To celebrate the 40th year of the New Zealand National Basketball League (which begins April 24th), a panel was formed to rank the 40 best players in League history. The panel consisted of former Canterbury Rams and Tall Blacks coach Keith Mair ONZM, long-time servant of the Nelson Giants and former NBL board member Steve Fitchett, former Tall Blacks and New Plymouth Bears coach Steve McKean MNZM, Wellington Saints owner and overseer of the most successful franchise in League history Nick Mills, and former NBL player and New Zealand’s foremost basketball scribe Marc Hinton. The panel was chaired by Sky Sport commentator and NBL Media Manager Huw Beynon.
Criteria for the 40in40 was based primarily on a player’s performance in the league, and secondarily on their contribution to the league during their time as a player.
Already named: 40. Reuben Te Rangi, 39. Eric Devendorf, 38. Tony Brown, 37. Leon Henry, 36. Tony Rampton, 35. Tony Webster, 34. Kevin Braswell, 33. Tony Bennett, 32. Paul Henare, 31. Angelo Hill.
30 John ‘Dutchie’ Rademakers
They didn’t come much smoother than the Dutchman, one of the premier Kiwi guards of the ‘80s who formed a mighty backcourt with Clyde Huntly that, in its pomp, was nigh on unstoppable. With the ball in Huntly’s hands and Rademakers running the lanes, options abounded for the red and blacks as they won championships in 1986 and ’89 and were perennial contenders through a golden era in the south.
Rademakers was the Robin to Huntly’s Batman, but his decent size, athleticism, smooth stroke from deep and high IQ made him the perfect foil for the dynamic point man. Kiwi MVP in 1984 and outstanding NZ guard in ’86, he was a regular for the Tall Blacks through the period. Averaged 10.2 points a game at the 1986 world championships.
It would surprise no one who knew him that upon retiring from top hoops in 1989 (with a championship), he turned his attentions to golf and was good enough to represent Canterbury at Freyberg Masters level.
29 Benny Anthony
One of the league’s original dominant imports, came into the Auckland team of 1983 and formed an immediate alpha- frontcourt alongside the great Stan Hill. Was named most outstanding forward and an All-Star 5 member in both ’83 and ’84 and remained an effective, physical and consistent performer for many years after.
They didn’t come much tougher, or more relentless and aggressive than Big Ben, who was as good an interior presence and attacker on the rim as had been seen in those days. One of the great sweaters the NBL has ever seen, he never left anything in the tank as he played with a physical and unyielding fury that most of that era found difficult to combat.
Stayed on in Auckland and has continued to give back to the game over the years through various coaching and mentoring roles. His son, Benny Anthony Jnr, also carved his own successful career in the NBL and for the Tall Blacks.
28 Wille Burton
One of the NBL’s great import big men, the former University of Tennessee standout had a career to match, both in terms of longevity and productivity. Big, strong and with a quality shooting touch, Burton was an excellent rebounder, capable scorer and a real tough guy who could take you inside or out, depending on the matchup.
Also seemed to sup from the fountain of youth, playing 19 years in the league, starting in 1985 with the Palmerston North Jets and retiring (for the second time) in 2006, 352 games later, when he turned 44 and won his first and only championship with his home-town Bay Hawks. Made the league’s All-Star 5 eight times, a six-time rebounding champion, outstanding forward in 1989, and, after gaining Kiwi citizenship in the mid-90s, outstanding NZ big in 1997. Also won the league assist title in 1999 (5.6). His 4244 career rebounds are first all-time, by quite some margin. Played for the Tall Blacks late in his career and was a key figure in the 2001 historic series victory over Australia. Son Alonzo has followed his father’s footsteps into the NBL as a range-shooting perimeter type.
27 Darryl Johnson
Another exquisite all-round talent with a do-it-all repertoire that made DJ one of the most coveted imports of the ‘90s. The smooth-shooting forward won championships with the Hutt Valley Lakers in 1991 and Nelson Giants in ’94 and was named league’s outstanding forward and to the All-Star 5 both years. Was also an All-Star 5 member in ’95 (Bay Hawks), ’96 (back with the Lakers) and ’98 (Wellington Saints).
Played 241 NBL games and his career average of 25.3 points, surpassed only by Ronnie Joyner and Kerry Boagni among his peers, reflects his value to whatever team he played in. One of the best to have laced ‘em up in the NBL.
26 Josh Pace
The NCAA winning teammate of Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse came to the League in 2006 with high expectations on him, and he didn’t disappoint. A favourite of super coach Nenad Vučinić at the Giants, the silky lefty swingman slotted in perfectly with the hustle machine that was Mika Vukona, leading the Giants to their third ever title in 2007, collecting League MVP along the way.
