Forgetful fixture critics need to draw upon lessons of the past

It’s understandable why fans of the National Basketball League would like to have selective memories.

Amid the flurry of teams collapsing, cheques bouncing, and supporters simply choosing to walk away, highlights for the league have been as sparse as the stands at the Sydney Entertainment Centre.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the schedule for the 2010/11 season has come under attack despite being a marked improvement on recent efforts.

In fact, basketball writer Daniel Eade, in his column on backpagelead.com.au, went as far as arguing: “I don’t think I could imagine a worse fixture for the upcoming season.”

It doesn’t require an imagination to comprehend a worse fixture than this season’s – a quick glance in the rear vision mirror would suffice.

Eade laments the fact that the season won’t be opening “with a bang” due to the Melbourne-Sydney clash on 15 October being scheduled for The Cage rather than the Kings’ much-anticipated return to the Kingdome.

But wasn’t it only eight months ago that New Zealand and Cairns tipped off the year in front of 2,428 fans at NSEC? Not much banging going on there.

The opening round of the season won’t just be about the Kings – it will also symbolise the NBL’s return to free-to-air television through One HD. A Sydney-Melbourne blockbuster, whether it’s held at The Cage, Kingdome or Seamus McPeake’s kitchen, is the ideal showcase for the sport in front of a curious and, in some cases, novice, audience.

While it’s unfortunate that Sydney’s homecoming against New Zealand the following night will be on the end of a double header (meaning fans’ first impressions may not be of a team playing at its optimum), the question of who the Kings should be facing is irrelevant. The mere spectacle of the club returning to its old stomping ground ensures it will be highly marketable with more media hype and bums on seats than any other home game against the Breakers could attract.

There’s a reason why the South Dragons opted not to request a derby against the Tigers for their first ever home game, nor on Boxing Day in their second and third seasons despite the enormous success of the 26 December 2006 fixture. Those dates alone are drawcards. Why waste a marquee event – in Sydney’s case a meeting with Melbourne – on a date that can be used to elevate the status of an otherwise ordinary match-up?

Also, contrary to Eade’s claim that “every team should be playing multiple games each week whenever possible”, the spacing between contests is a welcome relief from the ludicrous situation whereby clubs would play as many as three games in four days before having two weeks off. It allows clubs to promote and emphasise each home game rather than having them lost in a cluster that, for a league with minimal media visibility, only the most hardcore fans can keep up with.

Finally, Eade questions Larry Sengstock’s comment that the focus on weekends was in line with feedback from fans. “Was this a questionnaire? Did the NBL send out surveys? I never got one,” he asks.

Perhaps, Daniel, it was the feedback known as disastrous crowd figures over recent seasons.  Crowd figures that were particularly poor during the Wednesday night timeslots you suddenly yearn for. Crowd figures that are the very reason you’re so concerned with the fixture in the first place.

How quickly we forget.

From con to icon: Kings forgiven for their sins

It’s a Saturday evening during the summer of 2008/09 and I’m walking up Swan Street, Richmond, dressed in a South Dragons polo shirt with a membership lanyard hanging from the neck. 

About to cross the Punt Road intersection for a night of hoops at Hisense Arena, I spot a couple in their mid-20s heading towards me from the opposite direction. As they stroll past, the male mutters under his breath, “Pfft, no one cares about the NBL without the Kings and Bullets.”

It seems a flawed observation.

The Sydney Kings had descended into a laughing stock during their latter years, tarnished by connotations of empty seats, bouncing cheques, a fraudulent owner, and threats of having their licence revoked in the middle of a playoff campaign.

The Brisbane Bullets, meanwhile, were hardly a hot ticket item prior to finding themselves in the middle of Eddy Groves’ fall from financial grace.

Yet, according to the passerby on Swan Street, the Kings and Bullets’ presence was somehow metonymic for public interest in the entire league.

This is a classic example of the power of nostalgia.

As has been argued in the circles of academia, nostalgia represents the yearning for a history that never was.

The Kings of the modern era were an off-court disaster, but the need for nostalgia sees the reshaping of history in order to perpetuate desired myths.

In the Kings’ case, effects of the Tim Johnston era were replaced by memories of the club’s glory days under the ownership of the late Mike Wrublewski during the 1990s. By reinscribing images of a sold-out Sydney Entertainment Centre into the Kings’ brand, the game’s doomsayers could argue that the club’s demise signalled the death of the league as a whole.

However, with the NBL confirming the resurrection of the Sydney Kings for season 2010/11, this practice could suddenly work in basketball’s favour.

A case in point is Wednesday’s article on the Daily Telegraph website, with sports Chief of Staff Tim Morrissey trumpeting the Kings’ return.  Morrissey opens the article with a reference to Rodney O – the Kings’ popular court announcer during the 1990s – before reporting that Bob Turner would run the club as CEO. 

