Story courtesy of Adam Julian (College Sport Media)
“He did it, he did it, damn it, he did it. The whole place has erupted, wow, wow, wow. Ladies and gentlemen, you’ve got a great sport in this country and it’s called basketball!” Marshall Seifert exclaimed after Kenny McFadden shot a last-play three-pointer in extra time to win the Wellington Saints the 1985 National Basketball League grand final against Auckland.
The shot, executed in front of a delirious sellout crowd and live on nationwide television, was the seminal moment in Kenny McFadden’s storied career.
It not only helped the Saints achieve an improbable victory against an opponent who’d thrashed them twice previously, but it helped transcend basketball in New Zealand.
In an era where bars closed at 10pm and there were only two TV channels, an estimated 715,000 people, or over a quarter of the population at the time, watched the match. It was the highest rating sports event of the ’80s and only John Walker’s gold medal winning run at the 1976 Montreal Olympics could have claimed to have had more viewers. Nick Mills owned the Saints at the time and captured the full impact.
“That game literally changed basketball. Before 1985 you never saw kids walking down the street bouncing a basketball. After that game basketball was cool. Kenny was the first superstar of basketball in New Zealand. He helped launch a golden era for the NBL. Kids started getting scholarships to America. He’s a part of the game’s folklore.”
Basketball is now the second-most participated sport in secondary-school in New Zealand, more popular than rugby, football and cricket.
In 2021, following an NBL career that spanned from 1982 to 1996, Kenny was ranked by a special ‘40 in 40’ panel as the greatest import in NBL history, and that’s not even mentioning the thousands of kids he coached and mentored, including NBA superstar Steven Adams.
Kenny played 252 games for the Saints, scoring a franchise record 5004 points. He won four NBL titles and matched that number in All-Star team selections. Twice he was scoring champion and three times he led the league in assists.
Kenny was the assistant coach of the Saints between 2007 and 2013 and again from 2019 to 2021, adding another four championships to his resume. In 2019 the Saints went a flawless 20-0.
A Stuff report, ‘A gentleman, a giver, a legend’ noted:
“Kenny was Wellington basketball. It was quite literally impossible to be invested in the sport in any way without knowing who he was.”
Kenny McFadden was born on August 18, 1960 and grew up in East Lansing, Michigan. Details on his upbringing are somewhat unknown but his father Fred worked in a Cadillac factory; Detroit was the birthplace of the Model T Ford. Kenny attended J. W. Sexton High School where he played multiple sports. As he admitted on Sunday in 2018, however, life wasn’t easy. Gangs were prevalent and venturing to the wrong side of town could land you in jail.
Between 1980 and 1982 he played two seasons of college basketball for Washington State University (the alma mater of Klay Thompson). Coach George Raveling was later inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and was assistant coach of the 1984 USA Olympic gold medal winning team that included Michael Jordan. Injury was an issue for McFadden and the NBA proved elusive. Czechoslovakia came knocking but a brash nightclub owner would eventually lure Kenny to New Zealand.
At the beginning of the ’80s a group of disgruntled St Patrick’s College, Wellington old boys left the school and refused to play for the Marist club. They ambitiously established their own club, St Pats Old Boys, and soon merged with Southern, changing their name to the ‘Saints.’
In 1981 the group decided to put a team in the National League. It was a disaster except for the presence of Michael Stokes, a Tall Black from Canterbury whose cousin Nick Mills owned the Exchequer nightclub near Plimmer steps.
“Michael came to my house and asked for money to support the team. If my big guard dog (a German Shepherd named Hadlee) did his bloody job properly Michael wouldn’t have even reached the door,” Mills recalled.
“I knew nothing about basketball but agreed to help out because at 25 with money I thought I was Christmas Eve on a dark night. When I went to watch the team they were bloody awful. They lost all 15 games and played in ugly Hallensteins singlets and all weather Canterbury rugby shorts. I asked the coach what we needed and he said ‘an import.’”
Americans Fred Sawaya and Clyde Huntley suggested Kenny McFadden but he wasn’t cheap.
“2,587 dollars was the price,” Mills recalled.
“I still remember signing the cheque in a battered ANZ book. In 1982 ten grand bought you a deposit on a house so it was a lot of money.
“Kenny thought he was headed to a tropical country with lots of palm trees. He arrived in a southerly. He didn’t see the sun for a month and couldn’t believe TV stopped broadcasting at 11pm.”
In 1982 the Saints won the Conference Basketball League (CBL) to earn promotion to the National Basketball League. The 1983 Saints and their new import would soon flourish. They were runners up to Auckland in their first Premier season. Kenny dropped 45 points on wealthy Auckland outfit Drake Personnel in a memorable regular season display. He finished the season as scoring champion and won the Keith Carr Trophy as most outstanding guard. In 1984 Kenny repeated the dose and delivered the Saints their first championship, beating Auckland 96-83 in the final. Mills marvelled at Kenny’s work ethic.
