan­cial chal­lenge – “with some of the ex­or­bi­tant costs to use those fa­cil­i­ties,” Gaze says, “we were fac­ing the sit­u­a­tion where we were get­ting large au­di­ences and not gen­er­at­ing rev­enue to the sport.” Some would sug­gest, and not wrongly, the NBL’s nov­elty just wore off.

By the mid-to-late 2000s, cir­cum­stances looked truly dire. In ’08, cor­ner­stone clubs in Bris­bane and Sydney folded, both caught up in some high-pro­file cor­po­rate malfea­sance on the part of their own­ers. A sea­son later, the Tigers threat­ened to with­draw, lack­ing con­fi­dence in the di­rec­tion of the league. By as­so­ci­a­tion, an NBL team be­gan to look like bad busi­ness.

One busi­ness­man saw it dif­fer­ently. Larry Kestel­man was a multi-mil­lion­aire who built the in­ter­net com­pany Dodo, and had be­come in­volved in the sport through his son. Kestel­man had taken over as chair­man of the Tigers and then United, a de­ci­sion mo­ti­vated at first by emo­tional at­tach­ment. “With the way I am, I couldn’t run things un­pro­fes­sion­ally,” he says. “It was: can I save the club? But not by just patch­ing it up, but by mak­ing it a pro­fes­sional busi­ness. And when I saw the po­ten­tial that it could be done, I looked and I said: ‘I think I can do the same with the league’.”

In 2015, Kestel­man pur­chased the NBL for $7m. Loeliger and the new man­age­ment set about mak­ing snap de­ci­sions that would have to go through process in other sports. “We made a de­ci­sion in the first week of hav­ing the keys, right we’re go­ing to re­brand the league: stop pro­duc­tion of the uni­forms, stop pro­duc­tion of the balls, tear down the web­site,” Loeliger says. “Now you can’t do that in the AFL or NRL. It was a lux­ury we were af­forded be­cause no­body was go­ing to op­pose it.”

The new brand had an earthy au­then­tic­ity, as did its at­ten­dant “Hard­ball” cam­paign. Be­fit­ting the brass’ tech back­ground, the NBL in­vested in its stream­ing plat­form, and a new TV deal with Fox Sports put the

en­tire sched­ule back on the air. The re­turn of the Bris­bane Bul­lets was an­nounced for the 2016-17 sea­son. At­ten­dance im­proved to an av­er­age of 8000-plus, and as The

Aus­tralian noted, it’s one of the rare lo­cal leagues that has seen crowds in­crease over the last ten years. Sport hu­morist Ti­tus O’Reily cap­tured the man-bites­dog sen­ti­ment when he tweeted out the head­line: “NBL does sev­eral good things in a row.”

There was an­other vital piece to the Kestel­man plan – “in­ter­na­tional ex­po­sure was def­i­nitely a part of it,” he says. “But also the sim­ple fact that it is one of the high­est par­tic­i­pa­tion sports, it is com­mer­cialised all around the world. Why are we dif­fer­ent? Why can’t we have a sus­tain­able league?”

Jeremy Loeliger points to an­other fac­tor in the NBL’s de­cline phase – the league’s for­tunes were tied to the pop­u­lar­ity of the NBA in Aus­tralia, and the down­turn in the ini­tial years of the post-Jor­dan era had a marked im­pact. The As­so­ci­a­tion is en­joy­ing its best days since MJ, and Aus­tralia’s links are more di­rect than be­fore, with nine of its play­ers in the league. “We’re seeing a real re­nais­sance of the NBA here,” Loeliger says. “The pop­u­lar­ity has given us the con­fi­dence to in­vest time and ef­fort to drag the NBL back into the fore­front of main­stream sport.”

The NBL has sought to cul­ti­vate in­ter­na­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties, in par­tic­u­lar with hoops-mad China, where it plays reg­u­lar ex­hi­bi­tions and also streams its games. Kestel­man loves to note the league had as many view­ers over there as it did at home; one of his vi­sions for pos­si­ble ex­pan­sion is an NBL team with a large Asian con­tin­gent, based out of a lo­ca­tion such as the Gold Coast but also play­ing fur­ther afield in Aus­tralia and abroad. “They could po­ten­tially go on the road and play games in Bei­jing and Manila and fly the flag for our league,” he says. “I see our role as be­ing more in­te­grated into the re­gion.”

In­vari­ably, basketball in Aus­tralia has lit­tle choice but to be out­ward-fac­ing be­cause of the lim­its of its crowded do­mes­tic mar­ket. And if the league is go­ing to de­pend on its ex­ter­nal ties, it only makes sense they run right to the top. Kestel­man and com­pany have courted the NBA from the out­set. In mid-2016, the NBL co-hosted the NBA’s Basketball With­out Bor­ders camp in Dan­de­nong and Gee­long.

“From the NBA’s point of view, they see them­selves as the global leader, and rightly so,” Kestel­man says. “They see their mis­sion is to grow the game of basketball. They’ve been help­ful and en­gag­ing, but they too are a very pro­fes­sional busi­ness. They’ve some­times strug­gled to ex­e­cute things in Aus­tralia; we went on the front foot and said, ‘You can trust us.’

“It’s been a lot of stepping-stones. They’ve seen us once, twice, we’ve been con­sis­tently there. We’ve be­come part of their land­scape.”

