Basketball community facing unique challenges

Getting the next Ben Simmons, Liz Cambage, Andrew Gaze or Penny Taylor to play an organised game of hoops may appear to be difficult in the near future, but the Victorian basketball community are fighting to save the grassroots game in spite of the greatest threat to sport in Australian history.

With the postponement of basketball from 13 March due to COVID-19, the basketball landscape across Victoria and Australia has taken a huge hit, but it’s not just the professional leagues and international events that have been devastated.

Approximately 420,000 basketball participants stopped playing in the space of a day some 6 weeks ago and that’s just in Victoria alone. With 240,000 registered members this year, on top of another 180,000 casual participants throughout the state, basketball is the largest community sport in Victoria and is increasing faster than population growth.

The National Cabinet outlined its 15 principles for the staged return of sport and recreation activities last Friday and its initial phase included the resumption of children’s outdoor sport, with further decisions due on Friday, May 8. It suggests beginning with under 10 people in a non-contact fashion, before progressing to more than 10 people with full contact and includes strict physical distancing measures for non-sporting attendees such as parents. States and Territories are responsible for their own sport and recreation resumption decisions, Basketball Victoria are working closely with the Victorian Government to seek clarity on timelines and demonstrate solutions for potential resumption barriers.

The principles’ key points on community sport were:

  • The resumption must not compromise the public’s health and must be based on objective information to ensure potential transmission rates are conducive to safe conduct
  • It should only occur where activity-specific, stringent, public and personal health measures are observed and meeting minimum standards
  • At all times organisations must respond to the directives of public health authorities
  • Venues be assessed to ensure precautions are taken to minimise risk to participants and those attending

However, there is some external commentary that assume indoor sports such as basketball will have a longer wait before returning to the court, although the AIS principles stated there was ‘no good data’ on the risk of indoor sporting activity.

“At this time, the risk is assumed to be greater than for outdoor sporting activity, even with similar mitigation steps,” it said.

Basketball Victoria has prepared “Return to Sport” Guidelines in conjunction with local member associations and advice from Basketball Australia and their Chief Medical Officer. The guidelines refer to various levels of risk management to enable kids to get back on the court including, the flow of traffic in and out of venues, time restrictions, compulsory cleaning, sanitisation and restrictions on players, officials and parents per court. Basketball Victoria believe that given stadiums are large volume spaces where the number of people can be strictly managed, they are confident the guidelines the sport has developed can allow for basketball to resume in stadiums at the same time as outdoor sporting activities resume.

 

Basketball organisations have a large footprint across the state, leasing and hiring court-space from every Victorian council municipality – with 465 indoor facilities and over 1,000 courts being used regularly throughout the year. As an indoor sport, Basketball has the potential to have longer-term exposure to the economic side-effects of COVID-19, and will be impacted more severely by the specific classification of indoor sporting venues (which includes community and recreation centres) and restrictions by the State and Federal Governments than any other major sporting code.

Basketball Victoria CEO Nick Honey said. “Our associations and clubs do an amazing job of inspiring kids of all abilities to pick up a basketball, remain engaged and enjoy the benefits of our sport. We have also worked hard together to ensure we are well-placed to return to play under various scenarios and restrictions that may be imposed on us. Grassroots is our key priority – there is no level of basketball in Victoria without it,”

Fortunately, the early funding initiatives provided through state and federal government are alleviating some of the immediate pressures on the sport, however, basketball still faces significant adversity. It is anticipated the impacts of the pandemic will hit the sport through 2021 and beyond.

Across gender, age and ability, basketball is quite possibly the most inclusive sport, but what the public perceive as the main strength of the ‘homeland of hoops’ in this country – the ability to produce a legacy of champions (see current NBA/NBL/WNBA/WNBL stars Ben Simmons, Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, Dante Exum, Mitch Creek, Liz Cambage, Jenna O’Hea, Alanna Smith, Ezi Magbegor amongst others) it actually is the size and scale of the community, and the work of the local association providing inclusive opportunities that is the real strength of the sport.

It is not only the pathways to the highest echelons of international success that are under threat without a strong grassroots basketball community. It is the health, wellbeing and economic benefits that add the most value to society. Basketball in this state creates $750m+ annually in societal impact, with The Intergenerational Review of Australian Sport (2017) stating at least $7 is returned on every dollar expended in the sector. The high rate of return is a combination of direct economic benefits, the network of volunteers, avoided health costs, and education benefits. This is in addition to the 1,000 full-time, part-time and casual positions directly employed by Victorian associations and clubs and the 7,500 paid honoraria of coaches, referees and officials.

