Tasmania is ready for an NBL team again. League owner, Larry Kestelman acknowledged this, with a deal reportedly imminent between the NBL, the Glenorchy City Council, and the state government.
The potential return of an NBL team has former Hobart Devil, Mark Nash enthusiastic about the concept of a team once again, with the state evolving since his playing days.
“Back in the 1990s it was almost a bit of an embarrassment being Tasmanian and being based in Hobart, whereas now there’s a real sense of pride. There’s opportunity to do things differently and an opportunity to be innovative when it comes to business and basketball,” explains Nash.
Although he has no official involvement with the core group of NBL decision makers, Nash has been immersed in the sport and the state from a coaching, administrative and business perspective ever since his playing days.
What's changed in Tasmania?
“If you look at what’s really different in Hobart and Tasmania [since the Devils licence was revoked in 1996], it was a tough place to be from a business standpoint. It was quite bleak but now the economy is going well, and small business is doing well. There’s been a couple of really exciting initiatives, like the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), which has really given Southern Tasmania a kickstart and perhaps even tapped into the potential of what it can be,” said Nash.
Kestelman has his eye on the potential that Nash mentions, with expansion plans shifting beyond just the basketball floor. Included in his strategy is a redevelopment of Wilkinson’s Point into a public place featuring sport, entertainment, as well as food and beverage options.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity for basketball,” said Nash. “The participation numbers over the last five years have really shown that basketball is booming right across Tasmania. We’ve got new coaches coming into the game and our spectator numbers are always really good at SEABL or NBL1 level.
“The big question is now - what do the next 25 years look like for the sport? My vision is that there will be more people bouncing balls in Tasmania than kicking balls.”
Mark sees a crucial part of this vision stemming from an NBL club that not only prioritising the establishment of a high performance program, but also one that embeds its roots in the community right across the state.
“My observation of the late 1990s up until the mid to late 2000s was that perhaps some of the NBL clubs stepped away from that community engagement,” said Nash. “Looking at models like the Perth Wildcats, what the South East Melbourne Phoenix have done this year, it looks like Melbourne United do a great job as well, it’s just essential to get these players out into the community, visiting schools, and really inspiring that next generation.”
Divide in the state
Each region of Tasmania is passionate. There’s even a divide mentioned at times, but Nash does not view this as an obstacle for an NBL club’s sustainability.
“Tasmania can be very parochial between the south, the north, and the northwest, but I actually see that as being a strength and a positive because it develops really good intra-state rivalries,” shared Nash. “I don’t see [the divide in the state] being an issue. There’s a huge opportunity for the sport and the vibe I’m getting is that the three regions in Tasmania are really united.
“Basketball Tasmania does a great job with its junior development programs in bringing kids and coaches together so that they all see themselves as Tasmanian athletes, not pigeonholed into their regions.”
Despite the need to ensure the NBL club is inclusive to the entire state, one location will be settled on for the team to operate out of for the most part. The league’s current negotiations include securing Hobart’s Derwent Entertainment Center (DEC) as the team’s regular venue, but an opportunity to take preseason games and community visits right across Tasmania certainly exists.
“[Where the NBL games will be played] really comes down to facilities and that’s the biggest challenge for basketball in Tasmania. We are lagging well behind the rest of the country purely based on basketball facilities,” outlined Nash.
The DEC, as noted by Kestelman, needs a major upgrade with the current makeup of the venue non-compliant with various safety codes and regulations. Aside from the rejuvenated 5000+ seat DEC, the development would also feature a new multi-court indoor sport facility for the state, as well as team offices and training facilities for the NBL team.
One other party in Tasmanian basketball that explored the idea of upgrading the DEC for a potential NBL team were the Southern Huskies, in their brief but notable existence.
