Who is this faceless, publicity-shy owner of the New Zealand Breakers? And why does he shell out his hard-earned fortune to keep a basketball club afloat. For the first time Paul Blackwell has opened up to the media about his motivations. MARC HINTON sat down to hear his special story.
Paul Blackwell is an enigma dressed up as a riddle. He's successful, rich and is in the select group of Kiwis who own professional sports teams.
Yet he's much happier parting with his hard-earned profits as the owner of New Zealand's busiest supermarket than he is giving up his story, and by association his privacy.
In a business all about ego, this God-faring, sports-loving everyday bloke doesn't just break the mould, he shatters it.
Just consider his equivalents across the codes. Down in Wellington there's flashy property magnate Terry Serepisos who owns not just the Phoenix football club, but a glitzy media profile. Just across town there's Eric Watson, the enigmatic wheeler-dealer who lives the A-list jetsetting lifestyle with a model on his arm and the Warriors league club in his portfolio. Critics label their sports investments "vanity projects".
Then there's Blackwell, the North Shore-based owner of the New Zealand Breakers. Family man -- he and his lovely wife Liz have four children -- church-going, highly principled and notoriously publicity shy. He's always made it clear he's not interested in becoming part of his team's coverage.
That's because he's uneasy in the spotlight. To do this story he had to have his arm twisted halfway up his back by club officials who are convinced his is a tale worth telling, as this hard-working outfit have steadfastly built themselves into a position where they open the 2009-10 Australian NBL season (Thursday night, at home against the Cairns Taipans) as early title favourites.
The Breakers, in case you haven't been paying attention, have emerged as a quality sporting organisation. Their performance has improved steadily to the point where now even Australians look on enviously at their collection of talent. What's more they're spreading the good hoops word, in their North Shore community, and beyond. They even have ambitions to be part of a nationwide talent identification and development programme.
Plus, they're an outfit with high behavioural standards who take the business of being role models almost as seriously as they do their basketball. They are building something pretty good, both on and off the hardwood, and just about everything they say and do out in Breakerland comes from an ethos set by likeable, hands-on owners Paul and Liz Blackwell.
Here's an example of Blackwell's reluctance to make this story about him: He won't be interviewed without his wife Liz alongside him. They're a team in this Breakers experience, which is something every member of the organisation is intensely aware of.
Here's another: He won't be photographed without other members of the club in the frame. A spotlight shared, and all that.
But talk to this engaging, down-to-earth couple about how they ended up as owners of a professional basketball club and it soon becomes apparent that their motives come from the heart and their coyness is nothing more than a firm belief that they're simply not the story here.
The Blackwells started out as corporate seat-holders in the Breakers' foundation campaign seven years ago, became sponsors - via their successful Albany Pak n Save store - in year two and eventually owners as the original troika of Keith Ward, Dallas Fisher and Michael Redman looked to step aside.
"We were at a stage where business and everything had just overtaken our lives, to the point where it was putting a division within our family" says Paul. "So this became a focus of us doing something together. Pak n Save was something I was doing, Liz was bringing up the kids, and this was something we did together."
Both Paul and Liz come from staunch Kiwi families where rugby and cricket ruled the sporting roost. But, as the saying goes, timing is everything. Round about the time the Breakers were launching second oldest son James had started playing basketball and dad was hauled in to help with coaching. From there the hoops bug kicked in.
"We made the choice on the basis that we think that sport along with music has the biggest capacity to impact on kids, and help them make good choices," says Paul. "We saw this premier sport of the Breakers impacting... kids want to be like CJ [Bruton], they want be like Kirk [Penney]. They're their role models. We thought this was a good way of trying to do it so we then built a programme around trying to convey that message."
He's serious. Blackwell became a pro sports owner because he wanted to make a difference. Not to his profile, but for youngsters in his community.
"Mandela talked about how it takes a village to grow one child, and we believe sports coaches are part of that village, and in fatherless families sports coaches have a huge influence. We're just helping with the village," says Paul.
Liz says she needed to persuasion to buy into their family project. "I'd become addicted to basketball. It was a new sport for me, but once I started going I was hooked, and now I can't get enough of it. I did feel there was a need for another sport to be built in New Zealand, and we could see so many children were playing it. We just wanted people to grow to love basketball as we have."
Their plan is working. The Breakers, en route to their best ever performance as beaten semifinalists last season, drew their best ever attendance. This year interest should be even higher. Already they've sold out their gold season tickets for '09-10.
But over the last three years they've also visited over 100 schools, been in contact with 25,000 kids and dished out close to 32,000 basketballs, 20,000 skills manuals, 8500 coaching guides and 1200 DVDs as part of their community programmes. Sure, the Breakers are all about kicking butt Thursday nights at the NSEC, but they also have three people working fulltime in the community.
There's more. We all know about Kirk, CJ and co, but did you know they have a Future Breakers Club for the very young, elite development squads from under-12s to under-15s, a Junior Academy, a fulltime Academy programme and have just recently added an apprentice scheme that aims to transition their five most promising youngsters into life in the big, wide hoops world.
Then there's the whole player relationship that Paul and Liz have. They have become surrogate parents for many of the Breakers. They care, and the players sense that. The other day CJ Bruton was shifting house and there was Paul helping him lug furniture. Stories like this abound. Every new player is greeted by a family breakfast with the Blackwells. Their house is a drop-in centre for players and their families, including for their "orphan's" Christmas dinner ("We have an open-door policy," they say).
One of the big reasons American centre Rick Rickert and wife Cici decided to come back for substantially less money this year was because of what Paul and Liz are building at the Breakers. They want to make this home for their young family. Liz says it nearly brought her to tears when she heard the Rickets were returning, despite the difficult financial position. "That was a real moment for me. I'll never forget that day."
Boucher says the Blackwells' family values have become the Breakers' club values. "We're trying to establish a culture within the club that we're here for the long haul... so when we all leave this organisation, or when it goes into its next phase, its going to be on pretty firm footing."
"They're very hands on with everything in the club," adds Rickert. "They won't hesitate to give my wife or I a call and say 'let's go grab a coffee', or 'let's go grab some lunch'. It's very nice. You wouldn't have that anywhere in Europe I promise you that."
Penney says the Blackwells are a big part of why he's back playing in New Zealand. "It helps incredibly. When there were doubts this year whether there would even be a league, Paul stepped up and said 'fellas, we have an agreement with each of you and we'll take care of you regardless'. For players and for families to have that security and understanding helps a lot."
Dream owners? They may well be. They even say they think of themselves only as custodians of something so much bigger than them. "Our vision ultimately is that the people who own the game of basketball will own the Breakers," says Paul. "It's got to be about more than just us. It's got to continue to make an impact."
The Breakers have a "Mission Statement" which is plastered around their North Shore headquarters. It is "to be a sustainable, successful, professional and relevant basketball club". Paul and Liz Blackwell have ticked off those boxes. Plus one more: to make a difference.
- Sunday Star Times
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