Not since the halcyon days when the Devils played in the NBL has basketball been so widely talked about in Tasmania.
The sport is riding a wave of almost unprecedented popularity.
Last month, it reached its apex when almost 3,000 hoops fans turned out to watch the state’s four South East Australia Basketball League teams do battle in a double header at the Derwent Entertainment Centre in Hobart.
Rewind two years ago and the same fixture might have attracted 500 people to the Hobart Netball and Sports Centre in Moonah.
That was before the tenure of Hobart Chargers president David Bartlett, a former Tasmanian premier, who picked the club up off its feet, dusted it off and got the financial wheels turning.
“This was a club that two years ago was $120,000 in debt and on its knees,” he said.
“If you’d told me [then] we’d have a sell-out crowd in the final round of the season at the Derwent Entertainment Centre, I’d take that any day.”
Getting the Chargers out of debt was one thing but leveraging the club’s transformation into a fully fledged bid for a Tasmanian NBL team was another.
Plans to get the Chargers into the NBL have morphed into an overarching Tasmanian bid for a proposed new club to be called Southern Huskies.
Last month, the bid and its slick NBA-style branding was unveiled and was received so well, some likened it to a band finding overnight success.
“Except it’s more like a band that’s been hitting the pubs for 20 years to finally get the hit record,” Mr Bartlett said.
The strength of the Southern Huskies’ NBL bid was not built overnight, says David Bartlett. (ABC News: David Hudspeth)
Local entrepreneur opens his chequebook
“I’m not doing it to lose money,” says Southern Huskies backer Justin Hickey. (ABC News: David Hudspeth)
Confidence in the bid’s success is so strong foundation memberships are already being sold for a team that may or may not exist, and upon launch the membership website crashed under demand the minutes it went live — but not before 650 were sold at $10 a pop.
To get to this point though, the bid needed a rich backer who could provide the financial stability the NBL craved from a club.
There was a time when Mr Bartlett was not sure he’d ever find one.
Early on, he attempted to lure rich Chinese business people with the promise of potentially owning a Tasmanian team in a competition that was eyeing Asia as a potential expansion market.
When that idea fizzled out, talks were entered into with AFL clubs that had expressed an interest in joining a revamped NBL.
In the end, it was born-and-bred Tasmanian, and former Devils player, Justin Hickey who decided to open his chequebook.
It is not known just how much the tech entrepreneur is worth. What is known, though, is that he’s all in.
“I’m not doing it to lose money, and I wouldn’t be doing it if it couldn’t be done,” he said.
‘Huskies aren’t biting off more than they can chew’
Hickey wants to not only own a basketball franchise, he’s keen to redefine how NBL teams are run and, in turn, how they make money.
At the crux of his proposal is the Derwent Entertainment Centre, the 1980s-era multi-purpose complex that housed Tasmania’s last NBL team, the Tassie Devils in the 1990s.
He’s already made an unsolicited bid to buy the arena from the Glenorchy City Council and, if successful, plans to pour $90 million into the venue.
Basketball is just one part of his planned money-making machine.
“Probably a couple of hotels, a new stadium where the Chargers can play, maybe some other sports teams as well that are on the horizon. A real sporting precinct. Conference centre. That sort of stuff. Maybe a marina.” Hickey said.
He denies the Huskies’ eyes are bigger than their bellies.
“You just let me worry about it,” he smiled.
“I’ve got plenty of experience in starting things from scratch and building them up.”
Hopes are high the Huskies will claim the Derwent Entertainment Centre as their home. (Supplied: Southern Huskies)
Owning the DEC vital to Hickey’s bid
The Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the council could do far worse than to sell the depreciating asset.
“I think the Glenorchy City Council needs to find revenue wherever they can,” TCCI chief executive officer Michael Bailey said.
“I would have thought selling it off at a time when they are scrambling for funds is a good idea.”
Mr Hickey has conceded the Huskies NBL bid cannot be successful without acquiring the DEC first.
“If we couldn’t get our hands on this place it wouldn’t be economically viable,” he said.
“We’re setting up a structure where, when there’s a concert here, the basketball and other sports benefit long term and in the off-season.”
If Mr Hickey does become the new owner of the DEC, it’s hard to see how the NBL could possibly deny the Huskies’ bid.
But Tasmanians know better than anybody the feeling of being kicked in the guts by national sporting bodies, having just recently seen their hope of seeing a Tasmanian team join both the AFL and the National Soccer League dashed.
The NBL was courted over a two-week period for comment on the Huskies’ chances but has remained silent.
‘We need as many courts as we can get’
The resurgence of the Chargers has seen the sport of basketball thriving across the state.
Big crowds are nothing new in the basketball heartland of the north-west coast, where the recent North West Basketball Union grand finals drew hundreds of spectators on a cold Tuesday night in July.
But it’s the 36 per cent increase in participation across Tasmania over the past four years that has heads turning.
In suburban Hobart, outdated and underfunded facilities are bursting at the seams — there’s simply not enough courts for all the kids wishing to play.
“The number of teams participating has increased by 10 or 15 per cent over the past 12 months,” Clarence Basketball Association president Richard Gawthorpe said.
“We’ve got a stadium here in Warrane, but it’s only one court. We’ve got use of Clarence Stadium but it’s not enough.
“When you’ve got 137 teams participating over one weekend, you need as many stadiums as you can get.”
Whether or not Tasmania’s hoop dreams will be realised remains to be seen.
The Huskies consortium will meet the NBL later this month and it’s expected to receive at least an indication of whether or not the Huskies will be included in the competition for the 2019-2020 season.
Nothing is guaranteed, but that won’t stop Mr Bartlett believing.
“What we had to do was build a coalition of the willing in the thousands, and that’s what we’ve done,” he said.
“But it’s what I’ve always told my kids — you have to go on the adventure and you have to make your own luck by doing the hard work.”