In this candid and beautifully written memoir, New Zealand Tall Black John Saker tells of his lifetime love affair with basketball, how it changed his life, and the head-spinning moments when the sport became the talk of the nation. From his early teens, when shooting hoops was a way of dealing with family tragedy, through to his scholarship to an American university, career in France as New Zealand’s first professional player, and selection to the New Zealand Tall Blacks, Saker canvasses both highs and lows of a sport where players such as New Zealand’s Steven Adams today command multimillion dollar salaries.
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About the Author
John Saker is a writer and New Zealand’s first professional basketball player. He is a specialist wine writer and the author of How to Drink a Glass of Wine, Pinot Noir: The New Zealand Story, and Vinacular: A Wine Lover’s A–Z.
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My Life in Basketball
By John Saker
Awa PressCopyright © 2015 John Saker
All rights reserved.
Tracing the Arc
In my mid teens I discovered something I thought very beautiful. Like a lot of beautiful things in my country, it wasn't out there on show, soaking up rays of national delight. It was tucked away in a shadowy corner, hidden beneath a rough crust, like a paua shell's rainbow lining. Getting to it required inside knowledge, or else a lucky stumble.
It was a perfectly executed, sweeping, right-handed hook shot. Inside the corrugated-iron boatshed that passed for a basketball stadium in Wellington for about half a century, I sat becalmed with pleasure as I watched a man roll across the key and, with a willow-branch sweep of his raised arm, catapult the ball towards the hoop. The orange sphere traced a gentle arc before snapping the white net.
God knows what his name was, and I mean that — God probably does know. The guy played for one of those teams of American Christian troubadors who came through in the 1960s and early '70s, whipping the pants off local teams but — unusually for a visiting sports team — never the local women.
They called themselves Venture for Victory and they were America as approved by the State Department: big-jawed, wide-eyed boys with hair cut short at a time when most young men had severed all ties with hairdressers. They had names such as Randy Pfund and Buddy Gregg. All were white but for one, an exhibit of sorts, an original Chester Williams. We all knew even then, 40-something years ago, that black guys rocked, that their basketball had another dimension to it, and we nudged each other whenever he got the ball in the warm-up. The sheen of his sweating black skin seemed to advance the case for his enslaved ancestors and generations of oppression. Somehow he had history, while I, and the man sitting in front of me slipping a stream of pink smokers between his dentures, didn't. Down here at the bottom of the South Seas, the unfolding story of the planet has always been something that happens elsewhere.
These good Christians didn't fix the game exactly because they ended up winning it, but they engineered its shape, shamelessly when I think back on it, to try and save souls. Playing within themselves during the first half, they were down at the break. This did the trick of getting the crowd involved, and put a spring in the step of the local side. A guitar emerged to back a lively tuneless singalong in the middle of the floor at half-time. Between songs a message was repeated: God would repay their faith by stepping in and guiding them to victory from here. And He did! They attacked the second spell with born-again zeal, upping the tempo, making shots they'd missed before, cutting off paths to the basket. It was an impressive fifth gear, appreciated by the Newtown crowd. Whether it made any inroads into our godlessness was questionable.
The end of these jocks-for-Jesus stings came in Hastings in 1974. V for V, as we called them, lost at the end of their tour that year, in a match described at the time as the New Zealand basketball team's first ever Test win. A very young Stan Hill hit the winning shot, with total disregard for Venture for Victory's concept and, I guess, for the power of the Almighty. As far as I know, V for V have never been back.
It was during the second-half surge at Newtown that my man and his shot had me — I'll say it only once — hooked. Helped by the local side's ignorance in defending the low block, a position close to the basket, he received the ball whenever he stuck a paw in the air to demand it. Once he had it, we kept seeing the same lethal ballet step across the paint that inevitably ended with an answering dance from the net. It was never executed the same way twice. He was forced further out several times, and once had to uncurl the shot leaning back about ten feet from the hoop. Even from that range he was able to release the ball softly. It arched high and came down a little too long and to the side. Didn't matter. His delicate touch had turned the ball into a snowflake. It bobbed benignly from one side of the rim to the other, as if to steady itself after the long flight, before slipping down through the twine.
