Vanuatu is a beautiful, idyllic archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean. Its capital, Port Vila, is less than a three hour plane flight away from Brisbane and well-worn port of call for cruise ships. The Island nation has and continues to be a much-loved holiday destination for Australian and New Zealander's seeking sun, beach and island adventures.
With a population fast approaching 290,000, soccer is the nation's most popular sport, yet basketball is not far behind. In fact the country's longest international sports federation membership is for basketball, joining FIBA all the way back 1966.
In 2017, the Vanuatu women's team broke through to win the country's first ever medal in international competition, coming away with 3x3 bronze at the 2017 Pacific Mini Games to set the country on love-affair with the shorter form of the game, culminating in the men and women both taking part in the 2019 FIBA 3x3 Asian Cup. Despite a small population and lack of basketball infrastructure, Vanuatu's ability to rise above in the sport over recent years is remarkable given the challenges they have faced since 2015 when disaster struck.
Worst natural disaster in history
In 2015 things took a turn for the worse, with the entire country suffering one of the worst natural disasters in their history.
In March, a category 5 rated cyclone ripped through the South Pacific and did not spare Vanuatu which was in its immediate path. 'Cyclone Pam' devastated Vanuatu, killing 11 people and injuring many others. It crippled Vanuatu's infrastructure, with most buildings damaged, homes destroyed and more than 3,000 left homeless. Telecommunications were down, water and food in short supply, with the small Island nation in a state of emergency.
The total damage and loss from Cyclone Pam was estimated to be around $600 million, or 64 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) according to the World Bank. The recovery costs were valued at $426 millon. Needless to say the damage was extensive, and with the travel and tourism industry also severely impacted - something that accounts for 46 per cent of the nation's GDP - the recovery would be slow and even moreso without help. Thanks to aid valued at up to $50 million provided by the Australian Government in addition to that provided by others, the recovery has been progressing well, but far from complete, especially when it comes to basketball.
A first hand experience
A holiday to the South Pacific was just what my young family needed back in 2017. We wanted a break from our busy lives in Melbourne, a chance to relax, escape the cold, and experience some Island culture. We had been to Fiji previously, but we wanted a change. As luck would have it, we settled on Vanuatu.
While we enjoyed the break we wanted and loved Vanuatu as a holiday destination, we came to realise just how much damage Cyclone Pam had caused, judging by the basketball infrastructure alone. As a basketball addict, I sought out a place to shoot some hoops, and hopefully play a pick up game with the locals. A short taxi ride from my resort in Port Vila, soon had us arrive at the location referred to as 'Stade Basketball'. This was the home of Vanuatu basketball.
The two outdoor basketball courts were in horrendous condition. The concrete courts featured gaping pot holes and large cracks throughout, with only one of the two courts having backboards and rings repaired so they could be used. The spectators stand was in a state of disrepair, with am official's building just a shell of its former self. If these courts were located in a high school or council municipality in Australia, they would have been deemed a risk to public safety and be totally refurbished or more likely demolished.
Here we were, playing pickup basketball on a dilipadated court. And what a place it was to do it!
Pick up hoops at Stade Basketball in Port Vila | Credit: Damian Arsenis / The Pick and Roll
The rise of 3x3 in Vanuatu
Despite the challenges faced since Cyclone Pam and the lack of basketball infrastructure, Vanuatu has embraced 3x3 basketball, making a positive impression at the FIBA 3x3 Asia Cup in China last month despite finishing last.
Vanuatu's National Basketball Development Officer Sacha Duthu was buoyed by the growth of the sport and in making their debut on the world stage.
"I’m very positive after that competition, explained Duthu.
"We improved in our game and how to prepare an international competition. The players were more confident on the court. It was not easy for some of them, as it was their first time with the national team, but they did great both on and off the court.
"You just need to watch the most spectacular action of the action made by Jared Ova and his nutmeg against team India. You don’t try that kind of move if you are not confident and don’t trust yourself in being capable of doing it."
In the qualifying draw, Vanuatu's men were humbled 21-3 against South Korea in their opening game before delivering admirable performances against India (21-10) and Malaysia (21-12) to close out their Asian Cup campaign. The women went down to Chinese Taipei 5-21 in the first game, before going agonisingly close to dispatching Pacific rivals Samoa in an 11-12 loss. They closed out their tournament by falling short to the Philippines 22-5.
Adjusting to the shorter form of the game was something Vanuatu was still coming to grips with.
"We already knew that 3x3 is a physical and fast game, but we do have to emphasise on those two particular points in our country and in our preparation," added Duthu.
"You can’t play like in 5x5 and hold the ball, you are like in a situation of emergency with only 12 seconds to attempt a shot. Every single second counts, and the ball must keep moving by either being aggressive with it, or passing it to someone that gonna create his shot.
"We played against professional players, whilst we are a team made of non-professional players that do not win any money by playing basketball, and that train in very challenging conditions. Every day is a challenge [for this group], but this is what makes those teams special and stronger.
"We are used to making the best out of what we have, and we never complain about it. I admire my players for their resilience towards all the challenges that are coming across their way in that journey.
