Brighter Shade of Orange
Friday night is normally the beginning of the weekend, the end of a long working week, a time to let loose, to relax and to wind down. Yet for some, myself included, it marked not only the start of a working week but also the start of something many Invercargillites have been looking forward to for months. Some have said the build up to this night had been slow and quiet, but it all depends on how you look at things. Most of us have been sitting on the edge of our seats to count down the days to the start of the 2014 NBL season, especially after the high of last season when our SIT ZeroFees Southland Sharks were crowned 2013 NBL Champions. That achievement is not to be sneezed at, and off course now there may added pressure on the entire team, players and coaches, to make magic happen once again and make it happen NOW. Aren’t we such a demanding bunch sometimes? For the players of course the training and ‘action’ had been going on for some time now, quietly behind the scenes, away from the spot light. Although some of us have managed to ‘sneak’ a peek at the players as they went through their paces during training and a number of us showed up during the public ‘inter team scrimmage’ in the week leading up to the opening game of the 2014 season. And wasn’t it great to see the team back in action, to hear the squeaking of the sneakers, the bouncing of the balls, the banter, the laughter. Yes, just like a sort of ‘home coming’. Finally, it’s time again. The off season can be long when you keep reliving the highs of the season just gone. To be back in the swing of things is like meeting up with old friends or arriving home after a long holiday; everything is familiar, the sounds and the sights, it’s just ‘comfortable’. It was worth the wait though. This night marked so many ‘new’ things and will be remembered for many reasons, not the least that the first game in the newly rebuilt stadium was against the old rivals the Oceana Gold Nuggets (Otago); that it would involve the raising of the 2013 NBL Banner; the entire 2013 Championship squad would be present; player Dan Peck’s milestone achievement of 50 games for the Southland Sharks would be deservedly acknowledged; and last but by no means least, the welcoming of new players to the team (and Southland). A night worth remembering even before the game started.
Invercargillites came out in force, nearly 3000 tickets were sold and the stadium quickly filled with bright orange patches appearing among the mainly dark interior of the brand new stadium. There was a large number of young fans in the crowd and they had an even bigger blast when the new Southland Shark Mascot arrived on the scene, complete with bright orange cape to compliment his orange uniform player shorts! And yes, he’s a larger than life Shark, nameless at this stage but that is set to change by the second home game. After the unveiling and raising of the 2013 NBL Banner the action began on the court. From my spot I could see everything, I’m so nosey! Being in the stadium reminds me how lucky we are as a region to have something this fantastic, I’ve been in there a number of times now but each time I find myself saying “wow”. On this night, I also said “wow” many times as I watched the Southland Sharks players, I’m always in awe of them, the way they play with such focus, determination and ‘never say die’ attitude. The game was a great one to watch, it was full of action, physical and quick. The score was never far apart and many times during the night many hearts were in the throats of their owners as it was a tie score for a while. The game was a nail biter to the very end and the final score (Southland Sharks 77 – 83 Nuggets) did not truly reflect what our Sharks looked like on the court, forcing me to once again feel sorry for those who weren’t here in person to see the action – computer statistics only tell you so much. Watching live is something worth experiencing; the atmosphere is always amazing; the crowd in fine voice; the DJ on top of his game with his music; MC’s encouraging the fans to get louder; facilities are first class; and the action on court beyond belief.
The action doesn’t end after the game either. The fans are always keen to meet and chat with the players afterwards and despite the best efforts to keep many feet off the brand new surface, the fan spilled onto the court to meet and greet the players. New players were embraced with the same enthusiasm as the ‘resident’ players from last season, instantly becoming part of the ‘family’. And family played a large part for me on the night, as I was once again accompanied by my Sharklets (sons), plus an extra ‘borrowed’ Sharklet. They are true fans so couldn’t wait to meet the players afterwards and dispersed in many directions on the court to get their programs signed. As I stood there trying to track down the two that were still AWOL, we spotted a rather upset young girl (probably about 5 years old). She was in tears and even her mother’s hugs couldn’t console her. We then spotted the reason for her distress: her balloon high up in the rafters of the stadium, a lonely escaped bright orange autographed balloon. My eldest Sharklet (12 years old) promptly stuffed his program in my hands, mumbled something along the line of “Hold that, I’ll be back in a minute” and made his way over to where the tears were spilling. Without missing a beat he gave the still crying little girl the banger he had just gotten autographed by most of the team (including that of his favourite player). The mother of the girl called him ‘an absolute treasure’, and I nearly burst with pride when he stated he didn’t want her to have a bad night at the Sharks. So yes, many reasons to have very fond memories of this night, the opening night of what can surely only become one heck of a season!