“That’s our future”: Mount Gambier Pioneers proving they belong in NBL1

It’s almost a year on from the demise of the South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL), but the Mount Gambier Pioneers are still mired in uncertainty, and no closer to locking their future in.

The sequence of events in this time have been rather extraordinary; the lack of a transition plan from Basketball Australia for its SEABL club has resulted in chaos for the Pioneers.

There was first a rejected bid to enter the newly created Victorian-run NBL1, before the team was initially rebuffed by South Australia’s Premier League.

A frantic late scramble did result in an eventual acceptance into their home state’s competition, but this move has not alleviated long-term concerns and could be viewed as just a stop-gap solution at best.

BASKETBALL AUSTRALIA DENIES ENTRY INTO NEW ZEALAND’S NBL

The club’s search for a long-term future led the Pioneers to consider all options, which included the idea of playing in New Zealand’s National Basketball League (NZ NBL) – a league that welcomed the idea of expansion.

Mount Gambier’s bid to join the NZ NBL was publicly announced on June 12th but, despite meeting all the league’s requirements and being granted entry, they were ultimately denied that opportunity by Basketball Australia in early July.

“When I talked to the guys at training after I heard the news about New Zealand, the look on their faces was one of devastation,” explained Pioneers men’s head coach Richard Hill.

“We honestly thought that the Basketball Australia approval was a rubber stamp. It wasn’t anything we considered as a hurdle to get over.

“As soon as we made a decision to go down that road, we immediately contacted both Basketball Victoria and Basketball Australia to let them know.”

The NZ NBL had made no secret about their endeavours to secure a second Australian team for their league, with public comments made even before their season started in April.

“Unbeknownst to us and New Zealand, there’s an agreement that Basketball Australia have with the Australian NBL that there can only be one national basketball league competing in multiple states in Australia, with that being the Australian NBL,” Pioneers President Tom Kosch stated.

Given the fact that this rule was in place long before Mount Gambier’s situation arose, and publicly stated plans for expansion into Australia by the NZ NBL, you have to question the delay from Basketball Australia in letting both the Pioneers and Justin Nelson (NZ NBL General Manager) know that this option could not be explored.

In a statement provided to The Pick and Roll, Basketball Australia echoed President Kosch’s comments regarding why there was a denial of entry, as well as stating that there would be no further comment made on the situation.

BASKETBALL VICTORIA DENIES ENTRY INTO NBL1

“Back in last August it was said that the SEABL would continue for 2019, and then at the end of 2019 the competition would disband and go back into sanctioned state-based competitions,” said Kosch.

Understandably, this didn’t eventuate with little reason for Melbourne-based clubs to commit for another year, if they could move the timeline forward.

What eventuated was the creation of a new league (NBL1) which is run by Basketball Victoria. The South Australia-based Pioneers were left in a difficult position, with many observers simply calling for them to go play in their own state.

This is where things get complicated however, with the many misconceptions and lack of understanding regarding who and what the Mount Gambier Pioneers are coming into play.

South Australia’s Premier League isn’t a fit that aligns with the Pioneers model (to be elaborated on later), and consequently the club applied to join NBL1 for 2019 before being denied entry.

“We respect and understand that Basketball Victoria have a responsibility to look after basketball in their state. They have a moral obligation to look after their own,” said Hill.

“The main reason they gave us last year [for denying entry] was that we had no women’s program.

“There was a fair point in asking how we could have a women’s team. [Basketball Victoria] didn’t recognise the strength and capacity of our club and that we were able to do that though.”

Impressively, the Pioneers have assembled a women’s team in quick time and finished the Premier League regular season with a 14-6 win-loss record.

ESTABLISHING A SUCCESSFUL WOMEN’S TEAM

“Putting this whole thing together from scratch was an amazing challenge,” revealed women’s head coach Matt Sutton.

“Before we put the team together, we were just hoping to be competitive. Given the timeframe, it was reasonable to think that it would be hard to find consistency week to week.