It was beautiful because it was a generous movement, a body at full stretch, graceful from beginning to end. It never strayed from that suspended purity. That was one of the things that got me about the hook — so much power and dominance, yet not a hint of violence.
One way of looking at beauty is that it's what you need at the time. A glass of water is beautiful to a man in a desert. I see now that, until that game in Newtown Stadium, sport, a big part of my life, had not been supplying me with an aesthetic something I'd been hanging out for.
I had grown up playing rugby, along with every boy I knew. At primary school we roamed the field, heedlessly piling into each other, learning little except the confused rules of the game and an even more confused vocabulary. "Speculate it up the field!" my rugby coach, a young law student, ordered me at practice when I was about eleven years old. I had no idea what he was talking about, and still haven't.
The first time I saw a scrum formed, when I was very small, I was dumbfounded. What was this multi-legged, headless, insanely woven ... giant crab? These people couldn't be serious.
Much later I was shunted into the heart of the crab; they did that to tall kids. "My lamp posts" was what one of my early coaches called me and the poor sod who locked the scrum with me. The metaphor was on the money. We'd been planted there unconsulted and were open to all sorts of abuse from passing creatures. My spirit sank every time a scrum was called. I'd look across that dark cave and see the heads of the opposing locks, wedged between the thighs of their props, looking like victims of the Terror. I have never felt such a loss of self as when I was thrown into that brainless stew of tissue.
Avenues for self-expression are hard to find in a forward pack. The ball, the game's restless energy source, was always ahead of us, behind us, above us. It was hardly ever there to cradle and demand decisions.
Because of my extra height, line-outs offered me a few brief solo flashes. For a while anyway. By the end of high school everyone became aware that you could get away with doing anything to anyone in a line-out. There are laws offering some protection for line-out jumpers now, but when I played mid-air muggings were the norm.
Rugby and beauty can converge. I have to think so after something I saw at Athletic Park in 1971. That prince of a first five, Welshman Barry John, was touring with the British Lions that year. In the game I saw in Wellington he found himself just inside the New Zealand Universities' 22-metre line, in perfect position to drop a goal. He sized up the target, lowered the ball and his head, and cocked his leg back to launch the pot. So immaculate was the way he did all this that I was convinced I saw the ball leave his boot and sail towards the uprights. Every player on the field obviously felt the same way, because the next thing I remember was Barry John gliding among statues to score serenely under the posts. The whole of Athletic Park — players and spectators — had been transported down a blind alley by one man. He had robbed us all of a second of our lives and used it, like a god, for his sport.
But ... a rare play from a rare player. Seldom have I seen anything so ethereal occur in a game of rugby. The trouble with rugby's artful cuts and athletic thrusts is that violence is always waiting in the wings, pressing to destroy, like a hammer raised over a delicate vase. Beauty breaks out on a rugby field at its own risk. The call to crucify — "Nail 'im!" — is the response from the other side when an inside back shimmies then goes for a gap. Nine times out of ten they do nail 'im. Beauty is dispatched and buried hastily in the shallow grave of a ruck.
You could argue that this juxtaposition of beauty and the bestial is what makes rugby so relevant — it mirrors life itself. It's certainly not easy being a beautiful thing on this tough planet; the lovely have their gauntlet to run. In ancient Mexico, it was always the most beautiful captives who were sacrificed on the blood-soaked altar of Tezcatlipoca. Beautiful women seem regular candidates for unhappiness and tragedy. Beautiful objects, if their armed guard falls asleep, get pinched or vandalised or both, just as beautiful places are targeted for destruction in wartime because their loss causes the deepest wound. In times of peace, tourism's insidious assault takes up where the bombers leave off.
