By Paulo Kennedy, Pagemasters
Boomers fans were given a treat every time Cairns big man Aron Baynes rose above the pack at the London Olympics for a trademark alley-oop dunk.
But for Wollongong Hawk Rhys Martin it was a familiar sight dating all the way back to 2005.
“That was a fun year,” he said, reflecting on Queensland’s stunning triumph at the Australian Under 20 Championships, which was inspired by those from “up north”.
“We had Stevie Weigh, Nate Jawai, Mick Cedar, Aron Baynes – we had a monster team. Kerry Williams came in off the bench and we smashed everyone by 20.”
But the crafty Martin couldn’t claim to be the assist king feeding the dunking juggernauts that are Baynes and Jawai.
“I think Kerry would have had the most, every time he penetrated he seemed to throw up a lob,” Martin said.
It was the start of something big for the small but hoops-mad population of tropical Queensland, with Jawai, Baynes, Williams, Cedar and Weigh going on to cement themselves as professionals alongside Mt Isa star Peter Crawford.
They have since been joined by north Queensland youngsters Clint Steindl, Mitch Norton, Todd Blanchfield and Chris Cedar, all playing in front of “home” crowds for the Crocs or Taipans.
“There’s no better feeling than playing at the top level in front of your friends and family,” Williams said.
With Crawford joining Baynes at the Olympics, Jawai playing strongly in the Euroleague and Baynes now headed to the NBA, Williams says the message to the next generation is clear.
“They're doing that over there for Cairns and for north Queensland,” he said.
“With the young guys coming through they see they can do it. To make the big time you don’t have to come from the big city.”
That has never been more true, with eight of the NBL’s 59 Australian players coming from tropical Queensland, despite the area making up just 3 per cent of the country’s population.
Just as impressively, Baynes and Jawai make up a quarter of Australia’s NBA and Euroleague contingent, while north Queensland’s two representatives on the Olympic team matched the contribution of Melbourne, Sydney and South Australia.
Williams is full of admiration for the hurdles players from smaller towns have to overcome to become elite basketballers.
“I spoke to the young guys at the Academy and told them we don’t have the luxury of playing teams every week like in Melbourne or Sydney, we might be lucky to play a game once a month,” he said.
“We have to train really hard and individually have to work hard on our game every day. You look at Pete Crawford from Mt Isa – I'm betting the basketball there isn't that great, but it’s a credit to all the guys who have come out of small places like that.”
Williams said the north Queensland link and the success of the 2005 team have created lifelong bonds.
“My heart dropped when I saw Rhys go down, I felt terrible for him,” he said of Martin’s season-ending knee injury.
“I've got that connection with the guys, I'm always looking at their scores and seeing how they're going.”
Perhaps most importantly, Williams sees the achievements of his north Queensland compatriots eroding the underdog attitude among local players.
“We’ve changed that culture. We think we can compete with anybody now,” he said.