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“Bigger than Basketball”: How the Maitland Mustangs created a family club and became NBL1 overachievers
Players, coaches and staff from the Hunter-based club reflects on a golden year and how they created an enviable culture.
Credit: Shiplee Studio
While elite basketball gets the lion’s share of media attention, there’s a vast and vibrant network of clubs across the country that remain vital to the health of the sport.
The Maitland Mustangs, part of a regional New South Wales city of around 80,000 people located on the banks of the Hunter River, is one such club.
For those that work and play there, it’s special. It’s a place where senior coaches lead teams for nothing more than a sense of community and an undying love of the game. It’s a nurturing environment where kids take their first tentative steps into the sport and are still involved decades later. It’s a social hub, the hottest ticket in town, and a sporting family. It’s the kind of place the game would be lost without; the beating heart of basketball.
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Underdogs and overachievers
Despite the organisation running on “the smell of an oily rag,” in the words of men’s NBL1 coach Luke Boyle, the Mustangs have punched above their weight in recent times.
Take this past season: they had a drought-breaking win in the Men’s Youth competition in the Waratah League and got great contributions from future NBL1 stars like Billy Parsons, Jimmy Beavis and Harley Kent at that level. Their women’s NBL1 team made the elimination final, while the senior men’s team fell agonisingly short in a grand final for the second year in a row.
The men’s side had booked their ticket to the decider with a pulsating away win over the Canberra Gunners. The teams went almost shot for shot for three quarters before Maitland pulled away in the last stanza. “Canberra’s really tough to beat away,” recalls Will Cranston-Lown, the Mustangs’ star guard and the NBL1 East MVP, “They were getting their whole crowd involved, so we had to stay level-headed. In the fourth quarter, we made all the right plays. No one took any wrong shots; we just trusted our stuff. That was the funnest part of our run, I reckon, that last quarter.”
The following week was a heartbreaker, however, with the Mustangs going down by three points to the Sutherland Sharks. “It hurts,” Cranston-Lown says of the loss. “But at the same, I think not winning keeps you even more motivated.”
For coach Boyle, the grand final “hurt a fair bit”, but the season overall was a positive, and he believes Cranston-Lown should now be on the radar of NBL clubs. “We gave a lot of opportunity to a lot of really young fellas, and I think that they'll be better for it. We've got a few guys in our team who are either in their first-time in a semi-professional league, or might have been 19 years of age. So, mate, we're happy that we made the grand final again.”
On the women’s side, the story was one of marked improvement, with the NBL1 team going from three wins the previous season to 14 this year and reaching the post-season. Another plus was the return of Hometown hero Shakera Reilly, who captain Rachel Williams said brought a new level of professionalism to the team.
“As a whole, we don't have any regrets at all for how the season ended,” Williams says. “We gave it our all in the elimination final, and the team we went down to (Norths Bears) ended up making the national final. It would have been good to knock them off, but it was a pretty dream ride that we had.”
“They were some quite amazing results,” enthuses Murray Granger, the Mustangs General Manager. “When you look at Maitland as a country association, batting above our average in terms of our success on the court, it was really positive, and primarily driven by Maitland-born and bred people.”
The secret of basketball
In Bill Simmons’ blockbuster The Book of Basketball, he discussed “the secret” of the sport with one of the game’s great winners, Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. “The secret of basketball is that it’s not about basketball,” Thomas explained. It’s an idea that elucidates why the most talented teams aren’t always the most successful – as any long-term observer would know well, even the most stacked rosters regularly underachieve because they lack chemistry, selflessness and a sense of shared purpose.
The Maitland Mustangs understand the secret well. At this club, youth league players and NBL1 stars train together, hang out together and watch each other’s games. “Whenever we go out after a game or do social events, it’s as a whole club, so we’re not segregated into our individual teams,” explains Williams. “It’s one of the most social clubs in the league … Even those girls who have played for us and then have moved, or our imports who have gone back home, we still keep in contact with them all the time. It's awesome – it never feels like a job. I love going to training and catching up with the girls.”
For country boy Cranston-Lown, who grew up in the NSW regional city of Bathurst and now lives with some of his Mustangs teammates, it’s been a welcoming environment. “I like the small towns, where everyone gets around everyone else, so it’s been good. It makes it a lot better, you know, when everyone likes each other, and are all doing stuff together. It's better than any club I've played for in New South Wales, for sure.”
