AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The New Zealand Breakers are the most unconventional team in Australia’s National Basketball League. For starters, they are the only team in the league that is not from Australia. It is also worth noting that they practice in a converted power tools warehouse, where they have two full-length courts, a film room, offices for staff and several well-appointed vending machines.
The owners are not particularly interested in making money off the team, and its chief executive officer — who was promoted after a successful stint as general manager — says that he knows almost nothing about basketball. But the Breakers, with their homegrown roster and homespun charm, know how to win.
“Try to be disruptive,” Dean Vickerman, the team’s second-year coach, told his players at a recent practice, ahead of a road game against the Townsville Crocodiles. “They’re trying to drive the lane, and you’re trying to put doubt in their minds and buy some time for the next guy to get back.”
Vickerman, 43, a convivial Australian whom everyone calls Deano, was harping on one of his favorite subjects — teamwork — and paused just long enough to blow his whistle. “Go!”
The Breakers have won three of the league’s past four championships, a stretch of dominance that was unthinkable when they were founded in 2003. Mika Vukona, a 32-year-old forward who has been with the Breakers since their inception, recalled how players were tasked with handing out wads of tickets to random Aucklanders.
“And they’d be like, ‘No, we don’t want any! Go away!’ ” he said.
After a disappointing season a year ago — the team’s best player was off trying to make more money in Slovenia, and Vickerman was digging for chemistry — the Breakers have already secured a playoff spot with a 19-8 record entering their regular-season finale Sunday against the Cairns Taipans.
The Breakers, who are sponsored by a casino, lean on the fundamentals: passing to the open man, running the floor, taking good shots. Cedric Jackson, 28, one of three Americans on the roster and the league’s most valuable player in 2013, returned from Europe this season to cement his celebrity status.
“I’m on a billboard,” he said, no small feat given the country’s all-consuming passion for rugby and cricket.
The team averages 5,342 fans for home games at Vector Arena, and while most appreciate basketball, some are still lured by the prospect of watching a team from New Zealand wallop opponents from across the Tasman Sea. For Kiwis, there are few things more enjoyable than beating Australians at sports, even if that sport is basketball.
“Australians are tough people,” said Dillon Boucher, a former forward for the Breakers who heads the team’s sponsorship department. “They don’t like losing.”
Six of the team’s 10 players grew up in New Zealand, which means that the Breakers ply their trade with national pride. Opposing mascots have been known to taunt them by strangling toy sheep. Yes, New Zealand has a lot of sheep.
Still, the Breakers guard against complacency. Tom Abercrombie, a forward from Auckland, recently unveiled a revised system for team-imposed fines that features three levels of infractions: the minor (arriving less than 10 minutes late for practice), the moderate (drawing a technical foul) and the severe (missing a team flight). In the old days, the offending player would simply pay a fine and everyone would move on.
Abercrombie mixed things up by introducing a roll of the dice to the equation, and he even provided teammates with a spreadsheet that details the various punitive measures. Roll a 2 for a minor offense? Hit the rowing machine for 500 meters. Roll a 3 for a moderate offense? Make phone calls to five season-ticket holders.
“The season-ticket holders love it,” said Vukona, the forward.
Abercrombie wanted to emphasize accountability — one penalty involves wearing practice gear on public transportation — even if some of the players now find themselves openly rooting for teammates to show up late. In any case, the Breakers seem to share an understanding that they are in this together.
A Second-Tier Sport
At 6:15 in the morning, the Breakers left for their game with Townsville. The players gathered in a small parking lot outside the team’s practice building for a 40-minute bus ride to the airport. Leyton Haddleton, the team manager, was on wardrobe patrol, making sure that the players were outfitted in team-issued hoodies.
The Breakers were traveling light, as they usually do to keep costs low: 10 players, two coaches, two staff members. The trip to Townsville, which was to include a two-hour layover in Brisbane, would consume most of the day; Auckland is more than 1,300 miles from Australia. The Breakers’ game against the Crocodiles was scheduled for the next evening.
A working-class city on the north coast of Queensland, Townsville is not known as one of the league’s more glamorous destinations. Its warm waters are generally considered unswimmable because of various reptiles and box jellyfish. Lots of stuff wants to kill you in Townsville.
“Your timing wasn’t great,” Rhys Carter, a point guard and the team’s only Australian, told a visitor as the bus wended south along the Auckland-Waiwera Motorway.
After checking their luggage, the players found their way to the Air New Zealand executive lounge for breakfast. The Breakers have a partnership with the airline, which provides as many upgrades and exit-row seats as possible. As Richard Clarke, the team’s chief executive officer and longest-tenured employee, put it, “We’ve got some big boys in small seats.”
Every other team in the league flies Virgin Australia.
On the three-hour flight to Brisbane, the Breakers were joined by the developmental team of the Vodafone Warriors, the lone club from New Zealand in Australia’s National Rugby League. There appeared to be something of a quiet kinship between the teams, given their shared status as perennial outsiders.
“You see Charlie’s sitting next to Ced Jackson?” one of the Warriors whispered to a teammate. “I don’t think Charlie knows who he is, though.”
