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Behind the Scenes at the Australian Indigenous Basketball National Tournament

60 teams traveled from all over Australia, some clocking up hundreds of kilometres, to meet in Cairns for a celebration of culture and killer crossovers. Adam McKay goes up north to document the untouched talent and untold stories unfolding as Australian Indigenous Basketball continues to rise.

2019 was a landmark year for Indigenous basketball in Australia. On the back of years of work by trailblazers such as former NBL player and current Australian Indigenous Basketball (AIB) president Tyson Demos and, of course, Patty Mills, AIB has created countless opportunities for young ballers across the country. December 2019 punctuated a huge year for the group with the inaugural AIB National Tournament in Cairns.

The 2019 AIB National Tournament saw 60 teams and over 600 players from all over Australia take over Cairns to ball out across six divisions, from Under-14 boys and girls, all the way up to the fierce competition of the senior men and women. More than providing a platform for young men and women to play the game they love, the AIB Nationals was an opportunity to celebrate culture and identity, and come together as one mob.

It was a vibe.

To understand how we got here, we need to go back to 2014. Six years ago, a select group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders from around Australia came together and established the AIB All Stars. The team faced off against the New Zealand Maori National Team at the inaugural Trans-Tasman Basketball Series. The event made history, and created a platform for AIB to build off. The group continued to turn heads through the success of the AIB All Stars in 2015 and 2016, where the men’s representative team won back-to-back Trans-Tasman titles against the New Zealand Maori.

With the elite level thriving, AIB evolved to expand its focus to incorporate grassroots competition, and soon became recognised as the preeminent group representing Indigenous basketball in Australia.

AIB, which is now both an incorporated association and not-for-profit, has undergone huge growth and evolution, however the core values have remained the same: to celebrate and showcase Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander culture through the sport of basketball; to encourage reconciliation between Indigenous & non-Indigenous people; to improve the health and wellbeing of the community; to provide opportunities for Indigenous people on and off the basketball court – these are all at the heart of why AIB exists, and have been the core values guiding them through their journey and the incredible year that was 2019.

So what made 2019 so huge?

To start, the AIB women’s national team travelled to Porirua, New Zealand. Competing at the International Indigenous Basketball & Cultural Tournament, the team made history as they claimed their first ever international gold medal. Then, the first ever international Indigenous game was organized and played in Melbourne between both the AIB men’s and women’s teams and the Kingdom of Hawaii – a team comprising Indigenous people from the islands. Next, AIB partnered with Patty Mills on a project to bring clean and sustainable drinking water to six remote Aboriginal communities in collaboration with Zero Mass Water. A trip to Marvel Stadium in Melbourne then awaited both the men’s and women’s national AIB teams, which played a historic curtain raiser at Marvel Stadium prior to the Australian Boomers and USA Basketball game in August. The AIB men’s team then competing in a preseason game against the Illawarra Hawks of the NBL in September, which was one of the first looks anyone had of a young kid named LaMelo Ball.

2019 was bonkers; AIB’s talents had been showcased to the world. But, in December, the Australian Indigenous Basketball National Tournament brought the talent home to Cairns, in a celebration of unity and culture.

600 players made the journey up to far north Queensland for what was to be a historic event. AIB had done a lot in a short space of time, but running a national tournament is no joke, and the pressure was on. The week-long event, held at Cairns Basketball, lived up to any and all expectations – scratch that – it exceeded them, and it was evident at the opening ceremony that all involved were in for something special.

With a gym full of players and stands filled to capacity with family and friends, the venue were certain this was the largest crowd they had ever had through the doors. The opening ceremony was punctuated by a three-point and slam dunk contest, cultural music and dance, and a Welcome to Country– allowing the traditional custodians to welcome visitors to the land.

“if people came over here and committed to Indigenous people in remote communities, you’ll have Olympians breaking records out here. Untouched talent, bro. But the problem is, nobody does it because it’s so remote. It’s so far, no one has time.” – Coach Atnas Maeko

The following day saw the grind that is a national tournament begin – young kids running up and down the court in organised confusion, women’s and men’s teams battling hard but also sharing a laugh with opponents, and the teenagers trying to be the hero of the tournament by putting their opponents on skates. What was almost tangible, however, was the sense of sportsmanship and respect amongst all – that this was about more than just basketball; and everyone in the building was part of something special.

The finals, as expected, lived up to expectations from a basketball standpoint, but also provided a platform for unity and a chance to celebrate culture. This was no more obvious when both senior men’s finalists, Erub United and the Cairns Black Marlins, huddled together as one following the game’s end. In the spirit of the tournament, the teams united and chanted, “One, two, three… balas!”

“Bala” is a word for brother throughout the Torres Strait Islands where Erub is located, and has been popularized in recent years by Patty Mills.

Erub United took home the trophy, but this detail seems insignificant.

