Trophy Tour helping game grow in Australia
Trophy Tour helping game grow in Australia
Exactly one month removed from the series-clinching game of the 2014 NBA Finals, the Larry O'Brien Trophy was once again in the possession of the Spurs, only this time as part of a tour that will deliver it to six destinations across Australia.
Unfurled by Patty Mills — who was armed with a heavy sling, to protect his surgically-repaired torn rotator cuff — and Aron Baynes, the trophy celebrations on home soil illustrate the culmination of a bond that was first forged over a decade ago.
From their time spent as teenage teammates to last month's parade festivities through San Antonio's famed River Walk, with pit stops in China, Lithuania, Germany, Greece, and Slovenia along the way, Mills and Baynes have matured steadily into the role models presented before the media at Melbourne's Crown Casino on Wednesday.
The event, emceed by Australian basketball royalty and former San Antonio Spur Andrew Gaze, carried less of an air of nostalgia and disbelief, and more of a collective pride and optimism for where their journey could steer the growth of the game in this country.
Both Mills and Baynes confessed to keeping a watchful eye on the progress of Danté Exum, Matthew Dellavedova, Cameron Bairstow, Brock Motum, Chris Goulding, and Jordan Vandenberg, all of whom are carrying the mantle for Australian basketball at this year's Las Vegas Summer League.
Encouraged by Gaze, who congratulated Baynes on being named to Australia's preliminary 17-man squad for the FIBA World Cup earlier this week, the pair spoke glowingly about the prospects of the national team, and the way that the NBA product has continued to translate to, and resonate with, Australian fans.
"It is an untapped market and you just have to look at the turnout today with everyone in their Spurs jerseys and merchandise," Mills said.
South Texas is a world away from the Australian capital, where Mills grew up, and Mareeba in the north of Queensland, which Baynes' family calls home.
Little could deter the duo from embracing their ambassadorial roles, as vital ingredients in the Spurs' multicultural melting pot, and as relative figureheads for what looms as a possible 'golden generation' for basketball in Australia.
Though Mills is confronting an arduous six-to-seven month recovery period, now just two weeks removed from his right shoulder operation, his trademark smile beamed across the clustered room as he told of the next item on his campaigning agenda.
"The next step and the next opportunity we get is to get a pre-season game here," he insisted.
He openly acknowledged that, for one reason or another, Australia stands as the last frontier for the NBA, coupled with a zealous fan base craving a window into the league's live game experience.
"We already have it all around the world as it is."
"We have a training camp in Europe this year with some games over there and having a game in Australia is what everyone wants and needs. So hopefully we can get that done," Mills said.
The 25-year-old guard, who recently penned a new three-year contract to remain in San Antonio, applauded his teammates' decision to stick together and defend their glistening crown, before chuckling and apologising to Baynes — whose free agency status is currently unresolved — for 'throwing him under the bus'.
Faux pas aside, it became clear as the event progressed that the pair were all too aware of the historical significance of their claim to the NBA throne.
Their place on San Antonio's eclectic roster, as the league's foreign contingency continues to swell, has both accelerated their stardom, and laid a precedent for those participating in the game at local and regional levels.
"They [San Antonio] understand how international this game is and understand the involvement that we all get from our respective countries and the support we get," Baynes admitted.
They are products of a franchise and a system that has garnered a one-of-a-kind reputation for valuing and nurturing foreign talents, and it shows.
"The GM [R.C. Buford] came up to us while Patty and I were at a table and he came up and said, ‘Listen boys, we are working towards getting you to have the Trophy for four or five days, so you can take it to the respective homes and do whatever you want with it,'" the 27-year-old described.
This homecoming adventure has afforded the star attractions a rare opportunity to enjoy intimate exchanges with thousands of impassioned Australian fans, and with the hardware itself.
Baynes explained, "This is where it started for us, and we wanted to bring it back to our friends, family and all the supporters here."
Moments after revealing it to the crowd on Wednesday, Mills and Baynes decided to add a few finishing touches to the trophy that stands at two-feet tall and is valued at $13,500.
Accompanied beyond the boundaries of the continental United States for the first time in its history, the Larry O'Brien Trophy was offered a hearty welcome to Australia, decorated with plush koalas, kangaroos, and kookaburras, and affectionately re-named 'Lazza'.
The tour will continue on Thursday in Sydney, before venturing to Canberra and Brisbane, and winding down in Baynes' hometown of Cairns, and Mills' ancestral home, the Torres Strait Islands.
It's a watershed moment for the Australian basketball landscape, propelling the country and the national team into the limelight, mere weeks ahead of their FIBA World Cup campaign in Spain.
With humility, candour, and elation, Mills and Baynes will hug the east coast of Australia for five more days, affirming their status as NBA champions, and moving to awaken the sleeping giant that is basketball in Australia.