After the plane landed in Brisbane, the captain wished both teams luck. And while no one stopped the basketball players for autographs at the airport, several people noticed that they were very tall, and told them so.
Basketball remains a second-tier sport in this part of the world, and especially in New Zealand, where boys grow up dreaming of playing for the All Blacks, the country’s legendary rugby team. Boucher, 39, the player turned team executive, recalled favoring basketball only because the rugby team in his hometown was terrible.
As a child, Boucher mopped the court at home games for his beloved BP Bears, a team in New Zealand’s National Basketball League, which has long provided a valuable platform for the country’s tightknit basketball community. The 10-team league is affectionately described by devotees as “semiprofessional.” Boucher got his start at age 17 with the team in Auckland and supplemented his income by working as a travel agent.
The Breakers did not yet exist, but that was all about to change thanks to a surprising result at the 2002 FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis, where New Zealand — a team known as the Tall Blacks — placed fourth and momentarily distracted the country from rugby. The Tall Blacks did not have the most talented roster in the tournament, but they were cohesive. They fell to Yugoslavia, the eventual champion, in the semifinals, an outcome that still bothers Boucher.
“We had Yugoslavia on the ropes,” he said. “It still cuts me deeply when I think about it.”
Regardless, the Tall Blacks had made enough of a splash that a group of businessmen was able to establish the Breakers in 2003 after persuading the doyens of the Australian league to expand to New Zealand. The Breakers played their first game that October and scored 44 points in the first quarter en route to a victory against the Adelaide 36ers.
“It was about the worst thing that could have happened,” said Paul Henare, 35, a former guard who is now Coach Vickerman’s top assistant.
Undercut by a false sense of security, the Breakers promptly lost nine of their next 10 games. They went 30-67 in their first three seasons. Home games at North Shore Events Centre were typically attended by dozens. Debbie Howard, the team’s longtime ticket manager, recalled urging the few fans who did show up to sit near the court, for the benefit of television.
Not that anyone was necessarily watching at home.
The Rise of a Team
The slow build toward respectability took shape in 2005, when Paul and Liz Blackwell, the owners of a supermarket chain, bought the team. The Blackwells did not get involved to accumulate oodles of cash. (Even today, the Perth Wildcats are the only profitable team in the N.B.L.) Instead, the Blackwells viewed basketball as a form of community outreach, as a way to connect with children — especially those from single-parent homes, an important social issue in New Zealand.
The Breakers staged postpractice clinics for schoolchildren. They organized summer camps, weekend leagues and group outings to games. On the court, the team stabilized under Andrej Lemanis, who coached the Breakers to their first winning season in 2007-8 after surviving persistent calls from fans for the team to “sack him.”
“He figured out that having players from New Zealand was the team’s strength,” said Marc Hinton, an Auckland sports journalist. “If they had this Kiwi team, a brothers-in-arms sort of thing, it would always be an advantage against club teams from Australia.”
Today, the Breakers have a robust developmental program that draws on young players from New Zealand. Six of the team’s 10 current players are products of the system. The Breakers also run an academy for promising players between the ages of 14 and 19. Tai Wynyard, a 17-year-old developmental player for the Breakers, committed last month to play college basketball at Kentucky — a sign of progress if ever there was one.
The eight teams in the N.B.L. are subject to a salary cap of 1 million Australian dollars (about $783,000), spread among 10 players. The Breakers try to maximize every penny, and they seldom give up on prospects. When Corey Webster, a shooting guard, was suspended for the 2011-12 season for violating the league’s drug protocol, the Breakers sent him to China to work with a trainer. He also stocked shelves at one of the Blackwells’ supermarkets. This season, Webster is averaging a team-leading 15.4 points a game.
“We want guys who are willing to sacrifice,” Clarke, the chief executive, said.
Before joining the Breakers, Clarke had little interest in basketball. In fact, he said, he had played the game only once, while on a rugby trip to Venezuela.
“It rained one day,” he said, “so we played basketball.”
With the Breakers, Clarke entrusts those who do understand the game to advise him on personnel decisions. In some ways, he said, his ignorance is an advantage.
“Agents will start talking, and I just don’t care,” he said.
Clarke likes players who come from winning backgrounds, and he tries to anticipate how different personalities will mesh. One of the problems last season, he said, was that the team had too many players who spent too much time staring at their cellphones. So he brought in Carter, the Australian point guard.
“We needed to have that loud, brash Australian,” Clarke said. “All our Kiwis were quiet.”
Clarke also asked Vickerman to detail his vision. Vickerman hoped to improve the team’s athleticism and rebounding. So in addition to reacquiring Jackson, the Breakers bolstered their frontcourt by signing Tai Wesley, a forward from Utah, and Ekene Ibekwe, a center from Los Angeles.
Ibekwe, 29, has a back story worthy of a cable television biopic. He has been employed by no fewer than 11 professional teams in eight countries, including Israel and Iran. The ever resourceful Vickerman spotted Ibekwe at a tryout for the Korean Basketball League, which stages a three-day minicamp in Las Vegas every summer. Vickerman had sneaked in to scout for prospects.
“I nearly got thrown out,” he said.
