Tuesday, March 31, 2020

2018 Aussie Basketball Tour: Notes from a week in Melbourne

The 2018 Australian Tour (NBL and FIBA)
Round 19, Feb 18: ILL def. MEL (94 - 84)
FIBA Qualifier 1, Feb 22: AUS def. PHI (84 - 68)
FIBA Qualifier 2, Feb 25: AUS def. TPE (88 - 68)
Melbourne was the last stop of my Aussie basketball odyssey. The FIBA qualifying calendar coincides with the end of the NBL season so I'd be hanging around to watch 2 games of International play with the Aussie Boomers as well. My plan was to watch the league leaders play the season's final round, roadtrip with a local mate down the Great Ocean Road and return in time for the FIBA games. My stay would total 8 nights in 5 different beds. A combination of hostels, AirBnBs and crashing at a mates. I'd be back home in Sydney for the start of the NBL playoffs.

Being Australia's cultural capital, I've been to Melbourne close to a dozen times for everything from wrestling, comedy and basketball. I made the trip to see freshman Ben Simmons headline his LSU Tigers against his hometown team. I've watched the Aussie Boomers play New Zealand and the PAC-12 All Stars, including exhibition games in neighbouring Bendigo.

Pre-game vibes outside Hisense and Margaret Court Arena
First up was the final round showdown between the Hawks and Melbourne United. Illawarra sat outside playoff contention at a distant fifth but looked to upset the Championship favourites. The game at then-named Hisense Arena was tight until the Hawks broke free in the final stanza. The upset victory meant I finished my NBL roadtrip on a two-game losing streak. I watched the game with my friend Dom, her first basketball game live. We would embark for the Great Ocean Road the following day.

I had a 3 day reprieve from hoops action to hit the road. The trip south allowed me to visit iconic Aussie landmarks like the Twelve Apostles and Bells Beach, as well as do some bushwalking. It also yielded some nice vintage finds. We stocked up on classic CD albums for our drive and I scored some sweet gear. Most notably a South Dragons' Shane Heal jersey.

The first of two FIBA qualifers with the Aussie Boomers was against the Philippines. Being of Filipino heritage and having experienced the fandom behind Gilas Pilipinas firsthand during FIBA Asia, I knew that the visitors would have plenty of support in Melbourne. The game was competitive to start and plenty of fun with the cheeky banter from the Gilas faithful. As many observers reported, the contest "felt more like an away game" for the Boomers. The joviality a far cry from the shameful display their following matchup on Filipino soil. That game made international headlines, tarnishing the reputation of both programs as the contest devolved into a melee which spilled into the stands. I wish people could've witnessed the good spirits of this game instead of the lasting impression from that "basket-brawl".

Philippines and Chinese Taipei fans
The following Boomers match against 'Chinese Taipei' was a bit more traditional. A home crowd experience with only pockets of Taiwanese fans in attendance. Despite Taiwan's gutsy showing after the half, the Boomers had a dominant 20 point win over the visitors. Both international qualifiers were held at Margaret Court Arena (7,500 capacity). A smaller venue compared to United's home floor (10, 500) of Hisense Arena, now named Melbourne Arena.

The main highlight of this trip was reconnecting with different hoopsheads as I criss-crossed the country. Annie and her family of Wildcats' fans, as well as German backpackers Jakob and Lars. I met them in different parts of Australia and caught up with each of them over a game. Basketball has been an invaluable way to connect — #ThisisWhyWePlay.

It was an awesome feeling completing my first set of basketball missions. I'm halfway through the NBA cities and have two more FIBA tourneys to go. I wouldn't say I'm a completionist, I just really enjoy these adventures and would like to continue having them whilst I'm able to. Its actually taken me a while to polish off these diaries. Being cooped up with this global pandemic finally giving me the impetus. I realise that I'm driven by creating and living these types of experiences. Recounting these stories whilst the world is on lockdown reminds me of the privilege I've had to explore and why it was all worth it.

Thank You Basketball.

