Smoke, noise & bas­ket­ball

Metro Magazine NZ - - Contents - TEXT — JAMIE WALL / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY — MEEK ZUIDERWYK

The Break­ers’ early sea­son was marred by off-court con­tro­versy and on-court fail­ures — but the team’s new own­ers are back­ing them­selves to com­pete hard for your en­ter­tain­ment dol­lar.


Spark Arena, 9.30am. I was told not to be late for my third at­tempt at writ­ing a story about the New Zealand Break­ers and their tu­mul­tuous sea­son in the Aus­tralian Na­tional Bas­ket­ball League. I soon find out why. The place is a hive of ac­tiv­ity al­ready. In the back­stage area, peo­ple are hard at work pre­par­ing the thou­sands of noise­mak­ers that will be left on ev­ery seat in the steeply banked arena. De­spite the team cur­rently hav­ing a 2-8 record, they are ex­pect­ing al­most all of those seats to be filled.

But, if you know any­thing about the Break­ers, you’ll know the win-loss record isn’t what’s been mak­ing the head­lines. That’s why it’s the third time I’m try­ing to write this story, be­cause the events of the past few months ren­dered the first two ver­sions ob­so­lete within days of be­ing writ­ten.

Au­gust seems like a life­time ago. Then, I walked into the Break­ers’ of­fice on the North Shore, feel­ing like I was armed with a bit of con­tro­versy to throw at Matt Walsh, the team’s CEO and co-owner, who took over last year. But Walsh turned out to be friendly and charm­ing, and when I al­most apolo­get­i­cally brought up the fact that the team still have a re­la­tion­ship with the con­tro­ver­sial me­dia out­let Barstool Sports, the 36-year-old Penn­syl­va­nian laughed off the crit­i­cism of Barstool’s sex­ist and ho­mo­pho­bic con­tent as all a bit of fun and a mis­un­der­stand­ing. I didn’t agree, but I left with­out any­thing juicy to re­port.

But the sea­son was loom­ing and the po­ten­tial pos­i­tives seemed to out­weigh the present neg­a­tives. The Break­ers had pulled off one of the big­gest coups in the league when they signed prospec­tive NBA-draft top pick RJ Hamp­ton. The whole nar­ra­tive sur­round­ing the NBL was on the rise be­cause Hamp­ton wasn’t the only big Amer­i­can name mak­ing a move to the league — LaMelo Ball, son of hu­man head­line gen­er­a­tor and for­mer-NFL tight end LaVar Ball, and brother of NBA player Lonzo Ball, had also for­gone a col­lege schol­ar­ship to play with the Illawarra Hawks.

I started writ­ing a story about how the Break­ers ex­ist in a strange place — a small player in an im­mensely pow­er­ful global sport dom­i­nated by the all-pow­er­ful NBA, yet so pop­u­lar its over-en­rolled school hol­i­day pro­gramme had kids show­ing up at its gym­na­sium at 6am; how Walsh and his own­er­ship group may seem like some fast-talk­ing Amer­i­cans, but maybe the quaint ways of the old Break­ers (who none­the­less won four NBL ti­tles) did need a se­ri­ous mod­i­fi­ca­tion, and this was the right way to do it; how then-gen­eral man­ager and for­mer Break­ers play­ing stal­wart Dil­lon Boucher pro­vided a de­cent per­sonal bridge be­tween the way it used to be and a new pro­fes­sion­al­ism.

That story now seems laugh­able. The con­tro­versy aroundBars­tool­wa­sawalkinth­ep­ark­com­pared­towhat’s gone on since. Boucher is long gone, hav­ing re­signed from his role in Septem­ber. Walsh has been fined $5000 and sus­pended for two games for a ver­bal al­ter­ca­tion with the league’s com­mis­sioner when Hamp­ton was ejected against the South East Mel­bourne Phoenix. Re­cent Break­ers sign­ing Glen Rice Jr, a for­mer NBA player with a his­tory of vi­o­lence and le­gal trou­bles, is sus­pended in­def­i­nitely while await­ing trial for in­jur­ing with in­tent. (Rice has pleaded not guilty.)

There’s more, but you get the idea. Some­one should re­ally have been film­ing all this for a re­al­ity-TV show, but the bit that ac­tu­ally does get broad­cast on a weekly ba­sis is prob­a­bly the bit that’s con­cern­ing Walsh the most. At the end of Novem­ber, the Break­ers are sit­ting dead last on the NBL table. The only slight com­fort is that a vic­tory over Ball’s Hawks will move them off that spot and set them up for a po­ten­tially fruit­ful run against some other down-table teams.

