Basketball: Pirates hoist flag for AucklandSave
By Steve Deane
The name might invoke images of wooden-legged smash-and-grab merchants, but the Auckland Pirates insist they are fighting fit and in the National Basketball League for the long term.
And while they'll back themselves to snag some silverware, the Basketball Auckland-backed entity insists it won't have to then flog it off to pay off long-suffering creditors.
Yesterday's unveiling of the Pirates marked the return of an Auckland presence to the NZNBL a year after the Tab Baldwin-owned Stars folded, leaving the national competition without a club representing the country's biggest city.
With Harbour Basketball pulling their team for the coming season because of financial pressures, and Christchurch Cougars withdrawing after the February earthquake, Auckland's return is timely.
With games to be played at Kohimarama's ASB Stadium and the old-firm duo of coach Kenny Stone and veteran forward Dillon Boucher at the helm of the new club, there are similarities with the Stars. But the Pirates insist they are a completely different kettle of kippers from a club that went from a powerhouse to a not-so-funny laughing stock in its dying years.
"The only thing we have in common with the Stars are Kenny and Dillon," BA board member Greg Finch said. "And they were the two best things about the Stars."
Distancing the new venture from a Stars club whose on-court struggles were matched by an off-court soap opera that included wrangles over non-payment of fees and salaries, investigations into the misappropriation of grant money and, ultimately, eviction from the league, was a key factor in the rebranding exercise undertaken by international experts Interbrand.
"We needed to ensure that we had a separate identity and a different identity to what was out there in the past," general manager John McGregor said at yesterday's launch at the Maritime Museum (where else?).
"What we needed to do was represent what Auckland was about. Auckland is based around islands and the sea. We just thought it would be a nice fresh new-look name for a new team."
The reality is that operating teams in the NBL tends to be a financially fraught affair. Already reigning champions Wellington have pleaded poverty - a bit rich considering their 2010 roster - and threatened to pull out before being rescued by a naming rights sponsor. Harbour Heat are taking a year out to repair the damage done to the association by last year's wage bill. Christchurch are quite literally in rebuilding mode, and the next hardship case is typically only a week or two around the corner.
None of that is lost on the Pirates' principals, who insist they have done their due diligence.
"We spent a lot of time and money on feasibility studies," said Finch, an orthopaedic surgeon. "We probably spent six to eight months putting our ducks in a row and making what we would consider a very informed decision."
The Pirates also have an ace up their sleeve - a mystery financial backer who wishes to remain anonymous.
The backer put up the seed money for a venture that will also be backed by cash from BA and sponsorship revenue. Herald sources suggest the Pirates' treasure chest is well stocked, with the company that has been set up to run the franchise boasting a $500,000 bank balance.
That sort of money should translate into a competitive roster - something the Stars lacked in recent times.
ANBL veteran Luke Martin has been recruited in the crucial point guard position, while imports Raheim Brown and Kevin Mickins complement the likes of Boucher and age-grade star Brook Ruscoe.
Finch insists the Pirates have been prudent with their wage bill.
"We have not driven the price of players up in any way but the quality of our players is as good as anything that has ever been seen in the league," he said.
For Auckland native Boucher, a player who won multiple titles with the Stars but departed the club in acrimony after a dispute with Baldwin over unpaid wages, the chance to again pull on a hometown singlet was enticing.
He was confident there would be no repeat of the distractions that eventually brought the Stars to their knees.