The woman who helped the Nuggets strike gold
Whether in the boardroom, or behind the lens, Angela Ruske has played a crucial part in the Otago Nuggets' golden NBL basketball season.
As the Otago Nuggets were on their way to grasping their first men's NBL title, Angela Ruske was trying to stay calm courtside by focusing through her camera lens.
While she's the boss of the Nuggets basketball team, Ruske is also a keen photographer. She was on the sidelines at Auckland’s Trusts Stadium on Saturday night, snapping away as her team won a down-to-the-wire final from the Manawatu Jets, 79-77.
It was fairytale ending for the Nuggets, who hadn’t played in the men's national league for six years. And Ruske played her own part in that story.
She may have a PhD in psychology, and run an alpaca farm in Dunedin, but it’s basketball that has become Ruske's true passion and occupied most of her career.
Having first picked up a ball in high school, and still playing the game, she now wears the hat of acting general manager of the Otago Nuggets and is an integral part of the team who have invigorated the sport in the south.
She played representative basketball as a teenager, married an Otago Nuggets player, and has three children who haven’t fallen far from the tree. Daughters Aleisha and Nicole both play for the Otago Gold Rush in the women’s NBL - with Nicole progressing to Tall Ferns honours - while son, Michael, has been involved in national age group squads.
“Who would’ve thought that I’d start playing in third form, and still be so invested all these years later?” says Ruske. “That’s the beauty of sport - it’s created a lifetime of opportunities for me and now for my kids.”
There haven’t been many upsides of Covid-19’s impact on the sporting world, but you won’t hear that from the avid basketball fans in Otago. “We couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity,” says Ruske.
Basketball Otago has a chequered financial history, with the Nuggets absent from national league competition since 2014, while the organisation re-established itself financially.
Ruske has been part of a group revitalising the sport across the region, including getting a franchise back into this year’s condensed men’s NBL.
Her long involvement as both a player and administrator made her an ideal candidate for the Basketball Otago board, where she’s had a seat at the boardroom table for over a decade.
The growth of the sport has always motivated her, and it inspired her to take action when times were tough five years ago. A ‘Keep Basketball in Otago’ campaign was formed to fund-raise and set up a financially secure local association.
“Our priority was looking after the grassroots and development programme for our kids,” says Ruske. “We’ve got to a level where that’s sustainable on its own, and we could look to bring the franchise back as a separate entity.”
Initial plans were for the Nuggets to return in 2021, with the focus this year being on securing sponsorship and funding. Enter the global pandemic, uprooting sports around the world.
When the NBL emerged with a compacted 2020 league, limited travel and reduced costs of entry, it was too good an opportunity to turn down - the Nuggets were back.
“We knew we could be part of this league and the opportunities it would provide for us next year,” Ruske says. “Not only in development of players and coaches, but awareness within our community and a platform for our sponsors to see the potential for a full season in 2021.”
It paid off. The Nuggets headed into last week’s finals as favourites, after finishing the regular season top of the table.
“Everyone was happy just to see a team in the league, but to see them perform well and be competitive has been very exciting,” Ruske says. “It speaks to Brent [Matehaere, Nuggets coach] and the players, but also the hard work put in by a lot of people in Otago.”
With the men’s league over, Ruske’s attention now turns to the women’s NBL. General manager Justin Nelson confirmed on Saturday a competition schedule will be announced soon - relieving those who had doubts for the women's contest this year.
The Otago Gold Rush have been practising behind the scenes, keeping their skills and fitness up in preparation for whenever the switch may be flicked.
“They’re hoping to schedule at least some South Island matches against the likes of Canterbury and Southland, but they would welcome the opportunity for whatever a league season may look like this year,” says Ruske.
“Numbers are only growing for girls at secondary school level, and there’s so many talented athletes around New Zealand. Having this women’s league running, with the visibility Sky brings, hopefully increases the chance of them selecting basketball as a sporting choice.”
Ruske often gets a first-hand look at the up-and-coming talent in the women’s game. She plays in the local B grade competition, which serves as a pathway for younger girls to develop alongside more experienced players.
“We’re a mix of 50 to 55-year-old women who still love the game, and some younger ones; our youngest being around 16,” she says. “We bring them through and give them the experience they wouldn’t otherwise get playing in their school competition, before they move up to A Grade and the Gold Rush.
“And it’s good for us, having the younger ones who can run up and down the court.”
Ruske’s long-standing team enters local masters competitions each year, luring ex-Tall Fern Tracey Kelly (nee Garland) back from Dubai to join in.
While the game is now sustainable at a local level, Ruske is one of many voices calling for more government funding for basketball in general.
“It impacts everything you’re trying to do, from grassroots through to the elite level. You’re handicapped by the number of people you can employ, the opportunities you can present,” she says. “You need to provide an elite product to keep people interested, and you can’t do that on a shoestring budget.
“Past funding shortages have put the brakes on resources that support the growth of the game. Thankfully we have a large number of passionate volunteers to provide adequate coaching, but we’re at capacity for court space in all of our competitions. There’s so much more that could be achieved, and additional funding would alleviate that.”
With many balls already in the air, Ruske has stepped up to coach a Year 10 team in the absence of Matehaere, feeling more comfortable coaching at the junior level. But she also takes moments to enjoy the slow serenity of a sunrise from the alpaca farm-stay she runs with husband, Dean. “I’ve taken up hobby photography, and a few sunrises are all I have time for these days,” she laughs.
Otago basketball fans will be hopeful she’s also seeing in the dawn of a new era for the game down south.