Tall Blacks cut down squad for FIBA World Cup
Nick Horvath's final task with the Tall Blacks on tour was to face what coach Nenad Vucinic described as the best haka he'd ever seen this team perform in an association that stretches over three decades.
That's how emotional the final cut in Vucinic's World Cup-bound New Zealand men's basketball team was - for everybody concerned.
Vucinic took 14 players on his 14-game buildup tour - and tonight he made the cruellest cut when he omitted the required two players ahead of the global tournament in Spain from August 30 to September 14.
One of those was 16-year-old schoolboy sensation Tai Wynyard which was a no-brainer, even if Vucinic described the Auckland tyro as "the most talented player for his age I have seen in New Zealand ever". The kid is 16, and his time will come.
But the decision on Horvath was one the Tall Blacks coaching staff agonised over for the entire time they have been together. They knew all along there was room only for one of the Palmerston North physics teacher and fellow naturalised American Casey Frank because of Fiba regulations.
Both desperately wanted to play in Spain, and both gave it their all to be there. Tonight Vucinic unveiled his decision that 36-year-old Frank - the player who has been so loyal to the national programme over the years - was his man and that 33-year-old Horvath had started the long, and lonely, haul back to New Zealand.
"It was a very difficult decision for us, so I can't even imagine how difficult it would have been for Nick in this situation," Vucinic said from Lithuania tonight.
"He took it well. We had a meeting, and the boys did probably the best ever haka I've seen in my life performed by the Tall Blacks to Nick. It was very emotional. Nick took it like a man. I wish him all the best and my heart goes out to him."
Vucinic said the decision came down to Frank's familiarity with the team, system and players and his all-round package of skills. He said both players had struggled at times with their form as they went through a very difficult process that had a lot of pressure attached.
"We decided to go with what we know, and with a player who is proven at the international level. Nick has been a very good team-mate, and good on the court as well. Both have been up and down a bit in their performances but it's just a case in the end that there wasn't enough reason to leave Casey out."
The challenges don't end now for Frank, who stepped into the breach for the Breakers last ANBL season and always wanted to make this his international swansong. Vucinic immediately challenged the Auckland-based MBA graduate to raise his game ahead of the World Cup tipoff.
"Casey has to pick up his form in the next two weeks. He has been under enormous pressure with the selection, but now we need him to show what he's capable of. He's a very good passer, a very good shooter, and a good rebounder as well. He also understands the systems well, and has got a leadership role in this team."
The Tall Blacks now head to Belgrade for two hitouts against the strong Serbian team before they hit Spain. Tom Abercrombie's abdominal injury is the main fitness concern, though Vucinic knows too well his challenges are only just beginning.
New Zealand team for World Cup: Lindsay Tait, Tai Webster, Jarrod Kenny, Kirk Penney, Corey Webster, Tom Abercrombie Everard Bartlett, Mika Vukona, BJ Anthony, Isaac Fotu, Casey Frank, Rob Loe.