New Zealand Breakers rookie Alex McNaught was 12 years old when the Breakers last won a championship in 2015. He lights up at the thought of the iconic buzzer beater from Ekene Ibekwe to win it all. Reminiscing on the jubilation and how alive it made him feel.
Now eight years later as a development player, he has a shot at winning his own championship with the Breakers who begin their NBL finals series against the Sydney Kings on Friday.
“I do remember partying a lot, celebrating for hours just amazed at what we’d just done. That’s something you’ll never forget,” McNaught said.
“Hopefully it’s not that close this time and we get it done a little easier than that. But it's awesome to be back to where that original spark of magic was.”
McNaught used to be a season member with the team and a regular at home games with a stash of shirts signed by Tom Ambercrombie.
The Breakers stalwart has been McNaught’s idol for as long as he can remember.
Unique rise to the professional level
McNaught’s journey to the NBL is different to many. He didn’t make a top representative basketball team until he was 17. But he was a waterpolo standout at St Kentigern College and the captain of the premier team.
He dreamed of playing basketball at an American college.
“We reached out to so many schools and nothing seemed to fit. No real responses, it seemed like no one really wanted a bar of me,” McNaught said.
Since then he’s carried a chip on his shoulder working to prove that he deserves to be on the court.
He went on to win a national basketball with St Kents in 2019. After high school McNaught moved to Nelson where he played for the Giants in the Sals NBL. As a defensive minded, hard-nosed player he quickly realised that his style of play was better suited to the Kiwi game.
That relentless brand of basketball caught the eyes of the Breakers and McNaught signed a two-year development deal. Following an injury to Abercrombie he was then pushed into the lineup early.
He recalls his first week of training with the Breakers, going in feeling ready and confident. But he stepped onto the court and was confronted by the level of play he was surrounded by.
“It was like wow maybe I’m not meant to be here.”
Weeks later he began to find his rhythm, eventually finding his place on the team.
“In high school, effort can get you through everything. But when I stepped into the Sals NBL, you start to realise that you’ve got to have a deeper understanding that it’s not just effort. There are things you have to know about rotations and schemes. Then I got to the Australian NBL and that was exemplified even further,” McNaught said.
A lot has been said about the Breakers' ascension from the bottom of the standings last season to now on the cusp of a fifth title.
From embracing their Kiwi identity to building a culture of unbreakable chemistry and trust. A level of trust that McNaught says has been led by Mody and started with the five Hs.
Since the start of the season, every member of the team has taken turns sharing their history, who their heroes are, their heartbreaks, highlights and hopes. Giving the team a personal insight to who each other really is.
McNaught’s hero is his dad Tony.
“He’s been harsh but fair sometimes. A real leader, someone that I love, someone that I follow. He’s always there.”
Knowing that his son was going to be a Breaker was a proud moment for him. At the end of the Giants season, his dad met him in Nelson as he prepared to drive back up to Auckland.
“I remember the euphoria he had every time someone would be talking to him about me coming up. I could see how happy he was about it,” McNaught said.
Late in the season, his dad showed him a spreadsheet of different scenarios: how many games the Breakers needed to win to make sure they made the semi-final and what would happen if they didn’t make it.
“He’s a real fanatic when it comes to it. He really loves it and I’m sure he’s incredibly nervous already.”
Inspiring the next generation
Since being on the team, McNaught has received many messages from young basketball players who have missed out on teams or who are struggling with doubt.
He hopes that his journey shows that you can still achieve your goals no matter where you start.
“I don’t think making your rep team at a young age is incredibly important. As long as you really do love it, you can stick to working hard, that’s really all that will matter,” McNaught said.
“Everyone loves shooting their jumpshots, they love trying to dunk the ball. But if you can get down with the nitty gritty and defensive side, that will get you gametime."
Whether it's on the court or from the bench, McNaught says he’s ready to bring energy and do whatever he can to contribute as he prepares to face reigning champs Sydney.
“Everything is going to come down to whether or not we can do the small things right. They’re a talented team, it’s going to be a tough one but if we can go back to our roots and bring the intensity for all forty minutes, that’s how we’re going to try and do it.”
Despite limited playing time, this season has set the foundation for his future. A taste of a long career ahead.
Sometimes McNaught thinks about the heartbreak of not being able to live out his American college dream.
“It still hurts despite the fact that I know what I’m doing now.”
But he knows that it led him to where he is now. Soon he’s hoping to have a new highlight to talk about - winning a NBL title and continuing to thrive in what he loves doing.
“It’s pretty surreal for me to be part of this team. You win some, you lose some. But I think I’ve won this trade.”