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Thank you for 10
Some thoughts on the journey, ten years in.
Time flies when you’re having fun. At the same time, ten years feel like a relative lifetime in itself. I’ve joked about this to friends on occasion: had I known that my job would eventually end up being everything not related to writing basketball, I might have reconsidered, given the original motivation was to create a space to write about the sport I’ve loved since my teens. Life at The Pick and Roll has become much more than me and basketball words, especially with the talent on hand. In basketball parlance, I became the screen setter and rebounder, just so everyone gets theirs.
“This isn’t working. How do we adjust?”
It was the question early on, when we learnt competing with the entire internet to cover the NBA probably wasn’t good for differentiation, and the pivot to Australian basketball made perfect sense (love this Stratechery interview featuring Adam Mares and DNVR, it resonates at a product level). That was step one, and we’re continually trying to further understand audience interest, while having the right people to produce consistent, quality coverage.
Sustainability was, and is an ongoing topic: how do we grow, and pay everyone? It took a while before we concluded that chasing the news cycle (vis-à-vis eyeballs and ad revenue) wasn’t sustainable for us, both in terms of workload and competitive advantage. Ad traffic favoured news blurbs for a transient audience, who were usually drawn to the most convenient, outrageous headlines. It was a race to churn more newsbites; the timelier the better. Like everyone else, we were at the mercy of social media and search engine algorithms: play the game, or be buried. It all came to a head when I burned out.
(A quick segue.) In earlier years, I was spending a lot of time on site infrastructure, from maintenance to upgrades. That, coupled with editorial and business needs, was just overwhelming. (Here’s the “this isn’t working” bit.) The burnout signalled a need to focus and restructure the product, over technical work.
Moving to the Substack platform (thank you Hamish, Jairaj and the team) allowed us to regain control in three ways:
It liberated my time from infrastructure management
We pivoted the business model to subscription. We now steadily grow a returning audience that’s actively interested in what we deliver - the model now just makes a lot more sense. The team gets paid, and just as importantly…
We reset our coverage style. We now control how, and when we deliver content. We cover the sport the way we want to, through deeper analysis and commentary, and not by writing clickbait designed to get another clickthrough driven by outrage.
But there’s always a “what’s next?”, and we’re still figuring it out. Savvier entrepreneurs might roll their eyes at this agonisingly plodding and iterative approach, but that’s how it’s been for us: just a couple of guys trying to build something worthwhile and figure things out at our pace, while juggling full-time jobs and young growing families.
Life at what I often call my second full-time job is filled with Slack convos (read: the fun part), ranging from anecdotes to story ideas, accreditation, interviews, to merch and branding discussions. There’s also the actual grind: reviewing drafts, paying bills, filing taxes, navigating all the bumps that come with keeping something like this running. Like Damian said, there’s been challenges. Why do this though? It’s much more than a passion project at this point; I see it as a responsibility to keep this thing of ours going, to make a difference and to keep faith with the people that believe in what we do.
We all learn and grow with time. Running The Pick and Roll has allowed me to wear different hats and stretch myself in uncomfortable ways. For someone who likely went undiagnosed on the spectrum earlier in life, it’s not a stretch to say that I’ve had to figure things out and grow at a personal level. It’s where I learnt to communicate better, to trust and empower, and make some fun stuff happen along the way. I always smile when my kids recognise Olgun and Kane on the screen. I think about emails with the mysterious Aus Bball Prospects (OU’s original moniker) and that fateful Twitter DM that opened the way for a certain job interview. I remember the whirlwind of emails as we tried to figure out Kane’s visa for that Milwaukee season. I also think about how we somehow got Sam credentialed as a photographer for NBA games —most of the credit goes to his hustle and positivity— and how that’s led him to where he is today. There’s Ben’s Philly beat writer life stories and how he witnessed that amazing Kawhi game winner (you know which one). There’s Warren’s “Corporate Knowledge” blog, his first credentialed Sydney game, and how he always tried to find unique stories to tell. And there’s many others who have found opportunities that I’m equally proud of, including Steve, Grant, Luke, Winston, Jayme, Oliver, Daniel among others.
