Members for life
They've been true to the cause through thick and thin.
The Gisborne Basketball Association has honoured four of its most loyal contributors to the sport in bestowing them with life membership.
Former GBA chairman Dwayne Tamatea, the Rising Suns' third head coach Frank Russell, legendary referee Clifton Blumfield and sports commentator Ben O'Brien-Leaf have joined administrator Steph Beattie and the late Ivan Cowley as life members.
The longest-serving of the four inductees is referee of 58 years Clifton (known as Cliff) Blumfield, who blew his whistle at the Army Hall in the days of the Poverty Bay Basketball Association and officiated in the inaugural Draft League at the YMCA last month.
Blumfield's good humour away from the game, calmness on the floor and enthusiasm for sport generally have made him a valued member of the basketball community before, during and after the days when the Suns filled the YMCA as the best show in the city on a Saturday night.
He refereed professionally in the United Kingdom and played a part in the creation of the Suns in 1989. It was Blumfield who was tasked with the collection and delivery of 6ft 8in, 17-stone Doug De Vore and 6ft 7in, 19-stone Robson Tavita to Gisborne from Auckland (in a Ford Laser) in 1990.
“The great thing about Cliff is that he was always in control and although he was a first-division referee, if he was available, he'd step in for us at second-division level if the assigned refs couldn't make it here,” said Dave Conway, former GBA committee member, Gisborne Herald chief sub-editor and announcer at Suns home games.
“He was fit, quick around the court, highly qualified and highly regarded.”
His gentleman cop/zero-tolerance cop partnership with Whakatane official Bruce Copeman in Suns home games is the stuff of legend.
Blumfield was the first of the four new life members to be presented with his certificate by Tall Blacks head coach and former captain Pero Cameron at the association's annual general meeting.
He spoke of playing for Gisborne Boys' High School, first picking up a whistle while still a student there, travelling to tournaments, refereeing professionally in the United Kingdom and the Suns' opening second-division game — a 96-72 win to Rotorua — here in front of a more-than-full house on April 22, 1989.
Later he added: “I've loved every minute of it. I've met a lot of people, a lot of characters, here and elsewhere that I never would have if it hadn't been for basketball.
“The crowds we got at Suns home games — especially in the early years — the quality of the play, was magic. I've kept going because I love being involved, and I think that this year's Draft League was brilliant. The intensity there was a step up from normal club ball, although as you'd expect, a step down from second division.
“I'd be keen to referee that Draft League level of competition again, for sure.”
Dwayne Tamatea, point guard and captain of notables such as American import Zac Bose, Ray Noble, Nathan “Cowboy” Martin, Reggie Namana and Dave Smith in the Suns' Attitude Era following the Golden Age of giants De Vore and Tavita, spoke of both Cliff Blumfield and his former head coach in both New Plymouth and Gisborne — Frank Russell — with affection and respect.
“Cliff's refereed thousands of games around the country, from kids' under-13s to men's first, second and third division and women's basketball. His commitment and contribution over many years have been outstanding and reflect the kind and generous man he is,” said Tamatea, who then turned his attention to Russell.
“Frank spent long hours planning for and preparing the Suns during his tenure as head coach — he was a great motivator who built relationships with his players. As director of GBHS basketball, his commitment to them was huge and for 22 years he provided many students with the opportunity to play the sport. He still volunteers to help out the GBA today.
“As for being made a life member myself, it's a privilege to get that sort of recognition. I'm proud to receive it on behalf of my family and others who have served over many years.
“I thank the GBA committee for this honour.”
Tamatea won a national second-division title with the New Plymouth Royals under Russell in 1992, played for him again in the first division the following year and for him in Gisborne with the Suns in 1995.
While the end of regular second-division play in 2008 might have seen Tamatea and competitors of a similar calibre lose interest in and exit the game, Opunake-born Tama and others of his generation instead chose to drive the development and promotion of opportunities for every boy, girl and budding baller they could attract to the sport.
The transfer of knowledge to a solid base of young players is one thing; access to tournament-level hoops is quite another, but Tama and his GBA committee were able to do both. They gave players younger than nine years of age through to the under-19s a quality coaching session and experience on at least 40 Sundays a year.
In 2018, GBA age-group players attended Gisborne clinics run by Australian NBL coach of the year Aaron Fearne (proponent of pack defence), whose philosophy and delivery were vastly different from the then-GBA head coach Tama's own.
But the three-time Northern Kiwi All-star felt it was important that the players heard other voices and were challenged to take on board the most useful parts of their message.
Under him, the effort of the GBA administration to facilitate travel, accommodation, uniforms and managerial support for age-group teams was consistently high. That was a factor in some teams' success in qualifying for national tournaments immediately before the Covid-19 era.
Tama's basketball nous and local knowledge, and judgement of which coaches to put alongside which teams and how best to support both, then became the make-or-break factors.
Making big calls at courtside during Suns games between 1994 and 1999 was the task of Whittier, California, native and former dairy farmer and now-retired schoolteacher Frank Russell.
Following on from Dean Donnellon, player-coach Tom Brodie and the late Willie La Nere, the colourful Russell poured his last full measure of devotion into coaching.
He knew ball; his coaching was all about effort, tough defence and running hard for teammates to make the machine roar — as opposed to just running. And he made skilful use of the underdog tag.
