Magic in the Air

Words by  Hannah Mumby
Andy Jackson Andy Jackson

Despite a 2023 season that struggled to deliver similar highs of the one prior, the Taranaki Steelformers Mountain Airs are doing everything right to rekindle the magic that captivated the community in 2022. So will 2024 be the year of the Airs? 

You don’t have to look too hard to see the belief. It’s flowing through the team, the wider organisation, and a hearty fan base that has continued to gain momentum following the Airs’ table-topping regular season two years ago. 

Returning General Manager, Cole Brown, says the loyalty from local supporters has given the club a huge boost as it looks to provide an even greater experience for fans to witness this season.

“Last year we proved we had sustainability – even though the results weren’t quite as good, we still had something people wanted to come and watch, week in, week out. 

“We’ve put a lot of effort into that game experience over the past couple of seasons, and this year we’ve put that on steroids. We want to shock people when they come to our home games this season.”

The first taste of what that involves would have been felt by those who attended the Airs’ first home game against the NBL’s newest team, Tauranga Whai, on April 13. Many more will have the opportunity to experience the initiatives incorporated by Brown and his team when the Airs suit up against the Franklin Bulls, on May 4 at the TSB Stadium. That will be followed by five more home games, one every week, between May 12 and June 8.

In addition to the amplified entertainment, sound and lighting, a greater range of corporate hospitality packages and fan activations have been proving popular with local businesses. “Celebrity seating” designed to celebrate sporting greats with links to Taranaki has also been introduced to enrich the community’s parochial ties to the team.  

“There’s been a huge amount of change over the past year, but the new ownership group (Australian sports media company, Media8 Sports) has been really good about our desire to keep our local focus and the ethos around what our club is about.

“We want this to be a Taranaki team, representing Taranaki people. The roster this year has more locals than ever before, and I’m particularly excited about the balance we have in the squad. We’ve recruited with a slightly different mindset, where we wanted to look at what we had locally, and pair that with outstanding players who would support the team’s development.”

The carefully assembled roster, led by highly-regarded coach, Sam Mackinnon, proved what they were capable of during the first ever Westside Blitz preseason tournament in Greymouth during March. The side posted wins over the Wellington Saints, Nelson Giants 

and Auckland Tuatara, returning home with the trophy, despite being without key members of the team. At the time of writing this article, they had posted one win and one loss from their first two away games.

Coming to Taranaki from the South East Melbourne Phoenix, where he was the Assistant Coach, former Australian Boomer, Mackinnon, brings an overwhelming level of experience and understanding around the game of basketball and the importance of building a relationship between a team and its front office.

“Sam’s been a general manager as well as a coach, so it’s been awesome to work with someone who understands that side of things. He also brings a lot of mana, is great with the players, and has an incredibly level-headed approach to everything,” says Brown.

While that may mean spectators witness less of the yelling synonymous with basketball coaches, Coach Mackinnon plans to provide more positive entertainment by way of the team’s on-court performance.

“When the fans come to watch us, they’ll see a passionate group of men who are going to get out there and get after it. We’ll compete for every possession, enjoy and celebrate each other’s successes, and represent this community in the right way,” he says.

“We’ll be physical and hard-nosed defensively, and then we’ll look to have some fun on the offensive end of the floor, with multiple options we can score from.” 

Having been “pleasantly surprised” by the intensity, communication, physicality and attitude of the team unit when he arrived just a few weeks ago, Mackinnon is excited about this year’s roster and what they can achieve.

“I think there’s no doubt we should be a finals team. The format of this league is very tough, it’s very cut-throat, so we need to make sure we put ourselves in the best position for the tail end of the season.”

His coaching philosophy is based on drawing the best from each individual, while igniting a strong belief that success is possible.

