Five New Zealanders from across cultural spaces explain what it is they love about basketball.
Historically, basketball has always held a relatively small but special in Aotearoa’s sporting landscape. The NBL was established in 1981, giving provinces the chance to duke it out for national supremacy. In 2002 the Tall Blacks shocked the basketball world in finishing fourth at the World Championships ahead of favourites the USA. Then in 2003 the NZ Breakers were formed, becoming New Zealand’s first ever fully professional basketball team. Sean Marks spent nearly a decade warming various NBA benches, without ever threatening a major on-court role.
Then in 2013, a plucky young kiwi named Steven Adams burst onto the scene. He was drafted 12th by the Oklahoma City Thunder and basketball’s popularity in Aotearoa exploded. The region’s main broadcaster of the NBA, ESPN, has doubled the number of games it broadcasts to meet demand for Adams and a number of prominent Australian players. This, coupled with NBA League Pass and fibre broadband, has made the sport far more accessible than it has ever been before, and for those who can’t or won’t pay, the rise of illegal streaming has filled the gap.
Not only are far more watching basketball, but they’re playing it too. It’s become the second-most played sport amongst young New Zealanders, with participation increasing by 45% over the past decade. In the wake of a historic WNBA finals series, and as the NBA season begins to swing into full force, I asked some of Aotearoa’s cultural players and fans about why they love the game.
Marlon Williams – Singer / songwriter / A Star is Born scene-stealer
How did you get into basketball?
In primary school I’d shoot hoops with dad and some pals after class. Dad was locally renowned for a pretty crisp skyhook, during which he’d shout “Kareem!” We had no idea what that meant – but it sure looked awesome when it dropped. I started spending my weekends devouring Slam magazine. When I got to high school, I signed up to play. I had an okay-looking shot but my slight frame and allergy to the weights room meant I got punished in the post. I had all the efficacy of a plastic bag in the wind. That being said, I still wake up sad every day knowing I’m one step further away from being offered a max contract.
Why do you think it’s taking off in Aotearoa when the popularity of sports is declining?
Basketball sits along the ‘what’s happening in America?’ continuum that has held sway globally for the last 100 years. In this day and age, the NBA’s visibility is massive: you can stream all the games live in New Zealand, since the Iverson era it has openly synergised with hip hop culture (no-one escaped Drake’s ambassadorship for the champion Raptors last season); and, of course, Steven Adams!
Why are people who may feel excluded from certain sports or sporting fan bases drawn to basketball?
Basketball cuts through class divisions. You don’t need to own skis and a mountain pass or be a yacht club member to get involved. There is currently a massive disconnect between basketball’s increasing popularity and the allotment of funding. 2019 has seen High Performance Sport NZ boost funding to snow-based sports and canoeing; clearly the type of sports we’re proven champions in. Basketball funding, however, remained unchanged. If we don’t see substantial changes in coming years, cries of ‘elitism’ will be prevalent and not unfounded.
Mel Bracewell – Award-Winning Comedian / Combo-Guard
Why do you love the NBA/WNBA/basketball?
I’m a massive fan of basketball mainly because I’ve played it most of my life. I’ve been a giant woman pretty much from birth. Well, compared to other girls my age – I wasn’t born full-sized or anything.
I remember getting the permission slips for ‘miniball’ handed around when I was eight years old, my friend Jodi and I decided to join a team. I think because it was the first team sport I played competitively, it’s always had a strong place in my heart.
The WNBA is definitely something I’d like to see more people talking about. The finals this year were amazing. Elena Delle Donne is world class. Jonquel Jones is amazing. I so desperately want to get an Emma Meesseman jersey – but you can’t even buy a lot of the players’ jerseys. I hope people realise that women’s basketball is a different game, but it’s still phenomenal to watch.
What are you looking forward to the most this NBA season?
My beautiful Nets. Like I said earlier, I struggled to get right into the NBA at the beginning because I didn’t have a team. I went to Brooklyn, loved it. Sean Marks is a Kiwi, I just made a call. I used to make fun of KD (Kevin Durant) and now I love him and wish him a speedy recovery. I also just love the vibe, I’ll be in Melbourne for the comedy fest during the playoffs and that’s always a bit of fun. There are so many comedian basketball fans.
Why should more New Zealanders follow the NBA and WNBA?
It’s so fun! Even the outfits of the players as they walk in. Basketball is a game but it’s also fashion and culture. I’d love to see more funding for basketball in New Zealand and the only way we can do that is by proving we care about it. That means supporting local basketball when you can as well. The NBA is amazing, but a lot of people already know that. The WNBA is amazing, and is growing every single year. Get into it before you have to be that latecomer jumping on the bandwagon of brilliant women’s basketball.