And the jury is still out on the Hamp­ton ex­per­i­ment, in­clud­ing for Hamp­ton him­self, the 18-year-old telling Amer­i­can web­site The Ath­letic: “I wish I could wake up and know what I did these last 28 games and I’d be home. If some­one gave me a wish and said, ‘RJ, you gotta live with what­ever out­come, but you could go to sleep and wake up to­mor­row and those 28 games are played.’ I’m tak­ing that risk.”

That came off as hardly a vote of con­fi­dence. Walsh, for his part, is at least con­sis­tent with his mes­sag­ing. He en­dured scru­tiny over the Rice sign­ing and took his share of the blame when it went south, ac­com­pa­ny­ing the trou­bled player to court. Walsh then rue­fully an­nounced that Rice’s time with the team was ef­fec­tively over. On the way back from the Break­ers’ game against Perth (an­other loss), Tom Vo­danovich al­most be­came the sec­ond player in a week to get ar­rested af­ter he mixed sleep­ing pills and al­co­hol and caused a ruckus on the flight.

Walsh ap­peared on Sky Sport, who are the team’s nam­ing-rights spon­sors, say­ing, “If [fans] need an apol­ogy from me, I’m sorry it didn’t work out with Glen. I’m sorry that we’ve had these is­sues but I fully be­lieve in what we’re do­ing and we’re go­ing to get there.”

Walsh and I sit court­side, on one of the cush­ioned seats that he and his fel­low ex­ec­u­tive staff have just helped set up. Walsh has some­what in­ad­ver­tently be­come the face of the fran­chise, fronting up per­son­ally to is­sue af­ter is­sue. He tells me it’s some­thing that comes with

the ter­ri­tory. “If I’m go­ing to be the one that an­nounces sign­ing RJ Hamp­ton, you’ve got to take it when it’s the not-so-pos­i­tive stuff. I think part of it is that there’s this nar­ra­tive that I’m this Amer­i­can owner who’s come in and taken over from [Paul and Liz Black­well, for­mer sole own­ers for 13 years], and [the fans] want an ex­pla­na­tion for ev­ery­thing. That’s fine with me. I’ve been in the me­dia since I was 16 [as a highly re­garded bas­ket­ball player him­self]. When you have the hard stuff, peo­ple want me to an­swer for it. I feel like it’d be cow­ardly for me to put [some­one else] out when it’s the not-so-good stuff.”

The nar­ra­tive he’s re­fer­ring to has been in­grained in the me­dia since he’s taken over. Quickly scan any so­cial me­dia com­ments about the Break­ers and it doesn’t take long be­fore talk of “clowns” or “de­stroy­ing a fam­ily club” ap­pears. Just above us, next to the team’s four cham­pi­onship ban­ners, hangs one hon­our­ing the Black­wells, who cul­ti­vated a fam­ily-friendly environmen­t and suc­cess­ful on-court run that made the team a pos­i­tive story com­pared with other Kiwi teams try­ing to cut it in Aus­tralian sports com­pe­ti­tions.

Walsh reit­er­ates what he’s been say­ing ever since he took over: the model wasn’t fi­nan­cially vi­able, and the Black­wells had been look­ing for a buyer for al­most a year. The for­mer Florida Univer­sity and two-game Mi­ami Heat player of­fered what’s been seen as a rapid and chaotic de­par­ture from a “mum and dad” op­er­a­tion. But does that stand up to scru­tiny? Star player Corey Web­ster’s un­prece­dented 12-month ban for drug use in 2012 shows that off-court is­sues aren’t ac­tu­ally any­thing new for the Break­ers.

Be­sides, it’s highly un­likely that the team would now find them­selves in pos­ses­sion of Hamp­ton and with the abil­ity to play pre-sea­son games against NBA sides if it were not for Walsh’s con­nec­tions.

“I sat here for the first time watch­ing in the first game of my own­er­ship. I look back at those pic­tures and you can see the bot­tom tier of the stands are scat­tered with fans and the whole top sec­tion is cur­tained off. That was a play­off game, Kirk Pen­ney’s last game. I look at what we’re do­ing here with the team and the work that goes in. On game days, we’re here 12 to 14 hours, but it’s a lot of fun. Shawn Mar­ion [Break­ers co-owner and an­other for­mer NBA player] came in and was like, ‘What are you do­ing set­ting up chairs?’ and I’m like, ‘That’s what we do!’”

Walsh is in­ter­rupted by chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Lisa Edser, for­merly of Emi­rates Team New Zealand. She’s just been stack­ing a row of chairs of her own.

