National league declines
Competition from other indoor sports like cricket and netball, a lack of player development and poor management decisions were all factors in the decline of the national men’s league in the early 1990s. Television coverage dropped, sponsorship dried up and public support waned. The sport’s showpiece soon became a shadow of what it had been. The women’s national league also experienced a sponsorship drought and dwindling crowds. In 1995 it was split into three provincial competitions – two in the North Island and one in the South – with a week-long tournament final to find a national champion.
Tall Blacks and Tall Ferns
A lack of competition for the national men’s team in the late 1980s was reversed in the early 1990s, with ever more matches with United States college teams and international sides. A bright spot was the first-time attendance of the national women’s team at the World Championships in Australia in 1994. The team, by now officially dubbed the ‘Tall Ferns’ (at the same time the men became the ‘Tall Blacks’), won one game, defeating Kenya 93–76.
In 1998 the Keith Mair-coached Tall Blacks beat Canada 85–79, a win that one commentator said confirmed ‘the Tall Blacks coming of age as a legitimate international basketball force.’1 In the same year the New Zealand Basketball Federation changed its name to Basketball New Zealand (BBNZ). Both national sides made their Olympic debuts in 2000 at Sydney, where each claimed a single victory.
A New Zealand export
In 1998 Aucklander Sean Marks was picked by the New York Knicks in the (US) NBA Draft. Marks went on to fashion an 13-year NBA career, the first New Zealander to have earned a place in the world’s most prestigious basketball league.
In 2001 the Tall Blacks stunned the basketball world with a 2–1 home series victory over Australia in the world championship qualifying series. The best was yet to come. At the world tournament the following year in Indianapolis, the Tall Blacks set about toppling giant after giant: Russia and China both fell to the Kiwis. Puerto Rico was then defeated in the quarter-finals. The New Zealanders’ run only came to an end in the semi-finals against Yugoslavia, and the Tall Blacks eventually finished fourth in the world.
It was one of the great stories in world sport that year and certainly ranks as the greatest moment in New Zealand basketball. Coached by American-born Tab Baldwin, the stars of that team – the likes of Pero Cameron (captain), Phill Jones, Kirk Penney and Sean Marks – became better known to the public than any New Zealand basketball heroes before them. Cameron was named in the World All Star Five selected at the end of the tournament, the only non-NBA player to receive the honour. The Tall Blacks were unable to repeat this success in the 2006 and 2010 world championships.
Both the Tall Blacks and Tall Ferns competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The men upset then world champions Serbia and Montenegro in pool play, while the women overcame China and Korea, making it through to the top eight – the Tall Ferns’ best ever showing on the world stage.
These results led to increased government funding to the sport from SPARC, which in turn enhanced the top teams’ international programmes. The Tall Ferns qualified for their third successive Olympics in 2008 at Beijing, but their poor result saw them lose their SPARC funding. Both national teams received enhanced funding in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics, but neither qualified. Both the Tall Ferns and the Tall Blacks placed third at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
In 2012 one journalist gave five reasons why the Breakers were Auckland’s best team: they had a perfect mix between local and international talent; their training was highly competitive; their games attracted large crowds; they entertained spectators during time-outs and breaks; and their ‘no dickheads’ mantra ensured team-orientated players.2
New Zealand Breakers
In 2003 the New Zealand Breakers became the first professional New Zealand-based side to compete in the Australian National Basketball League. After some difficult seasons, the Breakers made the playoffs for the first time in 2008. The side won the league title in 2011, repeated the feat in 2012 and 2013, and won it again in 2015.