Basketball season is almost here, and its arrival will signal a period of unrivalled prominence for Australian basketball.
It’s cliché to label the next year of anything as “the biggest ever”. Every so often however, this turns out to be correct. It most certainly applies to the next 12 months of Australian basketball, and there is no better way to describe the year ahead.
A series of momentous events are coming to shock the Australian sporting landscape, the biggest of which rests with our greatest current basketball export.
1. Ben Simmons, the NBA All-Star
Ben Simmons will make the NBA All-Star game in 2019. You can book that in right now. The NBA experts agree, as do betting agencies; the implied odds of Simmons being selected are 80 percent, according to Sportsbet. Moreover, anyone who watched the Rookie of the Year last season can pick up on the nuggets of greatness he laid out on the hardwood. Simmons’ natural evolution will, in time, render a maiden All-Star appearance as a footnote on the path to greatness, but it will signal a ground breaking triumph.
So what does this actually mean? The short and skinny is that an Australian – yes, one of us – will be front and centre among the NBA elites in Charlotte. For a parochial nation, ticking another accomplishment off our collective sporting bucket list will rightly garner the interest of the masses. One would hope that such interest can be harnessed, and that more public eyeballs bring greater media attention. From the right places, too. Hopefully this signals a shift away from ridiculous interviews on NBA conspiracies into actual storylines. Like, I don’t know… Ben Simmons dominating the NBA and making the All-Star team!
For Australians, there has never truly been a reason for non-basketball fans to watch the All-Star game. That changes in February. More casual eyeballs will be attracted to the very best this sport has to offer. From there, anything is possible. Just ask Leigh Ellis about the power of an NBA All-Star game. Maybe the casual viewers Simmons brings to the party are hooked by Steph Curry’s jumpshot, or mesmerised by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s size, or perplexed by James Harden’s beard. It doesn’t really matter what triggers the light bulb moment for basketball newcomers, just as long as this phenomenon occurs.
2. The NBL revival continues
Getting people focused on the sport is the first, and biggest step. From there, the product is given air to breathe and speak for itself. That is a lesson the NBL has learnt the hard way.
The past decade has seen a seismic shift in the collective mindset of our domestic league. A decaying system that highlighted the pre-Larry Kestelman era, has been replaced with a business that is harnessing the power of its niche. And even that might be too negative a descriptor for the audience it serves. The basketball support base that was once captured by a glass ceiling is, as we all know, rapidly growing into a mainstream following.
The NBL is evolving into a product that strikes a chord with all basketball supporters. Fans of Australian basketball have exposure to a world-class product that is inherently local, infused with athletes who have performed across the biggest leagues in the world.
For those with more of an NBA leaning, the domestic league is now a bridge for fans wanting access to quality live basketball. This is a new development, and a vital one. Those who are wowed by highlights from NBA stars now have access an Australian product that is worthy of their attention.
3. How Bogut will influence the local landscape
The influx of ex-NBA imports such as Alonzo Gee serve an important role here, too, as they bring credibility for those who have long doubted the quality of the domestic product.
Such a distinction may seem trivial, but it is central to the NBL becoming a league that can unite an ever-growing basketball community. This is something that Andrew Bogut is more than capable of, both on and off the court.
Expect Bogut to instantly become one the best players in NBL basketball. He is arguably the most talented. He is so clearly the most distinguished, and a relaxed NBL fixture – relative to NBA standards - will alleviate many of the injury concerns that cut short his overseas career.
While he remains a dominant player, I would guess that Bogut’s impact will be felt stronger away from the basketball court. The way in which Bogut trolls the Australian sporting community on social media is something to behold. It is a Jedi mind trick straight out the millennial handbook, as regardless of each specific opinion, the attention follows.
Some will see Bogut and lament the so-called Americanisation of global sport, while others will steadfastly support his right to speak out. Either way, basketball is a major benefactor from having its prodigal son return home. Bogut’s self awareness is striking, so too is his unwavering belief in injecting himself into the public discourse. Love him or loathe him, Bogut is on track to become the central figure of a league still attempting to support itself, financially as much as anything. That cannot be overstated.
