Saint Troy McLean's love for basketball

I LOVE THIS GAME: Troy McLean plays with little fuss but massive heart and celebrates the Wellington Saints' NBL title triumph last year.
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I LOVE THIS GAME: Troy McLean plays with little fuss but massive heart and celebrates the Wellington Saints' NBL title triumph last year.

Love has a way of finding its target no matter how elusive. It's as true in sport as it is in life.

Fourteen-year-old Troy McLean and his fourth- form mates could have wandered past the Rongotai College gym that day in 1993 and headed for the fields.

They'd signed up for rugby a few minutes earlier. The vortex of New Zealand's national sport had already sucked them into the sieve that filters out our All Blacks.

Besides, McLean grew up in a softball-made household. His brother Stacy would go on to represent the Black Sox with distinction as an outfielder.

The younger sibling was expected to fall in line.

Enter the hand of fate, or more accurately Rongotai College basketball coach Gareth Rapson. Like an evangelical preacher, Rapson was standing outside the gym that day making a sales pitch as the rugby boys filed past.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," McLean said this week. "They had a sports day where you sign up for whatever sport you want to play and we were walking back from the rugby sign-up and happened to walk past the old gym.

"Gareth was outside getting all the guys as they came back from rugby sign up. He was saying we should come in and just have a play around.

"We decided to go in and give it a go. There's a lot of outside hoops at Rongotai anyway, so we played a bit at lunchtime. That was it for me. I fell in love with the game that day."

The old gym burnt down last year, but the fire it started in McLean has never dwindled.

For the next three years he was attached to a basketball. When he wasn't shooting hoops he was watching them or trying to source VCR tapes of NBA games.

McLean grew up in Danube Street in Newtown, and the suburb's two indoor courts became homes away from home.

At Madgwick Stadium five minutes up the road, he watched Wellington Saints stars such as Kenny McFadden, Frank Mulvihill and Kerry Boagni from the benches, never dreaming that at 17 he'd be their team-mate.

"I'd just sit there and watch. I did that for probably two years, just watched. I was a bit small and they wouldn't pick me for the runs, but eventually I got picked. I used to live in there.

"Bill Elder was another guy who was really influential. He was the caretaker and ran the WBA [Wellington Basketball Association] and when Newtown Stadium was by the [running] track – that got burnt down as well – I would be there every single day.

"My family was softball-oriented and my older brother Stacy played for the Black Sox. I remember coming home and saying to my mum, `I don't want to play softball any more, I want to play basketball'. She was devastated. It didn't go down very well, but after a while she realised it was the only sport I wanted to play.

"Fortunately I grew a couple of inches, but mainly I worked my arse off."

Before that fateful day at Rongotai, McLean had never played a game of basketball, and didn't know the rules. He became a basketball junkie.

'When you are younger you think you can make the NBA and that drives you. I got to a stage where that dream died and I realised I wasn't going to grow three more feet.

"But I was addicted. I followed Michael Jordan. I'd be asking people to tape games. If they were going to America could they bring back some games.

"Back when there was VCR, so I was always carrying around tapes and when Sky TV came out I remember they showed a game live and I was like `I have to get Sky'."

People such as Sala Sidler at the Heat Basketball Club became mentors, then Saints star Terrence Lewis, McFadden and Rapson, the Saints coach who would pick McLean as a 17-year-old.

It would launch one of New Zealand basketball's most under-rated careers.

"I was never the tallest guy, or the fastest guy, or the guy who could jump out of the gym, but I worked my arse off," McLean said.

The shooting guard has gone on to play 12 seasons for the Saints and one for the Harbour Heat. He has clocked 258 straight games, nearly 3000 points, two NBL titles and a Commonwealth Games silver medal with the Tall Blacks in 2006.

He's gone about it without too much fuss, the guard who keeps on giving, the bloke who finds a spot and shoots threes all night at about 50 per cent and who has too many buzzer-beating memories to count.

And now, fittingly, the 30-year-old father of one will devote his final few years in the game to the Saints' Angels Programme.

It aims to give every child in Wellington a chance to experience basketball in primary school and intermediate.

"So every kid has some kind of contact with basketball, a gym, a ball. We've signed up a few schools for the third and fourth term and a lot of them are decile one. We've had good feedback from sponsors and they're chipping in with balls and stuff to make it as exciting as possible for kids to get involved."

And maybe even to fall in love.

The Dominion Post