A new book lifts the lid on New Zealand's greatest basketballers. From near-death to drugs shame, this extract reveals the astonishing story of Mark Dickel, known as Sparky, who played 106 tests for the Tall Blacks
'I consider him to be the greatest point guard to come out of New Zealand.' ― Lindsay Tait
It was late March 2000. Mark Dickel was playing a pick-up game at the legendary Sporting House Fitness Club in Las Vegas. He was a big deal on the Las Vegas hoops scene. He had just finished his senior year at college there and, by his own reckoning, he had a chance at being chosen in the second round of the NBA draft. Some thought even higher. All he knew is that he had to work hard that off-season and play well at training camps and pre-draft workouts. No one stays still on NBA teams' draft boards: if you're not moving up, you're moving down. It was just a pick-up game, but Dickel is not equipped to go easy. Once he's on the floor, he's there to play hard. With the game on the line, an opposing player streaked away on the break, and Dickel took off in pursuit. The player, perhaps sensing the lightning-quick University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) point guard behind him, stalled when he got to the hoop and faked his lay-up. Dickel had already jumped, and so he crashed into him, flipped over him, and collided into the hardwood with a sickening thud.
He had badly hurt his ankle, but that was secondary because a large claret pool was forming on the court.
He was bleeding from his head, a lot. He was bleeding out. Unconscious, he began to have a grand mal seizure. A quick-thinking witness by the name of John Ensign was on a nearby treadmill. He rushed over. A trained veterinarian, he set to work trying to control the bleeding and when Dickel stopped breathing, he administered mouth to mouth until the paramedics came. Without Ensign, there's a good chance Dickel would never have made it to 10 Tall Blacks tests, let alone 100. The next thing he remembers is waking up in hospital a day later and seeing the face of his college coach crying on ESPN.
You talk to any of Dickel's teammates and they'll tell you that he is wired differently. He is ambitious, relentless and with a singular outlook on basketball and life. In this instance he didn't stew on the fact that the NBA draft was now an unreachable dream; his sole focus was getting healthy and getting back to ball. He knew he was good enough to earn opportunities elsewhere and he chose not to dwell on the negative. If he was honest with himself, he was surprised by what he had achieved already. A Tall Black at 17, success already under his belt in the New Zealand NBL, a stellar college career: it was more than he had dreamt of while growing up in Dunedin.
He was a pioneer for New Zealanders playing college basketball in the States.
Short of Sean Marks' final two years at Cal Berkeley, where he thrust his name on to NBA draft boards, Kiwis hadn't performed at the level Dickel did at UNLV. He led the Rebels in assists in all four seasons he spent there, helping them appear at two NCAA tournaments. He stood up to, and matched, future NBA players, garnering a reputation for being tough, uncompromising and unselfish. In his final year, he led the entire NCAA in assists. Nine assists per game were enough to get him an honourable mention by the Associated Press as they selected their All-Americans. This was all born from a desire, a need, a yearning to do better, to be better, to test himself against the best, to get out of Dunedin and see how far basketball could take him, and how much it could make him.
Dickel had already tasted international basketball by the time he left for college in the States. At the age of 18, he was called into Keith Mair's squad to take on the Aussies in the 1995 Oceania Championship. At the same time that Jonah Lomu, wearing his black jersey, was running over Mike Catt at the Rugby World Cup in South Africa, Dickel was preparing, in his black jersey, for test one of 107. After a win over American Samoa, they lost, and lost big, to the Aussies. Dickel didn't mind too much. He had dreamt of playing for the Tall Blacks, but pulling on the jersey was just another step in the road for the ambitious 18-year‑old. He was special in that he was a trusted youngster in the 1990s for the Tall Blacks. Mair often preferred sticking with his tried and tested players, all legends in their own right, but Dickel was different. He started in game two of his Tall Blacks' career. Mair saw him as the future, and he was entrusted with the reins accordingly.
He was used to guiding teams, even if they were full of teammates a lot older and more experienced than him. It never daunted him. He had often found himself as a 14-year-old among 18-year-olds in local leagues and even age‑grade representative teams. His name was quick to spread around the New Zealand basketball community. His older brother Richard played too, and the two were known to argue and sometimes even fight at training or in games, such was the competitive spirit in the family. He took that spirit and confidence everywhere he went, and it rubbed off on his teammates. It was no secret he was different from the rest. He had returned from college to join the Tall Blacks in camp, having picked up an American accent. His phrasing was foreign to his less well-travelled teammates and he had an arrogant aura to him. It soon became apparent, however, that underneath it all he was as passionate a Kiwi as any of them, and that his brashness would help them, not hinder them. His ability to instantly dismiss a highly touted opposition team, with lines such as "they ain't shit", would calm the rest of the team and fill them with confidence. The only thing they dreaded was rooming with him.
