Melbourne’s Growing NBA Love Affair

In a city where Aussie Rules football has always reigned supreme, a proud American sporting culture has somehow managed to entrench itself and is showing no sign of disappearing any time soon.

Written by JAKE MICHAELS 19th August, 2019.



The champagne hadn’t even been popped in Oakland, nor had the podium been constructed on the Oracle Arena floor when I began weaving my way through a swarm of rowdy Raptors fans. Grown men began embracing, and spilt beer seeped through my shirt, onto my skin, as celebrations of Toronto’s maiden NBA title officially got underway.

The sports bar where I had elected to watch Game 6 — ultimately the decider of the 2019 NBA Finals — wasn’t in Toronto. It wasn’t in Oakland, either. Heck, I was 13,000 kilometres away from San Francisco’s Bay Area, smack bang in the middle of Melbourne, Australia, a culturally diverse city that has become famous for colourful street art, trams, coffee and, in recent times, overpriced smashed avocado on toast.

It was after making a beeline for the exit and being spat out onto bustling Elizabeth Street during the lunchtime rush hour when I saw something that immediately stopped me in my tracks.

Parked on the side of Melbourne’s busiest inner-city road was a 2011 Maranello red Holden Captiva, fitted with custom purple and grey Sacramento Kings seat covers. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks and my morning of basketball viewing had tainted my vision. Surely it must have been the popular and similar-sounding Adventure Kings brand, right? Nope. A closer inspection confirmed it was indeed the NBA franchise from the west coast of the United States.

It has been 68 years since the Kings, or Rochester Royals as they were once upon a time known, won their first and only NBA championship. They’ve never had a notable Australian on their roster and wouldn’t even feature on the podium of the most supported and global California-based NBA franchises. Yet here, in Melbourne, were these car seat covers. Somehow this NBA minnow had reached the other side of the world.

That’s when it hit me: Melbourne has truly become a basketball city, and the fresh sporting-cum-fashion culture that goes hand-in-hand is sweeping through at a rapid rate.

Melbourne Streetball Culture & Street Art

IN THE SPRING of 2012, an out-of-contract Chris Goulding inked a deal that would see him join the Melbourne Tigers.

The Tasmanian, who at the time was just 23 and beginning to forge a career in the NBL, had already played in Brisbane, Perth and on the Gold Coast, but Melbourne was noticeably different. Melbourne was, and remains, a city that has a unique love for everything basketball and one that embraces the culture of the sport.

These days, you can’t ride the train, take a stroll through the city or even do your weekly grocery shopping run without spotting someone wearing an NBA jersey or cap.

“I don’t know if I was taking much notice when I first arrived, but over the last five or so years, basketball’s popularity in Melbourne has surged dramatically,” Goulding says. “Whether it’s wearing your favourite player on the back of a jersey or walking down the street dribbling a basketball, every time you go out, you see it. It’s definitely more prevalent than in other Australian cities.”

Chris Goulding has spent seven years playing basketball in Melbourne and believes the city’s basketball culture is completely different than any other place’s.

Now a two-time NBL champion and one of the league’s most decorated players, Goulding knows Melbourne and basketball as well as anyone. He claims the city is “the heartland of basketball in Australia,” and with diversity and culture being staples of Melbourne life, it’s little wonder we see so much basketball merchandise out on the streets.

After all, Melbourne is a city that encourages self-expression, however that may be, and the rapidly growing trend in recent times has been through NBA jerseys, sneakers, shoes and caps.

“Culturally, basketball has been associated with street and fashion for years,” Goulding says as he proudly grabs a handful of his Melbourne United polyester jersey. “You see the way it’s integrated in pop culture, and you see all kinds of artists wearing basketball gear. It has become a fashion item, a fashion statement. It’s easy to throw on a plain white shirt and whack your favourite player’s jersey over the top.

“I still remember the first jersey I ever had. It was the Shaquille O’Neal Orlando Magic jersey which my dad bought for me. From there I followed him to the Lakers and became a big fan of a guy by the name of Kobe Bryant. Ever heard of him? By the time I was in my early 20s, I had so many singlets.”

The fashionable element is what separates NBA gear from almost any other sporting merchandise, particularly Australian sporting merchandise.

In Melbourne, there are nine Aussie Rules teams that combine for a staggering 550,000 paid members. Just think about that for a second. Almost one in nine Melburnians are season-ticket holders for their favourite football team.