“When I was coaching, I approached every Saturday night game as warfare — we took great pride in beating Auckland teams who had a much bigger population base and the Suns reached the final four twice in the years I coached,” said Russell, who this year at 70 played with Tamatea's son Jerome, 12, for Old Surfers in the men's Open B Grade. Russell hadn't played since 2000 — the Surfers made their return last season.
“Through sport we build a strong community,” he said.
“I'm impressed that my former players have carried the torch on and are putting back into basketball. The current committee does an outstanding job; the game here is in good heart. The biggest thank-you for my efforts is that former players have told me that they wouldn't be where they are today without my support.”
Mark Elers was often at the helm for Rotorua in the second division and Rotorua BHS against Russell.
“Frank always came with a passion on the side of the court — his voice was unmistakable, his animation lit up the gym,” Elers said.
“His teams were willing to compete and were tough. Away from the game, Frank didn't mind sharing his thoughts and experiences with others.
“Congratulations, Frank, on your life member status, and happy surfing too.”
Russell coached Gisborne Boys’ High School teams from his arrival in 1994 to his retirement in 2016. The smallest programme in the Super 8 has had to work hard since the competition began in 1997.
Gisborne Boys’ High had their first Super 8 win at home, 72-70, under Russell and captain Chris Andersen — versus Hamilton BHS at the YMCA — in 1999. Two-time Askew and Bilham Shield winner as Sportsman of the Year Scott Colebourne’s epic dunk-shot made the crowd of 856 go nuts but it was Frank who had kept the home fires burning.
Ben O’Brien-Leaf did his first sports commentary — of Gisborne Boys’ High School first 15 rugby — in 1988, at the age of 12, and saw then-Gisborne Mayor the late Brian Crawshaw throw up the ceremonial tip at the Sun’s (yes, singular Sun, as it was originally) opener in 1989.
He wrote his first Gisborne Herald sports report in 1992, and his first basketball story in 1996. He commentated club ball weekly from 1997 to 2002, called every Suns home game bar five since 1994, and has covered every club grand final since 1997.
He was interviewing Reggie Namana in the Winifred Lysnar Memorial Lounge when the stadium erupted above them: Kay Symes had made a shot from halfway to win the women’s club final for Burger Wisconsin in 1997.
He brayed “Tamatea wins the game! Tamatea wins the game at the buzzer!” as the man of the hour was halfway into his follow-through on release of a three-point shot to beat Tauranga 82-81 here in 1999 (the final score was 84-81: the Suns scored one more field goal).
Amoe Tarsau, who with her fellow GBA league marshal Miri Katipa invited O’Brien-Leaf to cover women’s club ball games in 2006, said: “Ben has unselfishly given his time to publicising basketball in Tairawhiti and has been an integral part of growing the best sport in the world. I remember, when I started playing 25 years ago, seeing him and his cameraman drag gear up to the back two rows of the YMCA bleachers or even the old crow’s nest (scorers’ box) at club ball.
“When everyone else goes home to rest, Ben’s writing our games up past midnight: the passion he has for his work is phenomenal. He’s one of a kind.”
Until snacking, the weight of gold pins and the arrival of a brilliant young referee in Ethan Ngarangione-Pearson let him slink off the floor, O’Brien-Leaf blew the storm all-weather safety and survival whistle — the world’s loudest.
In the best traditions of officiating not to be forgotten, it was he (not his partner, Cliff Blumfield) who decided — the timekeeper having been late to start the game-clock with 0.34 of a second left in the 2011 grand final, Purp and Yellow versus Bladez — that the instrument would be reset and run down three times in an attempt to stop it, once more, on 0.34.
Somewhat understandably, Blades’ Ray Noble — player-coach of the Suns in 2000 — had asked: “Tell me how Jimmy Wilson can catch an inbounding pass near halfway, dribble the ball twice, and shoot a three-pointer. Tell me that.”
A satisfactory answer has never been provided. The effort to hit 0.34 proving fruitless, Purp and Yellow were awarded the win, 50-48.
O’Brien-Leaf loves the game.
“Basketball is my favourite sport, rugby my sporting religion and cricket my way of life,” he said.
He would love to see a two or four-court stadium in Gisborne, but finds the thought of a YMCA without the sights and sounds of ball a heart-wrenching prospect.
“I owe Frank Russell for inviting me to cover the Suns in 1994 and giving me a sense of occasion. I owe Billy Maxwell and Daniel Beets for ferrying me to club ball in 1997 and 1998, and Hirini Pewhairangi, Caleb Hamling, Bevan Ratcliffe, Evan and Shane Mooney and Shaun Boyd for filming games for us.
“As an aspiring broadcaster, from 1994 I had the chance to learn to front and commentate, and interview fans, players, coaches and officials. For me to share an honour with Tama, Frank and Cliff — to be made a life member of the GBA — it’s made my sporting year.”
PBBA and GBA icon Steph Beattie has recently also been named a life member of Bowls Gisborne-East Coast.
She said: “I’m delighted to see these four people have been awarded life membership. That Cliff is still refereeing is fantastic. I loved watching Frank on the sideline (he was so entertaining, magic for the sport). Tama was amazing in how he interacted with youngsters — they were drawn to him. He brought them into then up through basketball.
“And I always read Ben’s column. He does a brilliant job of telling the public, especially us older people, what’s going on.”