Basketball

Fresh from a historic win over the United States, Australia’s basketballers head to the FIBA World Cup in China with their sights set on a medal. By Kieran Pender.

Boomers set to take on the world

Patty Mills (left) scored 30 points in the Boomers’ 98-94 defeat of the United States, in Melbourne last Saturday.
Credit: AAP Image / Hamish Blair

The eighth-place finish of Australia’s male basketballers at the 1976 Montreal Olympics was, at the time, the team’s best-ever result. While Australian athletes across other sports flopped, returning to Australia with the country’s lowest medal haul in four decades, the Boomers met expectations in just their fourth Olympic appearance.

Marquee sports such as athletics and swimming – which for so long had yielded so many medals – were heavily scrutinised in the post-Montreal outrage. “Australia’s golden days are gone,” screamed The West Australian, just one of many newspapers to demand greater public funding for high-performance sport. The national conversation that began in July 1976 would culminate with the establishment of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) five years later. Despite the Boomers’ relative success in Montreal, it was basketball that would prove to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of this reform: it was chosen among eight key disciplines to be housed at a newly constructed sporting campus, in the leafy Canberra suburb of Bruce.

A straight line can be drawn between that decision and Australian basketball’s current golden era. Of the 12 players in the Boomers squad in China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, which tips off on Saturday, a majority spent their teenage years at the academy. For almost 40 years, the AIS basketball program – now known as the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence – has produced generation after generation of elite athletes. If the Boomers secure their first medal at a major international tournament in September, having fallen just short at the 2016 Olympics, this success will be due in large part to the AIS.

Patrick Hunt has been there from the start. He was the second coach to join the program, following Dr Adrian Hurley, and has retained an association with the AIS since. “The key aim was to improve Australia’s performance internationally, by providing a pool of young talent that would go on to make the senior national team,” Hunt recalls. The duo began by taking 18- and 19-year-olds into the system, but in the mid-1980s realised they needed to start younger.

“The main premise was to accelerate kids’ development,” explains Hunt, who recently retired but remains chair of FIBA’s Technical Commission and president of the World Association of Basketball Coaches. “The intention was to provide them with daily intensive training in a competitive environment, backed by the sport science, while teaching them the skills of living away from home – to prepare them for life as athletes.”

The Centre of Excellence now takes a dozen boys and a dozen girls annually, and puts them through a two-year development program while they finish their high school studies at nearby Lake Ginninderra College. Living together at the AIS, the cohort benefit from world-class coaching and sports science as they train, eat and conduct themselves like professionals. More than 200 alumni have gone on to represent Australia; their individual photos take pride of place in the centre’s main meeting room.

“The centre has been hugely influential – it has been one of the primary strengths of Australian basketball,” says Boomers assistant coach Adam Caporn, who leads the Centre of Excellence and is himself a graduate of the program. “It introduces players to international basketball, and provides them with a common goal.”

Because a critical mass of the national team spent time at the centre, it has helped foster an inclusive atmosphere among the squad. “It forges strong bonds and an understanding between players,” Caporn continues. “The AIS family is really quite something.”

Although the players at the centre take part in the domestic second-tier competition, NBL1, the program is unusual for its lack of emphasis on results. “Our main focus is not winning on the weekend,” says Caporn. “We are focused on individual development and education – to give them the tools so that when they leave they can continue to get better.” This is a stark contrast to the American high school and college system, where winning matters.

The impact of the AIS has long been felt in the women’s game. The Australian women’s national team, the Opals, are one of the best teams in the world. They have won three Olympic silver medals, and triumphed at the 2006 FIBA Women’s World Cup. Lauren Jackson is an all-time international great; Liz Cambage was a WNBA All-Star in the United States this year. Both are products of the AIS. But other than a few individual standouts – Luc Longley was part of the great Chicago Bulls team that won three consecutive NBA titles in the 1990s – Australia’s male Boomers have lagged behind.

Yet as Australians have flooded into America’s NBA, hopes among local basketball fans of greater heights for the national team have surged. Last season 13 Australians played in the leading international league, with seven participating in the end-of-season playoffs. As with the current Boomers’ roster – which features six NBA representatives – most spent time in Canberra.

NBA executives have been so impressed by Australia’s talent production process that, following a multi-year search for a location for the league’s global academy, in 2017 they chose to partner with the Centre of Excellence. “The NBA looked at various models across the globe,” says Hunt proudly, “and found ours was the most efficient.”

The best young players from NBA academies in different countries are sent to the centre, where they live and train alongside the Australians. “It is very exciting to be collaborating with the NBA,” says Caporn. “It enables both parties to learn off each other. We have pretty similar aims – to develop NBA players and develop Boomers. It has created a more diverse environment, provided more resources and given us additional coaches.”

While Australian basketball was prospering internationally, the top-tier domestic league – the NBL – had failed to return to the popularity of its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When businessman Larry Kestelman acquired the competition in 2015, The Australian Financial Review described it as “moribund” and “on its knees financially”. But Kestelman has quickly turned the league around. Attendances are on the rise, blue-chip sponsors are providing support and television deals have been signed.

“The NBL has made enormous strides in recent years, and I think it will continue to do so,” observes Hunt, a one-time NBL coach. Caporn, meanwhile, has already seen the impact of the NBL’s growth on his young charges. “The Centre of Excellence and the NBL are inextricably linked,” he suggests. “Each doing well is beneficial for the other. The growth and the development of the NBL is really exciting for the young athletes we work with – they can see the pathways available to them.”

All of which means the 2019 FIBA World Cup comes at an important time for Australian men’s basketball. The Boomers flew to China this week with a depleted squad, as injuries and the absence of Ben Simmons – easily Australia’s best player, who chose to focus on his club career – took their toll. But they left Melbourne on a high, after beating the United States for the first time in history at their last pre-tournament friendly match.

In Dongguan, China, the Australians will face an imposing challenge as they seek to progress from a tough Group H with Canada, Lithuania and Senegal. If they finish higher overall than New Zealand, they will also qualify for the Olympics. “I am no international basketball Nostradamus,” Hunt admits. “Getting out of the pool will be an enormous task. But if we can do that, we will be in a good position.”

Whether the Boomers triumph next month, the drive for greater success will continue unabated. Tokyo 2020 provides a prime opportunity for the team to claim their first Olympic medal, particularly if – as expected – Simmons joins the team. With a healthy pipeline at the Centre of Excellence and a record number of Australians alongside Simmons in the NBA, that elusive international glory seems a matter of when, not if.

“Unashamedly, we want to be No. 1 in the world,” says Hunt, an early architect of Australian basketball’s golden age. “That was always the aim and that is still the aim. There is an old saying: we should aspire for perfection, but excellence will be tolerated. We will keep aspiring to being the best in the world.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "Late Boomers". Subscribe here.

Kieran Pender
is a London-based freelance writer.