For as long as I can remember, basketball has been the rock that forms the foundation of my life. Some of my earliest memories involve watching or playing basketball, and I made my first friends in primary school on the basketball court. Of course as I got older, genetics told me to sit the fuck down as dudes with my physical attributes don’t tend to excel in sporting endeavours. And yet, basketball is still what consumes most of my day, as I watch games, read the analysis, and spend hours daydreaming about trades that will never happen or games that are yet to take place.
For years, this had made me somewhat of an oddity. I was the guy who obsessed over a sport played in a country thousands of kilometres away, while being unequivocally neutral towards the sport which is followed with a near religious fervour right in my backyard. Today though, basketball is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, and thanks to globalization and the connecting powers of internet, there is not much difference between following the NBA in Auckland or in New York City. This, and the ever increasing influence of hip hop culture (which basketball will forever be entwined with whether they like it or not), has helped bring the sport to the mainstream of New Zealand popular culture. Of course, it will still never touch rugby (just a few days ago, a bar refused to change the channel to Game 3 of the Breakers Semi-Final game, because they said it would start a riot if they switched over to basketball from rugby. The rugby game in question involved two random Australian teams who no one at the bar had any rooting interest in). But it is growing. This was on full display on Thursday night when the NZ Breakers hosted the Perth Wildcats in Game 1 of the NBL Grand Final, during which I kept somewhat of a running diary (SHOUTS OUT TO BILL SIMMONS). Here is what transpired, to the best of my memory.
Vector arena is a fairly generic and soulless looking structure. And yet as we got nearer, and the procession of people walking to the arena swelled, you could feel a palpable buzz in the air not unlike what you will experience at an All Blacks test match. True, I may have just perceived this to be so due to my own personal excitement for the game, but at the same time it is inarguable that there was more of a buzz at this game than any Warriors or Blues game I have attended, which includes Blues vs. Crusaders – supposedly the glamour fixture of NZ rugby. After having spent most of the afternoon getting “hydrated” for the game, my buddy Kane was in top form already, belligerently demanding to know how some parents had the audacity to bring their babies into the city. Or something. We’re still not quite sure what the problem was, but a drunk Kane is an amusing Kane, so we let him be.
We got to our seats easy enough, as despite the fact that it was a record crowd, 9000 people is still fuck all for a sporting event. I don’t doubt that the high school All American game probably draws more than this. But at the same time, the 9000 person attendance wasn’t for a lack of interest. Tickets sold out pretty quickly, and I’m sure there would’ve been more people keen to go if more tickets were available. As it was, the arena was set up rather awkwardly, which is to be expected as it was of course not built with basketball in mind. All the same, the sightlines were pretty great from our seats, which were on the upper bowl behind the basket. To be fair, I thought that if they set up the court a little closer to where we were sitting, there might have been room to fit some temporary seating closer to the court. But then the douchebag Ponsonby crowd (mainly All Blacks, and other assorted NZ B-Listers who were spotted courtside) would have to mingle with ordinary people when they got up during game play to get a $13 glass of wine, so that’s probably unrealistic.
The crowd was pretty into it during the player introductions, and made a respectable amount of noise throughout, but when the game actually tipped off it was it seemed as if no one realised that the game was underway. Unfortunately, neither did the Breakers, as they came out with zero energy or direction and spotted the Wildcats a sizable lead to start the game. At this point it looked like it was going to be a long night for the Breakers, and more importantly as far as we were concerned, that it was going to be a low scoring affair. You see, at many NBA arenas they run promotions where the fans get free food of some kind, usually tacos, pizza or burgers, if the team can score 100 points. This leads to some hilarious moments where a team losing 121-99 will have the crowd go nuts when some random white scrub hits a meaningless three pointer to put them over the barrier. The Breakers smartly incorporated this into their game presentation, by having their sponsor Burger King give out a free Whopper JR. if the Breakers can hit the century mark. Naturally, we went into the game with the full intention of getting a “WE WANT WHO-PPERS!” chant going in the fourth quarter.
