Grant Chapman: Basketball's Breakers face crisis as Blackwells relinquish ownership

OPINION: One of New Zealand's most successful sporting franchises faces perhaps its sternest test yet - certainly off the court.

With Paul and Liz Blackwell's decision to step aside as majority owners, the NZ Breakers must quickly find a replacement capable of continuing the club's fine record in the Australian National Basketball League.

Since 2007 - two years after the Blackwells took the helm - the Auckland-based outfit has made seven playoff appearances, contesting five Grand Final series and winning four of them.

By any standards, that's impressive.

In New Zealand, perhaps only the Super Rugby Crusaders have a better record at that level. They have won eight titles, but only two since 2007 though, so maybe the Breakers have been our best professional team during that period.

The key to their success is a club culture that has taken their fan base - known as Breaker Nation - along for the ride, making supporters feel like they are an integral part of the formula.

That culture has been driven from the top by the owners.

To be sure, the Breakers have had great coaches, players and administrators over that period, but all of them owe their achievements to the Blackwells, who have shown patience and rock-solid commitment towards their people, even when the signs looked ominous.

Former coach Andrej Lemanis was the perfect example. After several years as an assistant in Townsville, he arrived for his first head-coaching job at the Breakers in 2005  the same year as the Blackwells - and won only nine of 32 games in his debut season.

The following year, he improved to 11-22, but a 10-game losing streak ended any playoff hopes. At that point, anyone else would have cut Lemanis loose with a cumulative 20-54 record.

But that's not the Breakers way - that's not the Blackwell way. They believed in Lemanis and persevered with him.

Paul and Liz Blackwell
Paul and Liz Blackwell address the Breakers awards function. Photo credit: Photosport

He finally guided the Breakers to the ANBL playoffs over the next two campaigns, but did not achieve a .500 coaching record until they were only a couple of games away from winning their first title in his fifth season.

Then he won two more titles, before stepping aside to become the Australian national coach. Lemanis would be the first acknowledge the Blackwells' part in his development.

When he left, the club promoted vastly experienced assistant Dean Vickerman to his first ANBL head-coaching role. He also needed a season to find his feet, before delivering another banner to the rafters.

When he left, assistant coach and foundation player Paul Henare was elevated to his first lead role. He too struggled last season, but currently has the Breakers on an eight-game winning run atop the league standings.

When Dillon Boucher, another club stalwart, hung up his sneakers in 2013, he was welcomed into a front office role, essentially learning the ropes under general manager Richard Clarke.

When Clarke left to join Lemanis at the Brisbane Bullets last year, Boucher stepped straight into that GM spot.

Imports arriving in New Zealand for the first time are usually blown away to find the team owners waiting to collect them at the airport and are stunned at how quickly they are welcomed into the 'family'.

Breakers history is littered with instances of people who have been given an opportunity to shine, nurtured along their chosen career paths and given another chance, if they happened to stray.

They all owe the Blackwells a debt of gratitude. By extension, we all owe them a debut of gratitude.

But now, the Breakers face the task of finding someone, not to just stump up some cash, but also to drive a philosophy that provides a safety net for good people to learn from their mistakes.

We've seen other sporting cases and plenty in business, where unstable ownership undermines performance further down the chain.

By contrast, the Blackwells have underpinned Breakers performance for several years. They've set an incredible foundation for whoever follows.

On the court, the team  against most predictions  seem on the verge of another special season.

Could this be the last? Let's hope not.