4. The NBL and sustainability
The full financial sustainability of the NBL cannot be quantified until Kestelman diversifies his ownership in both the league and its clubs. There are promising signs though; local media tycoon, Craig Hutchison, investing into Melbourne United is significant because of the broadcast visibility this provides. Hutchison’s media network, Crocmedia, has already flagged United-centric coverage akin to the American model of parochial local reporting. Whilst going against the grain of conservative Australian media principles, there will be a level of brand exposure that has been lacking.
The same can be said of the NBL’s recent television rights deal with Channel 9. While the pact isn’t financially lucrative, it achieves the simple mandate of getting an improved product out to the masses. Big market rivals Melbourne and Sydney will likely be heavily featured within the free-to-air television schedule, granting the brightest domestic stars a platform to compete against summer powerhouses like Big Bash Cricket and Australian Open Tennis.
The television deal is far from perfect, but it’s a start and there is room to expand as the league does.
5. The ninth franchise
Plans for a ninth NBL franchise, located in South Eastern Melbourne, were officially announced last month. Backed by Romie Chaudhari, owner of English Premier League side Swansea City, and being led by Tommy Greer, there is a groundswell of positive energy emanating from the infant club.
Building a club from nothing in 12 months will bring steep challenges but the allure of a second team in the nation’s biggest sporting city more than justifies the accelerated timetable. There will be much hyped talk of Melbourne derbies this time next year.
6. The rise of the Southern Huskies
A potential tenth franchise in Tasmania, backed one of the most astute business models in Australian sport, is the next combatant for an NBL licence. Regardless of whether it eventuates, I admittedly remain a huge fan of the Southern Huskies’ proposal. The fact that a shrewd businessman like Justin Hickey is willing to throw his own capital, time and reputation behind the project speaks volumes.
This is a legitimate bid to bring professional basketball into an untapped regional market. That is infinitely positive. Hickey’s dream of taking the Huskies brand global warrants significant consideration.
7. NBLxNBA continues
Speaking of going global, we are just two weeks away from the NBL’s latest foray into North America. The storylines are bountiful: Chris Goulding leading Melbourne United against Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia Sixers. Damian Martin attempting to lock down Donovan Mitchell. Bogut continuing his rivalry with the Los Angeles Clippers. Joe Ingles playing against his hometown Adelaide 36ers. Torrey Craig leading his Denver Nuggets against old opposition. The appeal is endless.
Seven NBLxNBA games pose a tantalising question: what if an NBL team can triumph over their more fancied opponent? While unlikely, it’s a sensational thought. Especially considering how close Melbourne came to defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder last season.
Expect each NBL side to compete with trademark tenacity. From there, anything is possible. Such a mantra applies equally to the men’s national team over the next two years.
8. Boomers versus Team USA
The events of next August will be the crown jewel in Australian basketball’s revolution. Team USA are coming to Melbourne for two games that will change everything. Two magical nights will signal a reimagining of what is possible. In football heartland, during the lead into finals, basketball will be king. Some of the biggest athletes in global sport will be present, and the local side has a legitimate chance to defeat a transcendent sporting institution.
An image has been seared into my mind, ever since these games were announced: the power of witnessing the Australia Boomers defeat Team USA, in front of 50,000 fans, would provide a unifying force that money cannot buy. It has the potential to be one of those moments that defines this generation of Australian sport.
A favourable result is achievable, and with it would bring a sense of pride not garnered by an Australian national team since the Socceroos in 2006. Team USA is the cherry on top of everything the next 12 months will bring.
9. The quest for redemption in 2020
Finally, the spectre of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo hovers over everything. It makes the 2019 World Cup in China a perfect dress rehearsal. If all our NBA athletes attend the World Cup in China, the baseline for success is an appearance in the championship game - nothing less will suffice. At full strength, the Boomers are no longer a plucky underdog fighting for respect. Those days are over.
The heartbreak of Rio has set the tone for the 2020 Olympic cycle.
Make no mistake, the next 12 months are the biggest in Australian basketball history. The sport has been riding a wave this decade and the future holds limitless potential. The storylines are fascinating, central figures are captivating and an amazing journey awaits. I cannot wait.