Basketball is growing massively in popularity around the country, led by thousands of youngsters picking up the game every day. To the Line looks at what it’s like for New Zealand high school kids with hoop dreams.
If there’s been a narrative rumbling away in the sports pages, it’s that of basketball’s seemingly unstoppable momentum as the chosen physical pursuit of young people in Aotearoa. It’s easy to understand, requires only a hoop and some concrete, and doesn’t come with the expectation of serious injuries that rugby does. Oh, and it has the benefit of an awful lot of parents in their late 30s-early 40s right now swooning over the 1990s Michael Jordan zeitgeist, thanks to phenomenally popular documentary The Last Dance that swept the world during lockdown.
Basketball now officially has more secondary school students playing than rugby and is one of the few sports to be actually increasing numbers year after year. However, while Jordan’s documentary and Steven Adams’ NBA career are always big news, the game doesn’t often get the coverage it deserves locally (never mind the funding), thanks to the media’s preoccupation with rugby first and foremost.
To the Line, an independent documentary about youth basketball, represents one of the crucial steps in changing that. It follows the Rongotai College Senior A side as it first attempts to win the Wellington regional championship and then progress on to the national tournament, as well as focusing on year 13 student Finn McClure as he tries to secure an American college scholarship.
So far, so good – the formula’s nothing new, but it’s exactly what sports fans eat up time and time again. Basketball is a beautiful sport for anyone to watch when distilled down to slow-motion highlights, plus its American heritage lends itself to producing confident and interesting characters. The storyline is all there: Rongotai is chasing its first regional title in 20 years, McClure is talented and going places, and the whole package is reinforced by plenty of interviews with New Zealand basketball personalities.
It’s nicely shot and anyone familiar with the Wellington high school landscape will know that Rongotai is generally the scrappy underdog in any competition.
However, much like Three’s other new sports show Second Chance Charlie, To the Line’s run time is just too damn short to fit in everything it sets out to. While it purports to follow Rongotai for the season, which would have been an engrossing journey, it only picks up the action in the team’s final game against local rivals St Pats. It then switches abruptly to a very flat national tournament performance that adds little, before bookending with McClure’s post-high-school fortunes.
At only half an hour, To the Line should’ve focused on just one of these aspects to make more of an impact. Given that it doesn’t shy away from being a thinly veiled advertisement for the game at youth level (it’s also supported by Basketball NZ), a ride along with Rongotai for the season that shows the camaraderie and personal development of a team of guys at that age would have been more fun. It doesn’t really need the validation of old Tall Blacks either – basketball’s key selling point is that it is young and fresh, led by teenagers and not bogged down in the conservative attitudes that NZ Rugby is so often hamstrung by.
I have absolutely no doubt that the film-makers behind To the Line would have preferred to have made a much longer cut of their documentary, and have probably been held to a time restriction by the network. That’s a real shame, as the stories deserve to be fleshed out far more. It’s drawing a long bow to compare it with The Last Dance, but nonetheless, that hooked in viewers for 10 hours on a basketball story that everyone already knew the ending of. Sports has the ability to do that, to immediately make emotional connections to guys like Finn and his teammates.
There is one telling quip by Finn’s mother, though, when she is presumably once again driving him to training early in the morning. When discussing the possibility of a scholarship to an American university, she says “an offer would be nice, and not one that I have to pay lots of money for”. While basketball is rapidly growing in this country, the ability to even come within the outer orbit of NBA-level fortune and fame still requires a serious amount of investment by parents and supporters. The reality is that the pathway is half a world away and even just getting to the start line means a shift to a foreign culture full of prospects who have grown up in a far more competitive environment (given that the doco was produced pre-Covid, the chances of getting there are probably even less now). Even then, that start line can more often than not be an entrance-fee-dependent workout camp for the benefit of scouts or prep school, rather than the full-ride scholarship that Mrs McClure is after.
Our greatest basketball export Adams wasn’t exactly enamoured with his time at Pitt University anyway, seeing it as very much a means to an end on his way to the NBA. In his biography, he shone a bit of light on the dodgy nature of student athletics in the US, saying, “It’s a weird situation because I think the athletic department assumed that all the basketball players wanted to do the least schoolwork possible and worked out their timetables for them.
“I’d just go to the exam, write an essay on what I thought about a topic, and get really good grades.”
There’s a whole other story to be told there, and it’s probably one that doesn’t fit into the celebratory tone of To the Line. That’s fine, given that the doco is showcasing the tremendously positive strides the game of basketball is taking here. However, those strides are getting so long that stories about basketball in New Zealand definitely deserve more screen time to show them.
You can watch To the Line on Three tonight at 10.40pm and it’s also available on ThreeNow.
Subscribe to The Bulletin to get all the day’s key news stories in five minutes – delivered every weekday at 7.30am.