Written for nbl.com.au by Liam Santamaria
Gregg Popovich has coached for decades in the glitz and glamour of the NBA.
The legendary coach has encountered most of what there is to experience in basketball, including NBA Finals, All-Star Games and major internationals.
But that didn’t stop him being taken aback by his surroundings at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium on Thursday night as his Team USA and the Australian Boomers faced off in an historic exhibition clash.
With the game played on a raised court in front of over 50,000 people in the middle of an Aussie Rules football stadium, Popovich described the experience as like coaching on the silver screen.
“It felt like I was in a movie. Like on a movie set,” ‘Pop’ said.
“I kept looking behind me because I knew I was going to fall off the stage… But once the ball goes up you pay attention to what’s going on there and don’t worry about that so much.”
The lengthy and eventful build-up was finally put aside last night as streams of fans poured into Marvel Stadium to take in the most highly-attended basketball game ever played in Australia.
Much had been said over the preceding months about the ins and outs for both squads.
On the night, however, it was a classy display by NBA All-Star Kemba Walker (23 points) and a powerhouse performance from Indiana Pacers centre Myles Turner (15 points, 14 rebounds) that proved the difference, as Team USA claimed victory 102-86.
For the Boomers, the hit-out served as another step forward in their preparation for next month’s FIBA World Cup. Saturday’s rematch will further advance that cause.
But, of course, the occasion was so much more than that. These two games in Melbourne this week represent a landmark moment for the growth of basketball Down Under.
“Basketball in this country has been waiting for something like this,” Boomers guard Patty Mills commented postgame.
“For everyone involved to be able to deliver it, first and foremost, was awesome.
“This is an opportunity for us to play against a high-quality, powerhouse team to help us grow and be ready for the World Cup… but you can see how much support is there for basketball and especially for our national team.
“Hopefully we can keep the momentum and keep growing… but it’s just awesome to see the amount of support that was shown for us.”
Walker, whose craftiness off the dribble and deadly mid-range game helped bury the Boomers, was left stunned by the sheer number of people in attendance.
“It was amazing. It was an amazing time,” the Boston Celtics guard said.
“I’m super excited to even have the opportunity to play in front of that many people. It was a blessing.”
— NBL (@NBL) August 22, 2019
With most of the logistics in place being unlike anything usually set up for basketball, there was much about Thursday’s exhibition hit-out that felt more like an ‘event’ than a game of hoops.
The journey from the locker rooms to the court, for example, was along a temporary boardwalk surrounded by fans doing everything they could to get close to the action.
“It felt like I was on a runway. (Like) an Armani deal,” Popovich joked with media postgame.
“Everybody’s hands are out and if you don’t hit all their hands they think you’re a jerk so you’ve got to do this up-and-down-the-aisle thing. That was weird. I’m not built for that.”
It was a unique set-up, without a doubt. That was true for the players and coaches but also, perhaps even more so, for those in the crowd.
With the court dropped right into the middle of the enormous stadium the resulting seating arrangements were not ideal and brought the ire of some fans who struggled for a clear view.
But, of course, attending this game was never going to be about just having a perfect line of sight. Instead, it was an almighty celebration of the sport and a statement by Australians about how much we love it. It was an ‘I was there that night’ kind of experience.
“This is the biggest basketball stage that Australia has ever put together and being a part of that is an honour,” Boomers big man Jock Landale commented postgame.
“When you take a step back and look at it you’re like, ‘Damn this is pretty sweet’ but we’ve got to concentrate on winning.”
That’s exactly what the Boomers will be doing tomorrow afternoon in front of another enormous crowd: trying their best to block out the spectacle while having another crack at the mighty USA.