“He was the first guy at the gym and trained harder than everyone else. He shot a thousand shots a day. It’s appropriate that his funeral is at Newtown Park because he told us the reason he ran around that track all the time was because the padding was softer on his feet.”
Angelo Robinson is a Physical Education teacher at Kapiti College. Born in Los Angeles he’s been around basketball his entire life. Brothers Sam and Jackie played in the NBA, the latter winning a championship with the Seattle Supersonics in 1979. Robinson joined the Saints in 1985 and together with McFadden drove the Saints to championships in 1987 and 1988.
“No one compares to Kenny. He was a shooting guard who played the point. He modelled his game on Magic Johnson and brought a professional attitude that more talented players lacked and could have employed”, Robinson recalled.
“The ’85 game where he hit ‘the shot’ was his most memorable moment but his encouragement of locals left the door open for that to happen. He wasn’t selfish and before that shot wasn’t having the greatest shooting night.
“The best game I saw him play was against Hawke’s Bay in an Easter tournament. We were down 30 at halftime and came back to win. I always felt sorry for the next opponent if we’d lost the game before. That’s when Kenny would play his hardest.”
The Saints were the hottest ticket in town in the ’80s. Novel balloons, loud music, kids’ prizes, a gorilla mascot and hype only enhanced an already winning experience. It was showtime and Kenny was influencing culture off the court as well.
Tony “Tee Pee” Pene dropped out of high school to become a DJ and is regarded by many as the godfather of the Wellington DJ scene. A residency at the Exchequer nightclub brought him into contact with Kenny, whose brother Kevin was a leading hip hop DJ in New York. Kevin would record the best hip hop radio shows to cassette and mail them to Kenny, who would make copies for Tee Pee. Soon enough, Tee Pee was rapping, beatmatching and scratching during his DJ sets. Kenny told Martyn Pepperell of Audio Culture in November 2021:
“It was a huge culture change happening here in Wellington at the same time it was in New York City. I was only two weeks behind what was going on in New York. We were ahead of the curve on most cities in the United States because hip hop started on the East Coast before it got out to the West Coast. I think we were ahead of the West Coast down under.”
Tee Pee became a sensation and featured in commercials for giants like McDonalds. In 1989 Stevie Wonder performed a concert at Athletic Park. His band saw Tee Pee perform and suggested Stevie check him out. Wonder was so impressed he left his address and phone number. Tee Pee ventured to the USA and today works for Warner Brothers.
Hip hop and basketball are synonyms with each other now. Think “Shaq Diesel” and rappers livestreaming NBA 2K. Kenny McFadden was cool before cool existed. The Exchequer was his house.
“I remember seeing David Lange (Prime Minister) there one night. Man we had a good time but Kenny used to pretend he was more tipsy than he was so he could be up in time for practice the next day. I reckon he poured half his beer in the garden,” Angelo Robinson says laughing.
Kids. They were always present in McFadden’s life. A car load often accompanied Kenny to Saints practice. Robinson asked why and Kenny replied, “to get the rebounds.”
Johnny Godinet was one of those boys when he was nine. He became a Wellington Saint and four decades later will speak at Kenny’s funeral, now a confident gym owner who when younger avoided much worse prospects.
BPI (Basketball Program Incorporated) was founded by Kenny and Robinson in 1989. It was one of the first coaching clinics in New Zealand designed to teach kids the fundamentals of basketball. Hoop Club, also involving Terry Stallworth, followed in 1996.
Hoop Club has taught thousands of kids of all backgrounds and abilities basketball skills which have then led to pathways and opportunities including college teams, representative teams, New Zealand Basketball Academy and large professional contracts.
Nearly every day from 6am to 10pm McFadden could be seen at Newtown Show Buildings and then the ASB Centre watching or teaching basketball. In 2007 Kenny was an assistant coach with the Emerging Tall Blacks and in 2009 guided the Under-19 Tall Blacks at the FIBA World Championships in Auckland.
Graeme Yule is Headmaster of Scots College. In 2008 a precocious 14 year old from Rotorua walked with Kenny into his office seeking a scholarship. The boy had been placed under the care of relative Blossom Cameron, coach of the Scots Premier basketball team.
“I remember he had to duck to get through the door. He sat on a couch he couldn’t fit on and described himself as ‘pretty rank.’”
“Steven Adams didn’t really ‘get’ the whole thing but there was something about him that appealed apart from basketball talent,” Yule reflected.
“He’s actually a very bright guy, kind, with a quick sense of humour. I wanted to help Blossom who was a great part of our community too.