What is more significant is how the tournament impacted the players and community at large. For people like Adam Desmond from Perth’s Binar organisation, it was about seeing different groups of Indigenous people given an opportunity to come together on and off the basketball court. Binar was by far the largest squad, entering seven teams into the tournament and rolling deep with around 80 people including players, coaches and family members. Desmond says that, for many of the Binar players, basketball is the most important thing in their life. It’s something that keeps them focused and on track. The AIB National Tournament was also the first opportunity for many to travel and experience things they hadn’t until now. Although a diverse group, Desmond acknowledges that the challenges faced by many are significant, including the loss of family members and the associated trauma that comes with this, and coming from environments where drugs and alcohol are prevalent.

“They just about become immune to the trauma because they’ve experienced it from such an early age,” Desmond explains. “So to see them getting up and doing the things that they do certainly inspires me. It is a much bigger thing than basketball.”

Binar, which now has almost 40 teams back in Perth, started from humble beginnings, with six players making up the first squad. Binar gave them an opportunity to play basketball – an opportunity that otherwise would not have been accessible due to the barriers faced by the community. Desmond and Binar quickly found these players were not alone, and the club quickly grew based on the demand that existed. Desmond hopes that the future of Binar lies in the hands of the players, who will one day be in a position to step up and take on more responsibilities. This is already happening as all coaches at the AIB National Tournament were 22 and under, with many of the senior team taking time to coach the junior squads.

Reflecting on this fact, Desmond says “seeing these guys grow as leaders, and not just as basketball players; I’ve got no doubt that that affected their personal preparations for their games, but they did put a lot of that to the side to help the younger kids, which I thought was amazing to watch.”

Binar’s journey from Perth to Cairns may have been long in distance, but for Coach Atnas Maeko and his squad of 10 girls, the trip was far in a way that goes beyond geography. Coach Maeko brought his team from Groote Eylandt (Eylandt being the Dutch spelling for ‘island’ but you won’t get any more of a history lesson here, sorry), an island in East Arnhem Land around 630 km from Darwin. For the team, playing in a structured tournament – and even wearing shoes – was something that took some adjustment.

Maeko runs a school-based program on Groote Eylandt called Bush Fit Mob that promotes health and education. For Maeko, sport is the best vehicle to get kids into the classroom, and he sees his work with the team as crucial to the community on a more macro level. Already, those who competed in the AIB National Tournament are inspired since returning to Groote Eylandt, and there is a newfound impetus to train and compete in future tournaments.

He hopes that the 10 players who attended the tournament will take their experience and share it with their sisters and brothers back in their community. 

On his message to his team, Maeko says, “it’s not about you. You going there, winning and competing is great, but it’s for you to go back home and teach your brothers and sisters, ‘This is how you play basketball.’”

The remote island, 50km off the coast of the Northern Territory and home to under 3000 people at last count, is home to an unlikely basketball community. Maeko says you’ll see many NBA jerseys on the backs of kids who just want to emulate their heroes. In this sense, it truly feels like basketball is a global game that can reach every corner of the world – even a remote community on an island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Maeko is also high on the talent level that exists on Groote Eylandt. He laments, however, “if people came over here and committed to Indigenous people in remote communities, you’ll have Olympians – 100, 200, 400m breaking records out here. Untouched talent, bro. But the problem is, nobody does it because it’s so remote. It’s so far, no one has time.”

If Coach Maeko has his way, this untouched talent pool will not remain hidden for long. He has already successfully secured scholarships for students in Melbourne and Perth, and constantly reminds his players that if they are good enough, they will get noticed. With events like the AIB National Tournament only set to grow, Maeko’s vision could come to fruition sooner rather than later.

Tournament organiser and local basketball legend Joel Khalu was also excited about the success of the tournament. “The AIB National Tournament was a pivotal moment and reinforced the capability of AIB to deliver an event of that scale,” he explained. “To have 60 teams from across the country participate, to the levels in which they did, was simply unreal. The whole vibe of the tournament was fantastic and the amount of positive feedback we received was great. There’s been many great moments in the AIB journey so far, but the inaugural AIB National Tournament would have to be one of the highlights because so many people were involved.”

AIB must now look ahead to 2020 and beyond. With the tournament meaning so much to people like Desmond, Maeko, and hundreds of others around the country, the pressure is on to go bigger and better in 2020. But, as we’ve seen previously, AIB are clutch under pressure – it’s where they do their best work.

“One of the main strategic focuses for AIB is to continue to grow the annual AIB National Tournament,” Khalu says of AIB’s future plans. “AIB will roll out the 2020 event in December. This event is a pivotal part of the overall strategy, as it provides an opportunity for First Nations people to be involved with basketball. Not just as players, but also coaches, referees, managers, score table officials, volunteers and spectators. Through this tournament, AIB is building the capacity of people from across the country with a hope that these people will then return to their communities and do the same.”

Their ambitions may be high, but so are the stakes. And based on their track record to date, no one doubts for a second the ability of Australian Indigenous Basketball to deliver. We all look forward to another deadly tournament in December 2020.