Last year, the Taranaki Steelformers Airs finished the season at the top of the National Basketball League table.
It was the first time in thirty years they made the play-offs and it was only a last second basket by the Auckland Tuatara in their semi-final that stopped the Airs from contesting for an historic league title.
It was a remarkable turnaround from 2021, when the team came dead last.
Head Coach Trent Adam, who is into the second year of his third stint (he’s coached the Airs before in 2012, and again in 2017 and 2018) nails with one word, what he believed has resuscitated the Airs.
“When you think of the amount of players and coaches we’ve had here over the years who have been really really really good and we’ve never been able to quite get things right.
“So much of New Zealand sport is based on volunteers, who do an outstanding job with the hours that they have. And that’s the key part ‘in the hours that they have’.
“Having a full-time GM completely and utterly changes the entire organisation.”
Last year Opunake’s Mitch Langton became the first full-time General Manager for the team.
At just 25 he did such a good job the NZNBL awarded him Team GM of the Year.
Unsurprisingly, his talents were scooped up by the commercial world once the season ended and the Airs were on the hunt for a replacement.
They didn’t have to look far.
Cole Brown comes from a rugby family. He, his brothers Mitch and Kody, and their Dad, all played for Inglewood Prems and Cole spent the past five years working for the Taranaki Rugby Football Union (TRFU) as their Operations Manager.
“The growth in basketball was what attracted me to the role of General Manager for the Airs,” Cole Brown says. “I kind of see basketball and rugby at opposite ends of the timeline to be honest. Rugby’s got a really established professional presence but struggling for participation, whereas basketball is the other way round with a massive participation base, but a professional programme in its infancy.”
He sees an upside in not having an in-depth knowledge of basketball.
“I can learn from rugby what worked well and what didn’t, so I can hopefully bring the positives from that.”
Coach Trent Adam can also see benefits from someone coming in who is from a sporting background, but new to basketball.
“Sometimes too many opinions can muddy the waters,” he believes.
“His background in sport and understanding the different sort of things that being in a sporting environment brings. Like if we have a tough buzzer-beating loss I don’t need to necessarily hear that night about a bad subbing passage, you know what I mean? I’m quite happy to discuss it, but not right now. Let’s talk about these things in two days’ time. Coming from sport and understanding the emotions of that sporting world is important.”
Cole is excited too about building the entertainment levels at each of the nine home games New Plymouth’s TSB Stadium will host this year between the 22nd of April and the 13th of July.
“Having been to a couple of games, in my view it is the pinnacle community event at the moment and I’m looking forward to building on that and developing something people can really get excited about.
“With the size of the stadium and the scale, we can build a really cool atmosphere, week in and week out.
“We’ve got a coach that understands the entertainment value of the sport too.”
“Going from losing to winning, you’re going to attract more fans,” Trent acknowledges, “and winning comes first,” he underlines.
“Winning in an aesthetically pleasing style is going to bring in even more people.”
The Airs are well-named and well-known for their high-flying above-the-rim play and impossibly long threes.
“We’re probably the only team in the league that on any given night could make ten threes or get ten dunks and they’re the things people come to see.”
He also realises that the more people that come to the games gives the Airs a bigger budget to bring in quality players.
“The last home game of 2022 sold out — the first time ever in the Airs’ history at the TSB Stadium. And the two games before that were pretty close.”
But organisation wasn’t the only driver for last year’s success — emotion played a part too.
“I spent a lot of that season thinking about what it would mean to Coach (Steve McKean who passed away in 2021). To have things turn around in one year, he would have been absolutely in his element.”
THE SAL’S NBL
The landscape of the Sal’s National Basketball League is similar to last season in that the same ten regional teams will be vying for the title. However there are a few key differences to recent years.
This will be the first season in about four years that won’t be interrupted or influenced by Covid concerns, FIBA windows, 3×3 competitions and Tall Blacks matches.
Half of the ten NBL teams have a new head coach this year, including the Franklin Bulls who will have NZ Breakers assistant coach, Daniel Sokolovsky, in charge.
Long-serving Sal’s NBL players and former Tall Blacks, Everard Bartlett (Hawkes Bay Hawks) and Troy McLean (Wellington Saints) have swapped playing for coaching, while last year’s Saints’ coach, Guy Molloy, has been picked up in 2023 by the Southland Sharks.
Natu Taufale (Manawatu Jets) starts his second year in the competition, with Aaron Young (Auckland Tuatara) entering his third.
The Airs’ Trent Adam is now one of the longest-serving head coaches within the league (in his fifth year), along with Mike Fitchett (Nelson Giants) and Brent Matehaere (Otago Nuggets) who are each starting their fourth season.