An American Buys In
After a long day of travel, the scene in Townsville was what everyone expected: muggy and overcast, although there was no sign of crocodiles at the airport. The Breakers were also missing one of their bags, which contained their drink bottles.
“It could be worse,” said Haddleton, the team manager, recalling how the team’s uniforms disappeared on a recent trip to Wollongong.
The team picked up the keys to two rental vans — one for the coaches and staff and the other for all 10 players, who piled in, one by one, as if in a clown-car routine. Vukona took his customary position behind the wheel. Ced Jackson jumped in the back.
There are times, Jackson said, when his life here still feels foreign. It was never the plan — not when he was manning the point at Northern Burlington County Regional High School in Columbus, N.J.; not when he was guiding Cleveland State to an upset of Wake Forest in the first round of the 2009 N.C.A.A. tournament; and not when he was bouncing between 10-day contracts with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the San Antonio Spurs and the Washington Wizards.
Jackson was always certain that he belonged in the N.B.A. So he was less than enthusiastic when his agent approached him in 2011 with an unusual offer.
“He asked me if I knew anything about New Zealand,” Jackson said. “I was like, ‘I don’t even know where it’s at.’ ”
Jackson’s immediate concern was that he would be abandoning his N.B.A. dream. Would anyone remember him once he left for the other side of the world? He took the plunge. When he arrived in Auckland, the Blackwells met him at the airport. They took him to breakfast. They showed him to his new apartment.
“Making that sort of effort shows the new players that everyone here cares,” Clarke said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, come and play basketball, here’s your check.’ ”
In his early days with the team, Jackson was low-profile enough that he could drive a company car featuring the Breakers’ logo and go unnoticed. His anonymity faded. In his first two seasons with the Breakers, he helped the team to N.B.L. championships and was named an all-league player. And then he left for a more lucrative deal with Union Olimpija of the top Slovene league.
But Jackson was often injured, and he did not like Union Olimpija’s style of play. He missed the Breakers, and the Breakers missed him. Last summer, Jackson returned after signing a contract worth 150,000 Australian dollars (about $115,000) this season.
“It took some time,” Vickerman said. “I think Ced mostly wanted to feel wanted. But once he made his decision, he was all in.”
Jackson’s parents, Bobby and Gwen, recently visited for two games, and Jackson was struck by how well they were treated by the team’s fans, who asked for autographs and to take photos. During his first game with his parents in attendance, Jackson recorded a triple-double. In his second, he was ejected for arguing with an official.
“My parents didn’t really say much afterward,” Jackson said. “The next day, my mom was just like, ‘Baby, you O.K. now?’ ”
Jackson has acclimated to life in Auckland, he said. He still watches N.B.A. games on television, but he has mixed emotions.
“All the time,” he said, “because I know I can compete at that level. But it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. I know the odds are long.”
Recovery From a Debacle
Game day in Townsville was filled with the hum of expectation. At 9:30 a.m., the players convened in the lobby of their hotel and headed outside for what was described in their itinerary as 30 minutes of fresh air. As they searched for a patch of grass, they came across a plover and several of its young. The big bird squawked at the players. Carter warned his teammates.
“I know they look cute and everything, but they’re very territorial,” said Carter, whose Australian background is useful on the road.
After kicking a soccer ball around in a circle for a while, the players returned to the hotel for a team meeting led by Vickerman, who reviewed film and emphasized the importance of staying positive.
“Try not to think about the possible bad outcomes,” he said.
Fifteen minutes into the meeting, Ibekwe finally arrived — and several players smiled, knowing his tardiness meant a roll of the dice. At least Ibekwe had an explanation: He had forgotten his orthotic insoles in Auckland, so he needed to buy a new pair.
By midafternoon, Room 1115 at the hotel was the center of activity. Mark Overington, the team physiotherapist, had set up a table to tape ankles and knees. The room also served as the team’s snack station, with an assortment of bread, grapes, peanut butter and bottles of liquid breakfast strewn across a table.
“Where’s it been sore?” Overington asked Jackson, who flexed his left foot.
“Just when I plant,” Jackson said.
The local news was on the TV, and the top stories were about the prime minister’s being under duress, a dismembered body that was found in a river and a visit by the country’s self-described sausage king.
“What the hell is going on in Australia?” Webster asked no one in particular.
On their way to Townsville RSL Stadium, Vickerman and Henare shared their ritual of pregame lattes. The Breakers were heavily favored, and Vickerman had no reason to doubt their preparation — until they took the court.
The game was a disaster for the Breakers, who shot 39 percent from the field and lost, 79-71. Brian Conklin, a forward for the Crocodiles and a former standout at St. Louis University, said it was the best his team had played all season.
Vickerman was morose during his news conference.
“The harder we tried,” he said, “the more we turned the ball over.”
The Breakers wound up carrying a two-game losing streak into their game last Sunday against Perth, and they were down by 1 point in double overtime with time about to expire when Jackson launched a shot from midcourt. It banked in. His teammates mobbed him. Days later, the players were still buzzing.
“That game was a cracker,” Abercrombie said.
It was the sort of shot that can save a season, and as players accustomed to doing things their own way, they knew exactly how to create something from nothing.
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