“We got into New York and a few of the boys had shorts and jandals on. It was -14 degrees,” Kalib Mullins laughs when reflecting on the initial culture shock experienced by the Rotorua Boys’ High School basketball team on their recent US tour.
For a fortnight 22 students, including the senior A team, traveled through New York, Boston and Philadelphia playing basketball and absorbing as much of the local culture as possible.
The Rotorua players were split into two teams. Each team won three out of five games against American high schools. The style of play and the environments in which the fixtures were contested were vastly different from home.
“The first game we played was against the Gators in New York. We were interrogated by security and put in the tenth gym at the school,” Mullins recalls.
“The facilities were amazing, the crowds got stuck in, but the style of play was quite individual and fast. In New Zealand we tend to share the ball more. In the US each school has one or two star players.”
Rotorua’s top team won that first game by a point and generally surprised Americans with their talent, tenacity and of course the haka.
“I think the haka freaked them out a bit,” Mullins chuckled.
“They were surprised at how big and physical we were. We were determined to compete and try and win every game.”
Rotorua Boys' basketball director Theo Tait confirmed this sentiment in the Rotorua Daily Post.
“A lot of the kids at the schools we played had never heard of New Zealand before and if they did, it was all about rugby. I think overall, we woke them up a bit on the basketball side, we have some really talented boys.”
Mullins himself is a 6 ft 6 power forward in Year 13. He enjoys bustling inside the key, but has developed a longer range shooting game. His ambitions for Rotorua are high. The US trip is not intended to be a ‘rest on our laurels’ junket.
“We’ve got a real good brotherhood and great coaches. Our goal is to keep working hard and try and win the National championship,” Mullins warns.
Rotorua were 16th at Nationals last year but in 2015 finished fourth, narrowly losing the semi-final to eventual champions Rangitoto College. Rotorua’s present coach Mark Elers was involved with that 2015 campaign with his son Logan Elers earning a scholarship to the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology.
Rotorua saw plenty of top class talent in the US attending the following NBA games:
Philadelphia 76ers v San Antonio Spurs
New York Knicks v Miami Heat
Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets
“Going to the NBA was amazing. In Philadelphia they put us in a corporate box which was like, ‘no way,’" Elers said.
“The level of competitiveness is something to really aspire to. I think that was the biggest lesson I learned.”
Learning the history of the sport was also an invaluable lesson. In Massachusetts the boys visited the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame while in Manhattan they stepped on to the floor of the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden.
“That was huge. Madison Square Garden has so much history and it’s not just sport, it’s music and everything else.” Elers marveled.
Rotorua performed a haka to honour Kiwi Ross McMains who is part of the Knicks coaching team there.
Each boy had to pay $6500 to make the trip. A year of fundraising occurred, but Mullins reached his target quickly.
“My father used some his rugby connections to help auction off an autographed Maori All Blacks centenary jersey. We got seven and a half grand for that,” Mullins explains.
“I saved half for myself and put the rest in a team fund.”
Kalib’s father Mike Mullins played 116 games for Munster and 16 tests for Ireland.
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