Hoop dreams take Dillon Boucher from floor wiper to general manager
From facing his brothers in the backyard, to taking on NBA stars with the Tall Blacks, to his current role as New Zealand Breakers general manager, basketball has taken Dillon Boucher on quite the ride. Christopher Reive speaks with him ahead of the Breakers' preseason game in Taranaki.
Dillon Boucher has more than 400 National Basketball League (NBL) games, 100 caps for the Tall Blacks and four Australian NBL (ANBL) titles to his name. But his first involvement in high level basketball? Wiping the floor for the Taranaki BP Bears.
"I idolised those guys playing in the New Zealand national league at the time," the 41-year-old says. "I can clearly remember the names like Jacque Tuz and Benny Anthony. Those names were probably the people that I was watching and mopping up their sweat."
Growing up in Bell Block, a small township just outside of New Plymouth, Boucher picked up the sport in his final year at Bell Block Primary School - thanks in large part to his older brothers.
"We had a hoop in the backyard that we'd battle everyday on and that's where it all started.
"I can cleary remember having to play for my older brothers' team and being the smallest guy on the court and having to navigate my way around at a young age."
Boucher continued to play the sport through high school - spending his third-form year at New Plymouth's Spotswood College in 1989 before relocating to Auckland in 1990 and attending Papatoetoe High School
It was there that his love for the game truly developed.
"The competition of being able to go against bigger, older guys and things like that was something that was really appealing to me."
While he enjoyed playing the sport, it was when he was selected for his first New Zealand age-group squad, around the age of 17, he saw the potential to make a career out of it.
"That was the moment when I was like 'okay, if I'm good enough to make the New Zealand junior team it's probably something I should put some more time into'."
From there, he went on to play for the Auckland (1994-2001) and Waikato (2001-03) franchises in the NBL, making his first Tall Blacks team in 2001. He was part of the squad who shocked the hoops world to claim fourth place at the world championship.
Unlike many players who make it to professional leagues, Boucher has always been known at the top level as a less-than-impressive shooter.
Instead, he forged himself a role as a playmaker and a defensive nightmare for opponents, allowing him to play as an undersized big man at the four, as opposed to playing on the wing where his size is better suited but shooting ability is a necessity.
However, it wasn't always how he played.
"For me, it was just about scoring when I was younger," he laughs. "All I wanted to do was score and as I got older I got more satisfaction out of setting other guys up. My game evolved over time into more of a distributor role and a defender.
"People that saw me play as a youngster couldn't believe how my game had transitioned because I was a three-point shooter and scorer and never did that at the end of my career."
The evolution in his game proved to be the defining point of his basketball career. He says if he hadn't made the changes he did, he doesn't think he'd have survived in the game.
"When I look back at the other players around me, the reason I evolved my game was because I wasn't as skilled as some of the other guys on offence. I realised to get court time I needed to do the little things well and play good defence."
Following his national team call up, Boucher became a fixture in the side until his retirement from the international level in 2008.
During his time in the black jersey, Boucher found himself taking on some of the world's best including Boston Celtics great Paul Pierce, four-time NBA MVP LeBron James and three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade.
Among the great names he went toe-to-toe with, there were two who stood out as his toughest match-ups.
"Probably the toughest two opponents had to be [Dallas Mavericks and Germany power forward] Dirk Nowitzki for his sheer size and ability. I always found him really, really tough to guard.
"The other was [ex-Houston Rockets and China centre] Yao Ming just for his sheer size. Just having to guard a guy who's a foot taller than you and outweighs you by about 40kg, it's a pretty tough assignment."
Much like his days growing up and playing for his brothers' teams against bigger opponents, Boucher seemed to always be smaller than the player he was matched up against.
But size didn't matter to Boucher, he could more than hold his own on the court. The big difference for him was the skill of his opponents, which was why Nowitzki and Ming were such tough assignments.
"For me, you can't worry too much about size, it's more can I stop them from doing what they do best, and with a guy like Dirk and Yao, they're so much bigger you just have to try to put them in uncomfortable positions on the court.
"But at the end of the day, size does matter when you're trying to block a guy who's shooting it straight over you every time."
In 2003, during his time with the national team, Boucher got the call to line up for the Breakers' debut season in the ANBL.
Starting for the Breakers in their first ever game, against the Adelaide 36ers on October 1, 2003, at the North Shore Events Centre, Boucher says he distinctly remembers the hype around that game and the thrill of getting to play in it.
"We'd spent a long time building to that game and I remember in the first quarter we scored 44 points. It was a pretty amazing start to a franchise to play the way we did"
The Breakers won that game 111-110 and from there, Boucher would be a fixture in the team for the next two years, before taking up opportunities with the Perth Wildcats (2005-2006) and Brisbane Bullets (2006-2008) before returning back to the New Zealand franchise to help them win back-to-back-to-back titles from 2011-2013.
Following the side's 2013 title, Boucher retired from the top level. His No 24 jersey was retired by the Breakers later that year.
While he still plays in the NBL, with his 400-plus appearances the most ever in the league, Boucher reflects on his career as "a good ride".
"Like anything, it hasn't been a smooth ride. It's had its ups and downs."
After his retirement, he eyed a move into either coaching or management with the franchise.
In 2016, he was named the club's general manager.
"I have four children so I thought the smarter route for me was to go down the commercial route and have stability for my family.
"The coaching pathway's not a very stable environment - it's all good when you're winning but when you don't have success it can be a pretty rocky job.
"It's all worked out. Here I am as GM now and loving every minute of it."