Above the rim

Photo by Masanori Udagawa. http://www.photowellington.photoshelter.com

By Matthew Casey

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Is Dion Prewster possibly Wellington’s next canonised Saint asks Matt Casey after a chat with the captain of the Wellington team.

Wellington Saints have started their 2021 season very strongly, comfortably sitting in the top four of their league. They’re looking to be in contention to win their 12th National Basketball League championship in their 39th season. Led by captain Dion Prewster, the team that calls TSB Arena home are the hottest ticket in Wellington, selling out their most recent home game against the Manawatu Jets.

Standing at 6’4” the Wellington College old boy is the Saints’ top point scorer.  At the age of 31, he’s not only keeping up with the younger players but his clinical play  makes him one of the more impressive. He is leading his team by example, ranking third in the league’s MVP race.

Prewster has played for the Saints on and off since the age of 21, with stints in Australia and Germany. Under Coach Zico Coronel, he is bringing a new brand to a historically great basketball team. Coronel has a far more academic perspective and compared with previous years, this team is a very local lineup. Following Romaro Gill’s recent departure, it is a local squad with only two non-Wellingtonians in it, including import Kerwin Roach.

Coronel is a more tactical and technical coach. “It’s about all the little fine details that make the machine work.” He previously coached Prewster for Hawkes Bay, when the team came second to the Saints in 2019. He says head coach of the Saints is “possibly the best job in the league.” Out of the 10 teams in the league, the Saints have won six championships in the past decade.

Prewster doesn’t look as though he’ll be slowing down any time soon, but he is eyeing up a future in coaching and is doing a lot of work helping the next generation.  “You always try to offer any help to kids that you see may have the ability to go further.”

With his passion for helping out he is sure that he is “going to stay in the game, at some sort of level of coaching.” He studied to be a teacher while at university in the USA, and he wants to “give back and stay in the game” as much as he can.

He’s making inroads into this task, helping train schools over summer. “I’m trying to build that resume now, so when it’s time for me to step away from the game, it’ll be an easier transition.” He is working with various basketball teams including Wellington College and Ngāti Raukawa iwi.

“I’ve seen the progression. If you don’t actively try to keep that momentum going then it can stop.” This idea he takes into helping the ever-growing number of youth players in the region. “With the NBA and Steven Adams’ success, there are a lot of kids who want to hoop. “I know when I was growing up, it was never like that.” This is a significant change, as demonstrated in the most recent secondary sports census, which showed that more children are now playing basketball than rugby in New Zealand. 

Kenny McFadden – an assistant coach for the Saints, one of New Zealand’s top youth coaches, and a past Saint himself – has been a key figure in Prewster’s basketball journey. “He’s had such a big impact on the game, not only at the youth level but when he was a pro. He’s got five titles, his jersey retired, he’s been here for over 30 years now. He’s helped a lot of different basketball players reach a high level.” The obvious one is Steven Adams. 

“He’s helped multiple people get scholarships and I think people are aware of that, his impact and his value. He’s been a Saint pretty much – he’s a continuation of that elite standard that they want to uphold.”

Prewster is proud of his team’s heritage. “It’s cool to hear about the rich history. A lot of people are starting to catch on that this is something special.” He became involved with the Saint’s growing up in Wellington,  where he was introduced to the game as one of the towel boys.

The Saints have long been owned by the Mills family, currently represented by Nick Mills. Their CEO is his son Jordan, who according to Prewster runs the system “a certain way.  They look after the players, and that has to be reciprocated.” The mutual respect is shared. He credits the Millses with the success of the  organisation. He says  Zico is a phenomenal coach,  working after hours, and going the extra mile to make sure the roster has the right people, in terms of both ability and character:  From myself down, everyone’s held accountable – it’s those things that lead to success”  Asked if there was any pressure for results, he was adamant that “there isn’t pressure, there’s a standard.” 

It’s not only on the court the Saints are succeeding. The team is committed to providing a great experience at TSB Arena. Their mascot, Magilla the Gorilla, is a big family drawcard. “The location is awesome, you can just walk down the road and you’re right at the game, fans are there and it’s a great atmosphere.” He  praises the Saints’ faithful fans – “Wellington is the best place in terms of the crowd …they usually pack out the stadium.”

Playing in Wellington also means that Prewster’s family can attend games. He says it’s awesome to play professionally in front of his family.  “It’s the best feeling, you can share those special moments with them.” 

Prewster lives in the CBD, a close walk from their home court. We conducted the interview at Prefab, a cafe he frequents. He is quick to give me the scoop on his favourite eateries around Wellington. “I go to Kazu for Japanese, Dragons, obviously, for Yum Cha”  and he says that Winner Winner “makes an amazing banoffee pie.” 

With his coaching aspirations, team spirit and love of the city that supports him, Prewster’s moment looks unlikely to end any time soon.

The Saints play the Bay Hawks on Sunday 27 June at TSB Arena, unfortunately to no crowd as per current Covid-19 level 2 restrictions.


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