As the Tall Blacks get set to battle the giants of the hoops world in Spain, MARC HINTON finds out one player cherishes every step of the journey.
Four years ago Corey Webster's world came crumbling down as he was cast out from the sport that had become his life.
The shame was bad enough, but they'd also taken away his basketball and that's what hurt the most.
Fast forward to the present, and here he is, in Lithuania's capital of Vilnius, having just come through another of Nenad Vucinic's gruelling Tall Blacks training camps, and about to put the finishing touches on preparations for a world cup he's waited his whole life for.
Life is good. Life is great, even, for a maturing hoops talent fast emerging as a key piece in the puzzle for a New Zealand men's team once again hoping to take its giantkilling show on to the global stage.
But it wasn't always this way for a young man who not so long ago wandered off the pathway, and paid the price.
In 2010 and 2011 Webster tested positive for banned recreational drugs and was handed two suspensions - the second for a year - that nearly cost him his career at the New Zealand Breakers, and did deny him a chance to play at the 2010 world championships in Turkey.
It was a salutary lesson, for which he paid his penance.
"I'm just happy where I am now," says Webster shortly prior to this morning's hitout against Slovenia in Lithuania.
"It wasn't a good time but I've used that, I've got stronger from that and grown from it. What happened in the past doesn't define you as long as you come out the other end stronger and a better person. That's exactly what I've done.
"I'm just thankful for getting a chance to play for my country again, and getting a chance to go to the world champs."
His year in purgatory - at one stage he scraped a living stacking shelves at the supermarket of his team owner - was, on reflection, the hardest thing he's had to come through.
"Basketball is all I've ever known, really, it's what I do," says this son of Kiwi NBL legend Tony Webster.
"That time was really hard, but thankfully I had great support from family and friends who helped me through it."
It's why Webster's overdue crack at the world cup is so special for him.
"This is the pinnacle, where every basketballer wants to be, representing their country. It's my first world champs so this is all just amazing to me, and I'm soaking it up."
He sure is. Webster has been a revelation on this buildup tour for Vucinic, emerging as the second scoring option behind the world-class Kirk Penney, and shaping as a real difference-maker if the Tall Blacks have any hope of finding a way out of their pool of death in Bilbao.
Penney the world knows about; but the 25-year-old Webster they may find a surprise packet wrapped up in his unassuming 1.85m frame. He's counting on that, both personally and for the team.
"I don't think many people round the world know me as a player or know much about the Tall Blacks. As a team I feel like we're going to have a good tournament and, personally, I'd love to go out there and surprise some people.
"I'm going to come out with confidence, do what I do best, and help the team however I can. I've got to a stage now where I'm playing pretty well but there's always room for improvement."
Webster likes the buildup so far that had an early reality check from the fast-paced Koreans and seven straight wins that have built confidence nicely.
"We're getting better and that's all we're worried about," he says.
But the road gets steeper with clashes against world-class outfits from Lithuania and Greece over the next two days, and then back to backs against Serbia still to come.
They're games that mean nothing, yet will tell us everything about the Tall Blacks' prospects for Spain.
"These are some of the best teams in the world - if we can have some good games we'll be in a good place going into the worlds," Webster says.
Of course these Tall Blacks are kind of Small Blacks, with no true centre after the toe injury that has left Alex Pledger back in New Zealand.
Webster says they've "embraced" that and are ready to use it to their advantage. "We can use our speed, and use our outside bigs for shooting, though we're going to have to work harder on the boards and on defence."
Webster, as an undersized shooting guard, knows what it takes to rise above your size on a daily basis.
"It's all about heart," he says. "If you go hard, and put your heart and soul into it, anything can happen. Size helps on the basketball court but it's not the only thing."
Making this campaign even more special is the fact he's doing it with his younger brother, Tai, who's soon to enter his sophomore season at Nebraska.
"It's awesome, seeing how he's grown, and how much better a player he is and now playing next to him in the New Zealand jersey. I know the family is proud, and I'm proud how far he's came."
How far they've both come, truth be told.
WORLD CUP AT A GLANCE
Tall Blacks Group C schedule in Bilbao: v Turkey, August 30 v Dominican Republic Aug 31 v USA Sept 2 v Ukraine Sept 3 v Finland Sept 4 Top 4 qualify for 1st knockout round of 16
The buildup so far: In NZ: bt Sth Korea 102-69; lost to Korea 75-76; bt Korea 89-81. In Korea: lost to Korea 58-64; bt Korea 70-68. In China: bt Cameroon 75-66; bt Ivory Coast 79-58; bt Guangdong Southern Tigers 97-75; bt DongGuan Leopards 79-54; bt Cameroon 85-83; bt Ivory Coast 97-63.
To play: In Lithuania: Aug 17: v Lithuania; Aug 18: v Greece. In Serbia: Aug 21: v Serbia; Aug 24: v Serbia.
- Sunday Star Times
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