Basketball: Plenty of growl left in Bear as he gazes at latest record

By Steve Deane

Tony Ronaldson's 612th NBL game did not go as planned.

Thursday's night's thriller against Perth on the North Shore was supposed to be a bit of a celebration for the player known as Bear, as he tied Australian basketball legend Andrew Gaze's league appearance record.

Instead of a comfortable night at the office, the ageless forward was involved in a scrap for the ages. After a shocking start, the Breakers needed a fourth-quarter fightback and a contentious refereeing call to notch their sixth win in eight matches this season.

It may not have been "exactly as we drew it up mate", as Ronaldson quipped shortly afterwards, but, for an archetypal Aussie battler, it was a fitting way to mark his big occasion.

In some ways, Ronaldson's own performance was a microcosm of his career. He started horribly, conceding a hatful of soft turnovers, throwing errant passes and missing open shots. His feet weren't moving. He was off the pace. But he came back strongly, sparking a second-quarter revival with seven precious points, and ended up playing a pivotal role in the unlikely victory.

Later, he blasted himself and his fellow starters for allowing themselves to be overrun, and heaped praise on the bench players who bailed them out.

"Our starters have to find the same sort of intensity that the likes of [Dillon] Boucher and Paul [Henare] bring to the defensive end when they come on the floor," he said. "It has become a bit of an issue."

Dealing with that issue is what Ronaldson will be concentrating on tonight in Townsville when he breaks his tie with Gaze to claim the appearance record for himself. Milestones are nothing new to Ronaldson. He has become adept at modestly accepting personal accolades without losing sight of the bigger picture.

"You can throw out all those cliches that it is something to be proud of," he says of the appearance record. "It is, but in the context of our season and what we are trying to achieve, it is just another number. It is really not that important.

"We play a team sport so ultimately, when it comes to individual accolades, they are something to reflect on, rather than celebrate at the time. But at the same time I don't want to play it down because it is something I should be proud of."

The Ronaldson story is about more than just longevity. Since entering the league in 1990 with East Melbourne, Ronaldson's teams have failed to make the playoffs just once in 18 years.

His current streak of 16 consecutive play-off seasons seemed in jeopardy when he joined the previously success-starved Breakers last season. But his signing proved to be the first major building block in a team that is now among the genuine title contenders.

At 36, Ronaldson must soon be coming to the end of what has been a glorious career. But the Bear has no plans to go into hibernation just yet.

Losing his starting role at Perth to a younger player who he felt was not yet a better player was a major factor in his decision to sign with the Breakers.

"I understand the concept of promoting youth and trying to develop young guys but, ultimately, if they don't step up to the mark that an experienced guy can achieve, then you are not really going anywhere.

"We are trying to build a programme here but we are also trying to win. There is a rebuilding phase and we have gone through that, restructured and recruited and got some good players. But you need to be able to perform and I feel I am doing that. I am not going to just go away quietly."

Tonight's match against the Crocodiles is the second of six in the space of 15 days for the Breakers. Five of those six games are against teams currently in the top six playoff spots.

"The next two and a half weeks is really going to define what we are about and where we can go."

With Ronaldson, who long ago took over the record for most wins by a single player - a mark that stands at 402 - that destination will almost certainly be the play-offs.

"I could think of nothing worse than turning up week after week and losing," he says. "Playing and knowing you are not going to make the playoffs, I couldn't imagine that."

- NZ Herald

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