Larry Kestelman: The man who saved Australian basketball

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The man who saved Australian basketball (1:45)

NBL owner Larry Kestelman on resurrecting Australian basketball, the Next Stars program and building the NBL brand (1:45)

After a few moments of gazing out through the floor-to-ceiling windows of his plush 16th floor Melbourne office and admiring the palm tree-lined Albert Park Lake, he turns, uncrosses his arms and answers.

"Trust," he declares. "For a sport to be successful you need to look at it through a commercial lens and deliver your partners, fans and consumers what they need. Trust was lost with the sport because it hadn't delivered what people wanted in a long, long time."

When Larry Kestelman speaks, you're generally well advised to listen. And when he's explaining the greatest challenge he's faced since taking over as owner of the National Basketball League, and how the competition is set to sensationally transform itself over the next three years, you most definitely pay attention.

The internet mogul turned property development tycoon, didn't earn a place in the top 100 of the Australian Financial Review's Rich List without having a savvy business mind and one which is constantly thinking two steps ahead of the curve.

Kestelman was born in the Ukraine in 1966 and migrated with his family to Australia at age 12. He has spent the past two decades building an AU$749 million empire, a bursting portfolio which, as of 2015, included the majority stake in the NBL, the nation's domestic basketball competition.

The league, which was established in 1979, enjoyed a number of golden years through the 1990s, but in recent times it's struggled to generate interest in what's become an increasingly crowded sporting landscape. Attendance began to dwindle, sponsorship dried up and, to make matters worse, the television rights deal was set to expire.

So why on earth would anyone want to invest in what was widely considered a dying league?

"It's the passion for the sport and the families associated with it," Kestelman proudly tells ESPN. "We saw it going backwards over the previous 10 years and we thought we could make it great again.

"We started off with the Melbourne Tigers and managed to succeed in bringing them back to playing in front of sellout crowds, so we felt we had our training wheels off when we took over the NBL.

"It was a hell of a lot harder than I ever thought, but we were always confident that we had something to contribute to the NBL ecosystem, and that is building a sustainable sport and making sure it never gets itself into trouble again."

The initial AU$7 million investment Kestelman made is beginning to pay enormous dividends for the 52-year-old. Since taking over four years ago, the NBL has grown from strength to strength. Crowd numbers have increased by 25 percent, television viewership has risen 40 percent and the league's social media interaction and engagement, perhaps the most important modern day metric, is up a staggering 400 percent.

Not only has Kestelman helped make the NBL relevant once again, but he's managed to rebuild it to a level far beyond what was even achieved in its heyday of the 1990s.

Things are only going to improve as well with the recently introduced Next Stars initiative -- which offers young talent an unorthodox, yet fast tracked pathway into the National Basketball Association (NBA). Now it it's second year, the pathway allows talented players fresh from high school, the opportunity to skip the traditional college program and sign with an NBL franchise, develop their craft in Australia and New Zealand, before nominating for the NBA draft.

The Next Stars program is how expected first round draftees and high-profile Americans RJ Hampton and LaMelo Ball found their way into the league for the 2019-20 season.

"In any business you need to understand where you bring value," Kestelman explains. "In our case, we realise that any professional basketball player wants to play in the NBA and we know we are a great pathway for players [to get there]. We are a tough league, a professional league and one which will accelerate their learning and development.

"Being professional, no matter what you do, is not just about your craft. We're going to teach them to cook eggs, how to look after each other, how to deal with the media and travel as professional athletes. I'm confident they will come out a better player and person."

So, where does it end? Could a future number one draft pick for the NBA one day come from the NBL?

"That's definitely our goal," Kestelman says as a wide grin fills his face. "We've already proven that players who come through our pathways succeed and we're going to continue to ensure that happens."

Whether or not the NBL can hit that height remains to be seen, but it's clear the league, and the sports, is prospering under Kestelman who also was the driving force behind Team USA coming to these shores.

In 2017, ESPN ranked the NBL 10th of the top 12 basketball leagues outside the NBA and according to Kestelman, things are quite a bit different now.

"I think that was fair," Kestelman admits. "But I feel we've progressed a long way since then. If you have a look where the league is now, we're at an all-time high. We've broken every record in every state. It's flying and we're very happy with where it's at.

"Our feeling is, as a product of basketball entertainment, we're only second to the NBA. It's not just me saying it. Everyone around the world acknowledges that as a domestic league we're right up there now."