New Zealand Pioneer - Sean Marks
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty
There is a creature indigenous to New Zealand with two-inch wings and a long, slender bill that does not fly. It's called a Kiwi. A flightless bird.
There is a dream among New Zealand athletes with promising skills that until, 14 years ago, never took flight. It's called the NBA. A high, flying sport.
Sean Marks did not expect to be the one to breakthrough. At an age when American boys are honing their handles and developing their shot, Marks was occupied with swimming, soccer, volleyball and track. "I started playing basketball," he says, "at a relatively late age -- 13 or 14."
He stood 5-foot-11. Two years later, he grew 6 ½ inches, and it was about then he fell in love with a television show, which gave a glimpse of his future.
Marks doesn't remember the name of the program. But he remembers the stars wore jerseys and shorts and soared through the air with a ball they slammed through a hoop.
"It was a 30-minute segment of highlights from around the NBA," says Marks, the Spurs' director of player of basketball operations. "I just loved the showmanship. The athletic ability really stood out from the pro leagues in New Zealand and the basketball I was accustomed to.
"I was glued to that every Sunday morning. This was back in the Chicago Bulls' heyday. I used to love watching Scottie Pippen. I also liked Shawn Kemp. The showmanship of the American game was extraordinary to me. And it became apparent, that to even try to realize the dream of reaching the NBA, I had to get to college first."
Seated in the Spurs practice facility after a recent practice, Marks is recalling the improbable journey that carried him from North Shore, New Zealand to an 11-year career in the NBA. He never played more than 60 games in a season -- and only started 11 from 1998-2011 -- but he became a pioneer.
The first New Zealander to play in the NBA also became the first to win a championship. Marks won a ring with the Spurs in 2005, averaging 3.3 points and 2.4 rebounds in 23 games.
"When you are a little kid growing up, that's always a dream," he says. "But to actually realize that dream and be on a championship team with players like Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili was pretty special. That goes down in the memory banks."
The drama of the seven-game NBA Finals against Detroit remains fresh -- even though Marks was not on the Spurs playoff roster. San Antonio won the first two games, Detroit the next two, then Robert Horry sank a clutch 3 in overtime to win Game 5 for the Spurs. The Pistons took Game 6 but Duncan scored 17 second half points to lead the Spurs' Game 7 triumph.
"There were so many highs and lows," Marks recalls. "We thought, 'We've got this in the bag. We're up two games.' Then all of a sudden we lose a game. The swings of that series were incredible. The big shots are big memories. It was never quite over until it was over."
It was hard to imagine an NBA championship in New Zealand. After Marks grew to 6-10 and became a young star, he considered himself lucky to get a scholarship from the University of California at Berkeley. How did that happen?
Some U.S. teams were touring New Zealand. Coaches spotted Marks, word got around and Berkeley flew him to California for a recruiting visit. "It was a great academic school," he says. "And that was extremely important to me, knowing that basketball wasn't the end all. I wasn't going to play forever. I needed a great education and I got my political science degree there."
The Knicks selected Marks with the 44th pick of the 1998 NBA Draft, then traded him to Toronto.
The longer he played in the league, the more he became interested in the management side. "How do you put together a team," he wondered. "How do you surround the best players with great complimentary players?"
He asked those questions in San Antonio, and he revealed his ambition. "I let them know that when the times comes, if there's room for me, I'd love to come back," Mark says. "Thankfully, they welcomed me back."
Marks retired in 2011 and arrived in San Antonio as a basketball operations assistant. The following spring, a New Zealand web site featured him in a story headlined, "Sean Marks lives dream with San Antonio Spurs."
His tenure as a Spurs player and his strong relationship with coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford made Marks a good fit in San Antonio. When assistant GMs Dennis Lindsey and Danny Ferry left, Marks was a natural to move up and become director of basketball operations. He'll also serve as general manager of the Austin Toros, the reigning D-League champions.
"Part of my job is to be a liaison between our medical staff and doctors, our coaching staff and front office," Marks says. "I will do a little bit of college scouting and learning from Brian Pauga and Scott Layden on that front. What helps me is my relationships around the league with players and staff."
There is in Mark's homeland a word commonly used to describe natives. It is the same word for birds that don't fly. Kiwi. Five years after Marks landed in the NBA, another Kiwi arrived. Guard Kirk Penney played briefly with the Heat and Clippers and in one preseason game with the Spurs. Marks says Penney won't be the last.
A 7-foot-0 freshman at Pittsburgh, Steven Adams, might be the next Kiwi to make the jump to the NBA. If Adams reaches the NBA, he will follow a path marked by the first Kiwi to soar to his basketball dream.