Basketball: Walk, run, win: Nuggets rebound

Basketball Otago board member Simon Clarke.
Basketball Otago board member Simon Clarke.
The Otago Nuggets have battled back from the brink of extinction and are on track to snap a 16-year playoff drought. Sports writer Adrian Seconi asks Basketball Otago board member Simon Clarke how the franchise managed the transformation from chumps to potential champs.

In some respects, Simon Clarke could not have picked a better time to leave the safety of the bench.

The 40-year-old Kaikorai Primary School principal played club basketball for the St Kilda Saints for years and had always maintained a healthy interest in the Nuggets. But it was not until the franchise reached its lowest ebb that he was spurred into action.

By the end of 2008, Basketball Otago had lost the will to keep financing the cash-strapped franchise and made the decision to pull the team out of the National Basketball League [NBL] for the 2009 season.

Clarke aligned with the likes of Gavin Briggs and Todd Marshall and the ginger group vowed to resurrect the team. Had it not been for their commitment, and the support of a passionate basketball community, the Nuggets could so easily have been consigned to history.

Instead, an important pathway was kept open, which the likes of 15-year-old Otago Boys' High School pupil Sam Timmins was able to exploit when made his debut for the Nuggets on Friday.

''That is the whole reason we got the team back in,'' Clarke said.

''We wanted to have an end point for all the good development work Basketball Otago was doing.''

Passion is one thing but cash is another. The Nuggets needed financial support and Oceana Gold's decision to sign on as the major naming sponsor in 2010 was absolutely critical.

''That's why we are so passionate about having the difference they have made recognised.

''They have helped with all manner of things, from giving advice with our spreadsheets and on how to go about approaching other businesses. They weren't just handing over money, they were really supportive. It is a real partnership rather than just being a financial arrangement.

''We were committed to getting the Nuggets back in but unless Oceana Gold jumped on board, we were never getting back in the league.''

The Nuggets made a painful return after a year out. They lost all 18 games, sometimes by rather embarrassing margins.

''I think we aimed for one or two wins in that first season back but what we didn't want to be was one and done. Our mission statement was to put the best team on the floor which was financially sustainable.

''We had to make sure the kids had something to aspire to, but we couldn't afford to go bankrupt because it would ruin everything we were trying to achieve.''

Clarke said the franchise was working on a three-year plan to get the team playing competitive basketball and into the playoffs for the first time since 1997.

''We had to walk before we could run,'' he said.

''It has probably taken us a year longer than we envisaged. We went in with all guns blazing and did not realise how hard it was going to be.

''The big hurdle in the first few years was attracting good players to the organisation. We didn't have a history of winning and, of all the players we chased, no-one wanted to come and play here.''

Former Tall Black Craig Bradshaw blazed a trail in that respect. He told the Otago Daily Times at the time he would not have agreed to play for the Nuggets if it was the deadbeat team many believed. His decision sent an important message to the rest of the players around the league.

''Craig was definitely a huge signing for us. It paved the way for others to say, 'Hey, it is OK to play for Otago'.

''Of course, Mark [Dickel] was critical as well. Craig was great and he gave the team respectability, but Mark was the real big signing in the sense he was able to attract top-level players in BJ Anthony and Leon Henry.

''Mark bleeds basketball. He has an impact on every part of the franchise from the money that is coming in, to the players that are being attracted.

''And, certainly, defensively he is having a big impact on the court.''

The Nuggets have made a perfect start to the season with five wins from five games and have now won seven consecutive NBL games.

While it has been a deeply satisfying feeling to see the Nuggets stringing wins together, Clarke said the greatest source of pride came from watching families make their way through the doors of the Edgar Centre and knowing they were excited about watching the Nuggets play.

''The best part for me has been watching the resurgence in the popularity of the sport in Dunedin.

''We all go back to the Freezer Dome days, the Nugget-O-Meter and those big crowds of 3000. Most of us have got young kids involved and we've loved seeing our own kids be excited about knowing who James Ross is and wearing his singlet - or BJ's or Mark Dickel's.

''We're providing a really good night out for families and, hopefully, that flows into kids wanting to play the sport.

''Don't get me wrong. I love to see the Nuggets doing well and winning, but it is great to see the whole sport portrayed in a positive light.''


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