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.
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. Andrew Gaze, still a league stalwart.