 

Andrew Gaze with his son Mason. Picture: BASKETBALL VICTORIA

Olympic and NBL legend Andrew Gaze is well known for his on-court prowess as a player and coach, but his passion these days is helping administer the Melbourne Basketball Association (MBA) to run the local Monday night social league at MSAC with his 83-year-old father and legend in his own right – Lindsay. Andrew says the future of the MBA is in doubt.

“The MBA has conducted a weekly competition for over 60-years, but court hire costs on the back of potential limited availability may push the cost of participation out of the reach of many. The only way to combat the financial equation surrounding venue access is to either reduce the charge to use facilities or increase the charge for participants to play. As the largest participation sport in Victoria, we understand the impact the game has on the lives of many and we are hopeful that our venue providers will assist with access and costs to enable a speedy recovery.” Gaze said.

Gaze is adamant that despite the challenges, the MBA has a proud history and although they are primarily a volunteer run association, they can weather the storm and prioritise the participation of its members as soon as the restrictions are lifted.

“We have thousands of participants, eagerly awaiting the relaxation of sporting restrictions. The MBA will be ready to go, as soon as it is absolutely safe to do so. There may need to be a staggered return to competition, with officials and organisers looking at a reduction in their income, as the domestic leagues manage a fiscally responsible return to full participation. This approach will keep many participants on the sidelines, as the associations attempt to keep the cost of play accessible.”

Opals Captain – Jenna O’Hea

Australian Opal’s Captain and star of the WNBL’s Southside Flyers – Jenna O’Hea said it is important for teams to get back on the court for social connections and lifting spirits to improve societies wellbeing. “I think routine and having places to be and keeping busy is good for our mental health, so getting back on the court and into regular trainings and commitments is important whenever it is safe to do so.”

O’Hea’s motivation has been a bit of a roller coaster during this social distancing period of COVID-19. Not knowing when we she will be back training, let alone playing it has been hard to keep training at a high intensity like she normally would during a season. O’Hea’s been staying active by doing things she enjoys; bike rides, running with her dog as well as the ball handling skills and drills to stay sharp and active. She encourages the community to do the same.

“I’m a mental health advocate (O’Hea won the 2019 AIS Athlete Community Engagement Award as a Lifeline Community Custodian) and situations like this can have serious implications on our mental health. I know that I love basketball and can’t wait until I can get back with my teammates, competing and improving our skills together again. I would encourage all hoopers to do things you enjoy, keep a ball in your hands during this time and be ready to go whenever we do get the all clear.”

“Things are changing so rapidly and decisions can be difficult, but I think if outdoor sports get back into training quickly, they also generally have more athletes on the field at once compared to basketball which is only 5 per side at a time which I think is an advantage for basketball.” O’Hea said.

A prime example of a talented athlete nurtured through community sport and Victorian pathways is – Jazmin Shelley, affectionately known as Jaz amongst the basketball community. A Moe native, Australian Under-19 representative, and a recent recipient of the Basketball Victoria – Junior Female Athlete of the Year Award, Shelley has just finished a shortened, yet, successful first year at the University of Oregon playing alongside WNBA number 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu.

“When the COVID-19 outbreak forced the suspension of basketball I was shattered,” Shelley reflected. “I was one week away from competing in the NCAA tournament. Our team had an extremely great chance at taking a national championship. This was a devastating shock to me, my family and my teammates.”

Despite these challenging circumstances, Shelley expressed the longing to get back on the court as the driving force to stay as active and engaged as possible. She has been doing her best to keep her skills up at home during COVID-19, leading her family with trick shots in the front yard as part of the Basketball Victoria ‘Hoops At Home’ initiative – with a few of the posts going viral, but she added that it’s been hard not only for herself but her brothers Luke and Austin, who also went through the Basketball Victoria pathways and are just as keen to get back to their own elite basketball journeys.

“I have now started to become optimistic about this situation and have been treating this as a long preseason. My brothers and I are very active people so coping with this lockdown has been difficult, but we are still finding ways to entertain ourselves in some way.”

“The time off has also given me the opportunity to understand the significant impact my local association and Basketball Victoria has had on me as an athlete. Attending the University of Oregon would not have been made possible if I didn’t have these pathways that guided me through my whole junior career. Not many people around the country or the world have a program in place like this.” Shelley said.

Nick Honey added, “While this is a challenging time, basketball is lucky to have such an engaged community who are ready to jump back on the court as soon as they are allowed.”

“This is a difficult position for all involved, we have a great community who are prepared and excited to reactivate the sport and make it viable again. We can’t wait to get the doors open and see the better part of half-a-million Victorians hit the court when it is safe to do so.”  Honey said.

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