Basketball: Vision put team back on the road

By Kris Shannon

General manager's ambitious plan, backed by owners, and top signing, gave Breakers belief in themselves

Richard Clarke gave Jamaican Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt a Breakers singlet at training last year. Photo / Getty Images
Richard Clarke gave Jamaican Olympic gold medallist Usain Bolt a Breakers singlet at training last year. Photo / Getty Images

Six years ago, New Zealand Breakers general manager Richard Clarke sat down and sketched a vision of success for the franchise.

Despite four seasons of mediocrity in the Australian NBL, the plan was ambitious - a team full of Kiwis winning a championship in front of a sold-out Vector Arena.

With a winning record of 32 per cent (41 from 130) that showed few signs of improving, and with the struggles experienced by the trans-tasman trail-blazing Auckland Warriors and Football Kingz providing cautionary tales, the grandiose scheme could have seen Clarke committed.

But fast-forward to tonight. The league-leading Breakers will not only fill Vector Arena against the Perth Wildcats but demand saw an additional 700 seats erected and sold - all for a regular season game.

Championships have been won, local players have prospered, and the Breakers have become the blueprint for every other sporting franchise in New Zealand.

So what is the secret to their success? How have the Breakers flourished while the Warriors have frustrated and the Kingz (and Knights) collapsed?

The answer lies in the philosophy of a supermarket owner, the expectations of a grizzled Bear and the dream of a general manager.

Clarke, who has been at the Breakers since the club's inception, vividly remembers playing in front of a few hundred people at Manukau in year three, coach Andrej Lemanis' first season at the helm.

In those dark days, the Breakers were losing games, leaking the country's best basketball talent and, even worse, few seemed to care.

"It was a long way off then," Clarke said of the club's long-term plan. "You're thinking, 'this is hard', but all your decision making along the pathway had [the plan] in mind."

One decision, in particular, stood out for Clarke as the first point of the 180-degree turn the Breakers were about to undertake. As a club which had consistently finished in the bottom three, Australia's best weren't exactly inundating their travel agents for information about Auckland. But that all changed with the acquisition of Tony Ronaldson, a veteran of two Olympics and 18 seasons in the Australian NBL.

"Signing Tony was the turning point," Clarke said. "Bear is a legend and, as much as it was about him deciding to come, it's what he brought.

"We gave him free licence to tell us what he thought was wrong - and he told us a lot. He wasn't shy. He brought that part of his personality and we needed that."

He also created something of a domino effect, helping lure Tall Blacks Kirk Penney and Phill Jones to their hometown team and helping the Breakers reach their first playoffs. The following year, CJ Bruton, a three-time champion, followed Ronaldson's lead and Dillon Boucher, a foundation player who fled the club, joined his international teammates.

"Something those guys bring is incredible belief that you're going to win," Clarke said. "The road record comes a lot down to guys like that saying, 'the court's the same, it's just in a different building, no excuses'."

That positive shift in attitude was matched off the court by the family-first approach of club owners, Paul and Liz Blackwell. The supermarket magnates famously enacted a "no dickheads" policy on player recruitment, which Clarke said makes life a lot easier.

The Blackwells also aided the Breakers in becoming a community club.

"The big thing has been the values that have been brought into the club - the family-based values and the expectations that we've put on ourselves as a team," Boucher said. "This club's worked very hard at doing a lot of things off-court as well as on-court. You put the two together and you're going to get a sell-out crowd."

The fact that crowd now fills Auckland's downtown venue is something beyond belief for a player who experienced the depths of the valley before this current peak.

"It's crazy," Boucher said. "We thought we'd never ever sell out North Shore Events Centre, let alone Vector Arena."

Let alone for a regular season game. Lemanis has overseen the transformation on the court, but he was just as keen to pay credit to those behind the scenes.

"[The sell-out] is obviously a good comment on where the club has come and the progress the club has made," he said. "There's been a lot of hard work put in by a lot of people.

"The club's kept to a direction, kept to a plan and you're starting to see the payback of that now in people voting with the bums on seats. I think credit goes to the club for staying with that path."

And if the Breakers can continue their club-record nine-game winning streak tonight, that path may very well lead to a third straight championship.

- APNZ

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