Newcastle is experiencing a resurgence in junior basketball.
Once the birthplace of the NBL, the city now boasts the largest enrolment numbers of junior basketballers in the country, with its Aussie Hoops program topping the table in 2020.
Following the release of the 2020 Term 4 figures, Newcastle Basketball Manager Martin McLean says the sport’s popularity is reminiscent of its golden era in the early 1990s.
“I don’t know exact figures from that time but I do know that our junior development programs have gone ballistic,” he said.
“We’re breaking all our records. This is the biggest basketball has ever been in Newcastle.”
Basketball Australia released its participation numbers for the national Aussie Hoops program this week, with Newcastle listed as number one.
Aussie Hoops is Basketball Australia’s skills-based program introducing five to 10-year-olds to the sport.
Of the 2,244 Australian children enrolled in the program during Term 4, 2020, Newcastle made up almost 15 per cent, with 335 enrolments.
Term One enrolment numbers for 2021 are already 373, a new personal best for the city.
For three to five-year-olds, the program is modified and referred to as Mini Hoops.
Both feed into other junior programs including winter and summer competitions, as well as the Newcastle Academy and Hunters representative teams.
“We are one of the largest Sporting Schools providers at the moment as well, and our holiday camps are going nuts as well at the moment,” Mr McLean said.
So, why the renewed interest in a sport that has two teams with five players each running, dribbling and passing a leather-clad ball the length of a court with the objective of shooting it through a hoop, with or without the use of a backboard?
“COVID, to some extent, locked people away and they’re now bursting at the seams to get out and play sport again,” Mr McLean added.
“Active Kids vouchers also brought a lot more people to the sport, and I think we got ourselves organised post-lockdown pretty quickly so we captured those kids looking to do something active pretty quick.
“Parents can also park out the front and walk straight through the front door come rain, hail or shine.
“It’s held at the same place, same program, regular times, and the weather doesn’t change anything – other than the leaking roof.”
While the sport is booming, the Broadmeadow stadium, built in 1969, is not faring quite so well.
According to Mr McLean, its days are numbered.
“There have been several add-ons to the building since then,” he said. “The NBL league in itself was started right here in the office upstairs.
“But there are six courts here and no two courts are the same size, and, when it rains, it rains inside too.”
For the former steel city, the timing of a resurgence in junior basketball couldn’t be better, with a new 10-court, 3,500-seat stadium expected to start construction in Hillsborough later this year.
“It will fit in with the growth of this sport,” Mr McLean said. “I think you build it, and they’ll come, even more of them.
“The new stadium will allow us to reduce the number of later time slots [of games] and I think we’ll fill it.
“It’s a brand new, cleaner environment that people can come and play in, and a much friendlier facility – by that, I mean no leaks or dust.”
The plethora of talented junior players currently in Newcastle also deserve a new home-base, Mr McLean said.
“We’ve got some really talented kids coming through, some who will follow the path to NBL or WNBL and make Australian teams for sure and we’re quietly confident that we’ll continue that flow of talented youngsters,” he added.
“There are not many associations that can boast multiple athletes at the [Basketball Australia] Centre of Excellence like we can, or multiple players in Australian teams, like Cassidy [McLean] and Lara [McSpadden], who grew up here playing juniors together.
“At the last Under 14 Nationals, we had both our teams in the top 10 teams in the country,” he said. “Things are going well.”
Securing a “legend of the sport” within its payroll has also helped Newcastle cement its reputation as one of the best junior clubs in the country, Mr McLean admitted.
“Tim Mallon, who is highly regarded as one of the best coaches in the country, is our director of coaching,” he said.
“That helps us. Tim is focused on development, he is all about the kids and about wanting to see them develop further and help them achieve their dreams.”
Newcastle mother-of-four Alicia Macdougall agrees the coaching is what sets Newcastle apart from other associations.
With all four of her children engaged in junior programs at the stadium, much of her spare time is spent with the sounds of basketballs bouncing up and down one of Broadmeadow’s six courts.
“The basketball community itself is so welcoming,” she said.
“That’s a positive, but I think the coaching is amazing as well – we’ve got some really talented coaches here.”
Having played for Newcastle herself, and spending much of her childhood at the Broadmeadow address, Ms Macdougall says the new Hillsborough site represented a “brighter future”.
“I grew up playing basketball from the age of six or seven,” she said.
“Most of my childhood was spent right here, and now my kids are here most of the week. It’s actually been a big part of our family for a long time.
“But I can’t wait until we get this new stadium. It will be so good for the sport.”
Mr McLean said that, with a strong coaching team, a new modern facility and record enrolment numbers, there was just one more milestone to achieve.
“The goal is to get our own WNBL team once we’re settled into our new stadium,” he said.
“That’s why we built a stadium this size. That will be exciting, not only for the basketball community but for the whole city of Newcastle.”