Basketball was almost invisible in New Zealand during the 1960s. The strength of the game in Australia led the New Zealand Men’s Indoor Basketball Association (NZMIBA) to expose New Zealand sides to trans-Tasman competition. The New Zealand men’s team competed in the Australian Interstate Championship several times.
A major breakthrough came in 1968 with the creation of the Oceania qualification zone by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), basketball’s world governing body. This meant that Australia and New Zealand would compete every two years to decide which country would represent the zone at the Olympic Games and the world championships. In 1971 the NZMIBA and the NZWIBA amalgamated and became the New Zealand Basketball Federation (NZBF). Lance Cross was elected president of the new body, and Zena Gay became vice-president.
After a string of defeats in the 1970s, a Steve McKean-coached team led by John McDonald and Stan Hill, the dominant player of the era, defeated Australia 67–65 for the first time in 1978. In the same year the New Zealand team won the silver medal at the Commonwealth tournament championship in Britain.
The national league introduced new forms of entertainment to provide a better atmosphere and attract crowds. The Wellington-based Exchequer Saints led the way with a mascot (The Gorilla), cheerleaders, microphones on hoops to accentuate the sound of players getting baskets, introduction of players over the sound system, statistical information and commentaries, and pre-game music to stir up support.
The 1980s ushered in a period of exceptional growth and popularity for the sport. Late in 1981, six men’s teams – a mixture of club and provincial representative sides – went out alone and created an inaugural national league. It was enough of a success to come under the control of the NZBF the following year, when it grew in size and secured a naming sponsor. An allowance of two imported players (invariably Americans with college basketball experience) per team, and the fact that games were played in the evening indoors, helped turn the league into a new family entertainment option. Spectators filled gymnasiums and media coverage reached unprecedented levels.
Emblematic of these boom years was the league final played in Wellington in 1985 between local side Exchequer Saints and the Auckland Rebels. Won by Saints in the final second of overtime, from a shot fired behind the three-point line by American import Kenny McFadden, the game was broadcast live on television to 750,000 viewers. Soon after the league’s establishment, a men’s second division was created, followed in 1986 by a women’s national league. These new competitions superseded the old national tournament system at senior level.
Instituted in the 1960s, age-group championship tournaments and the secondary-school national championships have remained the cornerstone of junior development. For most players, high-school basketball was their introduction to the game at a serious level and they look back on their battles at ‘secondary school nationals’ with fondness.
The diplomatic ‘cold war’ that developed between the United States and New Zealand following the 1985 split over the ANZUS defence treaty extended to basketball. A proposed tour by the West Point Military Academy basketball team was cancelled two months before it was due to begin. The Americans informed the NZBF the decision had been made because of the ‘current situation’.1
The 1980s broadened horizons for the men’s and women’s national teams. Asian tournaments, in particular the R. William Jones Cup Tournament in Taipei, became regular fare – a key attraction being that costs were largely met by the hosts. In 1983 NZBF hosted the Commonwealth Basketball Championships (men’s and women’s). Both local teams disappointingly finished without medals, while the NZBF, hoping to make a handsome profit, suffered a $50,000 loss.
A coup was achieved when the national men’s team received a wild-card entry into the 1986 World Championships in Spain. The team managed one win against Malaysia to finish 21st in the 24-team tournament. The New Zealand men’s team gained further international exposure when the Soviet Union team visited in 1987. New Zealand lost both games but narrowed the point difference in the second encounter.