“It took Steven a good six months to settle but he soon built great self-belief and communicated better. He was a talisman at the school during a very successful time for sport at the College.
“We were a middle of the road Premier II team when Steven arrived. It’s fair to say in the last decade we’ve been there or thereabouts in the Pohlen Trophy (CSW Premier Boys Competition). What impressed me most about Steven when he played was that he didn’t seek to dominate games. He wasn’t a show pony but he could have been. He was learning the game.”
Kenny was ever present as a father figure. Adams never missed a morning training in 4½ years. He’d text Kenny the night before asking if he’d pick him up. When Adams made the NBA he established the Steven Adams Scholarship for Scots College. It’s worth over $130,000 if tuition started from Year 7 until the end of Year 13.
Kenny joined the staff of Scots College and coached the Premier team to their first Pohlen Trophy success last year. Tafara Gapare, the first Steven Adams Scholarship recipient, scored 43 points in the final against Mana College. Rufus Rusholme-Cobb and Ezekiel Stallworth from the same team are on scholarship at American universities.
“You rarely left a conversation disappointed with Kenny. He was interested in the person as opposed to the basketballer. He had a very simple moral compass and kept his eye on the prize. He was well-connected and always wanted to help people.”
Aaron Tait-Jones (Ngāti Ruapani, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Arawa) grew up loving the Saints. Kenny McFadden was his idol. He attended Wellington College from 1984 to 1988 and remembered curtain raisers before Saints games against St Patrick’s College, Wellington were “akin to war.”
Work took Tait-Jones to Auckland but his kids Izzy and Aniwaniwa brought him back to the capital. Aaron wanted Kenny to coach the promising prospects and soon struck up a close friendship.
Aaron is the treasurer of the New Zealand Basketball Academy and served in various roles including team manager, assistant coach and executive director. He made nine trips to Las Vegas with Kenny and the New Zealand Basketball Academy. The pair would often be seen walking together along Lyall Bay talking hoops.
Unusually Kenny was absent from basketball practice in 2017. Privately he’d been suffering polycystic kidney disease and was spending three days a week on dialysis. When Kenny’s health problems worsened he required a donor. Aaron’s wife Rachel suggested he get tested for donor compatibility. Kenny and Aaron were a match.
“Kenny freaked out when I offered him my kidney. There was a silence between us and then he registered I was serious,” Aaron recalled.
“I considered it an absolute honour and privilege to help my friend.”
Kidney donation isn’t a straightforward process with a small risk of death if things go wrong. Six weeks of testing is undertaken to reinforce compatibility and the whole process takes about 12 months, fast tracked in Kenny’s case because of a shortage of donors.
In Te Ao Māori organ donation is uncommon because the body is seen as tapu and must remain whole. A moving story about the surgery featured on Sunday in 2018.
“I made hundreds of new friends on Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram and via phone calls after that story. I didn’t want or enjoy all the attention. It was a physically and mentally draining time but for me it was a simple decision. Kenny was a special guy.”
Aniwaniwa Tait Jones will be a pallbearer at Kenny’s funeral. He is on scholarship at Hawaii Hilo University and was named Pacific West Conference Newcomer of the Year in 2021.
The United Kingdom, Slovenia, Croatia, China, Philippines, Malaysia, USA and Australia are just some of the countries that Tall Black Dion Prewster has visited in his basketball career. He first met Kenny when he was at primary school and soon became a regular at the gym.
If Mum had her way Dion would have been competing in athletics. In 2003 he was enrolled at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream where Jonathan Mahoney presided over a McEvedy Shield winning program. That didn’t stop Dion from playing basketball.
“I was living in Johnsonville and Kenny would pick me up and take me to Newtown and then all the way out to Silverstream. He never asked for anything and I started to feel bad,” Prewster recalled.
“When I was 12 he told me if I could dunk I would get a free pair of shoes. I did four dunks and don’t ever remember paying for shoes. Eventually Mum allowed me to go to Wellington College where basketball was much stronger. Jordan Mills, now GM of the Saints, was my classmate.”
In 2021 the Saints won the NBL championship with an 18-2 record. With Kenny on the coaches’ bench Prewster was named league MVP, Most Outstanding Guard and Defensive Player of the Year.
“My success and that of the Saints isn’t a coincidence. All those lessons of the past started to make sense. It’s been an absolute pleasure to have been guided by Kenny. He’s a visionary with a great understanding of people. Add the brilliant basketball brain of Zico Coronel and you had an awesome combination at the Saints.”
On March 24, 2022, Kenny McFadden died aged 61. Aaron Tait-Jones, literally a part of Kenny, was asked what he’d miss most about Kenny. He responded, “love.”
Kenny’s funeral is at Newtown Park at 1:00 pm this afternoon.