Generally, the atmosphere was actually very good. The PA guy was surprisingly decent: he didn’t say anything too cheesy or stupid and got the crowd to make noise at all the right moments. Indeed, the crowd was chanting DE-FENSE on pretty much every defensive possession, which was pretty neat. They had a cool gimmick where the crowd sticks their arms up when a Breaker is on the free throw line (quite possibly in an attempt to shut up the fidgety fuckwits who made distracting noises during free throws), and got the crowd to wave their arms and generally be annoying and distracting when a Wildcat was on the line (unlike the uber-PC Blues PA announcer who always asks for quiet when opposing players are about to take a kick. Cry more you pansy). They also made sure everyone was on their feet for the last possession of regulation. The one inexplicable thing the PA guy kept doing though was inexplicably repeating “every play, Breakers… every play….” at random intervals. Huh?
Speaking of which, while the crowd was generally very supportive, they were obviously on the more docile side. Which is to be expected of course, but it has to be noted. And while big plays were met with enthusiastic cheers, the lads and I stood out like beneficiaries at a National Party conference with our rowdy behaviour. As I had alluded to earlier, by the time we had gotten to the game we were already sufficiently “hydrated”, which ultimately led to us becoming “those guys” – the obnoxious douchebags I usually curse under my breath when I’m sober. After every big basket we’d stand up and fist pump or put up 3 fingers, depending on the occasion. Whenever Dillon Boucher checked into the game we tried to get a “DILLONSANITYYYYY” chant going, which (predictably enough) never caught on. When Vukona started making some big plays in overtime we roared in delight “YOU CANNOT STOP VUKONY”. There was an awkward moment when I returned to my seat after going to the bathroom during halftime and I looked up and realised that our entire section was filled with little kids and families. The parents definitely looked less than impressed with our colourful utilization of the English language. Unfazed, we continued to be rowdy in the second half and yelled abuse at Wildcats on the FT line if there was a moment of silence. I thought some of my wittier material fell on deaf ears, but some of the more blunt abuse I threw out when I just couldn’t be arsed anymore (“HEY CUT YOUR HAIR #24”, and after a made FT: “YOU STILL SUCK”) got some laughs from our neighbours.
By this point the game was getting out of hand. Perth couldn’t get any good shots on offense and the Breakers capitalised and hit a couple 3’s to quickly close the gap. They would eventually take a commanding 15 point lead into halftime. More importantly, they put up a half century by halftime (50-35) so we were on pace for whoppers. After a bizarre halftime show which featured gymnasts climbing large pieces of fabric, followed by little kids engaging in a very Hobbesian exercise in which they had to extract milk from a fake cow, and were then encouraged to steal milk from the other kids, we were back underway for the second half. Once again though, the Breakers started the half with no sense of urgency, and paid for their complacency as the Wildcats got some easy buckets off sloppy play by the Breakers. Perth would start the quarter on a 17-2 run and the game was all knotted up in what seemed like the blink of an eye. By the time the Breakers decided to show up again (keyed by yet another energetic stint by DILLONSANITY Boucher off the bench, who played a crucial role providing energy and hustle on D and the offensive glass), the Perth offense was starting to click and the Breakers really had to dig deep to counter. Perth was getting some easy buckets by dumping it into reserve big man Matthew Knight with great results. Their big shot MVP Kevin Lisch had an off game, shooting 9/23 from the floor, but continued to chuck it in the fourth quarter and into overtime. Naturally, the Kobe comparisons were inevitable, as were the jokes that followed. Having an easy villain also made crunchtime all the more enjoyable when Lisch went mano-a-mano with CJ Bruton (a classic Irrational Confidence Guy who took, and made, some insane shots down the stretch). Although this would be to discount the fourth quarter heroics of Cedric Jackson (who had a terrific game overall in controlling the tempo and pulling all the strings on offense), who made a tough driving layup to bring the breakers within 1 point with a minute to go, then hit the game tying freebie with 30 seconds left. Dillonsanity scrapped the Breakers one last chance to win it with 9 seconds left by diving for a loose ball, and drawing the 5th foul on a Wildcat – the second Perth player to foul out. Here the PA guys played the “Na na na na, na na na na – HEY HEY HEY, gooodbyeeee” song which was absolutely brilliant (although of course they promptly screwed up later by failing to play the Rocky music at the start of OT. But you gotta pick your battles I suppose). However, Cedric was forced into a tough layup which barely drew iron and sent us to OT. This bummed us out for a while, thinking we were going to blow the game despite being in complete control for probably 35 of the 40 minutes played, but then we realised this meant we were still on for Whoppers (thanks to the 5 extra minutes) and quickly perked up.
