To celebrate the 40th year of the New Zealand National Basketball League a special panel has ranked the 40 best players in the competition’s history.
The panel consisted of former Canterbury Rams and Tall Blacks coach Keith Mair, long-time Nelson Giants administrator and former NBL board member Steve Fitchett, former Tall Blacks and New Plymouth Bears coach Steve McKean, Wellington Saints owner Nick Mills and former NBL player and Stuff basketball writer Marc Hinton. Sky Sport commentator and NBL media manager Huw Beynon chaired the group.
Criteria for the 40in40 was based primarily on a player’s performance in the NBL, and secondarily on their contribution to and impact on the league during that time.
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 Rademakers, 29 Benny Anthony, 28 Willie Burton, 27 Darryl Johnson, 26 Josh Pace, 25 Terrence Lewis, 24 Nenad Vučinić, 23 Ralph Lattimore, 22 Casey Frank, 21 Nick Horvath, 20 Tai Wesley, 19 Mark Dickel, 18 Kenny Stone, 17 Shea Ili, 16 Peter Pokai, 15 Mika Vukona, 14 Jamie Dixon, 13 Torrey Craig, 12 Corey Webster, 11 Byron Vaetoe.
10 Glen Denham
For a guy who wasn’t especially big, nor particularly athletic, nor exactly dripping with talent, Glen Denham certainly wrung every ounce out of himself as a basketballer. As long-time national team-mate Byron Vaetoe noted, he was a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
In other words, what you saw wasn’t what you got on the basketball court. GD, as he was known, was a stone-cold killer on the hardwood, a smart, savvy, hard-nosed, self-motivated, 1.98-metre power forward who could score, rebound, motivate team-mates and, above all, put his teams in positions to win basketball games because he simply wanted it more than the man he was going against.
Denham was one of the country’s elite young players as a standout with Kings High in Dunedin, was playing senior hoops for Otago while still at school and, soon enough, embarked on a 16-year career with the Tall Blacks, 11 of them as captain. He played 169 games for his country (though just 53 internationals) and was always one of the first players chosen by his national coaches because he was reliable, tough, competitive and burned with passion when it came to representing his country.
At his best in the Tall Blacks singlet, but still carved an impressive 224-game NBL career between 1986 (when he debuted with Waikato) through to its conclusion in 1999 with his hometown Otago Nuggets (who eventually made it into the top flight). He was named young player of the year with the Waikato Warriors in 1987, won outstanding New Zealand forward/centre three times (1987, ’88 and ‘90) and claimed championships as a key cog with the Canterbury Rams in 1989 and ’90. All told he scored over 4000 points and snared nearly 2000 rebounds.
Since retiring from basketball, he returned to his initial career as an educator and has blazed an equally impressive path in both the UK and New Zealand. He is currently principal of Massey High School in west Auckland.
9 Dillon Boucher
One of the most recognisable figures in New Zealand basketball over the last two decades, Dillon Boucher did it all in a stellar pro career that was anchored by his phenomenal New Zealand NBL record.
Nine, count them, nine championships in a career that began in 1994 with Auckland, spanned 14 years and six clubs, Boucher took success wherever he went. Just one of two players to have played over 400 games in the League, Boucher overtook Phill Jones’ then-record 406 in 2017, and would play for one more season.
Seldom the out and out star on his team (his NZ MVP-winning season of 2003 an obvious exception), the multi-hairstyled forward garnered a well-deserved reputation for being a “glue guy”, doing the necessary, yet non-flashy work his team-mates didn’t want to. However, this belied his ability to fire pinpoint passes through legs, round backs, across keys, up high, down low, you name it. Boucher was a bona fide maker of plays and a winner of games, even if he was rarely the so-called playmaker and didn’t put up many game-winners.
When free-agency came about, players and coaches wanted Boucher on their teams, because they knew they’d be contenders if they got him. The highest of IQs, the most determined of team-mates, his three All-Star 5 awards and lone outstanding forward gong mask his contribution to winning seasons in the League.
A Tall Blacks test centurion, and a four-time Australian NBL champion with his Breakers jersey hanging from the rafters, Boucher is now the director of basketball operations at the Auckland Huskies, and sits on the NBL board.
