Saker opened court to Kiwis

Saker driving past American Paul Ellis at a French league game in the Thaon-Les-Vosges gym in the...
Saker driving past American Paul Ellis at a French league game in the Thaon-Les-Vosges gym in the 1970s. Photos supplied.
Basketball writer John Saker interviewing NBA legend Karl Malone in Barcelona in 1992.
Basketball writer John Saker interviewing NBA legend Karl Malone in Barcelona in 1992.
Saker at the Thunder Arena in Oklahoma City.
Saker at the Thunder Arena in Oklahoma City.

John Saker is a New Zealand basketball pioneer. He was one of the earliest players to delve into the American college scene, and became our first professional when he stumbled into a contract in France in the 1970s. He is also, almost certainly, our loveliest writer on the sport. Hayden Meikle talks to the Wellington writer and wine connoisseur.

Hayden Meikle: Why basketball? Why did you fall in love with the sport?

John Saker: A whole lot of things. The first was the freedom I got from basketball to express myself athletically. I say that to rugby players and they say, ''Oh, come on.''

But those guys are always backs. Being a lock, as I was, I felt I was just moving from scrum to scrum. The ball was never there for me. It was grunt work, and I was looking for more from a sport. Another aspect was the American link. That connection always fascinated me, more so because in those days we were so cut off from it. You would go to a magazine shop in Wellington every week for a year, and then finally something would arrive. An All-Pro annual, perhaps. You would treasure it and just devour that over the next few months. It was an opening to another world, and I quite liked that. And, at a physical level, there was the jumping thing. Every scoring movement in basketball involves a jump. The aerial dimension makes basketball quite special.

HM: You talk at length in your new book about falling in love with the hook shot, of all things. Explain how that happened.

JS: I talk about this guy, this big lunk in a visiting American team, who had a gorgeous hook shot. He just made it look so easy. I wanted to learn how to do that. It was so aesthetically pleasing, so graceful and complete.

HM: You write that ''beauty was not something New Zealand did well''. Are we getting better at appreciating beauty in sport in this country?

JS: I think we are. I think the arrival of more women into sport has been a factor. More women are fans now, and that's changed things. The laconic, grim-faced 1960s All Black was the face of sport when I grew up and we've moved away from that. Beautiful games like basketball and soccer are being given their due now.

HM: You also write that ''if rugby is the Sun King of New Zealand sport, basketball is a palace fringe dweller''. Are we seeing that change at all?

JS: Definitely. Basketball is in remarkably good shape in New Zealand. I think the 2002 team that finished fourth in the world changed everything. The Tall Blacks have not feared Australia since then. I don't think most New Zealanders realise how amazing it is that the Tall Blacks are ranked 21st in the world. It's a global sport. But there are still plenty of kids playing the sport. There are better gyms. There is now a much wider understanding of, and respect for, basketball. Though I do wish that was better reflected in the funding our national teams get.

HM: What do you make of what the Breakers have achieved over their time in the Australian competition?

JS: It took a while for them to get going. It took a while to get used to that league. But they've been great for the game. They're a terrific, very likeable team. And hey, what about that latest championship? Amazing.

HM: Do you think the Breakers' success has had a significant effect on the New Zealand league? Any blood on their hands?

JS: No, I wouldn't say that. The New Zealand league hasn't been well run for quite a while, and I don't think you can blame the Breakers for that. The local league is still strong in the provinces, in places like Nelson and Napier.

HM: Where do you see Steven Adams' career heading?

JS: I think he's a champion, I really do. He's come so far, so quickly. There's no doubt OKC has been good for him. Over the next few years, it will be interesting. He needs to be encouraged to take on a greater offensive role, because he's got wonderful skills. He's always done what he's told, but I think it's time to unshackle him, to get him involved in the offence more. Steven is going to be a force.

HM: Are you pleased to see more young New Zealanders playing college basketball in the United States?

JS: Yeah, it's a great pathway if it works for you. There's no typical US experience - there are big schools, small schools, junior colleges. To get the right match for a player can be difficult, and I've heard stories where it hasn't worked well. I was very happy for a couple of years in Montana. I was one of the first to take up a basketball scholarship, a few years after Ngatai Smith from Church College, perhaps another one or two. But it shouldn't seen as the only pathway. That 2002 Tall Blacks team had Phill Jones and Pero Cameron, great international players who were both developed in New Zealand.

HM: Best three basketball books you've read?

JS: The Breaks Of The Game is a fabulous book. My second would be another David Halberstam book, the Michael Jordan one called Playing For Keeps. And the third that had an impact on me was the Bill Bradley book, A Sense Of Where You Are, by John McPhee.

HM: I recall your son, Paul, playing for the Nuggets back in the day. What's he up to now?

JS: Paul did his law degree and loved his time in Otago. He's in Wellington after having lived in Paris for seven years, trying to make his way as a musician. He had some success but thought he might give law a go again. He's a case solicitor at the Insurance and Savings Ombudsman's office. Like me, he has stuffed ankles so he can't play much basketball any more.

HM: You've also written extensively about wine. Got a favourite drop from down this way?

JS: Central Otago pinot noir is a worldwide phenomenon. There's some great stuff coming out of there. Take your pick from the 2012 vintage. A lot of beautiful wines were made that year.- Open Looks, John Saker's tale of his lifetime love affair with basketball (Awa Press), is in stores today.

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