With a little razzamatazz and a lot of money, Larry Kestelman wants to turn Australian basketball from a basket case into the country’s most popular sport. Can the Ukrainian-born entrepreneur net that slam-dunk?
A man sits alone on a folding chair at centre court, smiling. He nods approvingly as the players warm up to the dub-dub-dub of dribbled Wilsons and the peal of Nikes on pine. Very tall men named Zeng and Zhao, Tao and Gao, Gu, Hu, Yu and Wu shoot jumpers and fadeaways, lay-ups and dunks, swishes and bricks. The man seems happy in the moment… until he notices something amiss.
He spies it across court, up in the stands. An entire bay of empty seats. Ordinarily this would not matter, but this particular bay is situated within the crucial span of the camera arc. Vacant bleachers on a TV screen will send a negative message. He cannot have that. The 50-year-old owner of Australasia’s professional men’s basketball league, the National Basketball League (NBL), didn’t coax China’s national basketball team here to play in friendlies – this one against the Brisbane Bullets on the Gold Coast – only for viewers at home to think no one cares. (When China played in Melbourne a few days earlier, he was similarly livid when there was no logo-emblazoned media wall at the post-match press conference. He didn’t sign up the likes of Ladbrokes and Chemist Warehouse only to see their valuable sponsorships ignored.)
So he stands, finds an operations manager and raises the issue. Apparently a ticketing snafu is responsible for the empty seats. “Well,” he says, issuing his demand through a pause and flat stare, “we need to fill them. Now.” Staff scurry, spectators shift and it is done.
The man is Larry Kestelman, a Ukrainian immigrant turned accountant turned property developer turned multi-millionaire businessman – and possibly the only man in the Western world to own both a professional sporting league as well as teams within that league…
Photography by Kristoffer Paulsen