- Follow my daily snapshots on the @30HomeGames Instagram and hashtag #30HGoztour
- Check my tour notes from Wollongong and Adelaide
- Check my tour notes from Cairns and Brisbane
- Check my tour notes from Perth and Auckland
- Check my tour notes from my week in Melbourne

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

2018 Aussie Basketball Tour: Notes from Perth and Auckland

The home stretch of my NBL tour took me to Perth and Auckland for Round 17 and 18. These two franchises have shared the NBL trophy the entire decade so far at 4 apiece. I was especially looking forward to Perth as they're widely known for having the most raucous home court in the league.

On my maiden away game in Adelaide, I'd met Annie. She was the matriarch of a die-hard family of Wildcats' fans. I told her I'd be heading to Perth and hoped to reconnect with them for an insider's view of the Red Army.

Perth knows how to put on a show. I've been to a dozen NBA arenas and to games all around the world. I'd rate Perth number one among all my game day experiences. The very blue Perth Arena was awash in red. In the playoffs, it's tradition for teams to outfit spectators with freebie shirts so they're coordinated for the home team and TV audience to feed off. In Perth, it seemed everyone was already decked in a red and white jersey, sporting a members' lanyard.

I met with Annie and the family before the game. She insisted I grab seats early to catch Wilbur the Wildcat's pre-show entertainment. He rappelled from the rafters to unveil a "Welcome to the Jungle" sign.
Game Day in Perth and Auckland
It had the feel of a playoff game. Sworn enemies the 36ers were in town, the final round of the "Cattalini Cup". The vibe in the city on game day was palpable, red jerseys snaking through the main streets. The game lived up to the hype in spite of Perth's smothering 21 point win. Let's just say, Perth is a hostile environment for the opposing team. Especially if you happen to be Adelaide.

My New Zealand leg was unconventional in that I had a running mate in my close friend Sam. Apart from my maiden NBA trip in 2015, all my hoops adventures have been solo. Having parallel interests in comedy and punk rock would help, I'd also traveled with him previously in Melbourne where I adopted his vegan diet. I did the same during my NBA trip to the Pacific and was looking forward to going plant-based again for Auckland. My first time on the North island.

Foot Locker representing
Western Australia and the North Island
I like gauging the penetration of hoops culture when I travel. The local Footlocker repped the game with a sprawling mural of Auckland, admittedly it only featured NBA talent. Despite the Breakers being perennial contenders, the locals acknowledged that basketball had an uphill climb uprooting the National pastimes of Rugby Union and League.

Whilst I escaped Queensland with two underdog victories, the capable Breakers were set to face championship favourites Melbourne United. My home game winning streak put to an end with the visitors trouncing New Zealand by 18. The loss did sting but the kids excitedly going through the bleachers to scoop up Breakers' balloon sticks cheered me up.

Mission almost complete.
I was lucky to enjoy plenty of local culture with Perth's Opera in the Park and Fringe World festivities underway. I also got to watch the Super Bowl in town. In Auckland, we were able to catch some comedy and farewell a storied live music venue. A highlight of mine was K' Road (Karangahape Road), where we scored tasty vegan snacks and some solid vintage finds. It's also where got I dog tags made to commemorate this NBL oddysey.

The 2018 Australian Tour (NBL and FIBA)
Round 17, Feb 2: PER def. ADL (111 - 90
Round 18, Feb 11: MEL def. NZB (100 - 82) 
I had a ball visiting the two most remote cities of the NBL. Having the good fortune to experience hoops all around the globe, I still cite this Perth Game Day as my most riveting fan experience. From the loyal fan base to the pre-game presentation, I highly recommend watching a Wildcats home game if you get the chance.

- Follow my daily snapshots on the @30HomeGames Instagram and hashtag #30HGoztour
- Check my tour notes from Wollongong and Adelaide
- Check my tour notes from Cairns and Brisbane
- Check my tour notes from Perth and Auckland
- Check my tour notes from my week in Melbourne