The 2021 Sal's NBL men's season will start this Saturday night with a clash between the 2020 Showdown Champions (Go Media Otago Nuggets) and the 2019 League Champions (Wellington Saints), but it's the backstory that few would know that makes this contest all the more special.
During a trip to Dunedin in 2019 to meet the Nuggets basketball hierarchy, League General Manager Justin Nelson spoke at a function about the Dunedin-based team's entry back into the national competition for season 2021 where he met well-known local supporter - 'Stephen from Dunedin'.
Stephen's support of the Nuggets is legendary. Images of him on the court in tears and hugging the players after the Nuggets' 2020 Sal's NBL Showdown victory were splashed across the Sky Sport coverage for all to see.
But it was on this late-2019 evening in an upstairs meeting at the Edgar Centre where Stephen took the opportunity to ensure his Nuggets were going to be front and centre when they returned to the big stage.
As Nelson explains, what followed that night during a passionate conversation with Stephen appears to be the reason behind the League's decision to start season 2021 with a Nuggets versus Saints clash at the Edgar Centre.
"I'd never met Stephen before that function, but I had heard a fair bit about him. I'm all about the fans when it comes to sport and when I asked around the office who the most ardent fan in the NBL was, I constantly had 'Stephen from Dunedin' ringing in my ears.
"Conor O'Fee in the office told me some fantastic stories and yarns about this guy, just his extreme passion for his team.
"I wasn't sure what to expect when I headed to Dunedin for some meetings. I kind of knew he would find me, or at the very least we would run into each other, but when I look back now it feels like he was well prepared and executed his plan perfectly," Nelson recalls with a laugh.
"I did like the fact that Stephen wasn't backward in coming forward, I think it took him all of a few seconds to tell me what he expected from me and that there was no way he was letting me exit the conversation without agreeing to his wish list for the Nuggets."
Photo: Stephen holding the 2020 Sal's NBL Showdown trophy.
And how did that first meeting unfold?
"Stephen was straight into it, there was no mucking about. He told me that anything less than the Nuggets hosting the Wellington Saints at the Edgar Centre in his team's first game back in the NBL would not be acceptable. He wanted the Saints, he wanted his Nuggets playing the best, that was it, no room for negotiation. He made me promise him," Nelson recalls.
But the story took a turn when Covid hit.
The rapid transformation of the competition in early 2020 due to COVID meant an opening became available for the Nuggets, who were originally set to return in 2021, which of course they grabbed with both hands and went on to be crowned Showdown Champions.
It was a fairytale that will go down in NBL history.
With the Saints sidelined during 2020 and not competing, you could probably excuse Nelson for thinking the Nuggets had missed their chance to step back into the NBL and face the Saints first-up, but Stephen from Dunedin wasn't having any of that.
After flying north to Auckland to see his Nuggets play in the finals at the Showdown, the team's number one supporter entered Trusts Arena and immediately sought a catch-up with the League's chief.
"I think it took about a minute for Stephen to find me prior to the Semi Final between the Nuggets and Airs. For memory the first words out of his mouth were 'don't forget you promised me we would play the Saints when we play our first game at the Edgar Centre.' And he was dead serious.
Although at one stage it appeared the stars might not align due to venue availability and that season 2021, the League's 40th, might not start with a Nuggets and Saints battle, the thought of letting Stephen down didn't rest easy with Nelson.
"I can honestly say that while we were putting the 2021 schedule together I had a few sleepless nights. I knew the day we released the schedule Stephen would be looking for one thing and one thing only - that opening game! If we failed to deliver he would be onto me in a flash, I'm certain of that.
"Season schedules are not easy things to put together, in fact it is one of the hardest parts of this role. I admit at one stage Stephen's wish for an opening game against the Saints was teetering, but to be frank I didn't envy facing him if it didn't come off," mused Nelson.
Photo: Stephen with 2021 Nuggets import Isaiah Moss.
As it is, the Nuggets and Saints will open the 2021 season this Saturday night at Dunedin's Edgar Centre, a 7:30pm tip-off likely to draw a sell-out crowd, and right in the middle of it will be 'Stephen from Dunedin' with his legendary trumpet.
It's a promise Nelson is delighted to say is about to be delivered.
"Stephen's words still ring loudly in my ears. He told me the Nuggets wanted to face the best, nothing less than the Saints would do. When we sat down to schedule 93 games for the season, no disrespect to any team or any one of the other 92 games, but I always had one game at the top of my mind," said Nelson.
"Hopefully Stephen has a smile on his face. That opening game of the season this Saturday night is due to him, his passion for the Nuggets and his persistence to make sure I delivered. All credit to him."
Check out the full 2021 Sal's NBL men's schedule - HERE.
Tickets to the Nuggets vs Saints game this Saturday night - click HERE