Even though Boucher had outplayed him in regulation, and the team played some of its best stretches with him on the court, coach Lemanis stuck with his starter Vukona in OT. This turned out to be the right decision as he was an absolute beast in OT. He cleaned the glass with authority, drained his free throws and scored at will, culminating in an emphatic dunk which got the crowd fired up. Then Bruton took over as he exchanged 3’s with Lisch before going 3, steal, 3 to effectively seal the game. In related news his shorts burst open as they could not contain his monstrously large testicles, while his right hand spontaneously combusted into flames. Good times. Lisch then frontrimmed a jumper on their most critical play of the game, before Bruton came back down with the score at 98-96 and drove all the way to the hoop to put the game away.
During the game it was announced several times that there would be a “Meet the Breakers” function at the sports bar in SkyCity. As it was, that’s where we were parked so we dropped in for a visit hoping some LOLs would be had. Some quick-hit thoughts:
– The quality of the groupies was outstanding. I haven’t been to any equivalent events for the All Blacks, Blues, Warriors, Phoenix, All Whites etc. so I don’t have a great idea of how they stack up relative to other NZ athletes but it has to be said there were some ladies there who were willing to dive for any loose balls, if you know what I mean.
– All game long I’d been yelling for Dillonsanity – partly because it was an awesome nickname but also because Boucher had a very good game and was making plays all night. Well there he was, chilling with his teammates.
- What I expected/hoped would happen:
Me: Yo Bouch, great game man. You changed the game tonight with your energy, top stuff.
Boucher (clearly impressed with my knowledge of the game): thanks dude.
Me: yeah man we were trying to get a Dillonsanity chant going but wouldn’t take.
Boucher: hahahahaha that’s hilarious and an awesome nickname for me!
Me: yeah you should totally follow me on twitter, let’s try and get it to catch on for the rest of the series!
Boucher: sure thing! Fuck you’re awesome.
- What actually happened:
Me: um can I have a photo please?
Me: hey we were yelling Dillonsanity all game. Pretty cool huh?
Boucher: LOL COOL STORY BRO. CAN YOU GET TO THE PART WHERE I CARE?
Ok he didn’t actually say that but that was definitely the vibe I got. Fair enough though I spose.
– Poor Cedric Jackson tried to finish his dinner while a cougar tried to hit on him for a solid 15-20 minutes. After that, he had to deal with no life losers like myself asking for photos. It was with this in mind that I made the decision not to bother him with the 3 billion questions I had about the NBA. Is Lebron James a douche in real life? What the hell is that thing on Delonte West’s face? Is it herpes? Did you ever play cards with Javaris Crittenton? All essential questions, unanswered.
For years basketball in New Zealand has been neither an accepted mainstream interest, nor was it cool enough to be considered “alternative” (obscure but still socially acceptable). Rather, it had occupied the always undesirable position of the “other”. At the same time, my love affair with hoops has always been somewhat analogous to my own experience of “otherness” thanks to my immigrant background. In a way, tonight felt like how I imagine my parents would feel when they take me back to our home country and proudly show off how awesome it is and how proud I should be of where I’m from. For years I’ve had to justify my love for the game, but today such words were unnecessary. All you had to do was look at what was happening on the floor, as two well coached teams played with intensity, selflessness, smarts and skill. All you had to do was look around you, at the rabid fans, 9000 strong on their feet and screaming for defense. For one night, Rugby, League, Cricket – none of it mattered as the Breakers were kings of Auckland. And I think this sentiment is what has propelled the Breakers phenomenon inNew Zealand. Sure, a vast majority of those fans in attendance probably couldn’t tell you how a zone defense worked or what the triangle offense is, but there are a core of loyal diehards who have watched the sport grow from 300 person crowds in the North Shore Events Centre to what it has become now. It is this sense of ownership in the experience, the feeling of pride when you see how everyone has bought into the team and the sport which you have been invested in since Day 1. As I looked around and saw fellow hoopsheads losing their minds at a clutch Vukona offensive rebound, or Bruton drilling a dagger in some poor Wildcat’s face, I felt a sense of community and belonging which I had never felt before from basketball. And that, I think, is the key reason for the passion and dedication of the Breakers fans, which up until I attended the game I found completely inexplicable.
Either that, or Aucklanders are just bandwaggoning gits.
Yeah probably the latter.