Sean ‘Pero’ Cameron is arguably New Zealand’s most successful basketball player. In 2002 he led a historic Tall Blacks side to fourth place at the World Champs, was included in the tournament’s ‘World’ team, was named Maori Sportsman of the Year and was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to basketball. There are also his seven inclusions in the New Zealand NBL ‘All-Tournament’ team, his five NBL Most Valuable Player awards, and his Coach of The Year title in 2010 which followed the first of two league victories by the Wellington Saints side he continues to coach. Jared Lanigan asked him about some of these highlights and his sport-oriented upbringing in Tokoroa.
Over this coming weekend, the Wellington Saints are hosting the NBL pre-season tournament and then you come up against the Taranaki Mountain Airs on April 20. How do you feel coming into this season after the Saints narrowly missed out on three championships in a row last year?
Yeah, our preparation’s been reasonably ideal. We’ve signed two Breakers players, Casey Webster and Dillon Boucher. They’re playing in the finals of the ANBL at this time and it’s interrupted our training a little, as far as having those two there goes. Casey Frank, who commentates for the Breakers games, is another player who’s been away. There’s also one more foreign import player to potentially fly in, so we’re missing four out of our 10. We’ve had our interruptions, but otherwise it’s been pretty good the last five weeks.
To change tack a little, you’ve recently expressed concerns over Sport NZ’s High Performance arm withdrawing funding for the Tall blacks with whom you play a coaching role. Why has Sport NZ done this and what will be the consequences of it?
It’s a case of changed criteria. What Sport NZ is looking at is whether athletes and sporting organisations are able to win an Olympic medal. I’m not too sure of how much importance they’ve placed on success in World Champs, but certainly they’re looking to fund teams more likely to win medals. Whether they’re getting more, the same, or less funding depends on their medal capacity, and it’s tough. We [the Tall Blacks] struggled to get to London 2012 and the Beijing Olympics before that, so it’s becoming tough for our sport – for both the male and female sides.
The first time I watched Tall Blacks basketball was in 2002 when you shocked the basketball world by leading the Tall Blacks to a World Championship semifinal, beating Puerto Rico in the quarter final to do so. The hooter goes at the close of the fourth quarter in that game. Explain the feeling.
[laughs] Yeah, we were really fortunate to do so well in an Olympic Games. We had to win five or six games to get to where we did. We only lost two. We beat Russia, Venezuela, and Argentina, who were the current silver medalists at the time. We came from 20 points behind to beat China. After Puerto Rico we were into the top four and with that obviously came the opportunity to win a medal – I can tell you it was pretty hard to sleep that night! [laughs] I was pretty excited. We did fall short of a medal in the end, but it was a great ride! That whole year was great for the Tall Blacks.
As if unprecedented Tall Black success wasn’t enough, you were the only non-NBA player to be selected for the tournament’s ‘World’ team alongside four juggernauts of the basketball world at the time. That must have been a bit of an honour?
Yeah, it was an honour. I was pretty chuffed with it and obviously very proud. I think it was also a nod towards how much the team had achieved. We’d done so well and then only just fallen short. There were probably two or three others in that Tall Blacks side who had great tournaments and who could’ve been called up – they were each a huge part of it.
Your mum was a successful basketball and netball player, your sisters have represented NZ junior and Tall Ferns teams, and your younger brother is both an ex- NZ junior and Waikato Pistons player. Are your genetics sourced from another planet?
[laughs] Na, it’s not anything like that. I will say that my sister was far more athletic than me, too! We were very lucky. My dad was also a league player so there was admittedly a bit of disappointment when I switched to the court game [laughs].
So you started out with league then?
Yeah. Dad said I was two when I had my first game.
Wow – they started them young?
They did! My sister was on the same team as me for years as well. Both sisters were for a while. I started b-ball at age 8, played both sports for a bit then finished up with league at 15. At that age, with basketball, you stopped playing age groups and you went to Prem’s which was the open men’s division. So you either stepped up to the plate … or you didn’t [laughs], and I was very lucky to go on.
You played for and coached the Gold Coast Blaze for a few years?
Yeah. The time I had with the Blaze was good, y’know. I played three years with them and that’s where I live now with my family. And we’re very happy over there.
You obviously travel back and forth to Wellington for the NBL season, though. How do you find that?
Yeah, definitely. It’s always going to be a potential choice you make with family and sport. I make sure I see them a couple of times a month and it’s only a 3- or 4-hour flight y’know? It’s not too far away.
Your last year with the Blaze and the Tall Blacks coincided with the start of your coaching career. How did you juggle all of that?
The NBL season in which I first coached the Saints ended in July and the Tall Black season in which I was playing started in July so it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been. But still … never again [laughs]