"They sacrifice their time with their families, their children, their friends, like any other young adults in this country. They are different, and they make the difference in their country and in their sport because of that priceless commitment. It’s an honour for me to be their coach."
Vanuatu has soared up the world 3x3 rankings over the last few years and is currently ranked 54 in the world as a federation, behind only Australia (24) and New Zealand (32) in the Oceania region. Their position is due reward for the investment and dedication of those involved in the program.
"Being able to play in this competition reveals just how hard we have been working," further added Duthu.
"I mean, since back in 2017 when we started to train for 3x3 international competitions, with the Van 2017 Pacific Games at that time, less than 2 years later we have played Chinese Taipei and the Philippines for the women’s team, and we were leading the score during 5 minutes at least. Our efforts and investment are now paying back! We have been patient, and now basketball is back on the top of the Vanuatu’s sport stage."
While a team from Vanuatu playing basketball on the world stage was sure to make headlines back home, it was the highlight play of the tournament that took the exposure to another level in China.
"More than 30,000 people all around the world have watched Jared’s spectacular actions on our social media accounts, and even more on the FIBA 3x3 ones," explained Duthu in referring to the now infamous nutmeg play of Ova.
"Some people might not have known that Vanuatu is actually a country, now they know that we are also bouncing the ball on the 3x3 international stage! We are now in a position to approach more businesses and propose them to have their brand displayed on a YouTube live stream when the 3x3 national team is taking part in international competition. We are more legitimate than ever to claim a seat among the Vanuatu’s top team sport, next to soccer, cricket and beach volleyball."
Duthu believes that Vanuatu's appearance at the 3x3 Asian Cup is just the start, with a host of youth activities and senior competitions being planned.
"Obviously we need to have more people bouncing the ball, but not just throughout temporary programs, but with youth activities and senior competitions organised all year long. Our challenge is to get people used to doing sport every week, once or several times a week, almost all year long. We are progressively getting there. Our 3x3 tour is growing, we have more participants in our youth programs so we are headed in the right direction.
"The Federation itself has to grow, by solidifying its foundation, its budget and become a strong sport institution that people trust and rely on when they talk about basketball here in Vanuatu. We have made the right choice to choose 3x3 basketball to revive the Federation and people’s interest toward basketball.
"It’s funnier and easier to play for grassroots level players. We proved that on the international stage, with our 2019 performance at the 3x3 Asia Cup, and our bronze medal at the last Mini Pacific Games, we can compete against some basketball powerhouse nations and we want that to continue."
Australia is helping support the growth
Australia plays a pivotal role in the development of basketball in Vanuatu, with changes to the program in place set to provide a further boost.
"The Australian Government is already supporting some sports through the Pacific Sport Partnership Program," Duthu explained. "The system is changing for the next term, and it will actually evolve into two different program, with one that is dedicated to the development of elite programs partnerships.
"We will have the opportunity to face a different opposition more often, and this could be a great opportunity for us. Australia but also New Zealand have very competitive 3x3 circuits and tours, and who knows, maybe one day Vanuatu will be organising a regional event where the best teams from the Pacific will attend to get a ticket for 3x3 World Tour Masters!"
The return to Vanuatu
Two years after our last visit, my family is making a long-anticipated return to Vanuatu. We fell in love with the country and the people on our last visit, and are looking forward to seeing how the country has grown and continued to recover from the cyclone devastation. Duthu explained that the National Stade will be almost exactly the same when I visit for the national 3x3 series finale at the end of June.
"It has not really changed, your photos from 2017 will probably still look the same. The 3x3 final caps a fantastic series, and there will be much interest in the competition, especially given the recent Asian Cup."
Basketball infrastructure in Vanuatu remains limited and continues to be an obstacle to further growth. Korman Stadium, a new multipurpose indoor venue was opened in 2017 as a result of Port Vila hosting the 2017 Pacific Mini Games. While this was a weclome addition, the basketball infrastructure across the nation more accurately reflects that of the derelict courts which still remain at Stade Basketball. A refurbishment of Stade Basketball would be a good start, with Duthu welcoming any donations or support offered by those in Australia and New Zealand.
"Redevelopment of the National Stade would be amazing. We have done best with what we have, however if we can improve what we have, I am confidence that more children would take up the game, and that would be a great outcome for everyone.
"Right now we are 100% focused on the upcoming Samoa 2019 Pacific Games."
We are looking forward to seeing the standard of play from the top 6 teams of the Elite and Social mixed 3x3 categories of the BRED Bank 2019 3x3 Tour grand finals is happening on Sunday 30th (from 2:30pm) at Korman Stadium as guests of Duthu and the Vanuatu Basketball Federation. The winner of the Elite grand final wins a 30,000vt cash prize which converts to approximately AUD$370 to share among the team of four.
A tropical haven is a wonderful destination to play 3x3 basketball in the great outdoors as it was meant to be played. One thing is for sure, it is underpinning the revival of basketball in Vanuatu.
Should you be interested in supporting the development of basketball in Vanuatu, please send us a message and The Pick and Roll would be happy to pass on your offer of support. Alternatively, you can make a donation towards the refurbishment of National Stade using the details below.