11 Jul 2019

Sean Marks, the influential Kiwi winning at US basketball

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 11 July 2019
NZ basketball player and administrator Sean Marks.

NZ basketball player and administrator Sean Marks. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

There’s another New Zealander making waves in the NBA – the world’s top basketball competition. While Steven Adams is providing the thrills on court, the first Kiwi to ever play in the competition has moved on – and up.

Sean Marks is now the general-manager for the Brooklyn Nets. A few days ago he made a move that lit up the basketball world. One commentator said the move deserved its own wing in the Basketball Hall of Fame – others said he had brought the ailing franchise back from the dead in just five years. The Nets now have three of the league’s top players signed up, supported by good young players who have been working together for several seasons. The team is being talked about as a finals contender. More than that, the culture Marks has brought to the franchise is being widely lauded. It’s a culture he imported from New Zealand, and honed under a legendary coach.

Marks came out of Rangitoto College on the North Shore of Auckland. He was drafted by the New York Knicks in 1998, starting a long, patchy, but fairly decent career in the sport. His time included playing in a championship-winning San Antonio Spurs team in 2005. When he retired from playing in 2011 he became assistant coach for the Spurs, helping them to another championship in 2014. His head coach was the legendary Gregg ‘Pop’ Popovich, who fostered a family like atmosphere in his team.

Then he made another move, into the ‘front office’ – management. It didn’t take long before his basketball nous saw him being scrapped over by six different franchises, including the downtrodden Nets. Marks’ protective team at the Spurs however wouldn’t even let the Nets talk to him unless they promised him carte blanche – total control over what he did, including no interference from its multi-billionaire owner.

He got it.

"Five years ago the Nets made the worst trade in the history of the NBA," says Casey Frank – former professional player, Tall Black and now Sky Sport basketball commentator.

He inherited arguably the worst scenario ever – and commentators say what he’s done is one of the most crazy, miraculous turnarounds ever.

"His mind-set, the way he’s been brought up here in New Zealand, has a lot to do with his ability to talk to people," Frank says. “You will find in basketball circles around the world New Zealanders are very well respected. It comes a little bit from the Tall Blacks and the way we punch above our weight every year … so there’s a respect level there.

"He was known as a player as being a really hard working guy, always really friendly in the locker room; attached himself to some star players who really liked playing with him; got this reputation as being a really smart basketball guy. Then he took that job in Brooklyn which everybody sort of laughed at because it was essentially a dead-end job. There was no way, no avenue for them to be good.

"Through just an amazing piece of work and some great scouting, he did a really good job of making his way around the salary cap, and still found a way to bring together a collection of guys who are really good players."

Marks is having a much bigger impact on the NBA right now than Steven Adams, but Frank says Adams is inspiring Kiwi kids to take up the game.

"For Steve I think it’s more important for him to build the game in New Zealand – I think New Zealand probably calls to him a little bit more than New Zealand called to Sean Marks," he says.

"His life, his family, his children are all over (in the United States). Steven on the other hand comes back and runs basketball camps back here, he’s helping set up academies, he’s just bought a warehouse in Wellington where he’s putting together basketball courts as well. If I’m doing some crystal ball gazing on him, I believe he’s going to come back and continue to give back to the game here.

"Most important for basketball in New Zealand is Steve playing and being seen every day. I think the inspiration he’s giving to children all over the country, coming from Rotorua, there’s kids in Rotorua saying ‘wait, if Steve can do it, I can do it’.

"But what Sean Marks has done is shown you don’t just have to do it on the basketball court, there’s other opportunities – other ways to make your mark on the game."

Photo: RNZ