The Sunday Mail (Queensland)
OUR NEW WAVE OF STATESMEN
WHEN I was in high school, just before the arrival of the Second Fleet, an American teacher would pass on the copies of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News that his father had posted to him.
This was long before there was so much American sport on pay TV you could develop a New Orleans twang without leaving your armchair.
From the stories of the finest sportswriters, US sports alphabet soup – NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL – had an aura of wealth, glamour and excess that made our leagues seem, in their jargon, minor league.
Joe DiMaggio married Marilyn Monroe; our footballers tried to chat up the TV weather girl.
Vince Lombardi handed pre-game speeches down on stone tablets; our coaches mimicked his doctrine and mannerisms.
American athletes signed eight-figure contacts; ours haggled over a leased Ford Fairlane. They called domestic teams “world champions’’ which made them seem at once arrogant and forebodingly self-confident.
Even the life stories of American athletes made our sportsmen seem quaint and homely. Was there a single wide receiver in the NFL who had not lost a close relative in a drive-by shooting?
Was there a star pitcher in MLB who wasn’t one sniff away from a 12-month drugs ban? Did the Dallas Cowboys really do that on their chartered jet?
Such wild excess made the storied ball parks of the US seem even less accessible to our humble, schooner-drinking Aussies, even allowing for the fact a handful of pioneers had played mostly minor roles across various American sports.
Basketball was the obvious sport for Australians to make an impact. Between 1996-98 Luc Longley had Michael Jor- dan, Scotty Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc buzzing around him during three Chicago Bulls NBA titles.
Baseball here was no longer just an off-season hobby for cricketers, and Dave Nilsson forged an excellent career with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Pitcher Graeme Lloyd won two World Series in 1996 and ’98. A Geelong boy had become a New York Yankee.
The NFL? We’d had the odd participant before an ex-Melbourne full forward called Darren Bennett showed NFL scouts Aussie rules players kicked like startled mules.
By the turn of the century saturation TV coverage, PlayStation games and sports betting meant American sports had never been bigger here.
The next step? Australians not just role players but the centre of attention.
Patty Mills shooting the lights out in an NBA finals game. Matthew Dellavedova wearing superstar Steph Curry like a wetsuit, the boy from Victoria becoming a water cooler topic in New York. Now, enter Jarryd Hayne, the most unlikely hero. Well, let’s say potential hero until the ink is dry on a contract and Hayne has stiff-armed a few tacklers in a regular season game.
The NFL has not yet been demystified like the NBA and MLB.
We have had those punters on the field for their fleeting seconds, and Queenslander Jesse Williams could yet make a name for himself as a defensive tackle with the Seattle Seahawks despite chronic knee injuries and losing a kidney to cancer.
Hayne’s story, however, is special. If he was to thrive without so much as a college apprenticeship he would obliterate any lingering cultural sporting cringe and demonstrate the best athletes in the NRL are the equal of any west of Pluto.
Beyond that? The finals of the Australian Ice Hockey League are being played in Melbourne this weekend. Once you would have thought there was as much chance of a Tongan winning the Olympic downhill skiing as an Australian playing in the NHL. But Nathan Walker, raised in Sydney, is on the Washington Capitals roster and hopes to make his debut when he recovers from a knee injury.
If Walker succeeds that kid pushing the puck around the stumbling hobby skaters at a crowded local rink won’t just dream of making it. He will believe he can, because US sports are no longer some impenetrable fortress, merely a place to ply your sporting trade.
Matthew Dellavedova wearing superstar Steph Curry like a wetsuit ... becoming a water cooler topic in New York