Breakers: A master plan coming to fruition
At the Breakers they've never measured success like the rest of us. The championship banners, the winning streaks, the awards and the mass adulation are all just icing on the cake.
What's really important up on level one of their Atlas Place headquarters on Auckland's North Shore are things like legacy planning, developing young Kiwi talent, establishing aspirational pathways and making a difference in the community.
Seriously. It's the way New Zealand's most successful sporting franchise operates, and it's what sets them apart from almost every other organisation within their sport, and outside. Sure, the championships are great. They celebrate them, cherish them and understand too well that they're an important part of establishing the profile the club needs to continue to make a difference. Even the good guys have egos.
But when owners Paul and Liz Blackwell sat down with General Manager Richard Clarke - one of two staff members who have been with the club since day one - and coach Andrej Lemanis eight years ago to put together a master plan for a club that had been swimming in a sea of ignominy since their 2003-04 debut in Australia's National Basketball League, the goals were not centred on championships or winning ratios.
"There have been a lot people who have had a good vision and stuck to a plan in order to bring this to where it is today," said coach Andrej Lemanis just prior to last night's second game of the NBL's grand final against the Perth Wildcats
"The thing I'm most mindful of, and take the biggest joy out of, is the fact we have built the base, an academy programme that is doing what it's supposed to do. It's starting to deliver players and that's what puts the club in a position to have sustained success over time."
That's why March 14 earlier this year was a milestone moment in this club's history. That night at the North Shore Events Centre during a 114-84 rout of the Melbourne Tigers the future and the present combined gloriously. The Breakers' four leading scorers were Tom Abercrombie, Corey Webster, Alex Pledger and Reuben TeRangi and when they were joined on court late by Tai Webster it was a quintet not only of outstanding talent, but of New Zealand players who had all been developed in the Breakers system.
"With that base of New Zealand kids who are talented continuing to join what we have, I think we have an opportunity for sustained success," adds Lemanis who will hand over the reins to his assistant Dean Vickerman if he lands the Boomers job due to be announced soon.
"In Australia they say we have a lot of talent and we should be winning. But what we've done is develop that talent and invested in it. It's part of our plan. We didn't just go out and buy the best 10 players, and that for me is the great reward for all the work people put in."
What started eight years ago has culminated now in a club with some pretty firm foundations. They have made outstanding personnel decisions, thought long and hard about the type of player - and person - they needed, established key pillars, and built around them. Tony Ronaldson, CJ Bruton and Kirk Penney established a winner's mindset, and Paul Henare, Dillon Boucher and Mika Vukona continued it.
The culture at the club is one centred on playing hard, acting responsibly and supporting one another.
"It's no secret we operate based on love, where everyone looks after one another and looks out for one another, and that's set by Paula and Liz Blackwell," says Lemanis.
In Lemanis (and his assistant Vickerman) they chose wisely, and most importantly gave him the time to build his team. Paul Blackwell believes the longer you take to build something, the more solid the base. They are not empty words. Other things have been important. Blackwell's now famous "No Dickheads" policy, while amusing, is also vital. The Breakers have firm rules around character, behaviour and responsibility, and believe firmly that not only do good people make good basketballers, but also positive role models.
Corey Webster's situation is a classic example of what the club does so well. When the young man erred repeatedly they tore up his contract. A message had to be sent.But after Webster served the time, they didn't abandon him. They set up a series of hoops he had to jump through to prove his commitment, and then offered him the lifeline to save his career. Webster was welcomed back to the "family" and has paid them back splendidly with a series of outstanding performances over the second half of the season. This club doesn't abandon its own. It reforms them.
Ronaldson says he feels "proud" to have been part of building something so substantial for New Zealanders. It's all about "trust" reckons Vukona.
"We come in and trust each other 100 per cent. I know my brother has got my back on the practice court and then on game night. We trust the coaches have got the game plan right, and we trust Paul Blackwell and all the office staff. Trust goes a long way."
Tom Abercrombie adds: "We think we're playing for the best club in the league. We have an unbelievable organisation from the top down, and it's a fun place to play. I wasn't enjoying my basketball when I came back from the States, but that first year rejuvenated me. It gave me that spark and fire back being around good people who loved the game and played it the right way."
And as the Breakers have shown, the right way can also be the winning way.