The NBL is relaunching amid a global pandemic, but there was a point last year when commissioner Jeremy Loeliger feared the coronavirus would force the cancellation of the 2020-2021 season.
It was mid-April, a month after the grand final series between Perth and Sydney was cut short after the Kings pulled out due to COVID-19 concerns.
The NBL gave players the option to opt out of their deals, with many big names like two-time MVP Bryce Cotton and championship-winner Casper Ware taking up the offer to test the open market.
At this point, Loeliger and his team at the NBL couldn’t help but fear the worst.
“Absolutely there was a time when we thought maybe the only viable prospect was to cancel the season,” Loeliger said.
“That was early on when we had those initial discussions.”
Loeliger also knew that the league couldn’t afford to stop.
The NBL doesn’t have a big broadcast deal like the NRL or AFL and rely on its fans and clubs for revenue.
Cancelling a season could have disastrous ramifications, so the NBL were determined to push on and approached the clubs with a message of hope and resilience.
“And very quickly everyone in clubland said no we can’t stop, it is important that we maintain the momentum that the NBL has developed over the past five seasons,” he said.
“We’ve all developed so many man hours and so much blood, sweat and tears that we can’t let this beat us and we’ve got to find a way.”
To reach this point the league and its teams have made significant sacrifices.
A major one is players taking pay cuts to ensure the NBL can operate in a coronavirus impacted environment.
Loeliger praised the players for their understanding, which has resulted in the likes of Ware and Cotton recommitting to the league after originally opting out of their deals.
“We’ve got a really supporting playing group and cohort of teams that has allowed us to renegotiate payment arrangements,” he said.
“They have been particularly cooperative and collegiate in terms of navigating those conversations.
“We felt that we did the right thing by giving players the opportunity to opt out, acknowledging that this is a situation we’ve never seen before and we wanted to give the players the ability to explore options in low-risk areas.
“But the way things panned out, most people in world basketball recognise that Australia is the safest location to be playing professional basketball.
“As a result, basically everyone under contract has returned to the league, which is just fantastic.”
On the floor, Melbourne United look strong after signing Boomers big man Jock Landale, but all the teams that missed out on last year’s finals have recruited strongly, headed by the Hawks who have signed two ex-Australian NBA players in Deng Adel and Cameron Bairstow, and the biggest signing – the NBL’s most successful coach Brian Goorjian.
The NBL is also a legitimate breeding ground for the NBA as seen through LaMelo Ball being picked at No. 3 in the draft by Michael Jordan’s Charlotte Hornets and Brisbane big man Will Magnay picking up a two-way deal with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Many ex-NBL players and coaches have also made the move to the NBA, headlined by Sydney’s Jae’Sean Tate and Will Weaver at the Houston Rockets as a player and assistant coach respectively.
Loeliger doesn’t like the NBL to lose top-shelf talent, but sees the positive of players being picked up by the world’s best league.
“You are never happy to lose players, but if you are going to, then that is the best way you want it to happen because they are going on to bigger and better things,” he said.
And while one door closes, another door opens with a wave of rising Australians joining the NBL like Jack White (United), Keanu Pinder (36ers), Dejan Vasiljevic (Kings) and Josh Giddey (36ers).
“I think not just Australians, but the world are really going to pay attention to the next class of Australian NBA contenders,” Loeliger said.