In the early 2000s, there were two players who the others wanted to avoid when the rooms were allocated: Pero Cameron and Dickel. For Cameron, the reason was simple, snoring. The big fella snored like he was inhaling the entire room, or maybe the entire suburb. If you didn't fall asleep before him, you weren't falling asleep. With Dickel, there was a little more to it. Forever energetic, restless and often operating in a different time zone to the majority of the roster due to his overseas club assignments, the consensus was that Dickel was a certifiable nightmare to room with. Lights would get turned on at ungodly hours, showers were had in the middle of the night, phone calls made, TV shows and room service consumed with hours to go until the wake-up call. Once on a tour to Turkey, Dillon Boucher had drawn the short straw. The night before a game he woke up at 4.30 in the morning to the TV blaring and the room smelling of steak.
It was those early 2000s teams where Dickel has his fondest Tall Blacks memories. Up until the appointment of Tab Baldwin and the change in culture that came with him, Dickel had worn the jersey with pride, but he had also treated playing for his country more as an opportunity to showcase his abilities. He used it as a means to get a spot at a good college and to get contracts at well-paying teams in good leagues. However, when the team knocked off the Aussies in 2001 to secure a spot at the World Championship at their rival's expense, things changed for the point guard. Suddenly, he realised they could win. He changed how he approached his role on the court. It wasn't all about putting himself in the shop window; it was about putting his team in the best position to win. When he was on club duty it was, of course, about winning too, but as an import in the ruthless leagues of deepest darkest Europe, he had to do more. He had to impress, both to the eye and on the box score, otherwise, quite simply, he'd be fired. With the Tall Blacks, in that brotherhood, that threat didn't loom quite as large.
His stats at the 2002 World Championship back that up. With the scoring clout of Phill Jones on one side of him, and Kirk Penney on the other, Dickel didn't need to put the ball in the hoop, he just needed to give it to the guys who did that in their sleep. He averaged 26 minutes a game and he spent that time playing hard defence and finding his teammates. He was ranked second in the entire tournament for assists per game, averaging 4.6. He was up there with the best point guards at the tournament, and it was no wonder Turkish giant Fenerbahce came calling for him immediately after the World Champs. His best game came in the crucial clash with China: the game that propelled them to the quarter-finals. He finished with six points, seven rebounds, seven assists and three steals as the Tall Blacks came away with a 94–88 win over Yao Ming and friends.
Signalling perhaps a difference in mindset to some of his teammates, when the tournament was over and the Tall Blacks looked back with deserved pride on what they had achieved, Dickel left for his next job angry and frustrated. He wasn't happy with how he had performed in the semifinal against Yugoslavia or the bronze medal game against Germany. He stewed on it all the way to Turkey, then it was on to the next assignment. By 2004, not much had changed. At the Athens Olympics (his second Games, having played in Sydney four years prior), he finished third in assists per game.
On the club scene, Dickel didn't hang around in Oceania for long. Pre-college, he had played for his hometown Nuggets, he had a brief stint with the Wellington Saints when home for the holidays, and immediately after college, and his injury, he played in the Australian NBL for the Victoria Giants. This was a move with the Tall Blacks in mind. He wanted to be close so he could attend camp. With the shift in culture around the national team, Dickel was all in. So, he played in Australia in the build-up to the 2002 World Cup. Immediately after the Indianapolis adventure, he set his sights on bigger things. He didn't even come home. He had no comprehension of how big a deal the Tall Blacks of 2002 were until a teammate rang him to tell him about the Halberg award they had just won. He thought it was nice, but he wasn't fazed. He wanted to make a name for himself overseas, and he did just that. Multiple stints for big Turkish clubs and a season in Belgium were all crucial to building his reputation in the high-paying leagues of fanatical European basketball. He didn't have a European passport, and back in the early 2000s these leagues only allowed two imports. How well he did, and how far he went in the cut-throat world of top European basketball, is lost on the casual sports fan in New Zealand. There were conversations with the Breakers, but they couldn't offer anywhere near the money the clubs in Turkey, Belgium, Russia, Greece and Germany could and did. At that point, they weren't up to the same standard from a professionalism standpoint either, so returning to play for the Breakers was never a seriously entertained notion. He wanted to play the best level of basketball he could. His time in Turkey, where he led the league in assists one year, enhanced his stock. It earned him a spot in the top Russian league, with a club called Lokomotiv Rostov, which at the time was one of the top-paying competitions in the world behind the NBA. With the salary also came the lifestyle. Teams flew in private jets and were treated like superstars. They were superstars. Everything that he had worked tirelessly to regain since crashing to the floor in Vegas six years earlier was coming his way. An impressive season had earned him another one with Lokomotiv Rostov. Before heading back to New Zealand to prepare for the 2006 World Cup, he let his hair down with his teammates at the conclusion of the long season. Drinks were drunk, tales were told, and a joint was passed around the party.
