Golden return

Nuggets player Jordan Ngatai models the new Nuggets uniform. When they return tomorrow night...
Nuggets player Jordan Ngatai models the new Nuggets uniform. PHOTO: PHOTOSPORT
As sporting comebacks go, it is perhaps not quite on the scale of Tiger Woods winning his first golf major in 11 years, or Michael Jordan returning to grace the courts of basketball after an 18-month stint on the baseball diamond, or Monica Seles returning to tennis action after being stabbed by a fan.

No, the sporting world’s eyes will not be on them when they walk on to the hardwood for the first time in six years tonight, but there is still a lot to like about the return of the Otago Nuggets.

There is a marvellous sense of romance about the basketball team’s first appearance in the national league since 2014, even if it is not quite the national league as we know it.

As we reported last week, the shiny new uniforms were still on the way and some of the squad members had not even met each other just a few days before the opening tip-off.

They will not get to celebrate their comeback in front of their own supporters — the entire competition, put together after Covid-19 wrecked the original format — is being held in Auckland.

They will play free of almost any expectations, though snaffling Tall Black stars Jordan Ngatai and Jarrod Kenny through the innovative draft — oh, that all professional New Zealand sporting codes would follow suit — should ensure they are competitive.

In short, we should not expect a miracle, or some sort of Lazarus-like glory on the scale of Leicester City winning the English Premier League in 2015-16 in the biggest football upset of all time.

But they’re back. The team that struggled for so long that it seemed "Beleaguered Nuggets" was not just a description but a formal name is back, and that is cause for celebration. Perhaps it’s even time to dust off the old song: "We’re the Nuggets, and we’re heading for the top. We’re the Nuggets, and we ain’t gonna stop."

After 24 years of almost uninterrupted presence in the national league, the Nuggets pulled out in 2014 due to the financial collapse of Basketball Otago.

But the spirit never died. Through the sterling work of the hoops community, they were granted provisional re-entry to the national league for 2020 but decided to wait another year to get the necessary base of support and funding to ensure the comeback was not a one-season wonder.

Then along came coronavirus, and a rejigged league that allows franchises to take part at a fraction of the cost.

Sustainability will be the keyword for the Nuggets, and the league itself, after this season, but it is vital the Otago franchise — which has cast envious looks at the well-resourced Southland Sharks winning championships before, oddly, electing to ignore the resuscitated competition — comes back to life.

It’s about providing a pathway for the best young male basketballers in the province, about highlighting the most popular sport in Otago at the top level, about flying the provincial banner on the national stage, about finding the next Jerome Fitchett or Leonard King or Mark Dickel or Glen Denham or Hayden Allen or Antoine Tisby.

They might not be heading for the top just yet. But it is reassuring to think the Nuggets "ain’t gonna stop".

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