But despite the mass following and enormous popularity, wearing AFL merchandise, whether it be beanies, scarves or jerseys, is almost viewed as uncool. Outside of game day, and maybe away from the pubs, AFL merchandise is almost never seen around the city. It’s the complete opposite with NBA gear.

Hosier Lane, the graffiti-covered alleyway that sits in the southeast corner of Melbourne’s grid CBD, epitomizes the city and everything it stands for.

Art. Culture. Coffee. Fashion. Colour.

It’s no coincidence that a 14-foot Kobe Bryant mural — and not one of a legendary AFL player — has been plastered on the brick walls for thousands of tourists to snap photographs in front of. It’s what people want to see nowadays.

“The popularity of basketball in Melbourne is really, really high, and it’s just going to continue thriving and growing as popular leagues around the world become more accessible,” Goulding says. “There’s something about this city where all the elements just work together. It’s really exciting.”

THE FIRST THING that hits you is the noise. The deep, thundering bass from mid-2000s hip-hop blaring through dozens of Bose speakers.

Then it’s the darkness. A dramatic, moody darkness, almost like a top-secret basement nightclub. Once your eyes have adjusted to the gloom, you spot the glorious, silver centerpiece perched high upon the wall. A basketball ring. Chain net and all. Welcome to Culture Kings, one of Australia’s leading fashion destinations.

Standing inside Melbourne’s Russell Street store, my eyes were immediately drawn to packs of headphone-wearing teenagers roaming about, admiring everything from shiny, gold bling behind glass to sneakers surely out of their budgets to a two-story wall housing what must have been more than 1,000 unique NBA caps.

This is a store that could not be closer aligned to the NBA if it tried. Fashion? Tick. Culture? Tick. Individualism? Tick. Music? Tick. Entertainment? Double tick.

I had arranged to meet with store manager Chase Joslin to learn just how popular the NBA and its fashion had become in Melbourne, but my primary concern was whether I’d be able to hear him over the background noise of Drake.

“I can’t turn it down too much. It’ll kill the vibe,” he says before spinning around and heading toward the elevated DJ booth. “Let me see what I can do.”

Chase has been a staple of the Culture Kings family for seven years, beginning his journey in Perth before making his way to Melbourne via the Gold Coast. Think of any NBA jersey and player combination … he’s seen it … and he’s sold it.

“I have the perfect person for you to speak to,” he says while gesturing toward his younger colleague, who I later learn to be Allen Magtanong.

Melbourne’s passion for basketball expressed through streetball, art and fashion.

Magtanong, a Melbourne-born NBA fanatic, has been working at the store for only 12 months but has already developed a keen eye for some fascinating fashion trends.

“We obviously sell a lot of Stephen Curry, LeBron James and Giannis [Antetokounmpo] jerseys, but we stock every team and sell it all,” he says. “People don’t just want one team, either. They can pair all sorts of things together. That’s what separates the NBA from any other sporting league. [The gear] is so popular because you can pretty much rock a jersey or cap casually at any time.

“Melbourne’s unique too because there’s so many different cultures here, and we get a lot of influencers from overseas, particularly through American sports. Everyone just loves this stuff.”

Prahran Summer Jam
Prahran Summer Jam co-founders Daniel Ella and Eamon Larman-Ripon say the sport of basketball and its culture had to be celebrated in Melbourne. DAN HALL

FIVE MILES AWAY from Culture Kings lies Prahran, an edgy, inner-city suburb of Melbourne known for its stylish bars, bustling cafes and colourful street art.

Nestled amongst the popular late night eateries and just a stone’s throw from the No. 72 tram that races up and down Malvern Road is the suburb’s crown jewel: Prahran Park.

“This is home,” Eamon Larman-Ripon, co-founder of Summer Jam — an annual one-day celebration of Melbourne’s basketball culture — says. “When I first came down here, I felt it was the Rucker Park of Melbourne.”

With a skating halfpipe on one side and a pickup basketball court on the other, Prahran Park is a hub for Melbourne’s youth who head down regularly to express themselves, whether it’s with the board or with the ball.

Each year, in February, the Summer Jam takes centre stage, and thousands of people descend on Prahran for a day dedicated to Melbourne’s basketball culture.

It’s music.

It’s fashion.

It’s food.

It’s community.



Prahran Summer Jam Basketball Tournament - MSF Sports