Diving Delly: A man of steel who plays his heart out

I grew up in West Philadelphia where if you didn’t play basketball, your mates thought there was something wrong with you. You shovelled snow off the concrete courts at the playground during the winter, and played 12 hours a day during the summer.
So I love basketball. But I fell out of love with the National Basketball Association (NBA) because the game became a big business, the stars got too big for their sneakers and slam dunking took over from three-point field goals (I played in the days when three-point field goals didn’t exist). Thank God for the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry, the NBA’s most valuable player, who still shoots from the outside and dribbles the ball like Bob Cousy, the legendary Boston Celtics guard.
But I always watch the NBA Finals, because like the Rugby League State of Origin, and NRL and AFL Grand Finals, the players give 100 per cent. This year, as you probably know by now if you are an Australian sports fan, there’s a bloke who’s giving 120 per cent. His name is Matthew Dellavedova, and he plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers, but there’s nothing cavalier in his attitude to the game. Like most basketballers in West Philly, he dives on the court for loose balls. His teammate, LeBron James, now acknowledged as the world’s best basketballer, claimed half in jest that Dellavedova set an NBA record for most dives in game three of the best of seven series. Yes, that was the same night Delly, as he’s known in Cleveland and his hometown of Maryborough in Victoria, had to be put on an IV drip after the game suffering from dehydration. He gave all he had, and then he gave some more. Game four showed he was not superhuman. He only scored 3 out of 14 field goals, and was described as “the so-called hero” of game three by one of the ESPN commentators. But the effort he expended in that match took a lot out of him. Cavaliers coach David Blatt acknowledged that after his side lost to the Golden State Warriors by 21 points in game four. Blatt said Dellavedova played his heart out, like he always does: “I don’t think he was 100 per cent, but he gave us 100 per cent of what he had.” Neither was LeBron James 100 per cent, after a hard foul by the Warriors’ Andrew Bogut, another Australian, sent him reeling into a courtside camera and cutting his head in several places.
Now, thanks to Bogut, Dellavedova and five other Australians in the NBA, the media here has rediscovered basketball. Back in the mid-1970s, I wrote articles for The Australian and the Sydney Daily Telegraph and was described as a “leading basketball writer.” That was only because I was one of the few journalists writing about basketball. Then Eddie Palubinskas became the top scorer in the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the National Basketball League boomed (off and on) in Australia and players like Luc Longley and Andrew Gaze made it to the NBA (Gaze briefly; Longley longer as starting centre in three straight Chicago Bulls’ championship teams in the late 90s). Australian television started broadcasting basketball games and the Sydney Kings became NBL champions.
Another key to the growing interest in basketball was the broadcasting of US college games and NBA games on Foxtel and ESPN in Australia. There are more than 300 Australian males playing basketball in US colleges, where the NBA secures nearly all of their talent in the annual draft. Andrew Bogut graduated from the University of Utah and was the number one draft pick in 2005. Patty Mills, who helped the San Antonio Spurs win the NBA championship last year, and Matthew Dellavedova played for St Mary’s college in California, and their games were often broadcast on ESPN. It gave them a chance to display their wares to pro basketball teams, and prompted Australian high school players to apply for US college basketball scholarships. Both Dellavedova and Mills won scholarships to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), now called the Centre for Excellence, before heading off to the US. In an excellent piece last Saturday in the Weekend Australian on Australians becoming the toast of the basketball world, Simon McLoughlin points out that all seven Aussies now playing in the NBA attended the AIS. And basketball is still up there as a popular team sport. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, it ranks as the third most popular among boys behind soccer and Australian football. It ranks second among girls behind netball. http://bit.ly/1GCGos6 And don’t forget, there are eight women in US professional basketball (WNBA), including Lauren Jackson, recently named as an Officer in the Order of Australia.
Dellavedova is an unlikely NBA star, an undrafted free agent from Maryborough, a country town now known as Dellyborough by the natives. He was considered not fast enough for the pros. In fact, he was almost dropped by the Cavaliers in January for subpar performances.
But he’s made of true grit, or steel, if you listen to LeBron James. In his college days, Delly was the go-to guy on St Mary’s often hitting the game-winning shot, so it wasn’t surprising to see him score 20 points and make key baskets in the dying minutes of game three. Coach Blatt explained why the fans like him: “Delly is the most Cleveland-like Australian I’ve ever met in my life and if you’re from Cleveland you know what I’m talking about.”
I’m not from Cleveland, but I know what he’s talking about. We had fans like that in Philadelphia where the only the Phillies baseball team won a couple of World Series recently, the basketball 76ers are at the bottom of the ladder, the football Eagles have never won the Super Bowl, and the hockey Flyers haven’t soared at all lately. Cleveland fans are hungry for a championship, and they love a fighter – a guy who will dive for a loose ball like there’s no tomorrow. Scott Raab, an ESPN contributor, author and resident, summed up the Cleveland supporters: “They may not be the greatest fans in the world, but they’re the craziest and the hungriest … this city has been the butt of jokes nationwide.” That’s something Philly fans have also had to put up with. Raab was asked by an ESPN commentator why the city has fallen so in love with Dellavedova: “I think it’s the fact that he’s one of those scrappy white guys that has something to do with it. Everyone can relate to Dellavedova. He doesn’t have the size, he doesn’t have the strength, he doesn’t have the strength, he doesn’t have the speed. He’s got heart, he’s got guts and he’s not afraid to dive on the floor.”
They love him in Maryborough, of course, where he played every day after school on a basketball court where he also made a thousand shots every day. Shades of the former New York Knicks star and US Senator Bill Bradley, who used to take hundreds of foul shots every day as a teenager in Crystal City, Missouri. Chip Le Grand explained in The Weekend Australian yesterday why they adore him in Dellyborough: “Dellavedova plays basketball like a red heeler. His uncompromising approach hasn’t endeared him to all basketball fans but, in Dellyborough, they’ll tell you it is the way he has played since he was a kid running around for the Maryborough Blazers Under 12s.” http://bit.ly/1SdNKWK (Photo above shows the students at Maryborough Education Centre, where Matthew’s Mum teachers, watching the NBA finals on a big screen in the school auditorium. Photo: Robert Leeson, News Corp)
And he now has another day to recuperate from the loss and his cramps as game five will be played in Oakland tomorrow (Monday) at 10am AEST (broadcast on ESPN). The Golden State Warriors haven’t won an NBA championship since 1975, and the Cavaliers have never won one, so both sides are desperate for victory and the next match will be crucial.
But for lovers of basketball and sport, it’s a return to the good old days when two evenly matched teams take to the court to play their hearts out, as Matthew Dellavedova and LeBron James and Stephen Curry do all the time.
And finally, more good news on the international sports front for Australia. The Cronulla Sharks are going to Major League Baseball’s Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in August after beating Swan Hill 7-3 last week in the Gold Medal Game in Lismore. The Little League games are broadcast live by ESPN so New South Wales baseball will again be on the world stage after the very successful Dodgers-Diamondbacks series at the SCG last year. Go Sharks!

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