“We thought that if we could improve to a level that we were competitive against the top sides by the end of the season, then that would be a great result.”

These expectations have been smashed with the women finishing just one win from top spot, a finals win already in the books, and Sutton claiming Coach of the Year honours in his debut season.

The initial scepticism around the Pioneers being able to immediately have a competitive women’s program at NBL1 level was almost certainly fair. Given the results that we now know, the strength of this club and their ability to find solutions was definitely underestimated.

“I was in a really fortunate position having Richard Hill, who has great experience recruiting, there to support me through it,” explained Sutton.

“Early on, it would seem that the timing for everyone was terrible with so many talented basketballers from this region having moved away for various reasons, and moving back would be taking them away from the reason they had left – study, work, or other sporting commitments.

“As people committed to the program, we had to get to work on court and build our game plan from scratch without a core of players in place. Another challenge was establishing the commitment required to be successful at this level.”

The women have been embraced with home crowds turning up to see both teams play on the same night, and team members also playing an active part in the community.

“Thinking back to the first practice game, the crowd was small but there was just an unbelievable energy surrounding the team, and then to move forward to our first home game, the amount of people and the level of support shown was simply incredible,” recalled Sutton.

This enormous support was shown last weekend with over 800 spectators attending their stand-alone women’s final against the West Adelaide Bearcats. A two-point win awarded them the opportunity to travel to Adelaide this weekend for a semi-final clash against the Eastern Mavericks.

“The team has definitely earned the respect of the community with how hard and unselfish they play,” said Sutton.

UNDERSTANDING THE PIONEERS’ MODEL

What has been made abundantly clear by this saga is that the Pioneers have a unique model. They are in a unique location, and there is a clear lack of understanding surrounding all of it.

“We met with Basketball Australia and Basketball Victoria last December and it was clear and concerning for our club that there was little understanding of the Pioneers model,” explained Kosch.

To put this all into context, Mount Gambier is in South Australia but also located close to the Victorian border.

It is about a five-hour drive from both Adelaide and Melbourne, the population is around 27,000 people, and the Pioneers are a separate entity to their local basketball association.

Each of these factors play a part in making them unique and that brings with it some challenges.

Unlike the Melbourne based NBL1 clubs, the Pioneers do not have a junior program that helps to fund the senior program. Even money made from the bar or canteen at home games goes to the local association – the Pioneers are focused on being an asset to their juniors and their community.

“Our club’s management has worked tirelessly to build a model based on providing a competitive product on the court, as well as an entertainment product for our attendees,” said Kosch.

“We have outstanding community support, and without us being able to provide a competitive and entertaining product, that support will lessen.”

An imperative part of producing an entertaining and competitive team centres around the strategy regarding player recruitment, as well as player development opportunities.

“For the Pioneers’ history, we have provided a pathway for young South Australians to play at a higher level than that of the state league competitions,” said Kosch.

“Tom Daly, an Adelaide kid and fringe NBL player who wanted to play at a high-level, Matt Sutton and Erik Burdon, exactly the same. My son Brad was different, but mates of those guys who came here with aspirations,” explained Hill.

“We have also provided a pathway for local juniors by filling the roster with locals who have talent and who get to train with those guys. Brad Rathjen is a perfect example.”

WHY THE PREMIER LEAGUE ISN’T SUITABLE

Being able to develop, maintain and attract South Australian players long-term simply isn’t possible with the limitations of playing within the Premier League long-term.

“Most of the young players that I’ve got working with me, once they get to around 18, they’re going to the big smoke [Adelaide]. It is difficult to keep them here,” said Hill.

The issue of talented players leaving for work, university or other opportunities after high school is something that every smaller community faces.

The Pioneers, when competing in the higher-level SEABL, could pitch to players to make the move to Mount Gambier under the premise that they would get an opportunity to play in a stronger competition than in Adelaide.

