It’s not often that you’d expect the relative unknowns of the New Zealand men’s basketball team to scoop the headlines ahead of the NBA superstars of Team USA. But this is precisely what happened this week in the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, with New Zealand basketball gaining international press attention, probably for the first time ever.
The reason? Not the result of the game, which the New Zealand Tall Blacks lost 71 – 98. Rather, it was the haka.
Although NBA stars like Derrick Rose and James Harden may have seen a lot in their careers, they’d clearly never seen anything like the traditional Maori war cry and dance as performed by the Tall Backs before the game. The reactions of the USA team were priceless. From sheer disbelief, to bemused bewilderment, it was clear that Team USA had no idea how to respond, although the crowd at the game gave the Tall Blacks a rapturous round of applause. Video of the confused reactions of Team USA has now gone viral, giving New Zealand’s basketballers more press attention than they’ve ever received before.
The Tall Blacks performed Tu Kaha O Pango Te Kahikatia which is their own haka. It has deep significance for the players, and although the reaction of the public has been enthusiastic, the response of the rest of the basketball world have been somewhat muted. In fact, the Turkish team even turned their back on the haka—usually considered a great insult—deciding instead to receive last-minute instructions from their coach. However, the New Zealand side remain committed to performing the haka.
As Tall Blacks assistant coach Paul Henare, a proud Maori, said, “It’s taken for granted because we see the All Blacks do it, we see the response they get. In that respect they get it, and it puts it in perspective if the USA did the haka everyone would fall in line to face it or whatever. In the basketball world, or world in general, they don’t have a grasp on what the haka is and what that means—more so in a sporting sense. It’s more about what it means to us, why we do it. Regardless of how the opposition take it, we’re going to do it.”
For many years, opposition teams have been trying out different methods of countering the haka when performed by the all conquering All Blacks, and it can be argued that it has made an invaluable contribution to the aura of invincibility that has long surrounded New Zealand’s rugby world champions. It remains to be seen whether the traditional Maori greeting will have the same effect in helping the Tall Blacks reach the same sort of heights as their rugby compatriots.