How a little-known NBA team reignited my love for sport

2019-04-09 20:49:25

Basketball has overtaken rugby as the second-highest participated secondary school sport behind netball for the first time in New Zealand. Matt Rosenberg explains how a chance encounter with a vending machine inspired his love for the game.

OPINION: I'll never forget April 28, 2017. Not because it was the day Gwyneth Paltrow launched her quarterly publication Goop (although that was very exciting).

But because it was the day I found true love – love for a little-known American sports team who would reignite my own love for sport.

On that warm Friday afternoon just after Easter, I hopped around my lounge hooting and hollering like a lunatic, egging on the mighty Milwaukee Bucks. It was a must-win game for the Bucks who were down three games to two in a best of seven series with the Toronto Raptors.

But they hadn't made it easy for themselves, down 25 points with just five minutes left in the third quarter.

It looked as if all was over when the first disillusioned fans made their way out of the stadium.

Then something changed.

Milwaukee started hitting bucket after bucket and Toronto looked lost – their little Trex arms no longer strong enough to hold back the deer.

With three minutes to go, Khris Middleton pump faked on the baseline before powering towards the hoop with ball in hand.

He drew the defender, then threw a missile pass out to a waiting Jason Terry who was parked up behind the three-point line.

Terry, the team's oldest member at age 39, threw up a prayer right in the face of Toronto's Kyle Lowery.

KAPOW. It went down, nothing but silk! Milwaukee up by one.

The Wisconsin crowd roared, and I squealed in Auckland, New Zealand – 13,000 km away.

"Jason Terry, I love you," I thought, feeling a little bit teary myself.

As a kid, sport didn't come naturally to my wiry, uncoordinated frame.

I swam regularly at Zenith swim club but didn't make too many waves in my speedos.

On the cricket field, I'd best be described as a battler. Sure, I picked up a few wickets with my unorthodox bowling style, but I was seldom thrown the leather to open the attack.

My career-high with the bat came as a 12-year-old when I caressed my way to 49 on a sunny Saturday morning at Tonga Park in South Dunedin.

Then one of the parents got it in their mind to give me out LBW, and my bat went flying.

I had a bit more success at the local chess club and once beat a guy named Patrick Dawson who I believe is now making rockets.

After school finished, all sport went on the backburner.

Actually, backburner is an understatement. I stopped caring about it altogether.

All Black games were predictable, and the Warriors were predictably unpredictable.

The Black Caps? I hadn't taken to T20 cricket very well, and my busy life of bubble teas and backgammon didn't allow much time for five-day matches.

My love for sport was dead, or so I thought.

Moving to Auckland in 2012, I suddenly found myself surrounded by NBA singlets.

My new group of friends followed teams on the other side of the world, and before I knew it, I was playing NBA 2K12 on the Xbox and having flashbacks to my childhood – a time when I used to write with NBA pencils despite having no actual knowledge of the game.

Could this be a sport I could truly get behind? My excitement was short lived.

An opportunity to hoop-up with a few friends at a local outdoor court one afternoon turned as sour as the spring roll I'd put aside to join in.

My movements didn't mirror what I saw on the screen, and I felt discouraged.

In mid-2014, I went to the States to work at a summer camp, and it was business time in the NBA playoffs.

Once again, I was surrounded by NBA enthusiasts.

At a diner one evening, I dropped a quarter into a vending machine and out came a Milwaukee Bucks souvenir ball.

Surrounded by people who had teams to support, I finally had one of my own – it was fate.

The start of the 2016/17 NBA season was when I decided I was all-in on the Bucks, even though the men in green had finished a measly 12th out of 15 teams in their conference the previous year.

After doing a bit of research, I soon discovered they were exactly the underdogs I'd been looking for.

Miwaukee is not Chicago, New York or LA. It's a small city that's sub-zero for most of the year - famous for powertools, Harley Davidson and some horrible bloke who killed 30 people in the 80's.

The city hasn't won an NBA championship since 1971 (at which time I was negative 21 years old) and they hadn't made it out of the first round of playoffs since 2001.

You don't have to be a basketball stats wizard to know that's bad news.

While most of my friends backed big teams like the Golden State Warriors because of Steph Curry, or Oklahoma City Thunder because of the New Zealand connection with Steven Adams, I took pride in getting behind a team most people had never heard of.

Those first two seasons were tough with back-to-back first round playoff eliminations.

But this year, Milwaukee have have been all too easy to follow with an unbelievable run of form that I pinch myself over most days.

Antetokounmpo is a frontrunner for MVP, Malcolm Brogdon is a genius on and off the floor and Khris Middleton remains one of the most underrated and humble players in the league.

Eric Bledsoe is settling into the Milwaukee family well in his second season, putting his sour exit from the Phoenix Suns well and truly in the rear view mirror.

With just a couple of games left in the 82 game season, the Bucks are set to finish with the best win-loss record in the entire competition – a feat they haven't accomplished since 1974.

Playoffs are just around the corner, and I get the tingles just thinking about the possibility they could go all the way.

At times, people challenge my commitment to this team. Will I remain a fan if superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo leaves?

Brethren, I'm as loyal as Dave Dobbyn.

It seems I'm not the only one with a rekindled love for basketball.

Figures from the School Sport New Zealand Census released earlier this year show 26,481 secondary school students played for a basketball team at school in 2018 – an increase of three per cent from 2017.

Meanwhile, rugby's figures dropped six per cent from 2017 with 25,317 secondary school students playing the sport last year.

This meant basketball overtook rugby as the second-highest participated secondary school sport in New Zealand behind netball.

Kiwi kids seem to have a growing love for the sport.

I love the Bucks, and I always will. But more than that, I once again love sport, too.

One of the best things about getting behind the Bucks is that it's prompted me to seek out other underdog teams.

My favourites are the Bucks (surprise!), the Counties-Manukau Steelers and the Colorado Rockies - a baseball team who have never won the major league.

I'm even spending a bit of time on the hardwood myself.

Several times a week, my flatmate and I head down to Potters Park in Mt Eden for pick up games of basketball that are hit and miss - mostly miss from my part.

But holy shot, is it addictive.

We roll up tandem on his scooter, which immediately dissolves all street-cred, before jumping on with zero warm up.

The first few minutes are the best because nothing's gone too wrong, but then BAM, some local prodigy crosses you up and sends you into next year on defense.

Papakura wasn't built in a day, I often remind myself, and if anything the battle scars have only added to my enthusiasm.

In February, I joined a social team and can be seen throwing up bricks most Wednesday nights at the local YMCA.

There is no better feeling than when I banked home that big three against Flex City in our most recent match-up.

I felt like Steph Curry, for a fleeting moment.

Such is the power of sport.

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