The Canterbury Rams on the charge (Photo: Richard Connelly/Supplied)
The Canterbury Rams on the charge (Photo: Richard Connelly/Supplied)

SportsJune 21, 2024

How the Canterbury Rams became the hottest – and loudest – ticket in town

The Canterbury Rams on the charge (Photo: Richard Connelly/Supplied)
The Canterbury Rams on the charge (Photo: Richard Connelly/Supplied)

Last year they won their first NZNBL title since 1992. This season they’re on the road to make it back-to-back. As Joseph Harper finds, the electric atmosphere inside Cowles Stadium is both the product of and secret to the Rams’ success.

Aranui has a bad reputation in Ōtautahi. It rears up whenever someone is thinking of moving to the Garden City and asks r/chch which suburbs to avoid. Inevitably someone makes vague references to particularly dodgy streets, anecdotal evidence of stolen Toyota Aquas, and then someone else brings up the House of Horror. Nobody ever mentions that the eastern suburb, just up the road from the Edmonds Factory Gardens, is also home to the most dynamic and vibrant sporting experience currently on offer in Canterbury.

Cowles Stadium is home to the Canterbury Rams men’s professional basketball team. It’s like a hangar. The building has a high arcing roof that heaves like a lung whenever a Rams player shows a bit of flash. With a capacity of around 1,500 – modest even by domestic basketball standards – the stadium is intimate and it’s very, very loud. “It’s right on top of you,” says Rams head coach Judd Flavell. “Most teams have, y’know, at least two or three thousand seat arenas, but they don’t necessarily fill them out. They’re also often separated from the court, whereas Cowles is right there. That experience is quite unique.”

Flavell cuts a charismatic figure in front of the Rams’ bench. The former Tall Black and long time Breakers assistant-coach is usually dressed in beige chinos and a tight V-neck merino. He looks to be in better shape than many of the players on the court. Last season, Flavell led the Rams to their first national championship in over 30 years. The NZNBL trophy actually sits unassumingly beside one of the stands. No security, no case or pageantry, it’s just there on a wooden table under a big banner that reads “THIS IS OUR HOUSE!” Sometimes kids take pictures pretending to hold it.

Right now, the team is rolling. Last weekend, the Rams emerged victorious in a tense battle against the Auckland Tuatara – the team they beat in last season’s final, and the other big gun in the NZNBL this season. That win cemented the Rams at the top of the table. On Saturday, the home team demolished the visiting Manawatu Jets by over 40 points. That performance was the jewel in the crown of a phenomenal 12-game winning streak. While their cross-town comrades the Crusaders put together their worst season in recent memory, the Canterbury Rams are looking to hang another banner in the rafters.

Cowles Stadium: Intimate and very, very loud (Photo: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

Tony Whinwray has been volunteering at Rams games for almost a decade. Anyone who has been to a game will recognise his distinctive figure on the door – dreadlocks cascading down his back and a welcoming smile emerging from his long beard as he scans the QR code on your ticket. “We’re a pretty hardcore crew here”, he says.

For Whinray, the “pretty hardcore crew” of Rams fans represents something special. “I started helping out because I’d bring my kid here. I figure if you’re here, you might as well help,” he says. In his time following the team, he’s seen kids go from begging for signatures after the game to bringing their own children along. “They’ll make time for the kids and that,” he says. “That’s why the fans are loyal.”

After home games the Rams always form a line and diligently make their way around the perimeter of the court, thanking supporters, signing singlets and doling out high-fives. But that sense of support and loyalty is on show long before the game even begins. Most of the Rams starters sit courtside and vocally support their teammates who play valuable minutes for the Rams Rapid League team – a new development league that plays before NZNBL games.

Last weekend Rams forward Taki Farhensohn secured their victory with some clutch free throws. There was a palpable sense of whanaungatanga as he coyly made his way back to the bench where he was swallowed up in enthusiastic hugs from his teammates. American import KJ Buffen performatively slapped his forearm to signify the ice in Farhensohn’s veins. Taki was all smiles. 

Some of the Cowles Stadium faithful (Photo: Richard Connelly/Supplied)

Most of all, Rams games are fun. The crowd is mostly made up of families, very vocal and very engaged. During timeouts and breaks, the Rams’ small but enthusiastic entertainment team don’t let up for a second. The University of Canterbury cheer squad sheepishly perform aerial stunts and hand-stands. At a recent game, a small team of teenage hip-hop dancers refused to yield the floor before finishing their routine – in spite of the players and referees who patiently waited on court while the squad got their bows in. They even have celebrity fans – local crooner Marlon Williams can occasionally be spotted among the Rams faithful in red and black.

Apart from when the crowd is celebrating a bit of on-court razzle dazzle, Cowles is at its loudest and most desperate when young fans bay for basketballs and Sal’s Pizza promotional T-shirts, which are hurled out to the masses two or three times a game. “He’s got balls! He’s got balls!” screamed a young fan who spotted Rambo, the team’s mascot waiting for break in play to chuck out some tat. The crowd also fires up when the opposition is at the free-throw line. Putting off the visiting players is paramount – yes it helps but Rams’ scoreline, but if a player misses two consecutive free-throws, the entire crowd earns themselves a free slice of pizza.

Local intermediate student Ryder Walsh estimates he’s been to “quite a few” Rams games. “The music is so loud and you can get good seats real easy.” To Ryder and his mates Manu and Shae, the Rams are cool and “the vibe is good”. For a city whose sporting fandom is most famous for the “CAAAA-NA-BREEEEE” dirge, it must feel refreshing to be in a sporting crowd that is genuinely losing their shit.

It also helps that the on-court product is electrifying. Captain Taylor Britt, a Tall Black and a local boy who grew up watching Rams legends like Dave Langrell, leads from the front. Britt seems to play most games running downhill – cutting to the hoop at pace before switching hands to finish or dishing the ball out to a teammate for an open three. Some games, the diminutive guard in the hot pink sneakers feels unstoppable. Britt gives some credit for the team’s performance to the fans at Cowles. “You feel it while you’re out there,” he says. “You can hear everything.” He feels that the experience at a Rams home game is unique in the NZNBL. “It’s such a small, enclosed space and the noise just echoes around a lot. It definitely feels like the loudest place. The fans really get behind us when we’re rolling.”

Coach Flavell hopes that Aranui stays loud. “It’s a great place to call home. When we’re out there playing, we get up for the noise. Just knowing we have that support behind us and we’ve got a great community behind us.” Undoubtedly the Rams faithful at Cowles Stadium will continue to fill their house. They’ll be hoping the Rams can provide another championship win,  and perhaps a few more slices of complimentary pizza. 

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