In a weekend when the much publicised and financially supported (yes Gareth Morgan were looking at you) Wellington Hurricanes were missing out on post-season activity for the fifth year in succession, another Wellington sporting franchise was quietly (well not so quietly for the 3500 fans who packed the TSB arena in Wellington) hanging its eighth New Zealand National Basketball League Banner.
Yes, Wellington’s most successful sporting franchise by a country mile (not that you would know it given the paucity of media coverage the NBL receives in New Zealand) the Wellington Saints won yet another national title.
Forget the Wellington Phoenix (zero titles), Central Pulse Netball (zero titles), Wellington Lions (last title 14 years ago and the one before that 14 years as well). These teams don’t even go close to the ongoing record of excellence the Saints have continued to rack up.
The Wellington Firebirds recently broke a long trophy duck this year winning the Ford Trophy domestic one-day competition breaking a dry run of trophy success that went back 10 years to the 2003/04 season. Delve deeper into Wellington’s slim recent history of sporting trophy success and you will see that our Men’s Softball team have won a couple of trophies in 2004 and 2009, however nothing in the region can go close to the eight trophies the Nick Mills owned franchise has racked up since the inception of the NZ NBL in the 1980’s.
So why are the Saints so successful? Clearly owner Nick Mills is a key ingredient to the team’s success. Prepared to cast a recruitment net far and wide, Mills has led the way with innovative recruitment of both players and coaches (in particular with overseas imports, where a poor choice can torpedo a team’s chance of success in a league that only allows two per team). This year Mills came up trumps when, after last season’s playoff disaster in Napier, he unceremoniously dumped former coach and New Zealand Basketball legend Pero Cameron and recruited recently sacked Sydney Kings coach Shane ‘Hammer’ Heal to guide the team. Heal had an immediate impact during an early season run of victories and in the midst of a mid-season team form slump where he jettisoned no less than three overseas imports in favour of two players he was familiar with in Brandon Bowman and Bryan Davis, who after slow starts, turned up big time in both the semi-final victory versus the Nelson Giants and the final against arch rivals the Bay Hawks.
The other area where Mills has stood head and shoulders above other franchises is his ability to get the best out of his star local players (this year it was Breaker bench player Corey Webster who Mills has stood by through thick and thin) as well as veteran Lindsay Tait who was the playoff weekend MVP after a shocker in Napier twelve months earlier.
This year the Saints (via the urging of Mills) has added another string to the Saints bow which has been his insistence in the inclusion of a number of locally developed talent which led to the selection (and more importantly significant regular game time) for huge talents Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa, Jordan Ngatai, Dion Prewster, Damien Ekenasio and veteran Jordon Mills. Throw into the mix two locally developed Assistant Coaches in former Saint George Le’afa and Seth Weakley means Wellington has a team it can identify with and is not chock full of Americans who jet in the day before the first game and leave a day after the last.
The wonder of the Saints success is that the other better funded and less successful franchises in the region seem ignorant to the chemistry that the Saints generate and the subsequent success that it breeds.
And that is the real shame in the Saints season.
Business as usual