Can basketball now rival the likes of rugby league and cricket on the NZ sports landscape?
New Zealand Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis stopped short of tagging this second ANBL title any more special than last year's, but his words spoke volumes for an achievement that will stand the test of time.
That the Breakers were able to overcome the off-season departure of the league's best player - Tall Black superstar Kirk Penney - and return to emerge triumphant in one of the great grand finals ever clearly meant a lot to this special coach.
Lemanis spoke of this Breakers team "emerging from the shadow" of last year's trail-blazing championship side, and of "forging their own identity" and when he said the words, the pride was writ large on his face.
They became just the sixth team in history to claim back-to-back titles.
"I'm just really proud of the group for their ability to overcome all those challenges," said Lemanis after his team defeated the Perth Wildcats 79-73 in front of 9258 joyous fans at Vector Arena last night.
"Kirk's a great player, no doubt he's one of the premier players in the league when he plays here. But when we lost him there was a feeling from outside the group that was going to be the end of the Breakers.
"But there was a great resolve within the group. All last year we understood we needed everybody, and so we understood if we lose Kirk that's OK, we can replace him because we've still got a lot of the other parts.
"This year we continued to show if we play as a team, believe in each other and put in the work we can continue to succeed.
"It was a fun experience seeing this team grow and gain its own identity and getting out of the shadow of last year. This group had to establish itself again and find its own identity and get out of that shadow."
They certainly did that, thanks in no small part to finals MVP CJ Bruton who at the ripe old age of 36, and now with a championship ring for every finger, described this as a special moment in his career.
"I told my dad (NBL hall of famer Cal Bruton) I wanted to do something special, and I felt like coming to New Zealand I would get the chance to help New Zealand basketball," said Bruton whose 16 points included two three-pointers in the final two minutes that clinched victory..
"To come here and play at the North Shore Events Centre and then turn round and be part of this, coming to play at Vector in front of 9200 fans in a grand final against the team my father helped to a championship, and I played for in my first year, I couldn't think of anything more special than that."
American big man Gary Wilkinson, who led the Breakers with 23 points in his second straight standout display, said he just played as hard as he could because his team needed him to.
I love the challenge," said the starting centre whom the team may struggle to re-sign for next year as they grow Alex Pledger's role. "It pushes me to be better, it pushes me to rise to my best.
"One thing I really focused on was what do I need to do for my team, what is it I could do best to help my team. I just tried to do those things ... to win this series it was going to take everything that everyone had."
Lemanis said he would love to re-sign Wilkinson and point guard Cedric Jackson after they both played huge roles in this championship.
But he admitted circumstances made that problematic. Jackson has NBA ambitions he will be pursuing, and he confirmed Wilkinson would have to accept a different role if he came back.
"We'll sit down with Gary and explain the role we now have available. If he wants that role absolutely he can have it."
It would be a shame to break up this special team, but as the Breakers have already shown, they have a durability that can overcome even the greatest of defections.
- Fairfax Media
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