Transtasman rivalry will enter a new phase in 2019 as the Southern Huskies create history as the first Australian team to take part in a New Zealand sporting competition. But just who are they and why does it mean so much from them to play in the NBL?
“We’re not coming to make up the numbers. We’re coming out to win.”
It’s the first shot fired by Southern Huskies chief executive Justin Hickey as the team prepares to create history in 2019 by being the first Australian-based sporting club to join a New Zealand competition – the National Basketball League.
But who are the Southern Huskies?
It’s no secret the main goal of the team is to play in the Australian NBL, a plan which Hickey says will happen “not next year but the year after.” And it’s a plan that saw unrivalled support when they were first announced in August 2018.
“We signed 3000 members in half-an-hour and crashed the server,” Hickey said. “To date we’ve signed about 6300 members so far. So for a club that hasn’t played a game it’s a fair effort.”
But the swift entry in to the Australian NBL didn’t happen, after the plan to buy Tasmania’s largest stadium fell through and the competition announced the South-East Melbourne Phoenix would enter the competition in 2019-20 instead.
It was then a conversation between Hickey and former New Zealand Breakers coach Frank Arsego which set out a new plan for the team.
“He put it out there about six months ago: the NZ NBL is a really good strong league with lots of talent in there. Why don’t you do the ring around and see if there is an opportunity to join?”
It was a “no-brainer” for Hickey to take up the opportunity to join the competition and bring national basketball back to Tasmania for the first time since the Hobart Devils last played in the Australian NBL in 1997.
Several months of negotiations with New Zealand basketball chief executive Ian Potter soon resulted in the team being granted entry into the competition.
The Huskies will pay travel expenses for teams visiting Tasmania, a fact which Hickey admits means they have “put our balls on the line” financially.
The team has signed on a raft of players which Hickey says has given them a “bloody good team.”
“We’ve got a 6’10 [2.8m] guy who’s going to go to the NBA, Harry Froling. We’ve signed Jalen Billups who’s just a man mountain. We’ve got Tre Nichols who’s an absolute gun guard. We’ve got a really good shooter in Mathiang Muo. We’ve got Mason Bragg who was with the Adelaide 36ers. We’ve got a really good team.”
And while the team hopes to be dominant on court, it also hopes to set the bar high when it comes to off-court entertainment.
The team is currently working with a consultant who ran game night productions with the Chicago Bulls for 12 years to “set the standard” when it comes to game night experiences.
Hickey also hopes to create an “us versus them” sentiment, buoyed by being the only Australian team in the competition to create a dominant home court advantage similar to what the Toronto Raptors had done so successfully as the only Canadian team in the American-dominated NBA.
It was all part of a long-term plan, Hickey said, to build and own their own stadium as well as control their own ticketing system, food and beverages and merchandise.
Hickey said the team’s first game has been scheduled for Anzac Day, in Hobart, in what he hopes will create an annual tradition similar to what the Australian Football League has done with its annual Anzac Day game.
And for a state which is starved for national representation in Australia’s sporting leagues, it’s a massive deal for Tasmania.
“I think what we’re really trying to do is embrace the whole separatist nature of Tassie. We’re on an island at the bottom of the mainland and we’ve produced a lot of great sportsmen over the years and continue to do that. But it has been a long time since we’ve had a truly national sporting team,” Hickey said.
It’s a sentiment that even has the premier of Tasmania Will Hodgman excited.
“Tasmania is Australia’s smallest state, but we often punch above our weight. And as Australia’s hottest tourism industry it will also be a great opportunity to link our State with our neighbours in New Zealand,” he said.
And while New Zealand’s first instinct will be to root against the Huskies, perhaps Kiwis will find a soft spot for the team which also finds itself standing up against Australia.
“Our whole thing is we’re trying to lift the minimum standard for Tassie and have a winning culture and show the rest of Australia that, hey, little old Tassie, don’t you worry about us,” Hickey said.
This article was originally written for The Otago Daily Times. You can read the published version here