Fears top Māori, Pasifika basketball talent slipping through cracks as costs become unaffordable

Our second-most participated sport is being slammed for being out of reach for many promising players. 

Basketball is set to become Aotearoa's number one game in the next few years, but there are fears that its affordability means top talent is slipping through the cracks.

Even in retirement, former Tall Black Lindsay Tait dedicates his life to coaching basketball and says there's no shortage of local talent.

"Some of the talent that's coming through just makes my jaw drop," he tells The Hui.

But what does concern the former pro-basketballer is that New Zealand has turned into a 'no pay, no play' culture, and Māori and Pasifika players are most disadvantaged.

"There's people that are re-mortgaging their homes to send kids on New Zealand trips," he says.

"You come across the number of kids who can't play because of money, but they don't want to tell you," adds volunteer coach Patrick Isa'ako. 

Basketball New Zealand CEO Iain Potter says the key issue is a socio-economic one once players reach representative level.

"We're conscious that cost can be a barrier when we're asking the top 1 percent to represent their country. We love to participate at all levels and so it's our aim to try to get our best young players into the world environment," Potter says.

Basketball New Zealand is the national body, overseeing 36 associations throughout Aotearoa, with Tāmaki Makaurau being the largest region.

It's represented by Auckland Basketball Services Limited (ABSL), set up in 2012 and responsible for delivering the game in the city.

Tait was working for ABSL developing their training programme when they made him and all full-time staff redundant in April 2020 because of COVID-19.

Tait started his own breakaway league, Auckland City Basketball (ACB), which keeps tournament and coaching fees to a minimum, with shortfalls often coming out of their own pockets. 

"Auckland City Basketball has been formed out of necessity to give these young, predominantly west Auckland, south Auckland kids from our city a fair opportunity," Tait says.

The 39-year-old represented New Zealand for 12 years and also criticises basketball heads for being out of touch with the grassroots game.

"Unfortunately, to be at the top of some of these organisations you don't have to necessarily be a basketball player or have played basketball, but you have to have some connection to the communities that you're supposed to be caring for," Tait adds.

The game's popularity here has exploded - it's now the second-most participated school sport and is expected to be number one in the next few years.

That's due in part to the success of Steven Adams who cracked the lucrative US NBA game. 

Remarkably, Adams never played for New Zealand with the exorbitant costs one of the reasons, according to his mentor Kenny McFadden. 

"He couldn't come up through the ranks, most of it had to do with finance, as well as a lot of other players. Here in this country basketball is a very expensive sport, to play reps," McFadden says.

"For a guy like Steven Adams to essentially be our highest achiever and to have done it on his own, and for us as a community and a governing body to not have learnt from that and to try and help the next Steven Adams is very concerning," says Tait.

The firing of such a famous player-turned-coach was a shock to the basketball community. 

ABSL's new CEO Rob Wakelin started the job in January.

"COVID-19 had a massive impact on the world. We all know that it stopped sport in general in its tracks. And when you lose income like that, there's got to be a reaction," he says.

Wakelin rejects criticism that ABSL is out of touch with the grassroots game.

"Ultimately, we're owned by our community. Our community team is out and about facing the communities. So yeah, I think our channels into the community are really sound," Wakelin says.

Making the street game accessible to everyone is something all parties can agree on.

"I worry that there are those that aren't getting opportunities to play basketball at all, or are sitting outside our systems, and therefore missing out on the support our systems provide," Potter says.

Basketball New Zealand says it is working on a range of projects aimed at making the game more affordable.

"We are conscious that those players when they hit that level [where they could play in the world environment], which is pretty rarefied, when you're at that level, the costs go up considerably," Potter says.

"We've got travel and accommodation to the other side of the world and we subsidise that. There are also a range of scholarships and subsidies that are available around the country.

"Like I said Auckland Basketball have a $20,000 per annum scholarship fund for players that make the national level."

Made with support from Te Māngai Pāho and NZ On Air.

Fears top Māori, Pasifika basketball talent slipping through cracks as costs become unaffordable