The Huskies, financially backed by former Hobart Devil, Justin Hickey, emerged on the back of the desire to prove that Tasmania was ready for an NBL team again. Hickey had creative plans around the club’s potential operational strategy and development opportunities. He met with Kestelman about their prospects of gaining an NBL licence, and Huskies teams were entered in New Zealand’s national league as well as NBL1 for 2019.
“When the [Hobart] Chargers did step out from the SEABL competition at the time, the positive [of the Huskies] was that Hobart had a presence in NBL1 in that year. I think if there had been a gap, and Hobart hadn’t been involved at all, then it would have been really difficult to come back in,” reflected Nash.
After significant financial investment, the Southern Huskies announced that they would withdraw all three teams in August 2019. An untenable relationship with Basketball Tasmania was cited as the reason for the sudden decision.
Despite this, Larry Kestelman’s push for an NBL team gathered momentum, with a decision to keep the tenth licence himself, and pursue development opportunities in Tasmania the chosen vision.
“My observation in that twelve months is that there were huge changes in the basketball market in Tasmania, and also across the country, so what was happening in late 2018 had shifted a lot to mid 2019. I think there were a number of factors [in the Huskies ending their operations],” said Nash. “I’m just super excited that the Chargers are in, that we’ve got a presence in Hobart, and it’s really positive going forward into the future.”
A significant contributor to the vision of proving Tasmania as NBL ready, has been David Bartlett. His involvement and voice across the Chargers, the Southern Huskies, and the potential NBL team has been a major driving force towards a return to the national league.
“When I’m looking at everything that’s happening in basketball right now, if we go back three years ago when David Bartlett stepped in as president [of the Hobart Chargers], he talked about having a vision for an NBL team in Tasmania," outlined Nash.
“David talked about being NBL ready, just the way that he and his board were able to do that preparation work, and now the NBL has been able to step in and take that to the next level, I think we can all be really thankful for the work and the initial vision that David set.
“I’ve got grave fears for what the future of basketball in Southern Tasmania could have been, because things were challenging at the time, but now we can be really optimistic about the future.”
With Kestelman’s concept of an NBL team in Tasmania moving forward without the Southern Huskies, the next exciting step to test the market was for the state to host the annual preseason tournament, the NBL Blitz. This opportunity was afforded to Tasmania just like it was for Brisbane before the Bullets re-entered the competition in 2016.
“I thought the NBL Blitz in Tasmania was fantastic. It gave me a glimpse of what the future could be like here in Tasmania. To see the level of talent at my local stadium and to see all the kids there playing with their junior team just getting around it was amazing,” said Nash.
Kestelman labelled the tournament as the biggest and best NBL Blitz ever, with 8,647 people attending games in five different Tasmanian locations over four days.
“The success of the Blitz has reinforced our view that Tasmania deserves to have its own NBL team that would put it on the national and international stage. We now look forward to continuing our negotiations to secure the Derwent Entertainment Centre so we can deliver Tasmania its own NBL team,” stated Kestelman.
The expansion team’s chance now hinges on a deal being struck for the DEC to be upgraded with the financials around that being satisfactory for all parties.
“I don’t think there would be any issues with crowds getting around [an NBL team]. It sounds like conversations with government and potential other corporate partners are progressing really well,” added Nash.
Basketball Tasmania's relationship with the Chargers
Another pivotal set of conversations that have taken place in Tasmania, have been between the state’s basketball governing body and the Hobart Chargers.
After claiming a SEABL title in 2018, the Chargers made the decision to not take the floor in 2019 in NBL1 on the back of disagreements over the handling of revenue and junior programs.
At the time of the decision, Chargers President, David Bartlett, did not mince words stating that “when the kids at Christmas ask who killed Rex the Rhino [the club mascot], tell them it was the Basketball Tasmania grinch.”
Nash, who is set to coach the Chargers women’s program in 2020, believes that this fractured relationship has been repaired, with the best interests of the sport now clearly at the forefront of both parties mind.
