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NZL - Shooting for the stars

AUCKLAND (NBL) - You think the 2005 National Basketball League final doesn't still prey on Paora Winitana's mind?

How often does he practice the halfcourt "Hail Mary" that could have turned a 69-68 Auckland Stars win back in the Easy LPG Bay Hawks' favour ... if it had only been a fraction of a second earlier?

The Hawks guard actually made the shot on the night, albeit too late to steal victory, and can still be seen replaying that moment sometimes when he finds himself standing on halfway with ball in hand. It remains an enduring and painful memory of what might have been ... so close, yet so far.

"It's definitely on my mind," says Winitana. "I wouldn't say it was a fluke, but it was a one-in-a-thousand shot, and every now and then, the guys will re-enact it."

The occasion may well go down as the most memorable of Winitana's career, from his pre-game nose-to-nose haka duel with Stars rookie Valance Te Ratana, through brother Joe's halftime marriage proposal to that last-ditch bid for victory.

"That was a great basketball night filled with emotions and high energy levels. Both teams came well prepared - we really knew each other's stuff - but at the end of the day, the ball just didn't roll our way." 

This week's televised clash between the Hawks and GI Juice Auckland Stars at Pettigrew Green Arena should not be construed as a replay of last year's final. That opportunity has come and gone for the home side, still searching for their first NBL title.

It could well be a preview of this year's title game, but is certainly a clash between the league's top two teams, standing head and shoulders above their rivals on the competition table with just one loss each to their names.

"Both teams have changed in terms of personnel since last year," observes Winitana. "We've got new guys, they've got new guys and other guys have moved on, but by the looks of things, Auckland continue to run the same system."

Two particular rosters changes have affected the Hawks in 2006 - the loss of skipper Paul Henare to Turkey and the addition of former Stars import Kareem Johnson.

"It's not easy when you lose the best point guard in New Zealand," says Winitana, who assumed the Hawks leadership on Henare's departure.

"Everyone's role has changed.

"As captain, I've had to be more vocal, but I'm not Paul Henare. The only way I know to lead is by example and if I go out there giving 110%, I don't expect anything less from the guys."

For his part, Johnson has flourished in his new role as a fulltime starter, after coming off the bench in Auckland's 2005 rotation.

"Kareem made some big plays in the second half of that final and we give him a hard time about that," chuckles Winitana. "He's a massive dude and so athletic, but the thing I like most about him is he's real humble and fits into our team quite nicely.

"And he knows what Auckland runs, which is always good to know." 
Grant Chapman