NBL set to light up the court
Photo Source: AAP
The NBL is back, and it's bringing some 1990s flair with it.
The league was on its knees several years ago as dwindling crowds, poor TV ratings, and a lack of star power threatened the very existence of Australia's professional basketball competition.
But the NBL has revived itself over the past two years and the upcoming season shapes as one of the best since the 1990s heydays.
The Brisbane Bullets, Andrew Gaze and big-dunking Americans were all key features during the NBL's glory years. All three will be back this season.
The increase from two to three imports for each side has resulted in a massive influx of talent.
Greg Whittington (Kings), Jaron Johnson (Wildcats), Terrance Ferguson (36ers) and Marvelle Harris (Hawks) aren't household names just yet.
But it only takes a few big dunks to generate a wave of buzz around the country.
Gaze lit up the league while playing for the Melbourne Tigers from 1984-2005.
Now, he returns as a coach, taking the reins of the Sydney Kings for his debut season in the hot seat.
But perhaps the most important change to occur to the league is the return of the Brisbane Bullets.
When the Bullets and Sydney Kings folded in 2008, it was like a death knell for the NBL.
The competition simply couldn't thrive without representation from two of their biggest markets.
Although the Kings returned in 2010, the absence of the Bullets continued to be felt in a big way.
But now Brisbane are back, and they're every chance of making a run at this season's title.
With Boomers coach Andrej Lemanis at the helm, the Bullets are considered a good chance of reaching the finals.
The recruitment of former Chicago Bulls big man Cameron Bairstow was a massive coup, while Championship-winning import Jermaine Beal will have a point to prove after being let go by the Wildcats.
Perth will find it tough to defend last season's title.
The Wildcats have boasted one of the most stable rosters in recent years.
But with the quality of their title rivals increasing this season, Perth coach Trevor Gleeson will need to dig deep into his bag of tricks.
Nate Jawai's defection to Cairns was one of the league's biggest moves, and the Wildcats will need new imports Jaron Johnson and Jameel McKay to fire if they are to win back-to-back titles.
The early Championship favourites are Melbourne United, who finished in top spot last season before bombing out to NZ in the semi-finals.
Cedric Jackson and David Andersen bolster an already formidable outfit featuring league sharpshooter Chris Goulding, Todd Blanchfield, and Devin Williams.
To put it simply, the team is loaded.
Sydney were a rabble on the way to finishing with the wooden spoon last season.
But with Gaze on deck as coach and Kevin Lisch, Brad Newley and Aleks Maric bolstering the playing ranks, the Kings loom as a genuine title contender.
The NBL's resurgence has been part of a bigger picture of basketball's improved health in Australia.
With eight Australians currently plying their trade in the NBA in America, basketball is starting to capture the public's imagination again.
The Boomers' strong performance at the recent Rio Olympics also helped boost the game, with the team falling just short of a bronze medal.
And with NBA newcomers Ben Simmons, Thon Maker and Dante Exum set to bolster the national team in the coming years, Australia will be aiming to reach the gold medal match at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
The one sad story to come out during the NBL's off-season was the folding of the Townsville Crocodiles, but the return of the Bullets more than offsets that loss.
The NBL is hoping to capture the imagination of the public this season like they did back in the 1990s.
Let's just hope the haircuts are better this time around.