The Name of the Game

Words by  Hannah Mumby
The Name Of The Game Photo by Roger Richardson

The Taranaki Steelformers Mountainairs are riding a basketball high as the region’s only first division men’s sports team in 2019.

Newly appointed helmsmen, coach, Dave Bublitz, and chairman, Laine Hopkinson, are excited — not only about the upcoming Steelformer Airs’ season, but Taranaki basketball as a whole.

Bublitz returns to the role after holding the position five seasons ago. While he went on to assist former Steelformer Airs’ coach Trent Adam, he has also been developing his knowledge at a national level, holding assistant coach positions with the NZ U16 and U18 teams. More recently, he was the head coach of the NZ U17 team who competed in the World Championships in Argentina.

Bublitz pays tribute to Adam for the work he has put into the Airs’ environment over the past few years, while also thanking a somewhat fresh Taranaki Basketball committee for having faith in him to lead the group once again and support him with his vision for 2019.

“Basketball is having a massive surge in popularity with numbers of kids playing rising by around 27 per cent over the past two years. I’m positive this new group can help grow the game and deliver to the basketball public a team they can be proud of,” he says.

A recent School Sport NZ Census shows basketball to now be the second most popular secondary school sport in New Zealand. With 26,481 students lacing up their boots, the sport has now passed rugby (25,317) and sits just behind netball (27,139).

“The team we have been able to put together is a very strong group and we’re building a strong culture, so I’m really, really excited about that.”

While the team has a foundation of talented and hard-working local players, the addition of four exciting recruits is sure to add some X-factor for fans.

The name Daniel Gomis should ring a few bells for basketball followers in the region, and yes, the crowd favourite from 2017 is back.

“Dan was the first guy I wanted to get, to then build the rest of the team around. We’re very lucky to have him back. He was a tremendous addition in 2017. He’s a great team man, does the stuff that needs to be done and is a very unselfish player. He was also the league’s leading defensive rebounder before he injured his thumb.”

Off the court, Bublitz says the teaching assistant from Portland, Oregon also struck a chord with the youth of Taranaki throughout the team’s coaching in schools programme.

The recent signing of point guard Derone Raukawa should also be as popular with fans, as it is for the coaching staff and committee. Having migrated north from the Championship-winning Southland Sharks, Bublitz says having Raukawa, along with Houston O’Reilly, will ensure the Steelformer Airs’ have a quality general on the floor at all times.

“That is something we’ve probably lacked over the last few seasons, so I wanted to make sure we ticked that off with our recruiting.”

Also joining the roster is Chris Early, a 6ft 7inch small forward from USA who has been plying his trade in the Canadian NBL. Averaging 16 points and seven rebounds a game, Early says he can’t wait to arrive in Taranaki to experience a new part of the world and get stuck into his work.

“I’m looking forward to the experience and the competitive play I’ve been hearing so much about. I’m also interested in the type of food you have there,” he laughs. “I love to try different foods.”

Jamaican-born power forward Kevin Foster (6’8”) is the most recent, and final out-of-town player to confirm his commitment. Having recently played in the FIBA Latin America club competition, Foster brings a wealth of experience having also played professional basketball in Canada and the NBA development league.

From a local perspective, likely captain and Taranaki-born guard, Alonzo Burton, returns for his third season with the Steelformer Airs’, while the Airs are also pleased to welcome back Aaron Bailey-Nowell, whose presence and experience is invaluable. Xavier Shaw will also add a strong presence as one of the side’s “big men”.

Bublitz makes mention of centre Thane O’Leary and guard Dane Brooks, who have both worked hard to capitalise on the opportunities that have been presented to them in recent years.

“Thane has great defensive instincts and he has played some excellent minutes over the last two seasons, while Dane has proved that he can play a very important role for us as well. He’s been training extremely hard and will likely be the first wing guard off the bench for us.”

While the local group have been running pre-season sessions since November, they won’t have the chance to practise as a full team until their out-of-town players arrive on 15 March. Despite that, Bublitz is confident the team will be well-versed and functioning cohesively by their first game on 13 April.

Part of that confidence stems from his plan to establish a core group who will focus on game plans and leadership, as opposed to one leader calling the shots.
“Having so much experience within this group of players, I think it’s important to let them have their say and provide input. As a group, it means we’re making decisions together and all sharing in that same vision.”

While making the play-offs is the ultimate goal, Bublitz says the team will need to set character goals before setting their sights too high.
“We need to focus more so on what we want to do to get there. What sort of team do we want to be? Do we want to be the best defensive team, the fastest team . . . first and foremost, if you can tick off your team driven goal, the rest will follow.”

With so much depth in the squad, Bublitz says the Steelformer Airs’ will run a fast-paced game in 2019. He hopes the high-pressure defensive system they put on their opposition will lead to plenty of easy scores.

“Through our preparation I really want to put the guys in situations where they have to make decisions. With who we have got, we need to share the ball around, but we also need to be able to expose defensive weaknesses in our opposition and learn to recognise who’s hot for us and give them as many opportunities as we can.”

If the Airs can execute that style of play, they should have no trouble drawing a crowd. The addition of Tasmania’s Southern Huskies to this year’s NBL brings some trans-Tasman rivalry to the nine team competition.

In 2016, live streaming of the matches was introduced by NZME. Successful viewership statistics led NZME to team up with Maori Television to provide more viewership opportunities for fans. At least two games per week are now live-streamed through the NZ Herald, while Maori TV televise free-to-air live coverage of a game every Sunday afternoon, as well as delayed coverage of other matches throughout the week.

“It is a bit of a catch 22,” says Hopkinson. “The exposure that the game, players, coaches and sponsors are getting from free-to-air television or live feeds is really positive, but with that comes the challenge to get people down to the gym to watch … That’s why we have to create the experience. We’re planning to experiment with some things that may or may not work, but there’s only one way to find out.”

Naming Rights Sought for Women’s Team

The Taranaki Thunder’s season starts on 18 May with a match against North Harbour at 2pm at TSB Stadium.

Coach this year is Aaron Langton, and over the next few months he will be selecting the team. Manager Rebecca Langton is keen to secure a naming rights sponsor for Taranaki Thunder.

“Basketball New Zealand and the campaign managers for each of the teams are working tirelessly to establish a women’s league that is comparable to the men’s national league. The competition is definitely growing which is really exciting, and there’s certainly a great opportunity there for someone to receive some strong national exposure.”

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