Homicide kills astronomical myth

 

Corey “Homicide” Williams didn’t just kill the Perth Wildcats on Wednesday night; he also brought down a long-standing myth surrounding the NBL.

 

One of the explanations for the league’s gradual decline since the 1990s has been a lack of “stars.” Apparently there has been no one capable of capturing the public’s imagination since the retirement of Andrew Gaze, whose popularity has transcended the basketball community.

 

This theory isn’t just born out of its preachers’ ignorance, but it’s also an insult to the league’s pantheon of players who are delivering an on-court product as good as Australian basketball has ever offered. Headlining this group is retiring Adelaide great Brett Maher. Maher’s story of overcoming adversity, as detailed in his recent biography Mahervellous, deserves common-knowledge status within Australian sporting folklore. Indeed, the respect that he has garnered in his home state of South Australia was encapsulated on February 7 when 8300 fans – 500 of which were standing room only – packed the Distinctive Homes Dome to bid farewell to their club’s heart and soul, even going as far as naming the hardwood “The Brett Maher Court” in the process. It takes something special to draw that type of crowd to an NBL game these days, and Brett Maher is clearly that.

 

The most recent addition to the NBL’s galaxy is Townsville’s Corey Williams. Dubbed “Homicide” during his days carving up opposition players on the streets of America, Williams is the first NBL player since, you guessed it, Andrew Gaze to have a shoe named after him – the 187. Anyone questioning the marketability of Williams only needs to hear him interviewed, or, most recently, catch a replay of this week’s elimination final between the Crocs and Wildcats. After securing an upset road win with a dunk in the game’s dying seconds, Williams ripped off his jersey as if he’d just scored at Anfield and proudly displayed his club’s colours to the 4400 passion-fuelled Wildcats fans that had created an atmosphere befitting Game 5 of a Grand Final series. Interviewed after the game by, ironically, Andrew Gaze, Homicide called on the “Croc Nation” to pack The Swamp for their home semi-final, paid enough recognition to his teammates to escape the American individualism that would make some Australians cringe, and emancipated himself from the plague that’s turned most sportspeople into cliché-ridden robots. In short, Williams matched his on-court feats with personality warranting star status.

 

The problem for the NBL, however, is that raw talent and personality is not necessarily enough to turn a sportsperson into a mainstream star. Rather, we now live in a superficial age of celebrity. Some of the world’s biggest stars have gained cultural ascension on the back of clever public relations departments and, most importantly, image dissemination. Anna Kournikova certainly didn’t become a household name for her tennis ability, nor has David Beckham gained fame purely for bamboozling goalkeepers. Hence the inability for players such as Corey Williams to register with mainstream onlookers. With only 1-2 games on pay television each week and minimal media interest, the dissemination of images within the NBL is almost non-existent, unlike the 1990s. While Gaze’s popularity was propelled by his on-court heroics and off-court affability, his star status was largely a product of the free-to-air coverage and marketing of his era. If “Homicide” was plying his trade at that time, his name would be just as recognised as Bradkte, Copeland or Loggins. Conversely, if Gaze was at his peak in 2009, his name would seldom leave the sports pages.

 

Therefore, while some doomsayers may think that the next crop of Australian basketball stars is generations away, their telescopes are only a decent television deal and marketing budget away from identifying them.

 

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Will BA keep their enemies even closer?

 

New Zealand franchises have never been a cosy fit in Australian sports leagues.

 

With the exception of the New Zealand Warriors making a Grand Final in the NRL, teams from across the Tasman have been notorious under performers both on and off the court. It’s already taken the A-League two attempts to even come close to matching its early success on home soil, while the NBL’s New Zealand Breakers took five years to make the playoffs and have struggled to fill the antiquated North Shore Events Centre.

 

How quickly things can change. The Breakers now sit alongside the South Dragons and Melbourne Tigers as legitimate championship contenders, following the off-season acquisition of Boomers point guard CJ Bruton and a season earlier the homecoming of MVP candidate Kirk Penney. This belated success has brought consistent crowds, an increase in television ratings on free-to-air network Maori TV, a new major sponsor in Bartercard, and the club’s ownership structure – headed by local supermarket entrepreneur Paul Blackwell – is considered one of the strongest in the league.

 

However, the Breakers may have been too successful for Basketball Australia’s liking. Clearly inspired by those up north, a consortium from Wellington has signalled its intention to bid for a license in the NewNBL, meaning Australia’s new men’s competition could create history and feature two teams from New Zealand. This would be at odds with the rasion d’etre of Basketball Australia, who will be governing and operating the national competition for the first time. Until now, BA’s primary focus has been ensuring the success of the country’s national teams. According to its 2008-2012 Business Plan, one of its key priorities is:

 

· To remain in the Top 3 of nations on FIBA rankings with all national teams to be ranked in the Top 8 and the Boomers/Opals to be medallists

 

The biggest threat to this objective is New Zealand, who is traditionally the Boomers’ final hurdle in their Olympic qualification campaigns. Allowing yet another New Zealand team into Australia’s league can only strengthen the Tall Blacks, as there will be further opportunities for their national players to compete at a higher standard and familiarise themselves with their Australian counterparts.

 

New Zealand’s own national competition, also called the NBL, is currently incapable of providing this pathway. Its standard is markedly inferior to the Australian NBL, and it has been dogged by off-court turmoil. In recent times the Otago Nuggets collapsed, the Canterbury Rams were replaced by the Christchurch Cougars, the Bay Hawks looked extinction in the eye and the Auckland Stars were embarrassingly expelled from last season’s finals series for failing to pay their license fee. 

 

Hence the conflict of interest facing Basketball Australia. If they grant licenses to both the Breakers and Wellington they will be giving New Zealand basketball a much-needed boost, with both players and fans given greater access to what will supposedly be an elite, well-run competition. Should there then come a time where the Tall Blacks beat the Boomers in an Olympic games qualifying series, Basketball Australia may be accused of shooting themselves in the foot.

 

However, if the Wellington bid is a strong one and there aren’t enough complying bids from Australia to form a league, BA won’t have the luxury of knocking back teams. After all, nothing could be worse for Australian basketball than not having a national competition at all.