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by John Saker

Basketball spread in New Zealand from the early 20th century, partly due to the influence of the YMCA and YWCA – and of Mormon missionaries from the USA. In the 2000s the national women’s team was the Tall Ferns and the men’s team was the Tall Blacks.

Game and structure

The game

Basketball is a fast-moving team sport played indoors on a rectangular court divided in half by the midcourt line. Two teams of five players each attempt to score by shooting a ball through a hoop (which is 3.48 metres high and mounted on a backboard) at either end of the court. These are called baskets, which they originally were.

Players move the ball down the court by dribbling (bouncing) or passing (throwing) it to a team-mate. The team with the ball is called the offence; the other team is the defence. The defence tries to steal the ball by intercepting passes, contesting shots and winning rebounds (shots that rebound off the hoop or the backboard). Each team defends their own basket and scores in their opponent’s basket. When a team makes a basket (the ball falls through the hoop), they score two points and possession of the ball passes to the other team. If a basket is made from outside the three-point arc, it is worth three points. Free-throws, awarded for a foul and taken from the free throw line, are worth one point.

Each game is usually divided into halves and then quarters of between six and 12 minutes. The gap between the halves is longer than between the quarters. If the game is tied at full-time, overtime periods are played until a winner emerges.

There is no limit to the number of substitutions allowed. Once a player has incurred five fouls they are ejected from the game.

Basketball New Zealand

In 2012 New Zealand basketball was managed by Basketball New Zealand (BBNZ). It comprised 36 associations in four zones: the upper North Island, mid-North Island, lower North Island and South Island. Wheelchair Basketball New Zealand was an associate member.

Basketball scholarship

In 2012 Lincoln University extended its sports scholarship programme to include basketball. This was a result of increased public awareness and interest in the sport as well as recognition that increasing numbers of scholarship recipients were very strong basketball players.

Competitive basketball

National teams

The New Zealand men’s basketball team is called the Tall Blacks. The national women’s team is the Tall Ferns. There are 10 other national teams, including the Junior Tall Blacks and Junior Tall Ferns.

New Zealand Breakers

An Auckland-based professional men’s team, the New Zealand Breakers, joined the Australian National Basketball League in 2003.

Men’s and women’s competitions

In 2012 men’s basketball comprised two leagues: the first-division National Basketball League (NBL) and the second-division Conference Basketball League (CBL). Women’s basketball did not have a national league. Instead, regional teams played in the Women’s Basketball Championships (WBC), three three-day tournaments around the country.

Secondary schools

In 2012 BBNZ together with local associations hosted Junior Premiership Tournaments (years 9 and 10) and Senior Premiership and National Championship Tournaments.

Participation rates

A 2008 SPARC survey placed basketball as having the 17th-highest participation rate among various sport and recreational activities, with 6.3% of New Zealand adults having played the game over a 12-month period. Of adults who played the game:

  • 72.2% were men
  • 58.3% were aged 16–24
  • 48.4% were European, 24.5% Māori, 12.1% Pacific and 19.2% Asian.

The game particularly appealed to men and young adults. The high rate of Māori participation may be due to early Mormon influence on the game – a relatively high proportion of Mormons are Māori.

In 2018 basketball was the second most popular sport in secondary schools, behind netball.

Origins and growth, 1908 to 1950s


Basketball was invented by the Canadian Dr James Naismith in 1891. Employed as physical-education instructor at a YMCA training school in Massachusetts, he was given the task of creating a competitive game which his students could play indoors during winter. Inspired by a childhood game, ‘duck on a rock’ – where players threw stones at a target on a rock – he developed 13 rules that became the basis of basketball.

A former Naismith student, J. H. Greenwood, introduced basketball to New Zealand when he was appointed physical director of the Wellington YMCA in 1908. The first game took place later that year in the YMCA’s Wellington gymnasium. The sport was called indoor basketball to avoid confusion with the English offshoot of basketball played by females outdoors. New Zealand women’s basketball was renamed netball in 1970.

All in the name

Indoor basketball leagues during the 1930s included many business house teams, their names identifying the workplaces players came from. In Wellington the 1938 men’s league included the Taxes Rangers, the Pensions and the Woolworth’s Whoppers.

The ‘Y’ leagues

The ‘Y’ network (YMCA and YWCA) spread the game from the 1920s, often with the help of American Mormon missionaries. By the mid-1930s men’s and women’s indoor basketball associations had been set up in the main cities and some smaller centres. From the start, both sexes were involved, the YMCA organising the men’s leagues and the YWCA the women’s. In 1935 the Auckland women’s association had 14 teams. The first national indoor basketball tournament was held in Wellington in 1938. The 1939 national tournament, also in Wellington, drew a large crowd of spectators.