Beauty is, I suppose, at its poignant best when under immediate threat by the unbeautiful. Without their feuding families there can be no Romeo and Juliet. Beauty needs an opposite number to be kept honest.
Rugby is built around this tension, but then it is sport, not Shakespearean tragedy. A good game should be one that offers some sort of refinement and escape from life, rather than a repackaging of its horrors.
* * *
The notion that beauty was not something New Zealand did well as a country began to seep in when I was young. There were parental groans at the sight of wooden butterflies on the sides of candyfloss-pink houses, and I began to wonder why a pipe band was considered the best musical accompaniment for every public event. Later I was told that New Zealand had more of them per capita than Scotland.
Shops that sold "beautiful things" were run by powerful-looking women with bags under their eyes and heavy foreign accents. All the beautiful things they sold came from other countries. The beautiful girls at primary school often seemed to be from somewhere else, the daughters of diplomats or recent immigrants.
Beauty seemed to be mostly expensive, an extra for those with money. Or it sat obviously and decoratively apart. A neighbour's lurid purple rhododendron in full bloom was considered beautiful. So were brilliant orange sunsets and the mirror Lake Matheson held to the Southern Alps. But something that was useful, like a ripe red tomato, would never be described as beautiful as well.
To simplify the concept of beauty, and to sidestep its emotional demands, we decommissioned the word itself. Somewhere along the line "beauty" was smother-tackled by New Zealanders and came to, groggily, as "you beauty" or "you beaut" or just "beaut", all of which are only fuzzily connected to the real meaning of the word. Typical of our way with words, no one can be sure if you're taking an aesthetic position or not.
There's a story about Rob Muldoon, prime minister of New Zealand from 1975 to 1984, and his ideal of female beauty. During his tenure the country's coat of arms was once again being revamped. He decided to get personally involved. There are two figures incorporated in this piece of heraldic identity: a Maori warrior and a blonde Pakeha woman dressed in a white gown. Perhaps Muldoon had heard that the French constantly update their bonneted national symbol, Marianne, altering her looks to conform to those of whichever glamorous French movie star has currency. He had similar ideas for our slender maiden but his model certainly wasn't homegrown. "I want her to look more like Grace Kelly," he decreed.
Transplanted beauty has it tough in New Zealand. I think of that favourite ode to the New Zealand experience, Denis Glover's "The Magpies", and its image of Elizabeth's red lips. That aching hint of something soft and beautiful, like the first five's shimmy and dab, is a passing glimpse, swallowed prematurely by a tide of harsh physicality. Glover's birds declare in their quardle oodling cacophony: We're tough, ugly sons-of-bitches. Coming into this place, that's what it takes to survive.
Rugby has what it takes to survive. So has the bucket fountain in Cuba Mall — perfectly, defiantly as rough as guts.
"A country for which the solution has always been physical" was how my mother-in-law once described New Zealand. She grew up near the shipyards of Sunderland, unforgiving salt mines that sapped the lives of her uncles, and which were given a different dose of hell in 1942 by visits from the Luftwaffe. One day that year she returned home from university to find a hole where the house in which she'd been brought up by her grandparents had stood. On the verge of breaking down, she was rescued by the voice of a neighbour: "Dinna fret, hinny, yer folks 're a'reet. A watched yer gran sweepin' 'em steps o' hers an hour ago."
Her grandmother had gone to that house as a young bride, given birth there, assisted her own daughter to give birth there — she had lived a life within those walls. For as long as anyone could remember, she had swept its front steps every morning. After surviving the raid, she'd found a broom and put it to use on the few forlorn steps that led only to a pile of rubble. Europe has a way of decorating the cracks of its worst nightmares with moments of cinematic beauty.
