Top Kiwi athletes and coaches are increasingly looking to Asia in a bid to find the next big break in their careers, Siobhan Downes reports.
When former Tall Blacks coach Tab Baldwin moved to the Philippines, he soon discovered that our obsession with rugby is nothing compared to how Filipinos feel about basketball.
The American-Kiwi basketball coach — who famously led the New Zealand team to the semi-finals of the 2002 FIBA World Championship — has been living in the Philippines for the last five years, coaching the men’s basketball team at Ateneo de Manila University.
“We played in the final last December and played in front of more than 23,000 people, just to give you an idea of the popularity the sport has at the college level.”
For Baldwin, who has travelled the world as a coach, that level of fervour was a major drawcard.
“In terms of a sport, it really doesn’t have a parallel that I know of, other than maybe soccer in England. In the Philippines, there just isn’t anything else to talk about, other than basketball. And maybe politics.”
In 2013, while he was coaching the Hawke’s Bay Hawks, Baldwin was approached by the Philippines men’s national basketball team to do some consulting work, which soon turned into full-time employment. He was head coach of the team from 2015 to 2016, before moving into the collegiate league.
“It’s an amazing thing to be a part of. I’ve had a career where I’ve worked in relative seclusion, and now I’m working much more in the bright lights. It’s a lot of fun.”
Baldwin is one of a growing number of top Kiwi athletes and coaches who have looked to Asia in a bid to find the next big break in their careers. This is particularly well-documented in rugby — All Blacks captain Kieran Read will soon join a long line-up of New Zealand rugby stars who have made the move to Japan.
But the opportunities aren’t limited to rugby, or Japan, with growing professional leagues all over Asia, says Sports New Zealand chief executive Peter Miskimmin.
“More of our athletes are now recognising that various Asian countries have a lot more expertise and knowledge in certain sports than we do, and we have a natural advantage in others. Yes, Asian countries are very keen to get our best rugby players up there so they can learn more about rugby. But equally, we are really interested in learning more about sports they are strong at, such as badminton, table tennis, or many of the martial art sports.”
Miskimmin says there’s no sense of a “muscle drain”, as high performance sport has always been a global market.
“It’s about how our athletes can get the best competition they possibly can. For some sports, that’s in Asia.”
‘BEING A SPECIALIST IS VALUED’
If there’s one sport Asia is famous for, it’s table tennis. And Kiwi player Michelle McCarthy has witnessed first-hand just how intense the competition can be.
The 31-year-old has been playing at a national level since intermediate. While on a university exchange in Japan in 2008, she was invited by the national junior table tennis coach to spend a month at a local high school, teaching English and training with their table tennis team.
“It was a standard high school, but it was famous for table tennis. Around a quarter of the students made up the table tennis team. Every morning they would wake up at 5am, do their physical training for a couple of hours, have breakfast, study until 3pm, then they’d start training again until 8.30pm. They’d have dinner at 9pm, go back to their dorm, do their homework, go to bed around midnight. Then they’d wake up at 5am and do the same thing all over again.”
That same year, McCarthy competed in the World University Games in Thailand, and spent three months in Taiwan, training at the National Taiwan Sports University.
The following year she noticed a solid improvement in her performance, which she attributes to her time in Asia. She missed out on the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi by one spot.
What she relished, she says, was the opportunity to focus on reaching her full potential.
“In New Zealand, we tend to juggle a range of sports — when we’re growing up, we’ll play four or five different sports. Kiwis value being able to put a hand to anything.
“But in Asia it’s more like, being a specialist is valued. For example, I met a table tennis player from China at the Youth Olympics in Australia when I was about 16. She went on to become the female world champion. She told me when she was six she was selected to go to a table tennis school. She basically forewent her education to play table tennis eight hours a day.
“If you watch the Olympics these days, you’ll see Chinese are becoming more and more competitive in every sport. They just have such a huge number of people. And if those people are all working towards that one thing they’re going to specialise in, there is no doubt they’ll continue to be formidable competition in whatever they put their mind to.”
A HIDDEN GEM
Professional golfers David and Sheree Smail were Kiwi pioneers of the Japanese golf scene.
In 1989, Sheree was working at the Hamilton Golf Club when she met some Japanese players who invited her to go over and “have a look”. She ended up qualifying for the women’s tour.
David followed her over shortly after, originally as her caddy, before turning pro himself in 1992. The move to Japan paid off for them both. In 1993, Sheree won the Fujisankei Ladies Classic, and in 2002, David won the Japan Open.
The husband-and-wife duo say Japan’s proximity to New Zealand was attractive, at a time when most players were chasing the European or American tours.
“It was an easy country to get around,” says David. “If you went to Europe or America, you’ve sort of got to be based in that area. But we could play four or five weeks in Japan, then come home to New Zealand for a couple of weeks.”
Sheree adds: “It was this hidden gem that people didn’t think about as much. But we thought it was as good, if not better in terms of the lifestyle.”
The Smails have maintained their Japan connection over the years, with David planning to head back next year to go through the senior tour. Meanwhile their 20-year-old son, Charlie, is following in his parents’ footsteps. This year he’s playing in the Japan Amateur Championship, where he hopes to go through qualifying.
“For years, everyone seemed to be put off by the fact that it was a different culture, a different language — maybe it’s too hard,” says David.
“But I kept on saying to everyone, come up and have a go.”
WHERE THE MONEY IS AT
In basketball, the relevance of Asia has become more pronounced since FIBA moved Australia and New Zealand into the Asia Zone back in 2017.
“With the growing popularity of basketball [in New Zealand], the opportunities are going to be more and more,” says Tab Baldwin.
“I hosted the under-16s New Zealand team up in the Philippines two years ago — I put a small tour together where they played a lot of Filipino teams. That’s going to be duplicated, I’m sure.”
Baldwin says there is no question that Asia is “where the money is at” right now.
“When you’re in a country as small as New Zealand, sometimes you want to look outside the borders to get more competition. Traditionally, we’ve looked at the US and Europe, but Asia is rising fast.
“I think there’s been an emergence of the ‘Asian Zone’ in terms of being competitive in the world of sport. If that’s the case, it’s a lot closer to New Zealand than Europe or the US.”
- Asia Media Centre