The National Basketball League is relevant again.
After a few years of waning interest and general indifference from the sports-loving public, the NBL has taken some big steps toward re-establishing itself on the national sporting landscape this year.
While not yet back to the spectacular levels of the 1990s, crowds are significantly up, media coverage is improving and the standard is the best it has been in a long time.
But if the league really wants people to stand up and take notice it needs one thing: the Melbourne Tigers.
Most of the NBL’s biggest matches have involved the four-time champions and, love them or hate them, not having them involved leaves a very large hole in the competition.
“I would always want to see the Tigers back – and I encourage it,” Australia’s greatest basketballer and former Tigers superstar Andrew Gaze told The New Daily.
“The Melbourne Tigers throughout the ’90s and early 2000s, the so-called halcyon days of the NBL, was by far the most watched team in the competition.”
But businessman Larry Kestelman bought the Tigers and, in a bid to attract as many basketball fans in Melbourne as possible, including those from defunct teams who disliked the club, turned them into Melbourne United.
Kestelman, who subsequently upped his commitment to professional basketball in Australia by buying the NBL as a whole, has recently made it clear that expansion of the eight-team league is a priority and a second Melbourne team is an option.
“It [expansion] is certainly something the league wants,” notes Gaze, who coaches the NBL’s Sydney Kings.
Gaze’s former Tigers teammate Nigel Purchase is working on getting them back to the top, as general manager of the club which now plays in the South East Australian Basketball League (SEABL).
“This year is stage two of the Tigers redevelopment,” Purchase told The New Daily.
“We’re in the midst of making the brand relevant again, with a view that if we’re positioned well with a good structure, we could put forward a bid to get back in the NBL.”
The NBL has shown it can resurrect old clubs, with the Kings and the Brisbane Bullets being re-admitted to the competition.
It gives hope to every Tiger person – of which there are many.
They have hundreds of players in junior competitions and many fans who cannot bring themselves to support Melbourne United, a club Purchase says “ripped the heart” out of the Tigers.
United display honours won by the Tigers at their matches.
Other codes, such as the A-League and the Big Bash League, have focused on cross-town clashes to the betterment of their respective competitions, and Purchase feels a potential clash between United and the Tigers would generate far more interest than the Melbourne-Sydney rivalry the league tries to promote.
“The [current] rivalry is more between Andrew, as a legend of the game, and Melbourne United, who essentially ripped the heart out of his club,” he added.
Gaze, who coached the SEABL Tigers in their first season in 2016, will continue in that role, as there is minimal overlap with his Kings commitments.
“If you want to get 15,000 people paying good money to see a cross-town rivalry, the best chance of that happening would be with the Melbourne Tigers versus Melbourne United, because there’s already a rivalry there,” Purchase added.
“And having Andrew coach the Melbourne Tigers in the NBL would just be a sensational story.”
Who wouldn’t pay good money to see that?