Turner, of course, led the Kings under Wrublewski and played a pioneering role in using the media as a promotional tool.

Former greats such as Steve Carfino, Damian Keogh, Brad Dalton, Dwayne “D-Train” McClain and Leon “Neon” Trimmingham are then mentioned as possible role-players within the reborn franchise, while accompanying the article is a black and white photo of a triumphant Kings team circa 1990.

The Telegraph concludes the article by informing readers that Morrissey played for the Kings between 1988 and 1994.

Save for a brief reference, the escapades of Tim Johnston are conspicuous by their absence.

With the Kings’ brand seemingly cleansed, the NBL finds itself in unfamiliar territory, whereby society’s insatiable appetite for nostalgia has seen the otherwise merciless Sydney media represent basketball through a favourable narrative.

The Kings of old are back.

Will anyone care?

Perhaps we’ll have to ask the bloke on Swan Street.

Nostalgia’s done wonders for Bert Newton’s career; now it’s about to help the reborn Sydney Kings.

Passion the key in ridding Sydney of its sins

 

“Bringing the game into disrepute” is one of many buzz phrases bandied about by sporting administrators these days when reprimanding players or coaches.

 

In the National Basketball League’s case, however, it is not a player, coach or official who must be found guilty as charged of this offence.

 

Instead, it is the city of Sydney – Sin City by name and nature. The character and perception of the NBL has taken a battering over the past 12 months, and it has been Sydney where the most debilitating work has been done. First it was the controversial Tim Johnston, who fled the country after killing off the Sydney Kings and leaving players, coaches and staff out of pocket, not to mention the duped investors of his Firepower company. 

 

Now we have Greg Evans, owner of the Sydney Spirit, issued with a default notice after threatening to place his team into administration. The circumstances in which Evans handled the situation have again tarnished the competition’s integrity. According to Basketball Australia interim CEO Scott Derwin, Evans only informed the league of his decision by email, in which he said he would not communicate with them by telephone. It seems he couldn’t even muster the respect, or decency, to explain his decision to the playing group, nor coach Rob Beveridge who was only told by League CEO Chuck Harmison two days later.

 

The timing of this for Australian basketball couldn’t have been worse. After the recent unanimous vote for reform, it seemed the sport’s shattered reputation was finally being mended with the news of Fox Sports’ $35m offer to show every live from next season. Yet, just 3 weeks later, the media’s narrative of basketball is back to being a sport in ‘crisis.’ Sydney can do that to you. Most of the country’s networked media seems to be concentrated in the Harbour City. The Daily Telegraph, for example, is notorious for being the most sensationalist tabloid newspaper in Australia. Its coverage last week of the Spirit’s ordeal was damning, with a double page spread featuring the predictable “basket case” headline and a tombstone saying “RIP Sydney Basketball”. The Telegraph’s basketball writer, Tim Morrissey, has become infamous within basketball circles for his hyperbole and, when his copy is picked up by other News Limited papers around the country, Sydney’s woes are unfairly seen as being representative of the entire league.

 

This is not to say that the league should just make its life easier by abandoning the city when the composition of the New NBL is decided. The Herald Sun’s Grantley Bernard wrote last week:

 

“Sydney has forfeited the right to any team in the new competition. Multi-millionaires have thrown good money after bad at the NBL and the result is one near-death team in the city.”

 

But, despite the fact that it has brought so much shame to the sport, Sydney remains Australia’s most populous city; and it’s the home of Fox Sports. If the New NBL is to have any chance of hitting the scene next year with a new perception, a healthy Sydney team should be a priority. This is the case for any sport wishing to have a legitimate national competition. The NRL can get away with not having representation outside of the Eastern coast because regionalism has been its adjunct since its inception. The northern states have always been the strong hold of Rugby League, just as Victoria is the home of Australian Rules. Basketball’s popularity, however, is dispersed, meaning national must truly mean national.

 

Knowing this, the league will no doubt do its “due diligence” to ensure any future Sydney team (likely to be a reborn Sydney Kings) is viable. It will apply the new criteria, such as a $1m bank guarantee and  $500,000 in paid-up capital. But the most important criterion will be intangible: passion. This past week we’ve heard Dragons co-owner Mark Cowan describe himself during a Fox Sports broadcast as a “cat on a hot tin roof” when his team plays, and we’ve had Blaze owner Owen Tomlinson tell the Gold Coast Bulletin:

 

“My son Ben and I will continue to back this game until we are broke.

 

But I am very confident that will not happen. This game will survive and prosper.”

 

Contrast that to Johnston – who used the Kings as a vehicle for his dubious Firepower company – and Evans – who has effectively worked against the league’s attempts to help save his club – and we see that it’s passionless owners with overarching agendas who are unworthy of a spot in the new league, rather than the city of Sydney.