The Canterbury Rams’ Judd Flavell, who had 13 years as an assistant coach with the NZ Breakers and then three years with SE Melbourne Phoenix, is also starting his fifth season as a Head Coach in the Sal’s NBL.
Last year the Airs had a total of six assistant coaches to help out with trainings, set-up and analysis of video and scouting work. They also had a player wellbeing section with physios, a doctor on board and people to look after player welfare involving constant communication and ensuring mental wellbeing.
Each of the assistant coaches was also appointed as head coach of various Taranaki age group representative and school teams.
“There was an ability then to create a continuity of style within the region,” says Trent. “Whatever was being done with the Airs, was being done with the U23s, and U19s and U17s. Now these kids are aware of our concepts ‘cos they’ve been doing it in their programmes.”
That cohesiveness and continuity reaped rewards not only for the Airs.
The U23 team won the national title (the first time any Taranaki basketball rep team had won a NZ tournament).
“That was our assistant coach (Dwayne Tamatea) and our bench players,” says Trent.
“Our U19s made top four, (New Plymouth) Boys’ High made top four, Opunake High School won a national title (in the Secondary Schools ‘A’ competition) and all of those teams had kids, or coaches, or sometimes both, involved with our programme.
“So not only were we looking at the Airs, but it was all of this other stuff that our organisation was proud of. We were able to provide all of these coaches and young players with some learning experiences they could take back to their respective teams.”
THIS YEAR’S AIRS
The goal for the 2023 team has been to bring a good portion of last year’s team back.
“There’s definitely a sense of unfinished business,” says Cole.
At the time of writing it had been announced that Richie Rodger (26), Marcel Jones (37) and import Anthony Hilliard, would be returning.
All quality players, Rodger recently turned out for the Tall Blacks, while Hilliard was named in last season’s Sal’s NBL All Star Five and picked up the league’s Scoring Champion Award.
“We can all agree that as an organisation, we hit a home run with our three imports last season,” says Trent. “Not just in how they played, they were outstanding people and we really learnt a lot about the culture side and getting the right guys that fit in.”
Anthony Hilliard is now 37, but his skills and athleticism belie his age.
“He’s a true professional — really looks after his body — and that’s the type of stuff that really resonates with our younger guys.”
Trent saw first-hand how the good habits and attitude of his three imports rubbed off on the rest of the squad.
David Azore (23) will come to New Zealand off a stint in Iceland late last year where he averaged 21 points and 6 rebounds per game. The 6’4” Texan is a ball handling wing, says Trent Adam, “who is capable of scoring at a high level, as well as creating for his teammates. His versatility is going to really help our group and maximise our potential.”
Their third import is Armon Fletcher, a 27-year-old, 196cm shooting guard out of Southern Illinois University. He played in Luxembourg last year where he averaged 22.7 points on 53% shooting per game and shot at 41.1% from beyond the arc, making 58 of his 158 long-range attempts.
“Last year we were fast and high flying.
“Deep down I am more defence-focussed,” Trent admits, “but as the season went on … we realised, we’re better when we’re faster. So we embraced that, this is who we are, it’s successful, it’s exciting.”
Local star and human highlight reel, Carlin Davison (19), may be taking up opportunities overseas so it could be that he’s unavailable for the Sal’s NBL, though Trent is confident that if he is, he’ll be playing for the Airs.
Another Taranaki man who has signed up this season is Quintin Bailey of Stratford, who has rejoined his home team after stints with the Rams and the Hawks.
Scott Telfer and Benji Freeman are both back, while the crop of exciting development players also return with a year of experience already under their belts should they be called upon to step up.
The salary cap in the league has helped keep an even playing field for all ten teams but it also means the Airs haven’t been able to retain everyone they would like to, with Tai Wynyard signing elsewhere (yet to be announced).
The big man will be replaced with up-and-coming centre, Anzac Rissetto, who’s joining the Airs fresh from a season with South-East Melbourne Phoenix as a development player in the Australian NBL.
COME FOR THE BASKETBALL, STAY FOR THE SHOW
“People are going to be a little bit shocked I think when they walk into that first game and see some upgrades that we’ve made in the off-season,” Cole predicts.
A Top Gun theme has been chosen for the Airs’ first home game versus the Otago Nuggets on Saturday night, the 22nd of April. Tip-off is at 7pm but the crowd is expected to start queuing by 6pm as people vie for the best seats.
“We want every single week to be different — Trent will take care of the basketball while we work on fan engagement. It’s going to be a production,” Cole promises. “It’s not going to be small.”