National bodies

During the Second World War many New Zealand servicemen were exposed to basketball by American personnel and returned home with mild cases of ‘hoop fever’. After the war, the game left the Y nests to create its own structure. The New Zealand Women’s Indoor Basketball Association (NZWIBA) was established in 1945; the men followed suit in 1946 with the New Zealand Men’s Indoor Basketball Association (NZMIBA).These bodies held their inaugural national tournaments in those same years.

From small beginnings

In 1945 Internal Affairs Minister Bill Parry became patron of the NZWIBA. In accepting the office he commented how he had ‘seen the game grow from a matter of a team or so when it was first played by the Y.M.C.A. and Y.W.C.A. till today [when] there are over 200 teams representing over 1000 women players.’1 The biggest problem facing the game was a lack of playing facilities, but he hoped this would be remedied by building new community halls.


Basketball’s post-war growth was steady but unspectacular. Encouragement and resources to spread the game were supplied by the Physical Welfare and Recreation Branch of the Internal Affairs Department. But a lack of facilities impeded development. Basic technique, the coaching expertise to teach basketball and the regular competition to hone skills were all also lacking. The government-sponsored construction of war memorial community halls, in which basketball could be played, helped to alleviate the facilities obstacle. Between 1946 and 1961 the NZMIBA grew from 16 affiliated associations comprising 366 teams to 31 associations with 750 teams.

Improving skills

The deepening influence of Mormon missionaries in the game improved player skills as well as coaching. Between 1946 and 1961, at the conclusion of the national men’s tournament, a New Zealand team would play a team of Mormon missionaries. The national team won the contest for the first time in 1951, hailed as New Zealand’s first international basketball victory.

Although the NZMIBA welcomed the Mormons’ contribution to coaching – they introduced teams to zone defence – it was forced to ban the Mormons from proselytising at games in 1961. The game also benefited from visits from American coaches organised through the United States government. These included John Wooden (the legendary UCLA coach) in 1957; Stu Inman (coach of San Jose State) in 1961, 1964, 1965 and 1966; and Red Auerbach (coach of the Boston Celtics) in 1970.

    • Evening Post, 17 October 1945, p. 4. Back

Consolidation, 1960s to 1980s

Increasing competitiveness

Basketball was almost invisible in New Zealand during the 1960s. The strength of the game in Australia led the New Zealand Men’s Indoor Basketball Association (NZMIBA) to expose New Zealand sides to trans-Tasman competition. The New Zealand men’s team competed in the Australian Interstate Championship several times.

A major breakthrough came in 1968 with the creation of the Oceania qualification zone by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), basketball’s world governing body. This meant that Australia and New Zealand would compete every two years to decide which country would represent the zone at the Olympic Games or the world championships. In 1971 the NZMIBA and the NZWIBA amalgamated as the New Zealand Basketball Federation (NZBF). Lance Cross was elected president of the new body, and Zena Gay became vice-president.

International success

After a string of defeats in the 1970s, a Steve McKean-coached team led by John McDonald and Stan Hill, the dominant player of the era, defeated Australia 67–65 for the first time in 1978. In the same year the New Zealand team won the silver medal at the Commonwealth championships in Britain.

Creating atmosphere

The national league introduced new forms of entertainment to provide a better atmosphere and attract crowds. The Wellington-based Exchequer Saints led the way with a mascot (The Gorilla), cheerleaders, microphones on hoops to accentuate the sound of players getting baskets, introduction of players over the sound system, statistical information and commentaries, and pre-game music to stir up support.

National league

The 1980s ushered in a period of exceptional growth and popularity for the sport. Late in 1981, six men’s teams – a mixture of club and provincial representative sides – went out on their own and created a national league. It was enough of a success to come under the control of the NZBF the following year, when it grew in size and secured a naming sponsor. An allowance of two imported players (invariably Americans with college basketball experience) per team, and the fact that games were played in the evening indoors, helped turn the league into a new family entertainment option. Spectators filled gymnasiums and media coverage reached unprecedented levels.

Emblematic of these boom years was the league final played in Wellington in 1985 between local side Exchequer Saints and the Auckland Rebels. Won by Saints in the final second of overtime, from a shot launched behind the three-point line by American import Kenny McFadden, the game was broadcast live on television to 750,000 viewers. Soon after the league’s establishment, a men’s second division was created, followed in 1986 by a women’s national league. These new competitions superseded the old national tournament system at senior level.

Junior levels

Instituted in the 1960s, age-group championship tournaments and the secondary-school national championships have remained the cornerstone of junior development. For most players, high-school basketball was their introduction to the game at a serious level and they look back on their battles at ‘secondary school nationals’ with fondness.