“From what I understand, the relationship is all about moving forward. In the last 12 months there were a number of different points along the way that I think were regrettable and I think it’s best for the whole basketball community to be united moving forward.
“There’s really good opportunities for us to develop great pathways for the young players in Tasmania, whether it’s through state teams with Basketball Tasmania into NBL1 programs, or hopefully in the future, NBL and perhaps WNBL teams.”
Having operated as a player agent during 2019, Nash was well aware of the interest that the first season of NBL1 was generating. The increased accessibility and promotion of the league compared with previous SEABL seasons was obvious.
“I think there was a whole new level of interest for players right across the country with what was happening in NBL1,” said Nash. “I attended a number of games in Hobart, and I was also fortunate to help out the commentary crew a few times for the live streams, and I was just really impressed. Within an hour of the game finishing, there would be a two-minute highlight video online of a player like Sharna Thompson.”
As well as the myriad of highlights, NBL1 had every game for both men and women streamed live, together with stats and player information all easily accessible online in a similar fashion to that of the fully professional NBL.
Nash’s timing for a return to coaching with the Chargers certainly coincides with an exciting new phase in the league. After a successful first season with the Basketball Victoria-run NBL1, the league is looking to take more control of other state leagues to create a clearer vision for the sport underneath the NBL and WNBL.
“I’ve had some changes in my professional life, some changes around family life as well, and it was just a really positive time for me to be able to come back and coach,” explained Nash.
“Having the opportunity to work alongside [Chargers men’s head coach] Anthony Stewart, we’ve been teammates and we’re really keen to work closely across both programs. So far, the level of interest and excitement from sponsors and even coaches in the state has been great.
“There’s a real positivity about the Chargers coming back in, and for me that’s really an extension of that 20-year history. It shows how popular that brand is in Tasmania.”
Chargers 2020 expectations
For Nash’s women, making an impact in the Chargers return in 2020 is the goal. Along with Sharna Thompson, import Kathleen Scheer and rising star Shyla Heal join the program to complement a roster that features a strong Tasmanian flavour.
“[Sharna] is only young but over the last couple of years she’s been averaging 15 or 16 points a game and I think her upside is absolutely huge,” said Nash. “We know what Kathleen can do on the court, but equally important is what she brings off the court. I’ve already had calls from parents looking to book in individual sessions and have her be at their club. She’s like a rock star in Hobart.”
The signing that has received extra buzz of late is Heal, a 18-year-old who has had eye catching performances at WNBL level this season.
“We’ve decided to go with Shyla in the point guard spot rather than bring in a U.S. based player, which was my initial plan,” said Nash.
“Shyla’s going to be running the team and I think it’s what she brings to practice, just getting after players and setting the tone and tempo, and what it really takes to be an elite basketball player [that is so impressive].
“We’ve got a really strong relationship with Shyla’s off court team and her agent. [The pitch to her] was about the environment and the opportunity for what we can help Shyla with and also what she can bring to our team.
“We see Shyla having that huge upside and potentially playing in the Opals and in the WNBA in the years to come, so part of it was looking at the future and this being a stepping stone for her development, but it’s also about what she can bring right now. I’m sure she’s going to have an outstanding season at NBL1 level.”
Given Mark’s experience as a coach and his passion about using sport as a vehicle to connect with the community, a natural progression could be for him to be involved with Tasmania’s NBL team in an official capacity, once more.
“At this point in time I’m not directly involved. There’s an external advisory group that Larry Kestelman established, including people like David Bartlett, so that side of things appears to be in really good hands,” said Nash.
“For myself, I’ve got a young family, so right now it’s just being a fan. If there were opportunities [with the new NBL team] I’d certainly be open to them, but as of right now I’m just waiting to see where it lands.
“Everything is pointing in the right direction and I’m certainly hanging on the edge of my seat in the next couple of weeks to hopefully get that positive announcement that it’s all going ahead. The next generation will really get behind this [NBL team] if it ends up happening.”