“It’s all very much all hands on deck and this is the fun part,” Walsh picks back up, talk­ing about his pre-game du­ties. With an ironic smile, the sup­pos­edly brash Amer­i­can, ac­cused of strip­ping the club of its fam­ily val­ues, tells me about the tra­di­tional Amer­i­can Thanks­giv­ing din­ner he had for more than 30 play­ers and staff the pre­vi­ous Thurs­day.

I make my way down the court, where I get an­other show of how the club is deal­ing with the seemingly end­less ad­ver­sity this sea­son. Me­dia man­ager Craig Stan­away is keen to em­pha­sise that it’s been treated as an op­por­tu­nity. The for­mer TVNZ sports re­porter shows me a sur­pris­ing video that he says the team look to for in­spi­ra­tion. He hits “play” on a YouTube clip of Richard Nixon’s res­ig­na­tion speech, in which the dis­graced about-to-be for­mer US pres­i­dent says, “Only if you have been in the deep­est val­ley can you ever know how mag­nif­i­cent it is to be on the high­est moun­tain.”

As the score­board is hoisted into place, I sit be­hind the hoop while the Break­ers come on to do their morn­ing shootaroun­d. Krys­ten Peek, a draft re­cruit­ment spe­cial­ist from Ri­, has trav­elled from the US to watch the Hamp­ton vs Ball match-up. She leads me to be­lieve that while the per­cep­tion in New Zealand right now is that Break­ers are a bit of a car crash, that’s not nec­es­sar­ily the case over­seas. “This is… way nicer than I thought it would be. This sta­dium is amaz­ing,” she says, as Walsh care­fully drives past us in a branded Nis­san ute that will park up be­hind court­side seats. Peek is es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in Ball, who stole the show the pre­vi­ous week­end. “This is the sec­ond time RJ and LaMelo have played against each other. LaMelo’s com­ing off a ridicu­lous game with a triple dou­ble, so I want to see him con­tinue that mo­men­tum. There’s talk of him be­ing num­ber-one pick in the draft.”

She’s full of praise for the Break­ers’ star, too. “Peo­ple for­get that RJ is only 18,” she says. “To come over and be a pro and learn ev­ery day is in­cred­i­ble. He’s been one of the first stars to come over here and be a trail­blazer. There’s been suc­cess and I know there’s al­ready been whis­pers of other top high-school stars con­sid­er­ing this as an op­tion.”

Peek is adamant when I ask her whether what Hamp­ton is do­ing at the Break­ers can be classified as a suc­cess. “Oh yeah. You’ll see it tonight. We were talk­ing to Matt Walsh and he told me at­ten­dance has dou­bled with him over here. This time last year, he was a high­school ju­nior, now he’s play­ing against LaMelo in front of NBA scouts and a sold-out crowd. Next year, he’ll be in the NBA.”

That’s what Walsh and the Break­ers are count­ing on, be­cause then they’ll be­come part of the story. Hamp­ton and the oth­ers have fin­ished their shoot-around

and make their way off court as the Illawarra Hawks come on to take their place. Peek and a cou­ple of other Amer­i­can ex­perts who have come to watch keep their eyes glued on Ball’s lan­guid move­ments as he hits swish af­ter swish.

Iar­rive back at Spark at 5.45pm. There’s still 15 min­utes till the doors open but al­ready a queue to get in. Kids shoot hoops out­side, par­ents buy hot­dogs from the nearby food trucks. This is what Stan­away had been telling me about ear­lier, about how the Break­ers aren’t in a sports busi­ness, but an en­ter­tain­ment busi­ness; how they’ve made the fans care again. It’s been ad­mit­tedly pretty re­lent­less — ev­ery time we’ve talked, both of those sound­bites are raised within a cou­ple of min­utes. But af­ter go­ing to Eden Park and watch­ing the state of Su­per Rugby and the Mitre 10 Cup, I can see he has a strong case. The Blues would kill for this sort of de­vo­tion if they’d lost eight games in a sea­son. They’d prob­a­bly kill for it in game one, given their hor­rific record in the past decade.