“I’m the type of coach who wants to facilitate growth and get guys to achieve their goals. With the players we’ve recruited, everyone is trying to improve their professional career and go on to great things, so I hope to help them develop their skills day-to-day, and give them the belief that they can make those strides. Whether that’s Sam (Froling) making a Boomers team, or Flynn (Cameron) breaking into an elite Australian NBL team, or Carlin (Davison) transitioning from a development player to a full roster spot in the Australian NBL.”

Through Mackinnon’s connections and those of Media8, the Airs’ appeal was strengthened significantly in the Australian market this year, drawing the attention of two elite players who turned down attractive offers in favour of playing under Mackinnon in Taranaki. 

The first of those is Sam Froling, a 7ft power forward who Mackinnon compares to the dominant Rob Loe of the Auckland Tuatara. Having a big man with talent running the floor will no doubt be a highlight for Airs’ fans this year.

Froling has spent the past five seasons with the Illawarra Hawks, where he averaged 16 points a game over the 23/24 season. Born and raised in Townsville, Australia, he comes from a family of professional basketballers and is looking forward to hitting the Waiwhakaiho surf break during his time in Taranaki.

“Townsville has quite a similar vibe to Taranaki so this kind of community will make him feel right at home and I know the fans will love him. Sam runs the floor really well, sets good screens, and his teammates love him, so he will fit into this culture well,” says Mackinnon.

The second is Mitch McCarron, a 6ft 2 shooting guard with more than 200 Australian NBL games under his belt. McCarron has moved to the region with his wife and two kids from Adelaide, where he was captain of the Adelaide 36ers. He comes to Taranaki with two goals in mind – a championship win, and an amazing lifestyle experience for his family.

While he understatedly highlights his passing ability to be the strongest area of his game, McCarron hopes to be both an aggressive scorer and strong defender for the Airs.

“We have a lot of talented individuals in this team so I don’t think I have to come in and do everything, I just need to work out the role I need to play, depending on each game, and help our other players get involved, too.” 

The Airs’ third and only import to come from the United States is Elijah Minnie, a highly athletic 6ft 8 power forward who plays with a certain fluidity that can cause serious problems for his opposition. Minnie spent the recent season playing professionally in Uruguay for Goes Montevideo, averaging 18 points a game. His New Zealand experience has been a long time coming, after his scheduled arrival to the Manawatu Jets in 2020 was hindered by Covid.

While Mackinnon is looking forward to seeing what the three imports can add to the team environment, he knows he has a raft of New Zealand and Taranaki talent ready to prove themselves too. 

Cameron brothers, Flynn and Tobias, will come together for the first time in the NBL after playing for different teams in previous years, while high-flying local favourite, Carlin Davison, will return in a key role for the team after an exciting 2023 season that saw him named as a development player in the NZ Breakers squad. Point guard, Derone Raukawa, will also add value with his ball handling and outside shooting. 

“Those players give a great snapshot of the passionate individuals we have and how much they’ll enjoy bringing that passion to the floor each week.”

Mackinnon also singles out Stratford local, Quintin Bailey, who will be in his second season back with the Airs after a stint with the Canterbury Rams.

“Quintin’s an impressive young man who carries himself well. His leadership is fantastic and he’s the type of guy who plays better with strong, supportive players around him.

“There is that overwhelming feeling here from a couple of seasons ago where the team showed what they were capable of, and these local guys are ready to experience that again,” says Mackinnon.

All players will get to be a part of that excitement and show their talent during this year’s Sal’s NBL through the introduction of the 2024 Rapid League. Rapid League games will act as the curtain raiser to NBL games and involve all players who are not included in the starting line-ups of their NBL games. International players are also exempt, meaning it’s a great way for fans to head to the stadium early and see their favourite bench players getting quality court time. Rapid League games will be played one hour before the main game tip-off and run for four, four-minute quarters.  Points obtained from these games will go towards the Sal’s NBL overall standings.

With two games to watch at every home outing, a player roster and coaching line-up set to intrigue and entertain, and innovative fan engagement opportunities on offer, this basketball season is poised with the potential to be the year of the Airs.

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