Basketball: Coaching silver lining for golden boys

By Grant Chapman

Tab Baldwin. Photo / NZPA
Tab Baldwin. Photo / NZPA

Long after taking New Zealand basketball where it had never been before, the "golden generation" of Tall Blacks is still raising the bar - but now as coaches.

In 2002 - yes, we're coming up on the 10th anniversary - these unknown battlers, coached by American Tab Baldwin and assisted by Serbian-born Nenad Vucinic, shocked the basketball world with their historic march to the world championship semifinals before falling to eventual repeat champions Yugoslavia.

That same year, Kiwi coaching stocks hit an all-time low with only two homegrown practitioners in a nine-team National Basketball League. Jeff Green guided Waikato to the title and infamously celebrated with a defiant one-fingered salute to a hostile Nelson crowd while, at the other end of the competition table, the Otago Nuggets finished 5-11 under Todd Marshall.

When the 2012 NBL tips off, five of the nine contestants will have homegrown coaches at the helm; three are veterans of that trail-blazing national side.

Captain Pero Cameron will attempt a three-peat of titles with the Wellington Saints, while reserve point guards Paul Henare and Judd Flavell may well provide his toughest competition with the Bay Hawks and Auckland Pirates respectively.

But the sideline influence of that group runs even deeper. Cameron and forward Dillon Boucher, along with former Tall Black Chris Tupu (1994-2000), are currently national team assistants.

Flavell is on the NZ Breakers staff and oversees the club's successful junior development programme.

Henare and shooting guard Paroa Winitana have recently set up their own coaching academy in the Hawke's Bay, while starting point guard Mark Dickel, who served as Albanian head coach in 2010, is now director of development for Basketball Otago.

Centre Tony Rampton, forced out of those 2002 world champs with a leg injury, assisted Tupu with the Nelson Giants last year and perhaps Sean Marks will also end up toting a whiteboard during his off-court apprenticeship with the San Antonio Spurs.

"When you look back at that team, I think coaching was a natural progression for the players Tab and Nenad selected," reflects Flavell. "We probably weren't the most talented players - there were definitely more talented out there - but with the style of basketball we played, we all had to be good thinkers of the game.

"Execution was the one aspect where we could be among the best in the world but that takes a lot of reading of what's going on, understanding scouting reports and adjusting to what the coaches wanted. That was the way we were taught to think about the game and that's what we're now trying to pass on to the next generation."

Mentoring those players into coaching roles has been a priority for Vucinic since he succeeded Baldwin as Tall Blacks head coach in 2007. Flavell (38) was the first to officially begin his "x's and o's" education when he landed the Breakers gig that same year. He immediately retired as a player, the first to achieve 1000 assists in the NBL.

"I probably made the decision early. I was a little older than the other guys and I was very fortunate this opportunity came up."

But the Australian NBL franchise has been just one of several changes to the basketball landscape over the past decade that have provided a career pathway.

Most of those Tall Blacks were, essentially, amateurs. Only Cameron, Marks, Dickel and Phill Jones played professionally overseas, Kirk Penney was still at college in the US and the others made whatever income they could from the NBL. Some had regular jobs - Boucher was a travel agent.

But success at Indianapolis helped open doors for New Zealand basketball that now make other careers largely unnecessary and coaching the most logical option when those players retire. "Back in 2002, I think even Tab and Nenad were surprised at how many lessons we had to learn to play against the superpowers," says Flavell.

"We had to make huge adjustments to the way we were brought up playing in New Zealand. The only way to learn that is to get out and experience the game at international level.

"It's hard for people stuck here, because what they see on TV is only a small part of what it takes. We got to live it first hand. I'm not saying that makes us better but we've obviously got a lot to offer in terms of what we saw and experienced. Now, we're trying to teach that level of intensity through our junior development camps.

"The experiences we had back then were great and showed, for a small country, we could compete above our weight and achieve things that were unexpected. Now we're trying to keep that going - we were very proud to wear the Tall Blacks singlet and want to see it continue to do well."

- NZ Herald

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