Dickel was set to be a key part of the Tall Blacks' 2006 World Championship roster. He was the number‑one point guard, and with Lindsay Tait injured, Tab Baldwin took only Dickel and his long-time deputy Paul Henare as out and out ball handlers. The build-up to the tournament in Japan involved four games against Australia, two in New Zealand and two across the Tasman, followed by a seven-game tour throughout South America, before two more at home against Qatar. The first game against the Aussies, in Napier, was five days after Dickel had returned from his first dream season in Russia. Walking off the court after the game, he was approached by the drug testers. More an inconvenience than anything, Dickel is led to a room where he pees into a cup, then rejoins his team.
He wasn't thinking about a few tokes nearly a week ago back in Russia, he was thinking about the game. He was pissed they just lost an overtime game to their greatest rivals.
They split the four-game warm-up series with the Aussies, winning the second game in Napier and the fourth in Melbourne, before losing six of their seven games in South America. The results weren't important, because it was about building up team chemistry and working on specific plays and sets ahead of the World Championships. Players who had missed the Commonwealth Games, like Penney, Jones and Dickel himself, had to be reintegrated alongside the newer members of the squad, like Mika Vukona and Casey Frank. All of this is to say, Dickel spent a lot of time running the cutter on the floor for the Tall Blacks. He was their primary floor general; the game plan was based around the looks he could find his teammates for the upcoming tournament in Japan.
Just days after they returned from South America, and therefore days before they were due to fly out to Tokyo, Dickel got a phone call. It was Drug Free Sport NZ, informing him that he had failed a test. Traces of cannabis were found in his sample. They asked him if he had a comment and then told him that they were going to announce it. He declined to comment, still getting his head around the news. He didn't think about the Tall Blacks. His immediate thought was about Russia and his contract with Rostov. The country had been embroiled in a few drugs-in-sport scandals, and he worried the news could cost him the lucrative contract he had worked so hard for. It did cost him his job. He had got as far as calling his agent before the news was released. He wasn't afforded a chance to call his team and try to salvage his job, and that irked him. It wasn't as if he was trying to get an edge on the competition. In Russia, he had been tested 15 to 20 times during that season, and all returned negative. The next season his agent found him a team in Poland. It was a step down in all factors: professionalism, salary and competition. The private jet was now a bus. It was devastating for Dickel, who was now drug tested twice as often, in and out of competition. He was made to feel like a cheat. In the years he should have been capitalising on a strong start in a high-paying Russian team, he was starting again in Poland. The more immediate aftermath affected the Tall Blacks and their World Championship campaign. The team were called together for a meeting. The news was announced that Dickel had failed a drugs test and that he was suspended for the first three games of the tournament.
They lost the first three games of the World Champs: to Spain by 16 points, Germany by 24 and Angola by 22. Would Dickel's presence have bridged such heavy deficits? Who knows, but the disruption of the news, the fact that they only had one point guard without him, on top of him actually not playing would be enough to derail any team. He returned to the side to help them get wins over hosts Japan and Panama, enough to advance them to the next stage where he dropped 15 points in the loss to Argentina.
At the end of the 2006 World Champs, Dickel had his first thoughts of hanging up the black jersey. He looked around his team and thought the window was closing. Only Penney from the 2002 team was still in his prime, and Dickel wanted to use what he had left in his body to string out his club career in Europe. He suited up in 2007 for new coach Nenad Vucinic, his old teammate, to help the team in their bid for qualification to the 2008 Olympics. The bid fell short, and he retired. He continued to play in Europe despite off-season surgeries in 2008, 2009 and 2010, before heading back to the Southern Hemisphere to finish his career. He had kids to worry about now — where they would go to school, where to make their home — and his wife always liked New Zealand when they visited. The opportunity to return home coincided with his desire to coach. His dad had always told him that one day he would have to give back to New Zealand. The Otago Nuggets gave him the perfect opportunity. He became director of development and began honing his coaching skills. He ended up being player-coach for the Nuggets before moving on to coach the Canterbury Rams. A move to the Philippines was next, where he eventually became the head coach of the national team, another first for a Kiwi.
An unstoppable force on and off the court, Dickel's reputation outside knowledgeable basketball circles in New Zealand suffers from his own success. Having played the majority of his basketball overseas in leagues that aren't overly accessible to Kiwi viewers, it is hard for the public to comprehend just how good and just how successful he has been. He went places no Kiwi had been before and continues to break boundaries. It's a name that when said aloud in Turkey is instantly recognised, yet in Auckland, you might take a while to find someone who remembers him.
The basketball world will remember the name Mark Dickel for a long time, in part because he's not done yet.
Ballin' in Black: Our Tall Blacks Test Centurions by Huw Beynon, published by Bateman Books, RRP$39.99, Release Date May 10