NBL star Jawai speaks up on racial justice

Nate Jawai, the only current Indigenous NBL player and first in the NBA, hopes the worldwide cry for racial justice has an impact on basketball in Australia.

NATE JAWAI of the Taipans shoots during the NBL match between the Cairns Taipans and Melbourne United at Cairns Convention Centre in Cairns, Australia.
NATE JAWAI of the Taipans shoots during the NBL match between the Cairns Taipans and Melbourne United at Cairns Convention Centre in Cairns, Australia. Picture: Chris Hyde/Getty Images

The first Indigenous Australian to play in the NBA has detailed the racial abuse he endured on his return to the NBL.

Four years on and buoyed by a worldwide cry for racial justice, Nate Jawai has called for more cultivation and respect of Indigenous talent in the sport.

The free agent is hopeful of re-signing with Cairns next season in what could be the final contract signed by Jawai, who turns 34 in October and is incredibly the only active Indigenous Australian NBL player.

It was the Taipans in 2007 who first helped launch a trailblazing career in Australia, Europe and the United States for the deceptively smooth-moving centre, who grew up a stone's throw from the northernmost tip of Queensland in Bamaga.

But it was while playing for Perth in New Zealand on his return to the NBL in 2015-16 that Jawai was reminded of the racism he says has been a "major f*cking challenge" his whole career.

"I heard some racial slurs in the crowd, the coaches heard them too and I told them about it but nothing was made of it, it was swept under the rug," Jawai told AAP.

"We were busy trying to win a championship so it went out of focus.

"I'd seen Adam Goodes (criticised for speaking out against racial slurs aimed at him while playing AFL) and at that time I wasn't as outspoken as I am now.

"It's tough thinking back ... it does play on your mind and you question yourself and wonder 'am I different?'

"And it's been that way since I was a kid; with a different kind of skin colour, you just get looked at weirdly."

NBL boss Larry Kestelman, a Ukrainian migrant and Victorian Multicultural Commission ambassador, this week pledged his support to protesters and a "zero tolerance approach to discrimination of any kind in the league".

"We embrace and respect the contribution made by all that participate in it and stand united with our African American and Indigenous players in their hour of need and always," Kestelman, who assumed ownership of the NBL in 2015, said.

The softly-spoken Jawai appreciates that but wants to see action, considering he is one of only a handful of Indigenous Australians to feature in the NBL since his debut 13 years ago.

That's despite Boomers star, close friend and fellow Torres Strait Islander Patty Mills' long NBA career and inspiring off-court cultural engagement efforts.

And it's also at odds with a 2019 Sport Australia study that found basketball, with 24,000 participants, was the most popular sport for Indigenous Australians aged 15 years or older.

"Why is that? I don't know, maybe NBL doesn't acknowledge and celebrate Indigenous players as much as other sports do," Jawai queried.

They are working on it, though.

The NBL staged its inaugural Indigenous round earlier this year when prompted by former Illawarra favourite Tyson Demos, who was behind the Hawks' Indigenous-themed uniform that sparked the league into action.

NBL commissioner Jeremy Loeliger has pledged to expand the round and donate proceeds from the themed uniforms to provide "meaningful benefit" to Indigenous communities.

Sixty teams competed in the first Australian Indigenous Basketball (AIB) tournament in Cairns last December while select AIB teams played in a curtain-raiser to last year's United States v Boomers World Cup games at Marvel Stadium.

"We are blessed to have a league and a sport with so many diverse voices," Loeliger said.

"We must ensure they are always heard and do everything we can in our power to heed their message."

Jawai, who has seen Indigenous rounds grown successfully in the AFL and NRL, is holding the NBL to that promise.

"There needs to be a much greater effort (by the NBL) in acknowledging and celebrating Indigenous Australian people within the sport," he said.

"Create opportunities and pathways for players, coaches and management ... we need to have a greater presence within our sport."

"Indigenous Australians, African Australians, African Americans; they play a huge part in this league.

"We need to know the NBL cares and has our backs."

He's hopeful Kestelman and his improved NBL product does, despite the setback of the coronavirus throwing next season's planning up in the air.

"With the growth of the league you'd want to see things like (racial slurs) investigated more (than in 2016)," Jawai said.

"I didn't voice it as much as I could back then.

"But the platform now is much bigger, the league is in a much better place, it's become a global matter and I need to speak out.

"I don't feel like a lone ranger, because of the platform Patty has created.

"And the good thing now is that it's a matter for coloured people everywhere, there's solidarity there."


AAP