PETER JESSUP talks to the American who has become arguably New Zealand's most successful sports coach.

Auckland basketball coach Tab Baldwin is wearing the biggest smile these days, one so wide he hardly has to wear anything else.

It came when his Rebels side defied all odds to take a fifth national league title since he took charge in 1994, a winning record easily the best in New Zealand sport through the last decade.

So part of Baldwin's happiness is due to the fact that he does not right now fit the proverbial description of coaches as being of two types - those who have just been sacked and those about to be.


Part of it is satisfaction that it was his scheme, and the players he brought in and brought up, that did the job. Part of it is the back-patting and recognition from people that count to him, people from other sports, many of whom flooded Baldwin with e-mails of congratulation in a cross-sporting support that would not occur in his home town in the United States.

The 42-year-old came from a southern family in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, to the relative backblocks, starting his coaching career in New Zealand in Otago from 1988-91, then Invercargill.

In the far south, he coached three future stars in cricket and rugby international Jeff Wilson, Tall Black Mark Dickel, and Olympic sprinter Chris Donaldson.

The trio were part of a Southland under-18 squad who won the South Island championships.

The realisation that this country is one of those places you can identify that sort of talent and take it somewhere is one of the reasons he has stayed.

The motivation is still there for him despite the uncommon success he has enjoyed since moving north.

This week he has been planning clinics and coaching classes, programmes aimed at improving the standard of basketball through high schools around Auckland - while admitting some selfish goals were there in the hope that good players will graduate - and suggesting means of dragging up the standard generally.

Baldwin shuns talk that there is anything wrong with the fact that his side and Nelson, beaten 95-78 in the final, have dominated the national playoffs for the past decade.

"Sport should never be about the lowest common denominator. Look across the Tasman and across the Pacific - the Aussies and the Americans would say, 'Sure, let's be supportive of all effort and let's be proud of all involvement, but at the end of the day let's be winners'."

The other National Basketball League sides need to pull up, as rugby sides had to to match Auckland in the 1980s.

Baldwin's mix for success is simple: identify the players with the right talent and attitude and put them in a hard-working environment. He uses the word chemistry regularly.

"Chemistry was the difference for us in the final. When Matt Barnett [the American import who deserted the team on the week of the playoffs] left, we lost talent but our chemistry improved.

"It wasn't talent that won the final for us - it was guts and determination and pride. We had Prem Krishna playing with a bad knee and he popped it again, we had Haydn Smyth having a cast taken off his wrist early so he could play.

"That's the sort of collective chemistry we've built over the years and I feel so proud having been part of building it.

"That's what I tell the players, that they've built something special, to be proud."

The Rebels started uncharacteristically slowly this season, with their Tall Blacks late returning from overseas jobs then away half the season, their two imports late joining, injuries meaning they often could not test the defensive press against their famed triangle offence because they did not have 10 fit players.

Baldwin rates the Palmerston Jets as possibly the best side for talent in the competition but they did not make the playoffs because of inconsistency.

Auckland simply got better. They had to win each of their last four games or they were out and that consistency produced its own power.

"By the playoffs, success was feeding on itself and fuelling the team - you could feel it."

A team in that position needs great leadership, a game plan they have confidence in, a belief they will win.

They need talent to put the plan into action. They need a plan B and the ability to adapt when the opposition stops you putting plan A into force. Baldwin gave the Rebels all that and a good psychological kick-along as well.

Anyone in any sport with a CV recording wins as Baldwin's does would be national coach by now.

He has applied twice, sounded the job opportunity out a third time, but has been kicked to touch every time.

Hawkes Bay accountant Keith Mair has held the job for the past decade and he said last week he was not regarding the Olympics as his swansong. Baldwin is philosophical, not pining for the position, not sure he really wants it now.

"I don't know if I'd put my name forward again. Being rejected twice makes you think twice. I've accepted it's not my time now, this is Keith's time. If the job came up again I would look at it then."

He has some sympathy for his rival, who leads the Tall Blacks against 11 countries where they have no realistic chance of a win.

"I'd urge people not to look at the scoreline. If New Zealand can hang in the game, stay within 20 points and keep the games alive, let alone give themselves any chance of winning, it would be a huge achievement."

He does not have New Zealand citizenship yet, simply because he has not taken the last step after 12 years' residency, but says New Zealand is home and he regards himself as a Kiwi, with ties now through daughter Sasha, aged 5, who lives in Hamilton with her mother, and partner in Auckland-born Raewyn.

This off-season will be spent planning for next year, unlike past seasons when he has gone offshore to places like Malaysia to run a team.

But now Auckland have the chance to become the Kiwi version of the Chicago Bulls. It was from Jordan's team that Auckland grabbed the slogan "three-peat" after their third championship win in 1996 and now they can match the Bulls' two three-peats with a win in 2001.

How do you keep a team fresh, enthused, when you've run them for years and they are overly used to the sound of your voice? "We're lucky with the character of the guys we have. They want to do it."

The team have always been built around the exceptional Pero Cameron. When Auckland need points late in a game he is the man under the basket, the one they give the ball to. But 2000 captain Dillon Boucher and forward Simon Mesritz have been heart and soul of the team, Baldwin reckons.

Paul Henare has been a defensive key, improving out of sight since he shifted north from Hawkes Bay two seasons ago.

At 21, Henare has made the Tall Blacks, and plays most times for the Rebels.

He rarely loses the ball, has a great pass, vision to set up his team-mates, is a brilliant defender.

Now Baldwin wants to teach him to go for his own shots too, to question the opposition that bit more, to build his offence.

It is that motivation that has Baldwin up for 2001.