The arena fills up and the show starts with the play­ers mak­ing their en­trance. Walsh’s six-foot-six frame is no­tice­able from up in the me­dia box, as he paces be­hind the scor­ers’ desk. He’s ditched the cap for the evening and donned a suit jacket, but has de­cided to wear some­thing that could be con­strued as a mes­sage about the team’s iden­tity. It’s a t-shirt em­bla­zoned with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence from the movie Bad Boys. Given that Rice’s case is still be­fore the courts and the Vo­danovich sleep­ing-pill in­ci­dent is still fresh in ev­ery­one’s minds, it seems a lit­tle on the nose. So, too, does the ex­tremely brief and ob­vi­ously down­played an­nounce­ment for when the Hawks run on the court. It comes off as a lit­tle petu­lant given that LaMelo Ball is one of the main rea­sons there are hardly any empty seats.

Tonight, the Break­ers are miss­ing Web­ster and Scotty Hop­son, which has brought an ex­tra edge to Hamp­ton’s role. His game tonight can be de­scribed as solid rather than spec­tac­u­lar, but the fans are get­ting their money’s worth. You don’t have to wait long for some­thing to cheer about at a bas­ket­ball game, and the 8474 in at­ten­dance do plenty of that as the Break­ers shoot out to a 28-19 lead by the end of the first quar­ter.

Break­ers mas­cot Cheeky the Kea has a side­kick tonight: an overly buff Spi­der-Man wear­ing a cos­tume so tight I can al­most tell his re­li­gion from up in the first level. The court­side seats that the man­age­ment staff put out ear­lier are filled with a de­cent mix of kids, fam­i­lies and adults on a night out. The VIP ta­bles of the old regime have been re­placed for what Walsh tells me is a com­mit­ment to the ca­sual fan and mak­ing the game more ac­ces­si­ble.

Sek Henry, a 32-year-old vet­eran guard who is in the eighth coun­try of his pro­fes­sional ca­reer, steps up to have his best game of the sea­son.

White smoke shoots out of the top of the back­board ev­ery time a big play is made, and the mu­sic thumps along through the PA while the ball is in play. Chants go up, noise­mak­ers rum­ble when the Hawks go to the free-throw line, the two mas­cots hy­per­ac­tively dance to­gether and high-five kids. Walsh paces. He knows that the Break­ers’ 20-point lead in the third quar­ter can be quickly over­turned, and that if Ball can start ballin’, they’re in trou­ble.

That’s ex­actly what hap­pens in the fourth quar­ter. Ball racks up his sec­ond con­sec­u­tive triple dou­ble, de­spite the at­ten­tions of a kid next to us who has been sto­ically hold­ing up a sign say­ing “Melo yo brother is bet­ter” for the en­tire game.

But Henry and the Break­ers aren’t go­ing to let this one slip. With the score at 74-72, the vet­eran strips pos­ses­sion and takes the ball back up court for a dunk, set­ting off the smoke and whip­ping the crowd into a frenzy. The Break­ers win and, be­hind the court­side seats, Walsh is ec­static.

About half an hour later, the Break­ers co-owner has dis­carded his jacket and donned a black cap for the night’s de­brief. The man­age­ment team as­sem­ble. On the pos­i­tive side, there was a record crowd con­tribut­ing to what’s shap­ing up to be a record-break­ing sea­son. But there’s plenty of hon­esty about what could be bet­ter. It’s the lit­tle things — seat num­ber­ing, ticket al­lo­ca­tion, at what point “Sweet Caro­line” should start play­ing to max­imise the sin­ga­long. The game it­self is al­most an af­ter­thought — well, to ev­ery­one ex­cept Walsh.

He had told me ear­lier about the state of the team and how in­juries were more of a con­cern than any of the other dra­mas. But now I’m re­al­is­ing that what he said was ac­tu­ally a pretty good gen­eral sum­ma­tion of the team’s sea­son so far. “Even if you’re banged up, it’s no ex­cuse. It doesn’t make it any easier, but you gotta hang in there and find a way to win.”

Postscript: A week later, Glen Rice Jr is cleared to play by Bas­ket­ball Aus­tralia and im­me­di­ately rein­serted into the start­ing line-up against the Cairns Taipans. The Break­ers lose. The fol­low­ing week, on the day of the next home game, against the Bris­bane Bul­lets, it’s re­vealed that Rice has been ar­rested for breach­ing his bail con­di­tions. He is fired with im­me­di­ate ef­fect. The Break­ers win. Matt Walsh does not wear a Bad Boys t-shirt to the game.

RIGHT— Vet­eran pro­fes­sional Sek Henry scores against the Hawks.

At just 18, RJ Hamp­ton has made the leap from high-school bas­ket­ball to play­ing against hard­ened pro­fes­sion­als. LEFT—

RIGHT— Hamp­ton dunks, giv­ing a glimpse of his po­ten­tial, though his game against the Hawks is solid rather than spec­tac­u­lar.

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