By JULIUS DENNIS
Four teams of young men and two teams of young women took to the glossy hardwood of the Alice Springs Basketball Stadium on Sunday as part of the Indigenous Community Basketball League (ICBL), which launched nationwide.
Over 1000 Indigenous youths participated in the opening round across the country.
A first of its kind, the competition is the brainchild of NBA champion Patty Mills, a proud Kokatha, Naghiralgal and Dauareb-Meriam man, and put together by his organisation, the Indigenous Basketball Association (IBA).
Mills (at right) was the first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to play in the NBA and has long been a role model for young Australians no matter their heritage.
“Patty has been talking about it for a little bit, probably over a year,” says Iesha Smith, the ICBL regional coordinator for Central Australia.
“Just when COVID struck he was thinking about it. So I think it’s really good that it’s actually come together throughout all of this heartache that we’ve had in the past year.”
Ms Smith says that despite “a couple of bumps” in the planning stages, “it’s just good seeing the kids actually enjoying themselves.
“That’s the main thing.”
Of the group that played on Sunday, Ms Smith says that roughly 70% were from the local clubs, while the remainder came from communities around Central Australia, including Santa Teresa.
The disparity in genders was disappointing for the organisers. They are hopeful they will be able to get more young women involved.
Here in Alice, the opening ceremony reflected the program’s mixture of culture and sport.
Before the usual squeaking of sneakers and bouncing of balls began, there was a smoking ceremony, welcome to country and a rainbow dance, followed by speeches from local dignitaries and a personal message from Patty Mills played on the projector.
In real time, Mills was earning a hard fought win in Texas, where he plays for the San Antonio Spurs. In the prerecorded message he congratulated the participants for being there: “It means you have the courage to dream,” he said.
Faye Strachan, a life member of the Alice Springs Basketball Association who has been involved in the game in Central Australia for more than 50 years, says: “These children should take this opportunity and gain the skills and all the necessary life skills as well.
“You look at the person that’s running the show, Patty Mills, and see what he’s done.”
Back when Faye started playing basketball in the area in the 1970s, she was technically a junior, but there was no junior competition, and certainly nothing like the ICBL.
“We played with all the senior women. A lot of our mums, a lot of our aunties, so we learned quickly about respect, we got into trouble if we stole the ball off them or scored too many points.”
The IBA identified 13 and 14 year olds as a key demographic to focus on and Mrs Strachan says that the IBCL is doing good work at a critical age.
“My experience from coaching young teams was once they got onto the party circuit, boys, you know, that was it, they lost interest in sport so that I admire those coaches that can bring out a lot of those young ones.”
Life member Faye Strachan (on the right) presents a player with their jersey and kit at the opening ceremony.
The ICBL will run for eight weeks in the eight chosen locations before culminating in the National Indigenous Basketball Tournament on the Gold Coast in April where selected teams from each program will represent their regions.
While the delivery method is basketball, the program will also focus on teaching lessons in life, with guests speaking on a range of topics each week.
During the weeklong Gold Coast event, a Junior NBA coaching camp will also be run for almost 50 chosen youth athletes. For an even more select few, there is an opportunity to participate in the Junior NBA Global Championship Asia-Pacific athlete selection pathway camp planned for later this year.
Bella Foster, aged 13, who has been playing basketball since she was just five years old, says she hopes to be chosen to go to the Gold Coast camp. Of the chance to take part in the global event, she says: “Hopefully I make that too.”
Ms Smith says that having Patty Mills and the NBA brand behind the event has helped massively with getting kids interested.
“All these kids watch NBA, they aspire to be like those players so I think having that in the title, it’s really good to bring some promotion.
“Some of the kids don’t know who we are and what we’ve done for the association, by saying Patty Mills it kind of brings them into the picture.
“I know if I got told Patty Mills is coming here, I’d be like ‘I’ll be there.’”
Ms Smith is quite the accomplished hooper herself, having played for Graceland College in Iowa after graduating highschool.
She wants the kids she’s coaching to know that playing overseas is a viable option for them too if they have the talent and the mindset.
“I want them to know there is an opportunity to leave, if you really want to take it.”
In the end, she wants to be a good role model like Mills.
“I want to be that kind of person. You know like Patty is doing.”