It's hard to believe a sport so rooted in glitz and glamour could soon be the most popular sport in New Zealand.

But with every year that passes, the number of young Kiwi sportspeople taking up basketball is growing exponentially and Northland is no exception. In the past three years the number of players across the region has grown from about 5000 to more than 14,000.

Trials began last week for Northland Basketball's upcoming season of age-group tournaments across the country, with many young male and female players from under-11 to under-19 testing their skills at ASB Stadium in Whangārei to see if they had what it took.

Basketball had been one of the fastest growing and most participated in sports in the last three years in Northland.

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To accommodate the rise in players, more competitions and associations had been set up with more on the horizon if the trend continued.

"The game itself is growing like you wouldn't believe," Northland Basketball general manager Josh Port said.

"In one way, we are trying to play catch up in providing the amount of activity that is being sought. On the other side of it, we are trying to get back to grassroots and working with schools to provide basketball activity and not just focus on the elite pathways."

Port saw this growth was as a result of increased connectivity with the American NBA competition and stories like Kiwi Oklahoma City Thunder star Steven Adams, whose success acted as an example for younger New Zealanders to follow.

However, with the numbers in age-group rugby continuing to decline, Port suggested that basketball was becoming the safer alternative in today's sporting landscape.

"Parents are shying away from those heavy contact sports like rugby and rugby league because of the stories we hear about concussion.

"Basketball is seen as a good alternative because you've got some contact, it's still a team game with communication and comraderie, but it's not the real physical body contact so you don't get the injury count."

Jackson Boyd has his eyes on the prize at trials last week. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Jackson Boyd has his eyes on the prize at trials last week. Photo / Michael Cunningham

He found this affected the usual process whereby the most talented athletes would have gravitated to netball, rugby or football, but were now finding their way to basketball.

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This seemed to have an effect on performance as well. At last year's regionals tournament in Takanini, the Northland under-13 boys team beat Auckland, the first time Northland had beaten Auckland at an age-group level.

Two years ago, the under-15 side couldn't buy a win. In friendly games earlier this year, they have beaten Hibiscus Coast and narrowly lost to North Harbour, a team who would have beaten them by 20 or 30 points in the past.

"It's little things like that where we are seeing massive progress and it's coming back to building on those skill sets early so we can build individually and as a team and give them more basketball to play," Port said.

Despite the talent on offer, Northland had no team in New Zealand's national basketball league, the NBL. While Port said this was a focus going forward, his ultimate goal was to promote an active lifestyle in Northland through basketball.

"For me, i just want to see people that want to play basketball, I want to see activity and the provisions there for them.

"In Northland, isolation is one of the biggest mental health issues and I think basketball can actually play a role there in helping our communities to connect, become less isolated and get active."

Coach Manuera Riwai leading the way for Northland's newest recruits. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Coach Manuera Riwai leading the way for Northland's newest recruits. Photo / Michael Cunningham

With such a sharp increase in players, coaches and referees would be in high demand. With the help of skilled members who were already established in Northland, as well as some funding, Port expected to have 30 to 40 top-level referees and coaches by the end of the year.

"Our biggest challenge is figuring out how to provide activity for all these people which is a good problem to have but it is hard when you've got to rely on volunteers," he said.

This year provided a huge chance to show the fruits of this player growth and with regional qualifiers coming up in April, Port had high expectations of his age-group teams, none of which had ever qualified for the national competition.

"I would be happy if all our teams make regionals and I am expecting our under-17 boys and our under-15 boys to make nationals."

"Whether they place or not, I'm not concerned about that but I expect them both to make nationals."

Northland's 2019 age-group basketball squads

U11 Boys:

Oscar Parlour, Arli Hokai, Lincoln Evans, Damon Murray, Ihaka Dunn, Matthias Cameron, Nikau Cameron-Tana, Wakaroa Smith, Kharnae Brophy-Johnstone.

U13 Boys:

Jaime Dowson, Tairina Masters, Tawa Frape, Finesi Bourne, Psalm Cameron, Brodie Takimoana, Lochlan Thompson, Noak Heke, Te Manawa Chapman, Wiremu Makea, Spencer Vinnels, Te Kapua Leuluai Walker.

U13 Girls:

Neta Palmer, Rangianana Tito-Heremaia, Matekino Randell, Anahera Worsfold, Kassidy Murray, Pheonix Kaipo, Khalia Murray, Charlene Masivtama, Irimei Grey, Bekks Coll, Tatiana Makea, Amelia Murray, Corey-Leigh Tobin, Pyper Buxton, Oriwa Tipene.

U15 Boys - A:

Roera Tipene, Tobias Marsh, Te Moana Temu, Te Aki Campbell, Denzel Anderson, Rory Rudolph, Raukawa Baylis, Maddeson Kake, Malachi Dunn, Terry Thompson.

U15 Boys – B:

Baydon Takimoana, Mana Henare, Luke Crowley, Bailey Foster, Dajsean Tepana, Quincy Gillies-Walters, Teina Curtis, Whitianga Bedgood, Phoenix Cherrington, Kaharau Harris.

U15 Girls:

Terina Cameron–Tana, Mahina Kukutai-Wairau, Shakani Murry, Shaqelah Murry, Waiana Frape, Kahu Raharuhi, Kaila Tobin, Ponotia Marsh, Kayla LLewell-Huriwaka, Riley Tepania, Teina Nathan–Hita, Te Waimarino Tait.

U17 Boys – A:

Aonui Nathan, Howard Covich, Te Hauroa Tawhara-Crown, Wayne-David Hetaraka, Javontay Rika, Jayden Murray, Hoani Hetaraka, Kareia Woodman, Jayden Marsh, Brodan Stokes, Teina Pou-Hita, Boston Kake, Eli Warmington, Rehutai Kingi.

U17 Boys – B:

Winiata Heta, Cameron Murray, Cobe Aspden-Howell, Jordan Davis, Elysha Green, Elijah Liza, Jordan Tatou-Manihera, Tyrese Peters, Cyrus Shortland, Kaata Whitehead, Tahl Harding, Jayden Himiona, Jade Raharuhi, Nate Te Hira.

U17 Girls:

Puawai Woodman, Tyla Llewell-Huriwaka, Jahnae Llewll-Huriwaka, Erina Paraha, Keeley Mcdonald, Kororia Ryder, Alysha Kingi, Azahraya Tepania, Maurea Heemi-Teriaki, Karisma Kingi, Riria Hepi, Marara Murry.