ANZUS snub

The diplomatic ‘cold war’ that developed between the United States and New Zealand following the 1985 split over the ANZUS defence treaty extended to basketball. A proposed tour by the West Point Military Academy basketball team was cancelled two months before it was due to begin. The Americans informed the NZBF the decision had been made because of the ‘current situation’.1

New horizons

The 1980s broadened horizons for the men’s and women’s national teams. Asian tournaments, in particular the R. William Jones Cup Tournament in Taipei, became regular fare – a key attraction being that costs were largely met by the hosts. In 1983 NZBF hosted the Commonwealth Basketball Championships (men’s and women’s). Both local teams finished without medals, and the NZBF, hoping to make a handsome profit, suffered a $50,000 loss.

A coup was achieved when the national men’s team received a wild-card entry into the 1986 World Championships in Spain. It managed one win against Malaysia to finish 21st in the 24-team tournament. The New Zealand men’s team gained further international exposure when the Soviet Union team visited in 1987. New Zealand lost both games but narrowed the points difference in the second encounter.

    • Dominion, 15 March 1985, p. 5. Back

Fall and rise, 1990s onwards

National league declines

Competition from other indoor sports like cricket, a lack of player development and poor management decisions were all factors in the decline of the national men’s league in the early 1990s. Television coverage dropped, sponsorship dried up and public support waned. The sport’s showpiece became a shadow of what it had been. The women’s national league also experienced a sponsorship drought and dwindling crowds. In 1995 it was split into three provincial competitions – two in the North Island and one in the South – followed by a week-long tournament to find a national champion.

Tall Blacks and Tall Ferns

A lack of competition for the national men’s team in the late 1980s was reversed in the early 1990s, with ever more matches with United States college teams and international sides. A bright spot was the first-time attendance of the national women’s team at the world championships in Australia in 1994. The team, now officially dubbed the ‘Tall Ferns’ (at the same time the men became the ‘Tall Blacks’), won one game, defeating Kenya 93–76.

In 1998 the Keith Mair-coached Tall Blacks beat Canada 85–79, a win that one commentator said confirmed ‘the Tall Blacks coming of age as a legitimate international basketball force.’1 In the same year the New Zealand Basketball Federation changed its name to Basketball New Zealand (BBNZ). Both national sides made their Olympic debuts in 2000 at Sydney, where each claimed a single victory.

A New Zealand export

In 1998 Aucklander Sean Marks was picked by the New York Knicks in the (US) NBA Draft. Marks went on to fashion an 13-year NBA career, the first New Zealander to earn a place in the world’s most prestigious basketball league. After retiring as a player he moved into coaching and in 2016 became general manager of the Brooklyn Nets in the NBA.

New era

In 2001 the Tall Blacks stunned the basketball world with a 2–1 home series victory over Australia in the world championship qualifying series. The best was yet to come. At the world tournament the following year in Indianapolis, the Tall Blacks set about toppling giant after giant: Russia and China both fell to the Kiwis. Puerto Rico was then defeated in the quarter-finals. The New Zealanders’ run only came to an end in the semi-finals against Yugoslavia, and the Tall Blacks eventually finished fourth in the world.

It was one of the great stories in world sport that year and certainly ranks as the greatest moment in New Zealand basketball. Coached by American-born Tab Baldwin, the stars of that team – the likes of Pero Cameron (captain), Phill Jones, Kirk Penney and Sean Marks – became better known to the public than any New Zealand basketball heroes before them. Cameron was named in the World All Star Five selected at the end of the tournament, the only non-NBA player to receive the honour. The Tall Blacks have been unable to progress beyond the last 16 in subsequent world championships.

Mixed results

Both the Tall Blacks and Tall Ferns competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics. The men upset world champions Serbia and Montenegro in pool play, while the women overcame China and South Korea to make it through to the top eight – the Tall Ferns’ best ever showing on the world stage. These results led to increased government funding to the sport from SPARC, which in turn enhanced the top teams’ international programmes.

Both teams won silver medals behind Australia in the 2006 Commonwealth Games. The Tall Ferns then qualified for their third successive Olympics in 2008 at Beijing, but poor results saw them lose their SPARC funding. Both national teams received enhanced funding in the lead-up to the 2012 London Olympics, but neither qualified for these or the 2016 Rio Olympics. As usual, Australia won the single spot reserved for Oceania. Both the Tall Ferns and the Tall Blacks placed third at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.

No dickheads

In 2012 one journalist gave five reasons why the Breakers were Auckland’s best team: they had a perfect mix between local and international talent; their training was highly competitive; their games attracted large crowds; they entertained spectators during time-outs and breaks; and their ‘no dickheads’ mantra ensured team-orientated players.2

New Zealand Breakers

In 2003 the New Zealand Breakers joined the Australian National Basketball League, a professional competition. After some difficult seasons, the Breakers made the playoffs for the first time in 2008. The side won the league title in 2011, repeated the feat in 2012 and 2013, and won it again in 2015.


How to cite this page: John Saker, 'Basketball', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 December 2020)

Story by John Saker, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Oct 2015