8 Ronnie Joyner
A walking bucket. There is no more appropriate way to describe Ronnie Joyner, another of the outstanding Washington State alums who made New Zealand his home and dominated the hoops scene here.
Won his only championship in his lone season with the Saints in 1984 when he was brought in as a late replacement import just ahead of the finals. Moved to Ponsonby for his first full season in the NBL in ’85 and promptly averaged a stunning 52.65 points a game to secure the first of three straight scoring titles. A smooth mover with a killer jump-shot, Joyner had solid size, decent athleticism and a nose for the bucket, and continued to put up staggering numbers throughout a 17-year career that saw him finish with 291 games, a league-record 8828 points and also 2459 rebounds. Remarkably, he averaged over 30 points a game over those 17 seasons.
Joyner moved around a bit, following four years with Ponsonby, with a year apiece with the Waikato Warriors and Auckland Cannons, three seasons each back with the Warriors and Hutt Valley Lakers, then two apiece with the Northland Suns and North Harbour Kings to wrap up a stellar career.
The accolades, as well as the points, flowed. Jumpin’ Joyner finished scoring champion of the league five times in total, was named to the All-Star 5 twice, and was voted outstanding forward in 1985. He followed up his brilliant ’85 campaign, by averaging 44.9 and 41.5 points a game over his next two seasons with the Ponies. The man could probably still get 25 if he walked into the gym today.
7 Lindsay Tait
One of the most decorated players in league history, Lindsay Tait inspired a generation of Kiwi ball-handlers throughout his exceptional NBL career.
A schoolboy star who began in 2000 by winning a championship with Auckland, Tait missed out on the rookie of the year award to the Rams’ Arthur Trousdell. It would pretty much be the only league award Tait wouldn’t win in his career.
A two-time MVP (’05, ’10), perhaps the most impressive lines to Tait’s resumé are his seven outstanding guard awards. It was so rare for a kiwi to win them over the imports that they made an outstanding Kiwi guard award. Tait just won them both. He relished the challenge of going toe to toe with the imports, matching them for game and confidence in equal measure.
Nine times named to the All-Star 5; Tait’s 17-year career saw him transition from lighting quick scoring PG to pass-first floor general. He did his best early work with the Auckland Stars and Rebels, before a move to the Wellington Saints brought him championships No 4 and 5. He went to the short-lived, yet successful, Auckland Pirates and brought them a title before returning to Wellington for No 7.
Aptly, this west Auckland icon finished his playing days for the SuperCity Rangers. The 121- test Tall Black now coaches in Auckland.
6 Clyde Huntley
Clyde ‘the Glide’ Huntley was one of the NBL’s most influential performers, setting not just an early standard for imports in the formative years of the league, but establishing its most compelling individual rivalry in his fabulous head-to-head with fellow Washington State alumni, and Saints star, Kenny McFadden.
Huntley actually started his New Zealand career with Burroughs Karori whom he led to the last national club title in 1981 before the NBL sprung into existence. He was then snapped up by the Canterbury Rams organisation who knew an outstanding point guard when they saw one.
The chunky, compact playmaker was no athletic phenomenon, a la McFadden, but was equally as influential a performer as his steely presence with ball in hand quickly established the Rams as one of the quality sides of the ‘80s. A pass-first guard, he could shoot the three, had a steady pullup jumper, brilliant court vision, loved to play at pace and established a superb connection with John ‘Dutchie‘ Rademakers, especially, and any other Rams happy to run those lanes and benefit from his ability to find the open man. He and the hard-nosed Angelo Hill formed one of the great import combos the league has had.
Huntley won two titles with the Rams, in 1986 and ’89, scoring 20 points in the former final, won 87-82 over the Saints, and 10 in the latter, won 91-83 over Auckland. He was an All-Star 5 selection four times (1983, ’84, ’86 and ’87), led the league in assists in ’84 and was named its outstanding guard in ’86 when the Cantabs went 16-2 for the season.
Made New Zealand his permanent home after his career.
Numbers 5-1 in the Sal’s NBL 40in40 will be released on Wednesday 21 April.
The Sal’s NBL tips off on April 24. Find the schedule here