Also, not forgetting the team today who continue to produce some of the best work out there; this includes Hayley, Ben, Matt, Jordan, Ayush, Jacob, Michael (both!), Daniel, Tristan and Will. And also, the photographers we’ve had the pleasure of working with: Jacob, Russell, Michelle, Sam, May among others.
I haven’t been able to name everyone, apologies for the lapse. But it has been a pleasure working with every one of you who have passed through our doors; all of you passionate, talented people through the years, who contributed your unique voices to help build this thing up together. I like to think we’ve established a big enough sample size over ten years, to say that we have punched well above our weight in terms of the collective talent we’ve worked with, both alumni and present, some of whom now form part of the media landscape.
Couple of things I like to say:
Fortune favours the prepared mind. Work and prepare yourself, be ready when opportunity arrives.
What you get out of your time with us, is equivalent to how much you put in. Give it your best shot, put the reps in, get as much experience in as you can with events and content creation - build something worthwhile, and get better at it. (Then refer to point 1.)
Ten years in, I’m happy in the knowledge that I’ve been able to build fulfilling relationships, and help some of you take a positive step on your respective journeys, that might not have otherwise happened. There’s probably no tangible returns outside of the happiness ROI (as a friend puts it), but I’m always cheering for everyone’s success, no matter where they are.
As someone who grew up in Southeast Asia, understanding and finding a link to Australian culture has been a gradual journey. It’s only been recently, while listening to Luc Longley and Andrew Gaze relive basketball memories, and especially while watching the Rose Gold documentary retelling the Boomers’ journey to its first historic medal (super happy for Matt that it all came together!) that it clicked: The Pick and Roll has become more than this business that I run on the side.
Humans, being the social animals that we are, bond over tribalism. We connect over points of commonality: the languages we speak, the food we eat, the things we love. And sports dominate as strong social connective tissue. In a way —it makes perfect sense as a lifelong basketball fan— these years of immersion have helped create a sense of belonging to the country my family and I have called home for many years now. Helping create stories around the rich tapestry of Australian basketball, going through the highs and lows together, learning from and talking hoops with the people I have been privileged to work with, and listening to the experiences and stories of pioneers who plied their trade. All of it has helped to bridge that cultural gap and create a sense of belonging to Australia for me (and hopefully for others too).
If I had to be honest, I would not have put a Singaporean-born Chinese who has never worked in media and has zero ties to the basketball landscape, as someone who helped build this site covering Australian basketball, but here we are. It speaks more of acceptance, support and equality of opportunity than anything else. I’m grateful for where we’re at, and I’ll always be thankful to be part of the landscape, knowing we’ve made our little contribution.
Many thanks to Steve and Terry for being game enough to start this together - especially Steve. Without him, there was no chance this would have ever gotten off the ground. I’ll always remember the early days at NBA Down Under, followed by Everything NBA, and how it all started with the three of us (Steve, Jim and myself) in a Facebook group chat. (Also, an apology to Terry - took me a while to understand what you were trying to patiently impart in those early days.) Thank you Nanzhen for workshopping the logo over so many pencil sketchings several time zones away. Thank you Nahum, for giving the logo the green and gold overhaul it needed, and Tony for building us into a brand (and always keeping us looking professional and on point!). Thanks to Damian who planted that seed with Australians playing college basketball many years ago, and for being committed to this thing together, working and learning through mistakes while being the unwavering, vocal presence. Thanks to my wife, who has unfailingly listened to all the ups and downs, and supported this in more ways than one through the years. Thank you to the media, leagues, partners and players who have accepted and supported us along the way.
*A huge thanks especially to Roger at the NBA, whom I’ve only had the pleasure of meeting in person recently in Singapore. Through the NBA and his support, I began to believe that starting this thing was possible, more than ten years ago. We just have to give it our best shot and see what’s possible, while hopefully realising some dreams along the way.
And to all of you who have believed in this collective little vision of ours, and helped shape it together: readers from day one till now, to the writers and creators past and present, building this brand together with us. Thank you for believing in what we do!
We’re probably never going to be ESPN, Fox or The Athletic, but we’re still here. Growing and building out our own little niche, in a way that makes sense for us, and that’s fine - there’s space for everyone. Onwards, #AussieHoops.