My father used to moon over a postcard of the famous bust of Nefertiti that sat on the desk of his study. I have that card now. It was sent by Dad to one of my sisters when he was in Berlin briefly in 1964. The famously elongated Gwyneth Paltrow-like neck and fineness of feature of the Egyptian queen stopped the old man in his tracks. "Seeing this was one of the most exciting moments of my life," he wrote on the back of the card. That he had the capacity to respond to Nefertiti in that way I think speaks well of him. Not many New Zealand males of his generation would have surrendered to such an emotion, let alone declared it openly.
Newtown Stadium was not Berlin's Egyptian Museum, but the effect on me of that American's hook shot was the same. Like my father, I'd fallen for something beautiful that came from somewhere else, and I too have kept a picture of it, although mine sits in a place where only I can see it.
* * *
Once my own hoop went up outside our home at 23 Putnam Street in my sixth form year, it was not unusual for me to spend a whole afternoon shooting alone. What was unusual was that scene at that time and place. In the early 1970s, boys living in Wellington's WASP-dominated, well-heeled western suburbs played the games their fathers had before them, particularly the one with the oval ball. Basketball wasn't part of the landscape. Ours was the only garage for miles around that sprouted the black-on-white rectangular geometry of a backboard.
With the exception of the university club, basketball lived quietly in south Wellington. That's where most of the clubs were based, near Newtown Stadium. It was a working-class game with a strong Catholic presence. I shared my first rep team with players whose names (Fouhy, Zino, Polaschek and so on) read like a world tour of staunch Catholicism. The old Wellington Chinese families were also devotees, and their Eastern club was another powerhouse. As the son of a Northland doctor, I was a minority in a minority sport.
One evening as I was hanging out at Newtown after a game, a collection of young men piled out of cars or clambered over fences after having bussed up from the railway station. They got changed and began playing before a handful of people. It was that year's trial to select a New Zealand team to play Australia.
I knew none of these guys but I immediately felt proud of them and what they were doing. They ran and moved the ball beautifully, and seemed more physically attractive and intelligent than any group of New Zealand sportsmen I'd ever seen. That was the strange thing: they were so good, but they might as well have been invisible. Why didn't more people know about these men and their wonderful game? I felt I had happened on some highly evolved tribe that had been living in our midst, undiscovered.
As I settled into basketball I began to like the fact it was off the beaten track. Subcultures are fun, especially for a teenager. Basketball's Off Off Broadway status gave more definition and edge to it. It wasn't just beautiful, it was a beautiful secret — a small club frequented by a few knowing, skilled practitioners.
* * *
The whole point of the hook shot is to put the ball out of reach of defenders. It makes a tall person even taller. It owes its distinctive, attractive form entirely to function.
It's not a long-range weapon. Used in close, amid traffic, its towering point of release (higher than any other shot in the game) makes it very hard to block. The rare sight of a blocked hook shot inevitably cues in appreciative noises from a basketball crowd.
The hook shot I saw that night at Newtown was a sweeping hook. The shooter takes off on one leg — his left if he's shooting right-handed — the take-off usually coming after a long stride that helps lose the defender and move into space. The cousin of this shot is the running hook, which comes at the end of a drive rather than from a standing start. More recently a nephew has come into the world. This is the jump hook, a far less stately vertical version launched from a standing two-leg take-off. The jump hook is more of a jab with a patu to the sweeping hook's taiaha blow.
A library book taught me the correct technique for the sweeping hook. Besides calling for a "feathery" motion of the shooting arm, it stressed the need for an acute bend at the knee of the non-jumping leg to help get the balance right. To begin with this felt affected, like some dance-hall routine. I remember, at that formative time, the sharp cut of a friend's derisive laugh when he saw me fold that leg up underneath in can-can fashion as I self- consciously ground out the move.
Excerpted from Open Looks by John Saker. Copyright © 2015 John Saker. Excerpted by permission of Awa Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Tracing the Arc,
2 French Bread,
3 Tall Black Debut,
4 Out of Bounds,
5 El Equipo de Sueños,
6 Hoosier Hysteria,
7 Boys of '77,
8 Steven Adams,
9 Beach Ball,