“The biggest challenge we’ll have at the end of this year is our players will seek opportunities playing at a higher level of competition, as we will no longer have a point of difference to recruit the best South Australian kids with aspirations to play at the highest level during the winter,” said Kosch.

This is a significant hurdle, as it simply isn’t realistic for a place of Mount Gambier’s size to be able to develop enough locals to compete and survive.

Entry into the Premier League for the Pioneers was first voted for on December 18th 2018, and it required a 70% majority vote from the ten clubs for a motion to be accepted.

Given the metropolitan nature of the competition and its clubs, there was understandably initial difficulty in gaining acceptance, however entry was eventually granted under a one-year licence.

The Pioneers were required to cover the cost of travel for all clubs to Mount Gambier, in which Basketball Australia contributed to in 2019.

Like the women, the men have also secured a home final, having steamrolled the competition in the back half of the season to finish in first place. Home finals are rewards for strong play, but even then, the Pioneers are required to fund their opponent’s trip.

There were also other conditions to their Premier League entry, including restrictions on not being able to recruit any existing Premier League players to their expansion women’s team or their depleted men’s roster.

“Unfortunately, due to these conditions, looking into the future we have questions to the sustainability of Premier League,” said Kosch.

“Our experience throughout the 2019 season within Premier League has been great, and I hope that it has been an experience for opposition teams who have travelled and competed against our basketball program.

“We respect all Adelaide clubs, but the truth is that if we stayed in Adelaide, then in three years we wouldn’t be good enough for Adelaide.

“Our location and demographic means that we are designed for high-level competition.”

FUTURE PLANS

With the end of both the Premier League and NBL1 seasons now approaching, the focus is shifting towards 2020, with some difficult choices needing to be considered.

“We have been clear from the start that the club’s ambition is to be in NBL1, and we will do whatever it takes. That’s our future,” said Kosch.

“When meeting with Basketball Victoria in May, we could not be provided comfort that an opportunity to join NBL1 in 2020 would exist for the Pioneers. This forced the club, with no other option, to consider all options, which led to the formal bid process with the NZ NBL.”

The Pioneers’ desire to find a place in NBL1 confirms their commitment to continue with both a women’s and men’s program, therefore providing a high-level opportunity for all South Australians during winter.

“We think it would be a great challenge to play at that level. We would look forward to putting the work in to be a successful team at NBL1 level,” added Sutton.

Despite the Pioneers proving that they could satisfy the requirement of establishing a competitive women’s team, the future of the club’s NBL1 ambitions are still unknown.

“There wasn’t anything more than the feeling that we will get an opportunity to apply,” said Hill.

“We believe that we can be an enormous asset to NBL1 because we bring a point of difference to the competition.

“We won’t be recruiting players from Melbourne. We would be Mount Gambier and hopefully Adelaide-based.”

What also adds to the Pioneers’ desire to re-establish their future, is the development of a new $39 million facility in Mount Gambier.

This will have a basketball focus and include a significant show court, as well as an indoor swimming pool, and other sport and recreation facilities for the community.

The team has played its part in being a factor for this development to happen and it would be a welcome replacement to the city’s current basketball venue.

“[The Ice House] is a tremendous place to play. It has a great atmosphere, but the general facilities are not up to speed,” said Hill.

“Our crowds are tremendous for the size of the town. It’s almost 4% of the population, which is pretty good. I would expect with a nicer facility, and it being in town, that we’d get even bigger crowds. I think we could attract 1,500 people on a regular basis.

“We have a much closer link to the community than people imagine. We do clinics, we are in schools a couple of times a week, we provide entertainment, our guys are out in the community.

“We contribute an awful lot and we are more than just a basketball team.”

CHAMPIONSHIPS AND SUCCESS

Hill has been one of the main driving forces behind the Pioneers’ success, with his passion for both the community, the club, and the development of its players blatantly obvious.

He and the club have found a recipe for success. Due to circumstances outside of their control, all that is under serious threat of being taken away.

“I’m unbelievably passionate about what we’ve been able to do here. It’s just unique,” said Hill.