For many involved in the club, it’s a big part of their social and family lives. Women’s NBL1 coach Mark Wawskowicz joined the Mustangs as a youngster and was a long-time player, coaching director and board member before his current role. He met his wife, Krista, through the club, where she now coaches. His four children have all also played for the Mustangs.
Wawskowicz sees a focus on human beings rather than basketball players as a defining feature of Mustangs culture. For him, the on-court tactics and play-calling is only maybe 20% of what he does as a coach. “I've met plenty of coaches who focus on the X's and O's, and that's important, but then they wonder why their teams never come together.”
The Maitland Mustangs have similarly been tied up with family for Luke Boyle. Many of his family have played, coached and done other roles at the club. So, what has kept them coming back all these years? “I think it's got a lot to do with the culture,” Boyle reflects. “I suppose it's bigger than basketball. There's a lot of friendships that get made there … You see families who really enjoyed it when they were young start to return with their kids, so they can be part of what they felt when they were involved.”
A labour of love
Like many clubs at different levels of basketball, the Maitland Mustangs rely heavily on volunteers to keep things running. On a game day, these hardy souls will be at the stadium five hours before the first tip-off, prepping the venue, tending to the considerable logistical demands of a semi-professional basketball league and cooking meals for the home team and visitors.
“We go to other places where they pay their commentators, they pay their bench crew, they pay the door person, everybody who's involved is doing it for a fee, and you can kind of tell,” says Wawskowicz.
For Williams and her teammates, there’s a motivation to get things done for the hardworking volunteer crew. “It's not just us that we're representing; everyone's putting in for our success. You kind of want to repay them in every way that you can, really.”
Both Boyle and Wawskowicz are volunteer head coaches, putting in hundreds of hours each year as they guide teams through a gruelling NBL1 season that involves plenty of sacrifice and time on the road. This situation has freed up money for the team to sign quality imports where they can. Boyle even drives the team bus on road trips, figuring the club can save a few dollars.
While the Mustangs are proud of the family feel that runs through all levels of the club, this doesn’t mean they’re unambitious or uninterested in testing themselves at the highest level. Williams remembers being in the meetings where key club personnel debated whether they should join the new semi-professional NBL1 East competition or opt to stay in the competitive but lower-tier state leagues. She describes the choice to compete in NBL1 as “a bit of a gamble”.
For Wawskowicz, the club could have been “comfortable” at the state level, but that choice wouldn’t have aligned with their organisational values. “We've always strived to stay at the highest level that we can be in, and at the moment, that's NBL 1. So, that's where we're at, and that's where we're focused as a club.”
“I’ve had this chip on my shoulder”: Maitland’s local rivals
Choosing to compete at NBL1 level means Maitland is in the same competition as long-time rivals Newcastle Falcons, the team representing the much bigger city down the road. The rivalry has been a constant in Wawskowicz’s basketball career. He first played against Newcastle in under-14s, when Maitland’s foe was the national champion for the age group. Back then, Maitland couldn’t get close to them. More defeats followed, before Wawskowicz and company broke through for a rare win at under-18s level. “As a senior, I’ve had this chip on my shoulder the whole time to say, well, if we can compete with Newcastle, then that means we're pretty good. They've always been a much bigger club than ours,” he says. “Back in the days when we were in the State League and they were in the (NBL1 predecessor) SEABL, it was frustrating because our better players who wanted to go to the next level could do that at Newcastle, but they couldn't do it at Maitland. Since those days, it's become more of an equilibrium.”
For Williams, the local rivalry adds a bit of spice, and provides motivation. “We've been kicked in the shins in the past couple of years by them, so it was good to knock them off a couple of times this year. The whole club gets behind you. The older Mustangs come in and give their bit of knowledge as well. It's always a good vibe that whole week in the lead-up to the Maitland/ Newcastle games; it's awesome.”
But the long-running competition between the two Hunter region teams doesn’t mean the Mustangs won’t welcome in an outsider. Granger commutes to his role at Maitland from Newcastle, but has never been seen as the enemy. “When I walked in, there was a lot of people just coming up to me and welcoming me to being part of the club,” he recalls.
Granger sees himself as the keeper of the flame, tasked with maintaining the Mustangs culture rather than needing to change it. “There's a lot of people here that have built life-long friendships, and basketball is the conduit for that to happen. They can come and watch a game, catch up and share old war stories.”
“They're the people that built the foundation for where we are now. And you know, it's my job to keep that history there and build on it as we continue to grow into the future.”