United Nations of Basketball

The Thursday edition of the New Zealand Herald which reported on the Tall Blacks loss to the Australian Boomers in the opening match of the 2005 FIBA Oceania Championship carried an article on efforts by the government to stem and then reverse the "brain drain" from New Zealand.

It seems like New Zealanders are a nation of wanderers, with up to 14% of the population living outside the country - the highest of any OECD nation. If you think about that for a moment that means in round terms, for every 6 New Zealanders living inside the country, there's one living abroad. Reportedly 355,000 live in Australia and 58,000 of them in the UK. Other English speaking countries like Canada and the Pacific Islands are also home for many "Kiwis".

This New Zealand "wunderlust" and the fact that New Zealand also attracts its fair share of overseas tourists might help explain why the New Zealand Basketball team reads a little like the United Nations of Basketball.

Among the 12 man Tall Blacks roster are players born in Buffalo USA; Whitehorse, Canada; Sydney, Australia; Suva, Fiji Islands and Burnaby, Canada. Even Dylan Boucher and Tony Rampton - both about as Kiwi as they come, share a birthplace, New Plymouth which sounds like a little piece of England transplanted to the South Pacific. Several Kiwis hold dual nationality by virtue of the birthplace of their parents and have used that to participate as unrestricted players in European competitions.

So how does this "international nations of basketball" come about and will New Zealand basketball be matching the efforts of the government in trying to stem and reverse the basketball talent drain?

During a rest day in competition, I spoke with some of the New Zealand players with places of birth outside New Zealand and also with Tall Blacks coach Tab Baldwin.

Aaron Olson (born Whitehorse Canada April 11th 1978)

FIBA: Where is Whitehorse?
Aaron: In the northern part of western Canada towards Alaska.

FIBA: How does a Tall Black come to be born in Whitehorse?
Aaron: My dad is Canadian and my mum is a New Zealander. My dad visited New Zealand when he was young, met my mum and they got married. Some time after that they moved back to Canada where he was from, and I was born in there.

FIBA: So you have dual nationality?
Aaron: Yes I am a New Zealand national by decent and also have Canadian nationality by birth.

FIBA: So what are your links to both countries?
Aaron: We've travelled back and forth between the two countries many times during my life. When I was still very young (I think about 4 years old) mum came back to New Zealand and brought me with her. Actually, the fact that I was able to show myself travelling on her passport at the age of six helped me prove to FIBA that I had exercised my right to be a New Zealander at an early age. I spent about 5 years living in New Zealand and going to school here. Mostly in Nelson but we spent a year in the Bay of Islands region also.

When my mum and dad separated, I went to live in Canada with my Dad - I was about 10 then.

FIBA: So how did you end up in a Tall Blacks uniform?
Aaron: I did secondary school in Canada and then went to the US where I attended College and played basketball. My College coach was a friend of Tab Baldwin, at that time the coach of the Auckland Stars in the (New Zealand) NBL (National Basketball League). I think he had also not long been appointed as the Tall Blacks coach. At the end of my college in 2001 I came back to New Zealand and spent about half the season playing for Tab in the Auckland Stars and later he asked me to come and try out with the Tall Blacks.

At that time I wasn't sure if my future was in New Zealand or Canada, or maybe somewhere else, but the achievements of the Tall Blacks in Indianapolis in 2002 showed me there was a basketball future for me in New Zealand if I wanted to take up the opportunity.

FIBA: How has the basketball picture developed for you since then?
Aaron: I continued to play for the Auckland Stars but in 2003 when we went to Australia to play in the qualification for the Athens Olympics, my status as a New Zealander was not clear. We could not prove at that time that I had taken up my right to New Zealand citizenship before reaching the age of 16, so although I was in Australia with the team, Coach Baldwin had to make a decision about using either myself or centre Ed Book in the line-up (editor's note: FIBA regulations stipulate that on the national team there can only be one player who has acquired the nationality of that country after reaching the age of 16, whether that is by naturalisation or taking up rights due to the nationality of parents etc). That was hard. But soon afterwards we supplied the documents which proved I had been in New Zealand as a New Zealander at a young age and FIBA approved me as an unrestricted New Zealander.

FIBA: So what's it like being a Tall Black?
Aaron: I love it. The Tall Blacks have made trips to Turkey, Bulgaria, Australia and of course I had the opportunity to be part of the Athens Olympics. It's good to play at an elite level, to be with the team, and basketball has allowed me to travel to places and do things which I may not have done otherwise.

FIBA: After this Tall Blacks campaign is over - what then?
Aaron: I have signed a contract for the 2005-2006 season with the New Zealand Breakers playing in the Australian NBL. The season has been changed this year to accommodate the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia in March 2006. I hope that I will be selected to represent New Zealand in the Commonwealth Games. People from other countries do not realise that in this part of the world, the Commonwealth Games ranks second behind the Olympics as a prestige sporting event that you want to be a part of. When the New Zealand National League commences in 2006 I will return to the Auckland Stars. And I hope that I wil be a Tall Black going to Japan in 2006 to FIBA's World Basketball Championships.

National Team Coach Tab Baldwin on keeping track of the talent which is available.

FIBA: Do you or the Federation have any way of keeping track of the players who might be eligible to play for New Zealand but who do not live in New Zealand?
Tab: We know there are a lot of people all over the world who might be eligible to represent New Zealand in international competition. Some of them are fine ball players but we have no system of monitoring or tracking their progress. It's pretty much word of mouth and the network of friends.

My attitude to this issue has changed quite a lot as a result of my experience working with my club team in Turkey. Taking part in competitions in that part of the world made me aware that other clubs are actively out searching for emerging talent and making sure that if a player has promise, he is eligible to play for your club - preferably without restrictions.

There are a lot of Kiwis in Australia and I am working with an idea of how we identify the potential talent there. If we find some potential future Tall Blacks then we need to be sure they are aware of all of the things that they need to do to become eligible to play for New Zealand.

Of course the standard of basketball in New Zealand is also rising. More kids are playing basketball, we have new facilities being built all the time, we're taking steps to improve the quality of programs for the education of coaches and the level of competition is rising. And of course because of the achievements of the Tall Blacks, this is something young sportsmen are aspiring to. These things taken together mean we should expect New Zealand basketball to be able to continue to perform at a high level into the future.

The New Zealand Tall Blacks face Australia in the second game in the FIBA Oceania Championships at 3.00 p.m. (New Zealand time) on Saturday August 20th at Telstra Stadium in Auckland and they must win this game if they want to have any chance of claiming the title of number 1 in Oceania.


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