“Winning my first championship with the club, seeing the hundreds of people driving all the way to Melbourne, to see what that meant to the town, to fly back and the airport is full of kids, I was like, wow, this is so special for so many people.”

Part of that recipe for success that has helped drive a Pioneers SEABL championship run is attributed to the club’s belief in Richard and giving him the best chance to succeed.

“The club invests in me which is an advantage. It means I’ve got more time,” explains Hill.

“Tom Daly comes into town and he knows that he’s going to get individual workouts at any time. He might not get them if he was somewhere else because the coach is off doing his day job.

“That’s been a significant competitive advantage for our team. It doesn’t mean that I’m better than other coaches, but it does mean that I have more time to make us a better team.”

The Pioneers’ final regular season home game this year was Hill’s 200th as coach. The success that he and the club have had in that period is simply incredible.

“Honestly, when you go to five straight SEABL national finals, you don’t do that without luck. We had little bits and pieces here and there, but we didn’t have anything go wrong,” said Hill.

The core of Tom Daly, Erik Burdon, Matt Sutton and Brad Hill proved to be special and, along with the other personnel put around them each year, that gave the Pioneers a group that consistently had a championship-level mix on both ends of the floor.

“That team with DJ [Damian Johnson], Tyrone Lee, Brad, Ezy [Erik] and Tom – we had a pretty good basketball team. Athleticism, defence, shooting – a really good team,” recalled Hill.

“Last year [missing the playoffs], it was the year from hell. We’ve been that lucky. You need luck. We’d won two conference finals in a row on the last shot. We actually played good basketball last year, but it just wasn’t to be.”

LIMITED HIGH-LEVEL OPPORTUNITIES

This year the men’s roster has a different look, with Brad Hill retiring to the coaching ranks up in Cairns and the team playing slightly smaller when compared to previous years.

Brad Rathjen, a standout local (and state junior representative), has taken control of the team at point-guard and pushed others into different roles off the ball.

One of those players moving to the wing is Sam Daly, who has willingly accepted a role coming off the bench behind brother Tom and sharp-shooter Erik Burdon.

“A lot of people forget that, with only eight or nine NBL teams, there needs to be opportunities for these men. There’s less and less opportunity at NBL level,” said Hill.

Sam has found opportunity in Mount Gambier and his improvement, even compared to last year in Kilsyth, was noticeable when in attendance for a game in early July, with an improved ability to create separation and make plays off the bounce.

“He’s not really a point guard, but he’s played point most of his life. He’s really better in the off-guard spot where he can create,” explained Hill.

“He’s a pretty talented player, we’ve been working with him pretty hard, he’s trying to add some things to his game, and he’s getting there.

“Sam could be a high-level player, but he’s pretty much got to make a decision of whether he is prepared to go and be a training player [for an NBL team], or be one of the so many guys in Australia that are really good basketball players but just do a day job and play at the next level down.”

DECISION TIME

The Pioneers are hopeful for a successful resolution and, in their eyes, that would include an invitation and acceptance into NBL1 for 2020 and beyond.

Should it not be good news for the club though, the timing of such an announcement or decision is still incredibly important.

“We can’t get to where we were last year. We’ve got sponsors, ticketholders, people that are totally committed, and then you’re waiting until the end of the year? People will drop off,” said Hill.

Perhaps rather than turning Mount Gambier away again, the Melbourne-based NBL1 clubs can learn something from how the Pioneers have found a way to make their unique dynamic work for them.

It’s possible that the challenges that come with having Mount Gambier in the competition can in fact be embraced again and used to make the league even stronger.

The slick promotion and presentation of the league, as well as ease of access to anything NBL1 related, has been phenomenal this season and a significant step above anything else that has been offered before for a league outside of the NBL in Australia.

Elevating the playing standard by getting more of the best players outside of the NBL onto an NBL1 court could be the next move with Mount Gambier certainly able to play a key part in that.