By J.P. Pelosi
James Ennis landed in Perth last weekend on a new pro contract and admitted he knew little about Australian basketball.
This is no great surprise given that Ennis played his college ball at Long Beach State in California, which is separated from Perth by not just the Pacific Ocean and the entire Australian continent, but a distinct lack of cable channels airing Aussie hoops.
Still, the six-foot-seven swingman, who was selected 50th overall by the Atlanta Hawks in the recent NBA draft, might like to know that he’s joined one the country’s best sports clubs, a perennial playoff contender with five National Basketball League (NBL) championship trophies on the mantle.
You may have heard of the Wildcats via former Chicago Bull and Perth native, Luc Longley, who owned the team for a short stint after his NBA career.
Certainly most NBL fans would concede, if you’re going to join the league from afar, you could do worse than the Cats, a highly professional outfit that’s well coached, and conveniently located on Australia's sunny west coast - amid a burgeoning food scene, no less.
This all must look favorable to a young Californian with the world at his feet, because here before him is an chance to settle into a friendly small town with an easy-going pace, and catapult its basketball team to the heights of local footballing heroes like the West Coast Eagles.
That task will be uphill, given that the Eagles enjoy one of the best attendance records in the Australian Football League at around 55,000 per game, and are also one of the richest clubs in Aussie Rules. There’s also the small issue that the Wildcats' Perth Arena – otherwise known as ‘The Jungle’ – has a capacity of just 15,000. However, if Ennis can raise the crowd from its seats on a weekly basis, the city will surely take notice.
Australian basketball is at a crucial juncture right now, which is why Ennis’ arrival - as Jonny Flynn’s was last season - is very meaningful. The NBL needs an injection of new talent after over expanding in the early 2000s, and poor marketing, reduced the league’s impact to a Kenny Bania punchline. Prior to this slump, the competition was a sizzling ticket, pulling big crowds, solid TV coverage and even a sprinkling of celebrities courtside.
Things changed rapidly though, when many of the league’s biggest ever stars like Andrew Gaze, Dwayne McClain, Shane Heal and Ricky Grace began winding down their careers. It was as if the head honchos imagined the glory days would last forever. The stadium organ played on without a contingency.
Well, attendance fell and sponsors drifted, and soon enough the NBL was fighting for survival amid other cashed-up sports leagues, one of which had the towering support of Russell Crowe.
Basketball Australia, the game’s governing body in the country, seems to have righted the ship now, but there’s still work to be done, and much of that you might be stunned to hear, begins with players like Ennis.
At his first press conference for the Cats on the weekend, Ennis said politely that he felt the NBL was the ideal place to develop on and off the court. Terrific. Hopefully he realizes he’s also here to further the league's development!
This all might sound an odd assignment to the uninitiated, but this is how basketball works here, in a nation of only 23 million people preoccupied with rugby, cricket, barbecues and good beer. It's a cluttered sporting market with few windows for growth, so if you're a smaller entity, you seize upon what you can. As a business, Aussie basketball is like an undersized forward fighting for low-post position. With some precise passing and a decent herringbone tread on its sneakers though, success is within reach.
It all begins with talking the talk, of course, and the Wildcats have been rallying the troops since Ennis' arrival. They anticipate a run-and-gun offense with the former 49er punctuating breaks. Listen, I'd be touting the attack too, knowing that I had a genuine threat in transition to throw it down like Don Draper after a tough pitch.
Ennis described himself to Perth's press as a "high flyer".
"I like to dunk, alley-oops, and bring the crowd on their feet," he said.
There's no denying his ability to soar. For a lanky guy Ennis can move. There's no launch sequence either, it's just all 'go'. His foot speed seems to have improved too, and defensively he has tremendous potential. If he gets his hands into passing lanes he really could be devastating in the NBL, leading to the sorts of counter attacks D-Train McClain made his trademark with the the Sydney Kings back in the nineties.
I also like Ennis’ well-rounded college numbers (13 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1,5 steals and so on) because they show he's versatile and unselfish. Aussie crowds like team players. He obviously prefers advertising his athleticism, however, and that's fine, as it's undoubtedly what the Wildcats first saw in him.
Ennis' athletic prowess is also what the Miami Heat, who acquired him from the Hawks after the draft, appear vaguely keen on. The Heat are hedging their bets on Ennis, allowing him to play in Perth on a loan basis, retaining the rights to call him back should they need him.
It’s a win-win for both clubs really, giving the Cats a star attraction, and offering the Heat a chance to further assess the 23-year old.
But given Ennis' potential, especially if his jumper keeps improving, I’m kind of hoping the Ventura native stays the season (he says he intends to), not only to bolster the league’s highlight reel, but so that he can show Miami what they're missing out on.
If I have any advice for Ennis, it’s that LeBron and his talents can wait: You've got a rare opportunity to be a national star mate, not to mention the fact that one of the world's best burger joints, Alfred's Kitchen, is just 25 minutes from the arena.