The dilemma of basketball’s boom

Patty Mills and Joe Ingles after the Boomers’ historic bronze medal.

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Patty Mills and Joe Ingles after the Boomers’ historic bronze medal.

When the Australian men’s basketball team, the Boomers, beat Slovenia to win a historic bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Basketball ACT CEO David Simpson had people calling him up the next day looking for a game.

There was only so much he could say. Basketball was already booming in Canberra and the Boomers’ success would likely give the sport a post-Olympics bounce.

It all sounds like a sports administrator’s dream except basketball’s lack of facilities means it might not be able to realise the surge in popularity.

“There was huge interest in the sport already and this put things over the edge,” said Simpson.

For anyone remotely interested in basketball – and even sport, for that matter – the night in August 2021 in Tokyo was memorable. The 42-point performance from Boomers’ captain Patty Mills will live long in the memory and it was only fitting he dribbled the ball down the court as the final seconds ticked away.

The Boomers’ first Olympic medal triggered an outpouring of emotion. There was the iconic photo of Mills’ embrace with long-time teammate Joe Ingles. And there was barely a dry eye as four-time Olympian Andrew Gaze – in a raw and passionate response – laid bare the joy after so many near-misses for the Australian men’s team. The bronze medal was a culmination of Australian men’s basketball’s history and the dawning of its future.

David Simpson says basketball has long been a sleeping giant.

“In the ACT, we’ve experienced a 25 per cent increase in numbers in the last year alone,” said Simpson.

Canberra is not alone. Basketball participation all-around the country has been rising for years. And this was before the Boomers’ triumph.

“It was a massive thing for basketball in Australia, especially after a medal,” Simpson says. “Our numbers will go through the roof.”

Crowded training and playing basketball venues in Canberra are the norm. (Photo: Sam Burge)

Basketball ACT’s problem is that there’s no room for the sport to grow. The lack of quality indoor facilities in Canberra and neighbouring Queanbeyan means it’s become almost impossible to accommodate new players and teams to allow the sport to grow.

Jan Browne has been Queanbeyan Roadrunners president for 20 years. She says the only thing holding basketball back in the region is the lack of facilities.

“You can’t get onto a court. We can’t take any more kids. We’re having to turn kids away from the sport.”

The Roadrunners use two x ¾ courts that run alongside one another. She says it’s barely satisfactory for training but is not a suitable venue for competitive matches. At times, Browne says she has to squeeze 50 kids on the court, which she acknowledges is dangerous.

“Unfortunately, it’s not big enough and we can’t keep up at the moment,” she says.

Basketball ACT uses two main venues for competitions. Belconnen Stadium is the governing body’s own facility while Tuggeranong Stadium, in the city’s south, is owned by the Southern Cross Club group. The venues run flat-out every night during the week and all-day on weekends.

Some junior games are played at 8 o’clock on Saturday and Sunday mornings. At the other end of the day, the stadiums are used beyond 10pm for senior competitions all week.

Such is the strain on facilities, Basketball ACT was forced to turn away teams before the past winter season. If it wasn’t for a few private schools offering up their gyms, even more teams and players would not have been able to play.

While the use of school gyms has helped with logistics, David Simpson says their availability is unreliable and the hire fees at some are different to others. It creates inequity because the costs for clubs vary depending on where they can gain access.

He says it’s a band-aid measure for a much wider problem that’s going to stunt the sport’s growth in Canberra. Participation numbers currently sit around the 12,000 mark and it’s going to have to stay that way.

“It’s now at a point where we’re turning people away,” Simpson says. “Facilities are our number one issue and external court hire is one of our most expensive items.”

The problem around facilities has become so bad at times, multiple teams have been forced to share poor quality courts so they can simply train.

The Weston Creek-Woden Dodgers have been one of the most affected clubs. The demolition of the Woden basketball stadium in 2016 left a gaping hole in facilities in the inner south of Canberra. The Dodgers have not had a home since and while they play competition at Tuggeranong and Belconnen like everyone else, the club is limited in terms of training options.

Dodgers’ vice-president Grant Keys says Canberra has some of the worst basketball facilities and infrastructure in the country.

The Dodgers were so frustrated with the bits-and-pieces approach to training and playing, it conducted an audit of indoor facilities in the southside town centres of Woden and Weston. The club wanted the evidence to demonstrate how dire the situation had become.

Keys says his club is a case-in-point. The Dodgers are spread far and wide, using gyms at three schools, a government administration complex and a church across three town centres. He says while these venues do the job, the courts, backboards and rings are all sub-par quality.

The facilities crisis – created by a boom in basketball’s popularity – is a problem many sports would crave. The sport’s profile is partly attributed to the globalisation of the National Basketball Association (NBA) league in the US. And the hype has reached these shores. Patty Mills wannabes are wearing the jerseys of their favourite stars. Instagram and Facebook feeds are full of basketball highlights.

The NBA video game is one of the largest-selling in the world. And the relentless schedule of matches in an NBA season (82 matches in six months) means fans can watch the likes of Lebron James and Steph Curry play almost daily through platforms such as the NBA League Pass.

Tom Perez, who plays for the Tuggeranong Vikings, was attracted to basketball on the back of the NBA phenomenon. For him, it’s always been about the theatrics of the flashy dunks.


Growing up, he would watch highlights of the ferocious dunking by 2.06 metre-tall Blake Griffin (current teammate of Patty Mills at the Brooklyn Nets) on YouTube and go to school the next day trying to replicate the NBA star’s exploits.

Perez says playing regular competition is how he lives out his basketball fantasies. He says his playing experience in Canberra has been less affected by access to facilities because his club side is located close – and has easy access – to the Southern Cross Stadium in Tuggeranong.

“Thankfully for me it’s been okay, but I feel for Grant Keys and the Dodgers,” Perez says. “I know people around Woden that have struggled with it all.”

What’s the solution to Basketball ACT’s facility problem?

Basketball ACT thought it had options to address the facilities shortage. The governing body owned land next to its stadium in Belconnen that it wanted to build another large-scale indoor facility.

The site has laid vacant for 10 years while Basketball ACT lobbied the ACT Government for grants to assist with the millions of dollars required to build the facility. But after numerous proposals and applications, the burden of paying $600,000 in rates and maintenance over 10 years became too onerous and Basketball ACT has decided to sell the land.

Basketball infrastructure has not been completely shunned. Government funding has helped build 3×3 courts at Belconnen and the nearby University of Canberra campus. It’s an acknowledgement that the 3-on-3 format is an emerging force after it was introduced to the Olympics this year at Tokyo.

Such is the growth of the format, the Weston Creek-Woden Dodgers facilities audit concluded that more of these courts will be required in other town centres in Canberra.

The urgency remains on full-court, indoor facilities. And despite letting go of the land at Belconnen, Basketball ACT knows the stakes are still high.

A petition calling for a multi-purpose indoor facility in Woden was launched. Basketball ACT, other sporting associations and more than 2,000 members of the public signed on. The petition was taken up by, Emma Davidson, a local politician for the Woden area and tabled in the ACT Legislative Assembly in late November.

The wait for a new facility, the lobbying and, for Basketball ACT, the band-aid solutions will go on. David Simpson says in this day-and-age, it’s regrettable that a sport can’t accommodate new participants.

And for basketball’s sake, he hopes the lack of playing facilities won’t deter the kids who want to be just like Patty Mills and Andrew Gaze.