Ken Arkind – Poet / Youth Development worker / Stretch 4
Why do you love the NBA/WNBA/basketball?
It’s just fun, honestly. I love the skill and the drama. When I first moved to Auckland I was at my friend’s house watching highlights on my computer. He looked over my shoulder and said something like ‘we watch Rugby here. Basketball looks like a bunch of ballerinas’. I responded ‘Not really, see how big those guys are, the way they move? They’re not ballerinas, they’re Ninjas.’ He didn’t like that too much. But it’s true! Lebron is 6’8” and 260lbs of pure muscle. When those guys get moving it’s like missiles that can think and strategise.
How’d you get into basketball? As a Denver native I imagine it came naturally?
My mum worked at a hotel where a lot of teams would stay whenever they came to Denver. She used to get really good tickets to the Nuggets games for free. We’d be courtside and I remember just living the energy.
As I got older I grew to hate team sports. The culture behind it just turned me away. It was homophobic and patriarchal and dumb. Football and the Broncos were godlike and if you didn’t play along you got fucked with. Then, when I started touring full-time across the US and found myself watching basic cable in tiny hotel rooms, I had a guy I toured with who was really into basketball. I started to get into it again. Denver meant a lot to me and the Nuggets, really were a metaphor for Denver. This little city that could never win no matter how hard it tried, an eternal boom or bust town that no one took seriously. Years later their marketing team approached my friends and I to make a short poetry film about the Nuggets, they were in a bad season and wanted something to inspire the season ticket holders. As much as I wrote about the Nuggets, I really was just writing about Denver.
What have you seen through your work in terms of NBA fandom in youth?
I run a lot of poetry and spoken word workshops in High Schools and there is always a kid with a basketball. It’s a language, a way to talk to a stranger and connect. They always see my Nuggets cap and that opens a conversation. Usually ‘why do you like the Nuggets?’ It’s also a way to talk about how poems can be about whatever you want. I’ve seen some incredible spoken word pieces about Basketball through-out the years. Men aren’t usually aloud to talk about things they care about with that kind of depth. We can say we love it, but expressing why, saying how it makes us feel goes against bro-code. It shouldn’t. We should be allowed to express it.
Madeleine Chapman – The Spinoff Writer / Steven Adams biographer
Why do you love basketball?
Basketball is the best sport. It’s fast-paced, always unpredictable, and not too long. There’s a safety when watching the NBA and WNBA that no matter which two teams are playing, the result is never a forgone conclusion. Other sports offer moments of brilliance or inspiration a few times over the course of an 80 or 90 minute match. Basketball offers something brilliant every second play.
How did you get into it?
Growing up, we had a hoop (like an actual, proper hoop with a regulation-size backboard) nailed above our garage. Of all the sports I played as a kid, basketball was always the easiest to slip into on a daily basis. When you play a sport every day, it’s pretty easy to watch a lot of it, though I definitely spent more time playing than I did watching.
Why should more Kiwis follow the NBA/WNBA?
It’s a real time investment following the NBA and WNBA. I’d say at the very least just be open to watching a few games. They’re always good. If you find yourself watching the WNBA, understand that it’s a different style of play. Don’t yell at the TV because there aren’t earth-shattering dunks, just appreciate it for what it is: beautiful basketball.
Erin Broughton – Designer / baby basketball fan
How did you get into basketball?
My workmate Tom banged on about it every day for two years and after a while, osmosis got the better of me. Now I have some stupidly expensive sitcom-themed shoes designed by a flat-earther. I decided I needed to play a sport to stop my brain from exploding, so Tom and I would go to UniPol gym late at night when there were no scary boys there and bounce a ball around and talk about memes.
Why do you think it’s taking off in Aotearoa when the popularity of other sports is declining?
Basketball is ruthlessly entertaining, Americans must have shoddy attention spans because every five minutes they’re bringing dogs or plate spinners onto the court, as a newbie that kind of blew my mind. Apart from that, I think we’re also seeing the culture around sport change, basketball feels a little more accessible to a wider range of people. It helps if you are over six foot but I’m a short lady and can still play.
Why should more Kiwis follow basketball?
Because basketball is the absolute GOAT and I will one on one anyone who says otherwise.
Join The Spinoff Members for as little as $1 to help us continue our work and cover the stories that matter. Get a free Toby Morris-designed tea towel when you contribute $80 or more over a year.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.