One gi­ant step for hoops

Inside Sport - - Inside | NBL - B Y F O X S P O R T S ’ D WAY N E R U S S E L L

Aus­tralian bas­ket­ball is headed for its moon land­ing mo­ment. The count­down has al­ready be­gun, and this time next year we could be bask­ing in the glory of one of the great­est ever achieve­ments in Aus­tralian sport.

The of­fi­cial big-stage launch of the Boomers’ China World Cup gold medal quest will take place in Aus­tralia next Au­gust, with two his­toric warm-up games against Team USA at a re­con­fig­ured 60,000-seat Marvel Sta­dium in Mel­bourne. The full-strength Aussie team, jam-packed with NBA stars such as Ben Sim­mons and Joe In­gles, will host a ridicu­lously tal­ented col­lec­tion of Amer­i­can NBA icons, which could in­clude Stephen Curry and Kevin Du­rant.

And if the Aussies can some­how unite and rise to de­feat the Amer­i­cans for the first time ever at their own game, it would be a dream come true for Bas­ket­ball Aus­tralia. And it would also be a fi‰ing re­ward for NBL owner Larry Kestel­man, who is the master­mind be­hind the re­cent resur­gence of the sport in Aus­tralia.

But if the Boomers can do the un­think­able, and ac­tu­ally beat the United States to win gold at the World Cup in China next Septem­ber, or big­ger and be‰er still, the Tokyo Olympics in June 2020, it will change bas­ket­ball in this coun­try for­ever. It could al­low bas­ket­ball to plant its flag at the sum­mit of all-time great Aus­tralian in­ter­na­tional sport­ing mo­ments, sur­pass­ing our Amer­ica’s Cup vic­tory in 1984.

It is well-doc­u­mented that Aus­tralia’s pres­ence in the

NBA has never been stronger. Sim­mons, In­gles, Aron Baynes, Pa‰y Mills, Dante Exum, Jonah Bolden, Thon Maker, Ryan Broekhoff and Ma‰hew Dellave­dova are all forg­ing bril­liant ca­reers.

Sim­mons won rookie-of-the-year last sea­son as the ho‰est young gun on the planet. In­gles has fast be­come one of the best three-point shoot­ers in the known uni­verse. And Baynes will have a mas­sive say in Bos­ton’s le­git­i­mate quest to de­throne the back-to-back cham­pi­onship­win­ning Golden State War­riors.

There is also no doubt that the stan­dard of Aus­tralia’s do­mes­tic NBL has never been higher. And the gap be­tween the NBA and the NBL has never been smaller.

Our do­mes­tic league is now seen as the third-best com­pe­ti­tion in the world be­hind the NBA and the Euroleague. And many world-class stars who have fallen just short of an NBA con­tract are now choos­ing Aus­tralia as the spot to re-launch their NBA quest.

But the big ele­phant in the room in Aus­tralia is the fact that our NBL is only vi­brant and fly­ing high be­cause league owner Kestel­man is writ­ing the cheques to make it fly. With­out Kestel­men, the NBL would not ex­ist. There would be no tele­vi­sion deal be­cause the viewer num­bers are still low. The star Amer­i­can im­ports would not be light­ing up our venues. Our na­tional com­pe­ti­tion would be as dead as it was six years ago, be­fore the mil­lion­aire with a love of hoops took the reins in an a‰empt to make it pop­u­lar again.

Which is ex­actly why the two games in Mel­bourne, the Bas­ket­ball World Cup in China as well as the Tokyo Olympic Games are cru­cial.

The Boomers have never fin­ished be‰er than fourth at any ma­jor in­ter­na­tional cham­pi­onship. They failed to bring home a medal at the Rio Olympics in 2016, where they were ex­pected to win at least bronze.

Boomers coach An­drej Le­ma­nis, who was at the helm when we crashed in Rio, still has the keys for the com­ing World Cup and Olympics. Bas­ket­ball Aus­tralia and Kestel­man des­per­ately need Le­ma­nis to launch this rocket. Be­cause the Aus­tralian sport­ing land­scape is way too com­pet­i­tive for bas­ket­ball to al­low this golden-era op­por­tu­nity to slip.

Rugby league and AFL will al­ways be our dom­i­nant codes. And cricket’s rat­ings be­he­moth, the Big Bash, con­tin­ues to eat every other sport in its path over sum­mer. But if the Boomers can grab gold, kids around Aus­tralia will be like Amer­i­can kids in 1965, but in­stead of telling their mums they want to be an as­tro­naut, they’ll be want­ing to be the next Ben Sim­mons.

The Aus­tralian sport­ing land­scape is way too com­pet­i­tive for bas­ket­ball to al­low this golden-era op­por­tu­nity to slip.

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