A ques­tion has crossed the mind of ev­ery Aussie basketball fan: why hasn’t the NBA brought a game here? We’ve had nearly all the other US big leagues come here, save the one that has an ac­tual fol­low­ing in the sport. Kestel­man says the es­tab­lished pop­u­lar­ity of the NBA in Aus­tralia was ac­tu­ally a dis­ad­van­tage: “I un­der­stand why they would want to take a game to China or In­dia or where it is still grow­ing.” Nev­er­the­less, he be­lieves that it’s now only a mat­ter of time be­fore NBA teams play a game in Aus­tralia.

It was the NBL’s orig­i­nal in­ten­tion with these pre­sea­son games. The league had been in con­tact with the Utah Jazz, which boasts the Aussie pair of Joe In­gles and Dante Exum on its ros­ter. The Jazz was in­ter­ested in the NBL’s in­vi­ta­tion to play in Aus­tralia, but such ven­tures have to be ap­proved by the league. The clubs, how­ever, have more lat­i­tude in sched­ul­ing pre­sea­son games at home – Utah, Ok­la­homa City and Phoenix still had empty dates, even though some of them ex­tended into the NBL’s sea­son proper. “We’ll make it hap­pen,” Kestel­man re­calls telling the NBA. “They said to us, ‘This is the date, what do you think?’ I said yes. They said: ‘Do you want to think about it?’”

He laughs: “I said no.”

An NBL team has met an NBA op­po­nent on the court once be­fore, when the Perth Wild­cats played the Hous­ton Rockets back in 1995, part of the NBA’s old in­ter­club McDon­ald’s Cham­pi­onship. Nice as it would have been to bring a game here, the NBL stands to gain more ex­po­sure to the basketball world from go­ing to the US.

In­deed, the NBL is bullish about an­other of its aims – to be­come a test bed for basketball, tri­alling in­no­va­tions that might even­tu­ally make their way to the game’s high­est lev­els. Loeliger brings up a pair of NBL tech providers in stats man­age­ment and au­to­mated video now em­ployed by the NBA. The NBL has also part­nered with Melbourne-based Cat­a­pult to use wear­ables in-game, some­thing as yet that can’t be done in the NBA; Aus­tralia’s rep­u­ta­tion in sports science al­ready pre­cedes it in the NBA, which has an Aussie mafia of sorts in its high-per­for­mance de­part­ments.

Put that to­gether with the qual­ity of the play­ing stock, which con­tin­ued to bound for­ward, and the NBL has a path to vi­a­bil­ity. “It’s a tremen­dous en­dorse­ment to have the NBA look at our league and say, ‘This is of ben­e­fit to us,’” says Gaze, who will coach the Kings against the Jazz. “It does show the fans here in Aus­tralia and leagues through­out the world that the NBA has re­spect for what we do.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, we’re not rest­ing on our lau­rels, and there’s a lot of things we need to get bet­ter at. We’ve got to ex­pand our league, cre­ate bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties. But it’s a strong mea­sur­able to say we’re head­ing in right di­rec­tion.”

Joe In­gles has be­come the face of this NBL-NBA meet­ing of worlds, which makes sense. Even with the num­bers of NBA Aussies swelling, In­gles is the only one among the cur­rent group who be­gan his ca­reer in the NBL – a 17-year-old In­gles played his first pro ball with the South Dragons, yet an­other of the league’s de­funct clubs.

In­gles went onto suc­cess in the NBL and Europe, where he played for pow­ers such as Mac­cabi Tel Aviv and Barcelona, as well as for the Boomers at three Olympics. Not quite fit­ting the mould of the NBA, he had to wait un­til he was 27 to catch his break in Utah – even then, it ap­peared the Jazz signed him as an end-of-bench men­tor to his Boomer room-mate Exum, then the youngest player in the league.

Over the last sea­son though, In­gles de­vel­oped into a key piece for his team, even­tu­ally be­com­ing a starter in the play­offs. After the sea­son, he was re­warded with a four-year, $65m con­tract.

In­gles stands as the ex­am­ple for ev­ery Aussie baller aim­ing up. “You see a guy like Joe In­gles; four, five years ago there wasn’t much talk of Joe be­ing an NBA player,” says Gould­ing. “He took a punt on him­self, got him­self to Utah, had a cou­ple of great years, and now he’s the high­est-paid Aussie go­ing around. If you can play basketball, you don’t need to be jump­ing out of the gym or the quick­est guy out there, and the NBA is start­ing to re­alise that more.”

Gould­ing is just the type who could ben­e­fit from an eye-catch­ing mo­ment go­ing up against the likes of a Rus­sell West­brook. It’s a heady thought for a player who un­der­stands that he might not have had the ca­reer he’s had with­out the league at home. “I made a state team maybe once,” Gould­ing re­calls. “I had no idea what I wanted to do at a ter­tiary level, so I started work­ing in re­tail and ev­ery other hour I had in the day, I’d go down to the courts and shoot.

“At that age, I didn’t even think I was NBL level, let alone NBA.”

“IT DOES SHO W THE F ANS HERE IN A US­TRALIA AND LEAGUES THROUGH­OUT THE W ORLD THA T THE NB A HA S RE­SPEC T FOR WHA T WE DO .”

Larry Kestel­man, con­duct­ing hoops diplo­macy with Yao Ming. Chris Gould­ing has emerged as a star of the NBL.

The crowds in Perth are a last­ing re­minder of the NBL's glory days – some­thing league boss Jeremy Loeliger [£¤¥¦] be­lieves can be re­stored.

How long un­til we get West­brook or Curry [ ] on our floor? Joe In­gles back in his NBL days. ‚ƒ„… An­drew Gaze, still a league stal­wart.

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