Dave Norris, Chief Executive of North Harbour Basketball Association, is a former New Zealand Basketball and Olympic Long & Triple Jump representative and former Coach of the New Zealand Junior (Under 20) Men’s Basketball Team. In 2002 he was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order Of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II for his contribution to sport.
New Zealand? 4th place at the World Championships? How did a country with barely four million people and no proven international record in basketball achieve this?
Likewise, how did we succeed at international level in such a wide range of sports? We’ve had extraordinary success in Olympic Rowing, Sailing and Middle-Distance Running; World Championships Rugby Union, Triathlon, Canoeing and Netball; America’s Cup Yachting and Motor Racing. It is raw talent combined with a gut desire to prove one’s self despite the odds.
But there is always more than one reason for success.
To succeed on the international stage and so suddenly on the world’s basketball courts there has to have been some sort of foundation within the country; some remarkably successful development program.
In the case of basketball, New Zealand has fewer than 30,000 registered players, in 46 affiliated area associations throughout a country roughly the size of Great Britain.
One of the most successful associations is Harbour Basketball, situated in the city of North Shore, “across the harbour bridge” on the northern shore of Auckland City in a region known as North Harbour. It has some 6,000 members, 70% of whom are still at school.
The Pathways Chart shows the various programs and opportunities for youngsters to reach National representation at North Harbour. Most enter the sport as members of their school team. Competitions are run starting at about 8 years of age, and there are currently 150 school teams. All games are run in four quarters and with clock-stopped timing, so that players get a feel for the full game right from the start. 73 club teams compete in 5 grades in the community program, with the top grade playing full international rules. All referees are trained, hold local badges and are paid per game and start from the pre-teens.
There is a consistent shortage of knowledgeable coaches, however, so other measures had to be taken to ensure that playing standards improved. In the 1970’s, Barbara Wheadon, then President of Harbour Basketball, and now Basketball New Zealand President and Oceania Representative on FIBA, implemented an In-Schools coaching program.
Specially trained senior players and local coaches can be employed by schools for any number of one hour sessions, to coach fundamental skills to the teams that enter in competitions. They are encouraged to have a teacher/ parent/older sibling volunteer coach attend the sessions so that they are upskilled along with the players, and they are given an excellent coaching manual, with lesson plans, and free entry to Harbour Basketball’s coaches’ clinics. Three-day coaching camps are also held each school holidays.
Later, a coordinated individual’s development program was added for those with stronger personal ambition or talent. Youngsters can join the “People With Potential” (PWP) program which offers small-group weekend coaching of fundamentals from the age of 5 years.
Players can graduate from PWP at about 13 years of age, into the “Harbour Zone” program offering more advanced individual coaching. The PWP and Zone coaching consists of carefully structured building blocks of individual skills, leading to wider game and court knowledge and team tactics. Advanced, more intensive, one-on-one coaching sessions are also available beyond that, so that teenagers have good chances for talent development.
Using National League players as coaches ties Harbour’s elite “shop window” teams (called Harbour Heat for the men and Harbour Breeze for the women) into the schools, offering inspiration to the youngsters and recruiting spectators for the major games. NBA players Sean Marks (Spurs) and Kirk Penney (Heat) came through these Harbour programs.
Some support comes from sponsorships and grants, but essentially all these programs are on a user-pays basis.
For those who stand out, Harbour has 24 representative teams that compete in Regional tournaments and can go on to National finals, in Under 12 ,14, 16, 18, 20, 23 years grades and National League First and Second Divisions. Except for the men’s national league, all these 60 coaches and team managers are unpaid volunteers.
Basketball New Zealand has its National age grade teams that play in Australia as the logical next step from the Regional teams. The New Zealand Academy of Sport supports the best young players after that in its Carded Athletes’ program, leading to the National teams. The men’s National team is called the “Tall Blacks” and the women “Tall Ferns”. This is part of the country’s marketing of its National teams, following the international renown of the All Blacks Rugby team.
The hockey team is the “Black Sticks”, the cricket team the “Black Caps”, the women’s netball the “Silver Ferns”, the women’s rugby team the “Black Ferns”, etc. An interesting outcome of the Tall Black’s Indianapolis success is that nowhere in the country does one hear the public or media refer to the “New Zealand Men’s Basketball team”; it’s always “the Tall Blacks” both to them, and to the kids who play the game.
New Zealand takes much inspiration and some ideas from Australian Basketball, and there are regular exchanges between the two countries’ teams, but the responsibility for development of players at the base of the pyramid rests with the local associations such as Harbour. The game’s popularity is soaring, with a 30% increase in Harbour Basketball membership last year. Recruitment schemes are not necessary; organizers can barely cope with the increase.
Like the Australians, Kiwis are a naturally strong, athletic and sporting people. The athletes have always been here, but now, thanks to the Tall Blacks at the World Champs and to the incentive of there now being two places available for Oceania at Olympics or World Champs, the sport is undergoing an astonishing growth as it becomes an attractive alternative to the traditional sports for physically larger boys, such as Rugby Union, Rugby League and Rowing and the National women’s game, Netball. New Zealand basketball administrators are determined to prove that 4th place at Indianapolis was no fluke and associations such as Harbour Basketball are the foundation for this.