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Sacrifice and challenges: The Breakers are treading the tough NBL road

October 31, 2021.

Yes that's Halloween, but it's also the date that the New Zealand Breakers first touched down in Australia ahead of the 2022 NBL season. The second consecutive season that they would have to begin with a lengthy stint away from home.

Away from their family, friends and fans. Only this time, coming across to Australia had a different outlook. Everyone was under the assumption that by the midpoint of the season, the international border would open, and the Breakers would be heading home to finish out the remaining rounds in front of their fans.

At least, that was the original plan.

During the Blitz in November, it was evident to see a refreshed outlook from the Breakers, who would make no excuses of the challenges they were facing, but rather embrace and meet them head on.

"Having gone through a year on the road before, it gives us familiarity," Breakers veteran forward Finn Delany said. "You have to expect changes, stay flexible and always just take it one day at a time."

With an exciting roster put together in the offseason, the Breakers welcomed home the local superstar, Yanni Wetzell, and added future NBA prospects in French sensations, Hugo Besson and Ousmane Dieng. Combining that young element with the likes of Delany and Tom Abercrombie, the pieces were almost all there for coach Dan Shamir. The cherry on top was the signing of the highly regarded import guard, Peyton Siva.

It seemed to be a roster that had great balance on paper, but one that always needed everyone healthy to build that culture and find success away from home. Then came challenge No. 2: early injuries.

First it was Abercrombie, the 359-game veteran and defensive figurehead for the Breakers, who went down during the preseason with a freak side strain injury that sidelined him for six weeks. Losing a leader of his calibre for an extended period of time is tough for any team, but further magnified the challenges that lay ahead for the Breakers.

With the season just a week away at that point in time, it was all systems go for the Breakers as they prepared for their first game against the South East Melbourne Phoenix. Then came challenge No. 3: COVID.

The first team in the NBL to have to deal with a COVID situation that completely wiped out numerous players and even the head coach himself. With most of the players able to recover and get one practice in before the first game, coach Shamir was unable to make it to the sidelines and an underdone Breakers outfit showed their struggles with a tough 24-point loss.

"It was tough, but it's something everyone has had to deal with. It's definitely difficult, but you just have to be patient with guys returning to the court," Delany said. "That's been our mindset with all these challenges, we have to roll with the unexpected changes and keep moving forward."

A week later and now everyone fully recovered, it was the chance for the Breakers to start from scratch and try to get revenge on the Phoenix in their second game. But it only took 2:58 into the game before Shamir was left wondering who had walked under a ladder or broke a mirror.

Star guard Peyton Siva had pulled up suddenly on a layup, with a hamstring injury, that would sideline him for five weeks. The Breakers fought hard, but ultimately ran out of gas and lost their second consecutive game to start the season.

Rewind to NBL21, when the Breakers spent 154 days on the road, all it took was a single press conference to dash all hopes of returning home this season. Having just announced on Nov. 24 that New Zealand would begin welcoming home vaccinated travellers, just a few weeks later the backflip came.

How quickly a mood can change. Their backs already against the wall, facing this challenge all over again, just got even longer and tougher the second time around.

The Breakers had started the season 0-3 and were on their way to Wollongong, to play against one of the preseason championship favourites, the Illawarra Hawks. Tom Abercrombie had returned to the line-up for his first game of the season and the Breakers were ready to cause an upset.

In one of the games of the season, the Hawks and Breakers went punch for punch and fought into double overtime.

Down one point with the ball at the end of the second overtime, the Breakers had a chance to steal a win on the Hawks' home floor and turn their season around. The inbound pass came into Besson, who had been spectacular all night, but as he turned to make a play, he slipped, fumbled the ball and all of a sudden, the Breakers are 0-4. If that loss wasn't tough enough to swallow, Abercrombie was ruled out indefinitely after getting injured in just 16 minutes of play.

Instead of players heading home to see their families, sleep in their own bed or just try to switch their mind off basketball for however long, it was déjà vu for the team. It was back to a hotel room, just each of them and four walls, thinking about how close they were, how hard they fought and just when that first win was coming.

Christmas had come and gone, another one for the traveling party to spend together, but away from loved ones, and then came a three-week hiatus from the NBL due to COVID running rampant through all teams.

One would have thought that perhaps New Zealand may catch a break this time and keep players healthy, but that wasn't the case. Again, in early January, multiple players contracted COVID, leaving the Breakers unable to fill a full squad to practice with for their 14-day break between games.

At 0-6, on Jan. 9, the Breakers travelled to Brisbane with what seemed to be enough of a break between games to consider this a fresh start for NBL22. A rejuvenated performance, the Breakers jumped out to a double digit lead at quarter time, and never looked back. The monkey was off their back and they were on the board.

Since that first win, they have been consistently inconsistent, following up every one of their four big wins, with a disappointing loss. Winning away from home is never an easy task in the NBL, no matter who you're playing, but the Breakers have shown glimpses of a squad that can still cause some serious damage to finish the regular season, which they showed during the end of NBL21.

The only difference being that this season, home will be even further away.

NBL Commissioner, Jeremy Loeliger, knows how important the sacrifice has been from the entire New Zealand organization over the last two years.

"The NBL is extremely grateful to the Breakers for their sacrifice, commitment, understanding and flexibility over the last two seasons. If it wasn't for the Breakers, the last two seasons simply would not have been the same," he said.

Whilst everyone can look from the outside and imagine how tough all these challenges may be, no one besides all those involved will ever know the feeling of what they go through. Yes, there's so much support from other fans, jumping on board with a "cheers mate" membership, or a nice message online, but it's not quite the same.

"Numerous New Zealand sporting teams have faced similar challenges, so I would say Breakers' fans are very appreciative of what their club is facing," said Loeliger. "Ultimately, none of us will fully understand the true amount of sacrifice the Breakers players, coaches, staff and partners have made and we are forever indebted to them."

With the NBL officially halfway through its 2022 season, it would be hard for both the players and Breakers faithful to not be looking forward to that first home game back in New Zealand. The emotions overflowed when the team returned home after 154 days last season, and with that number set to be longer this season, it's a reunion everyone involved in the NBL is desperate to see.

"It is vitally important for the NBL to get the Breakers back to New Zealand," said Loeliger. "They played seven games in New Zealand at the end of last season and they had incredible support. New Zealand has a huge basketball fanbase and we look forward to the Breakers getting back home and selling out games again."

But for now, the playing group has their positive mindset engaged and are embracing their challenge ahead. They've shown that when they're at their best, they can contend with any team in the league and are exciting to watch. However, even for the players, the thought of one day running out in front of their own supporters, is hard to not think about.

"Words won't do that justice. This club has amazing home court support and fan base. We can't wait to get back to the hoop fans in Aotearoa," Delany said.

It's safe to say that not a single basketball fan in both Australia and New Zealand, isn't looking forward to that moment as well.