‘It could be life-changing’: what happens when an Aussie team takes on NBA giants

<span>Photograph: Arlyn McAdorey/AP</span>
Photograph: Arlyn McAdorey/AP

The first time an international club played an exhibition against an NBA team was in 1978, when European powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv beat the defending NBA champion Washington Bullets in Israel as part of the inaugural NBA Global Games.

When the late David Stern became the commissioner of the NBA in 1984, he set out to make basketball a global game in part by increasing the frequency of inter-league matches, bringing them to Asia, Africa, South America and, eventually, North America for the first time in 1987. Now, international clubs travel to North America every preseason to test themselves against NBA competition.

These games are meant to be entertaining for fans of international basketball, tune-ups for NBA teams, and tests for foreign players and clubs to see where they stack up against the world’s best. But they are also meant to be competitive. In fact, eight international teams have beaten NBA franchises, including Maccabi Tel Aviv defeating the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Center in 2005 to mark the first loss for an NBA team on North American soil, FC Barcelona beating Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010, and Real Madrid taking down the Dallas Mavericks earlier this month.

But short of a rare and historic win, why do international teams clamor to take part in the NBA Global Games? It’s obviously cool to play against NBA stars in front of tens of thousands of fans, but is it worth taking a break in the middle of their season, traveling across the world, risking injuries to key players and, more often than not, getting thoroughly outclassed by NBA teams? Because that’s exactly what happened to the Cairns Taipans of the Australian National Basketball League (NBL) this preseason. And for them, at least, it was worth every mishap.

“It’s kind of a dream come true,” 20-year-old NBA prospect Bobi Klintman tells the Guardian in between playing the Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors. “You get to experience a little NBA – it just motivates me more because that’s been my goal for so many years, and I just want to get there [even] more now.”

For as much as the NBA Global Games was an opportunity to publicise the NBL and the Taipans, the bigger incentive was to showcase their young players to NBA scouts and decision makers. And that means Klintman, the 6ft 9in wing who was born in Sweden, played one season at Lake Forest, and moved to Cairns this season to be a part of the NBL’s Next Star’s program as he tries to become a lottery pick in the 2024 NBA draft.

“You don’t want to protect him and coddle. You want to throw him out to the world,” Taipans head coach Adam Forde said about Klintman after upwards of 30 NBA scouts attended his game in Washington. “You have to face some of these pressures by yourself. And can you shoulder that burden? I think that’s part of it – you got to be comfortable playing in front of 15 to 20,000 people on a regular basis.”

After all, that’s not what the Taipans are used to. As the only not-for-profit club in the NBL, the Taipans are funded by community sponsors, including the local university, and play in a convention center that fits just under 5,000 fans. But throughout their 25-year history, they have always managed to do more with less, appearing in nine NBL Finals despite being financially dwarfed by teams like the Sydney Kings and Perth Wildcats, who consistently sign former NBA players to lucrative contracts.

The Taipans, on the other hand, are known for their player development, producing the last two Most Improved Player award winners as well as the last two Rookie of the Year award winners. In addition to their impressive track record developing young players, the Taipans sold free agents on the fact that they would be taking a mid-season trip to North America to play NBA teams this preseason, signing NBA prospects Klintman, Taran Armstrong, and Sam Mennenga in the offseason.

“You have a good game in one of these situations – it could be life changing for you,” Armstrong explains, admitting that this trip was a big part of the reason he signed with the Taipans.

Unfortunately, things don’t always go according to plan. After playing two games in three days back in Australia, the Taipans flew 10,000 miles from Brisbane to Washington by way of San Francisco, funding the trip with the help of the Queensland State Government and the NBL. In Washington, 21-year-old wing Mennenga came down with an illness that eventually forced him to fly home, while team captain Tahjere McCall left for the birth of his child and 21-year-old point guard Armstrong re-aggravated a foot injury during the 63-point loss.

“It’s the worst thing ever,” Armstrong says with a walking boot on his foot as he watches the Taipans warm up before their 41-point loss to the Raptors. “There’s nothing more I want than to play tonight and compete on this stage.”

Regardless of their on-court struggles and injury luck, Armstrong and the rest of the Taipans are glad they got to experience a week in the NBA. From being around a multibillion dollar enterprise to the luxury of staying at five-star hotels to witnessing the game day operations of an NBA arena to the awe of playing against their heroes, it was “a really special experience”, Armstrong says. “And a great opportunity to get some perspective – to be able to see yourself on that level and compare a little bit.”

In fact, the Taipans couldn’t help but compare their circumstances to those in the NBA: the basketballs are different, the courts are bigger, the rules are altered, the pace is faster, and the shooting and athleticism are on another level in the NBA compared to the NBL.

“It’s a huge difference,” 31-year-old veteran Patrick Miller, who has played everywhere from the G League to Partizan Belgrade, says. “Even the hotels, how we are staying, being on an NBA court, the arenas, the facilities – it’s way better. So that was real, real surprising for us how different it was, and we can get used to it.”

“I felt good playing on that court,” Miller, who scored a game-high 22 points against the Raptors, adds. “And that’s always been a dream [of mine], to play on an NBA court.”

The hope for the Taipans, and any other international club that plays exhibition games in the NBA, is that the experience will add fuel to their fire, acting as a motivator for their players and club to one day achieve their basketball dreams, however fantastic they may be.

“It’s all you want as a kid,” Klintman says. “To play against the best players in the world.

“Now, we kind of have a little insight into what it takes to really get there. It’s a lot of work … I just gotta put my head down, keep working and, hopefully, I’ll get there one day.”