Basketball has long been a staple of Melbourne sporting culture, a proving ground for those with an athletic pedigree and a basic understanding of shooting mechanics.
Many who participate have one of these traits, others have neither, yet the game has always catered to a variety of skill levels through hundreds of junior leagues around the country.
While players in the junior stream are provided ample opportunity to compete at a high level in the Victorian Junior Basketball League, the same cannot be said for those who pursue their passion into the senior ranks.
The basketball stream flows into what is a very small pond, with the elite forced to fight it out for limited positions on professional or semi-professional rosters, while those on the cusp are relegated to competing against social groups and ex-footballers on a Wednesday night.
A 2017 investigation by Roy Morgan revealed that while 33 per cent of children between the ages of six to 13 play some sort of organised basketball in Australia, only 1.9 percent continue past the age of 14, with a fraction of those going on to play in elite competitions.
Connor Matthews, a stalwart of the Eltham Wildcats Basketball Club in Melbourne’s north-east, identified this gap in the senior basketball market, and set about creating a competitive, social escape for the region’s purists.
“We’d found that our A-Grade competitions domestically weren’t that strong and the better players didn’t really have anywhere to go. They wanted competitive hit outs but they didn’t want to be playing against people who didn’t know the game or were just there to beat the block,” says Mr Matthews.
The result, the six team ‘North East D-League’, services the basketball hotspots of Eltham, Diamond Valley, Bulleen and Camberwell, and combines the best of midweek A-grade basketball in the area with some of the brightest young stars in both the Victorian Big V competition, and the new Australia-wide NBL1 Championship.
Mr Matthews said the low-pressure nature of the D-League creates an ideal environment for elite basketball players to scratch their competitive itch while remaining in touch with the social side of the sport, which can sometimes be lost in the cutthroat nature of high-level leagues such as the Big V.
“The commitment level isn’t that high, so being able to stay in touch with their game in a competitive environment with their friends means that when they go back to training later in the year they’ll still be fit and game-ready as well,” Mr Matthews says.
Jacob Burnham has been a vital right-hand man for Mr Matthews, managing league outreach through a highly engaging social media presence and overseeing the league’s initial invite-only policy.
“I didn’t expect to be able to get such high-calibre players as we have, the standard across the board is fantastic,” says Mr Burnham.
“To have such a huge Big V core of players… about 70 per cent of the players have played Big V in the last two years, it’s great for the first season of the competition.”
The glitz of the ‘super league,’ draft night (where general managers take turns picking players from the available pool), the playful social media, the bright uniforms and the community feel harken back to the park basketball culture often associated with the United States, and these leagues are now popping up everywhere in suburban Melbourne.
Yet when Dale Crotty had the idea for the first Melbourne super league in 2012, he just wanted an environment where he could get back to enjoying basketball with his friends.
“We were playing senior basketball on a Wednesday night with a group of mates and we started to get sick of it because it seemed the teams we were playing probably weren’t there for the right reasons, they wanted to fight and it started to feel like a waste of time,” says Mr Crotty.
“We were in the carpark outside after one of the games and we decided to start our own league and get all of our friends to play, and it’s kind of just snowballed from there.”
Seven years on, the Nunawading-based Section 8 Super League has inspired a basketball renaissance in Melbourne, accumulating over 1100 followers on their social media and laying the groundwork for leagues such as the North East D-League to replicate.
“There was no real desire from us to make it something that it wasn’t, it was 42 of us that connected through different friendship networks that wanted to have a good time more than anything.”
“As soon as people started to build their own (super leagues) we thought it was quite funny. It’s really nice to have other leagues buying in to what we’ve built here,” Mr Crotty says.
Across the board, these super leagues have developed their own midweek basketball culture, with Mr Crotty’s Section 8 League going as far as to instigate an all-star weekend, complete with a three-point competition and an all-star game, with players chosen by the competition’s Facebook audience.
In 2019, the Section 8 Super League also hosted the Australian Men’s Deaf Basketball Squad, with the Goannas competing as part of an expanded 11 team competition. With the Deaf Basketball World Championships on the horizon, Mr Crotty jumped at the suggestion.
“We thought it was a pretty good idea… even though the Goannas only won two games it’s helped them a fair bit with their basketball,” Mr Crotty says.
“They were good lads too, so it was great getting them involved and it added something different to the league.”
While super leagues inherently encourage enjoyment of the game, they’ve also gained the attention of associations around Melbourne, many of which have identified the potential these platforms have to encourage player development, in order to act as a pathway to elite basketball.
David Hickman has been involved in Victorian Basketball for over 50 years, and now as part of the Victorian Junior Basketball League’s Junior Representative Commission, has seen the potential super leagues have in keeping players motivated with basketball.
“There’s very restricted space in NBL1 and Big V, clubs are only allowed to have one team so a club like Eltham that generates enormous numbers just doesn’t have the same opportunity for players at an elite level,” says Mr Hickman.
“Having a league that has elite competition, elite refereeing and proper time regulations can be a great alternative to one that involves an enormous amount of travel such as what the VJBL provides.”
While still in its infancy, the North East D-League promises to fill these basketball gaps, and further strengthen Melbourne’s second-most popular team sport, according to Mr Matthews.
“We’re happy for (players) to come to the D-League and take their experience back to their clubs to create a real community not just for the Wildcats but for the north east.”
These super leagues are quickly becoming a major part of the ever-expanding Melbourne basketball bubble, and midweek basketball is becoming all the more attractive for it.