Ballin' in Black by Huw Beynon
Opening Sentence: “If the Tall Blacks culture doesn’t get passed down, then we’ve failed the brothers that come after us.”
Wearing the silver fern in New Zealand carries mana. It is the epitome of sport in Aotearoa. For any athlete to wear the silver fern replete with the traditional black sporting ensemble is something of a dream. To wear it multiple times, that’s something special. To wear it for over 100 international clashes, well, that’s something quite remarkable.
So remarkable that this book recognises all 11 members of the Tall Blacks that have successfully competed in over 100 international tests for their country. The players recognised in this book are centurions of their sport, and deserve the recognition. Their contribution to basketball in New Zealand has changed the game in this country from a third tier entity to a thriving and exponentially growing pastime and sport for young people.
The Tall Blacks is one of those teams that everyone loves to support. They are the little engine that could and have consistently defied expectations and risen to every occasion. From their foray onto the world stage with the 2000 Sydney Olympics through to multiple FIBA World Cup with the real stand out of the 2002 campaign where they placed 4th, the team has captured the nation on multiple occasions as they fiercely battle it out with great strength, pride, and determination. Learning about them through the lens of each individual player has certainly changed my impression of the team. Ballin’ in Black as a title didn’t really capture me when I first received the book. For such a remarkable team with its back story and the strength that has come from this franchise, the name just didn’t fit for me. But getting past this, the book carries with it a real treasure trove for lovers of the sport and ‘big ticket’ game supporters (really only tuning in for the big ones) like myself.
The book is a compendium of the centurion’s stories. It provides the background information of players like Kirk Penney, Casey Frank, Paul Henare, Tom Abercrombie and the indefatigable Pero Cameron (who is the current coach of the team and also the first of the 100 club). Amazingly, all these men have become household names in a country dominated by rugby union for so long. These men pathed the way for the next generation to lift New Zealand basketball even higher - even Steven Adams thought of these guys as inspirational. Each of the 11 players is profiled with their accolades highlighted from their high school years to their career wearing the black singlet including grand slam of basketball events - the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Their stories are sometimes sad, sometimes jovial, and always fascinating.
Told with that journalistic style of a Saturday newspaper opinion piece, each of the profiles has some (at times distracting) commentary from Huw Beynon, New Zealand’s basketball commentary aficionado. It’s clear that Beynon has a deep connection and strong rapport with the lads on the court but the matey-ness is a bit too much at times. I must admit that there were times when the short addendum phrases that went along with the narrative footnote style were quite funny or revealing, but other times they just grated.
Providing insight into the players is both fascinating and tremendously inspiring, especially for younger players - all of whom should read this book. These insights highlight the grit and determination the team employed especially during the early years when they burst onto the international scene. For many it was out of nowhere, but the book recounts the years and years of training and strategy that got the team to these heady heights.
Reviewer: Chris Reed
Bateman Books, RRP $39.99