DANDENONG, VICTORIA, Australia -- It's 7 a.m. on the other side of the world and I've just walked into a room full of rabid basketball fans. The Grand Final of Australian Rules Football is just one day away and the city of Melbourne is wrapped up in the celebration that comes with it, but the only thing on most people's minds on this morning is hearing the stories of a few former Chicago Bulls.
Horace Grant, Ron Harper and Luc Longley have been here all week as part of the 2011 Asia Pacific Team Camp presented by Nike. It's the first of its kind on this continent and it has brought together 40 of the best players in the southern hemisphere (The top ten youth players from New Zealand, Australia, Korea and China were invited.) The former Bulls have been coaching the young players along with Hall of Famer Alex English, former Toronto Raptors head coach Jay Triano and several other coaches with NBA ties.
After a week's worth of events, Grant, Harper and Longley all look like they could use a couple more hours of sleep, but the excitement in the room wakes them up quickly. Several men are decked out in Bulls gear, one gregarious fellow has even broken out an old Harper replica jersey for the occasion. We may be a long way from home, but there is no question that the popularity of the NBA is alive and well Down Under, a fact which does not surprise the guests of honor.
"The NBA is so global right now," Grant said. "They're going all over the world putting on camps and things of this nature to find that hidden talent, and there's some talented Australians over here."
While some may be surprised that the NBA has a budding fan base in Australia, Harper is taking it all in stride.
"Not surprised at all," he said. "The NBA game is definitely a global game. The NFL is starting to become a global game. Baseball is probably starting to become one, too. Sports is where it's all at. We've got young kids like myself who was once that age, who love to play. When we see a pro player, we get them hooked fast and we take that and try to run and just try to be the best that we can be."
In so many ways, that's why the NBA has come all this way to put on a camp this week. Sure, they are looking for the next Derrick Rose, or in this case maybe Andrew Bogut would be a more apt description, but they want to spread the gospel of the game, and on this morning that's what's most important.
Fans ask the players all kinds of different questions about the league; Where would you rank Kobe Bryant? (Great, but not MJ) What was it like playing for Phil Jackson? (Interesting). Almost everything is up for grabs except for one topic ... the lockout. Still, it's an entertaining exchange that the players and fans seem to be enjoying. It's an exchange that Longley, the native Australian who still lives in Perth, might be enjoying more than anyone.
"Basketball in the nineties got really big," Longley says of where the sport was and is in Australia. "It faded for a while. And now it's resurgent. At a junior level, I just got told there's more kids playing basketball than Australian Rules Football in Victoria, which is enormous. [Aussie Football is] our national sport, so [basketball] is resurgent. I'm not surprised because it's such a great game. It's accessible to everybody. We've got great facilities in this country. I'm not surprised, but I'm stoked that it's back on the upswing. It's good timing for me to be involved."
Grant feels the same way. He doesn't seem to have any doubts that some of the kids he's tutored this week will be in the NBA some day.
"No question," he said. "What we saw [recently] was kind of the tip of the iceberg. But we feel that programs like this, and a great facility like this, the kids are going to come out."
Longley wants to believe in the ideal, but after spending some time recently working with the Australian National team, as well as his duties over the past week, he wants to lower the expectations a little bit.
"Look, I think we had some good kids in our camp," he said. "I think it would be a stretch for many of them to make the league. You just got to have the height, size, skill combination. There's a lot of tweeners in our camp; a lot of guys who are really good at stuff, but probably not big enough to be [NBA players right now] ... I got to say the right things, yeah, we had some good kids, but realistically I think Horace is dreamin'."
While the Pacific region may be a few years away from sending another All-Star the NBA's way, it doesn't diminish the fact that the game continues to grow all over the world. It's a fact that these veterans take great pride in as they get ready to head into one more training session.
"It's been an awesome week," Harper said. "When they said that I was going to be here with Luc Longley, Horace Grant, I just thought this would be a special, fun time. I haven't seen them guys in a long time and we talk about the things we've done and stuff we're doing now. It's just been a fun, great time and it's been an enjoyable time."
An enjoyable time that Harper and his Bulls brethren won't soon forget.
"It's been like we've been like three kids the whole time," he said of sharing some time with Grant and Longley. "We've just been enjoying it."