A bona fide stat line stuffer, Pace was seemingly a triple double threat whenever he took the floor. Vučinić loved him so much that he took him to Estonia with him in 2008. He would return to NZ, this time in a Hawks uniform in 2010, before heading to the Jets in 2012. It was there he’d link up with Nick Horvath and lead Manawatu to the playoffs, while leading the League in scoring and being named to his 3rd All Star 5. Loved by fans and players alike, Pace won his second straight scoring title in 2013 after returning to the Giants.
Pace is now seen on the sideline, as head coach of the NCAA’s Western New Mexico Mustangs Women’s team.
25 Terrence Lewis
Another Washington State alum who came up trumps in the NBL, Lewis spent the bulk of his near two-decade career with the Saints (1993-96,’99-2001, ‘03-08), with a couple of productive seasons with Canterbury in 2001-02 interspersed. A 1.93m shooting guard, Lewis was rugged enough to slot in at small forward if needed and was a knock-down shooter given a sliver of space.
Averaged 29 points in his first season with the Saints in 1993, when he made the first of four All-Star 5 selections, and was outstanding guard and scoring champion (34ppg) in ’99, outstanding NZ forward in ’01 and Kiwi MVP and outstanding overall and NZ guard in ’02. Won his first and only championship in ’03, after returning to the Saints to help them negotiate a season of turmoil that included two coaches quitting. Played 252 NBL games (22.5ppg) during a peripatetic career that included stints in England, Taiwan, Turkey and the Philippines. Also lined up for the Tall Blacks in ’02. Married a Kiwi, and still lives in Wellington.
24 Nenad Vučinić
The Serbia-born basketballer with the Kiwi mother started his New Zealand career playing second division with Porirua and after an eligibility controversy was cleared in 1990 to make his NBL debut with Nelson where he played the entire decade.
Came in with a solid European hoops background, which was soon apparent at the Giants where he was an integral part of a golden era at the top of the South Island. A two guard who could slot in at the point or small forward, Vucinic was unselfish, an outstanding defender, was fundamentally sound and possessed a high IQ which would help morph him into an outstanding coach. Was known for his soft-touch banker and brought the slo-mo Euro-step to the NBL. Played in the grand final in ’90 when he was also an All-Star 5 member as they lost a tight one to the Rams, but went on to win titles in 1994 and ’98.
Selected for the Tall Blacks in the early-90s and played international hoops through until the 2000 Olympics. A four-time NBL coach of year with the Giants (the first couple as a player-coach) and was an assistant and then head Tall Blacks coach. Currently coaching in Japan
23 Ralph Lattimore
Started his career with the Canterbury Rams, where he would morph from a skinny development player into an outstanding two guard, continued it in Nelson and then rounded it out as part of the dominant Auckland Stars outfit that won five titles in six years between 1995 and 2000. Named the league’s outstanding guard in ’95, was another fundamentally sound player who had few weaknesses.
Lattimore was professional before his time, and his dedication to training paid off on the court. His strength and perennially league leading fitness made him a smothering defender who could knock down the open jumper
The prolific three point shooter was a key role model to the likes of Phill Jones (at the Giants) and Dillon Boucher (at the Stars) while being a staple of the Tall Blacks sides of the era. He is now running a commune in the North Island.
22 Casey Frank
Arriving as an import in the early 2000’s, Casey Frank came to New Zealand with some major hops, and even more personality. Instantly a star in the league, his aggression and confidence on court led to him becoming a mainstay with the Auckland Stars from 2002-2009, winning back-to-back titles in ’04 and ’05. By 2006 he was a naturalised Kiwi (and a Tall Black) and was an award front runner almost every season. He took home 3 Most Outstanding Forward awards, and twice won NZ MVP. A move to the Wellington Saints in 2010 led to two more championships (’10, ’11). The Northern Arizona product gave teams all sorts of trouble with his raw athleticism inside, and his ability to drain the three ball. A favourite on and off the court.
Frank was the Breakers first ever import (2003), going on to have three stints with them before becoming synonymous with the club through his work as a Sky Sport commentator. Frank played 120 tests for the Tall Blacks.
21 Nick Horvath
A NCAA champions with Duke, the ever studious Horvath came to New Zealand by way of the Australian NBL. The New Zealand NBL became his off season home, first with the Wellington Saints where he was named to the All Star 5 in 2006. He gained New Zealand citizenship in 2008, the same year he helped the Saints win their first title since 2003, earning another All Star 5 nod along the way.
A double-double machine with a good, yet underutilised, jump shot, Horvath would have thrived in today’s basketball with his all round game. In 2011 he arrived at the Manawatu Jets, where in the course of four years he would claim three rebounding champion awards. His best year was 2012, when he was named League MVP, Most Outstanding Forward, and named to his third All Star 5.
Horvath has made Palmerston North his home, where he now teaches, coaches, and writes.
Numbers 20-11 in the Sal’s NBL 40in40 will be released on Wednesday 7th April.
The Sal’s NBL tips off on April 24. Find the schedule here