Sean Marks' provenance makes him both a pioneer and a puzzle. The New Orleans Hornets big man is the first native of New Zealand to play in the National Basketball Association. And while he's something of a national treasure back home, he often has to play international tour guide with his American teammates and coaches, correcting their misconceptions of his homeland.
"People say, 'Hey, your English is pretty good,'" Marks says, chuckling. "The most common one is they mistake (New Zealand) for Australia. Everyone says 'Put another shrimp on the barbie' and that sort of stuff."
Coworkers may confuse his homeland with its neighbor to the west, but the 33-year-old Marks has been able to distinguish himself from many NBA reserves in one major respect — career longevity. Though his role has often been an understudy to a backup, Marks has played nine seasons for five different NBA teams. And by Marks' modest standards, his first season in New Orleans has been a breakthrough. He's played in more games, scored more points and racked up more rebounds than in any previous season.
"I think it's a work in progress," says the 6-foot-10 Marks. "I've been blessed to play this long and I want to be able to keep playing. I'm enjoying the game and that's the key. If you love the thing you do for a living, then it's not really a job."
While American sports fans are currently gripped by the bracket-obsessed fervor of March Madness, basketball occupies a decidedly different niche in New Zealand. To say it's a minor sport in Marks' home country would be an understatement. First and foremost, New Zealand is a rugby nation, exemplified by the rabid devotion to its beloved national team, the All Blacks. Besides rugby, basketball also competes for the attention of Kiwis with cricket, sailing, soccer, auto racing and something called netball (a derivative of basketball played predominantly by women).
So how in the world did a young man from Auckland end up playing nearly a decade in the world's most prestigious professional basketball league? The seed was planted by television.
"I fell in love with watching the NBA highlights on TV and the showmanship and the athleticism that those guys portrayed on the court," Marks says. "I fell in love. I kept playing it."
He began concentrating on the game when he was 15 years old and played on club teams throughout high school. Marks made such rapid progress that he was recruited by several major American universities from the Pac-10 Conference.
He accepted a scholarship to the University of California at Berkeley, where he played for four years and served as a team captain. In 1998, the New York Knicks selected Marks in the second round of the NBA draft and traded him to the Toronto Raptors.
In 1999, as a member of the Raptors, Marks became the first New Zealander to play in an NBA game. Since that time, only one of his countrymen has joined him in this rarified Kiwi club (former University of Wisconsin star Kirk Penney played briefly for the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers).
Marks, who became an American citizen in 2007, takes his trailblazer status in stride. "I don't really dwell on it a whole lot. But no one's going to take that one away from me," Marks says with a laugh. "I hope maybe it's inspired some younger kids back in New Zealand to maybe follow in my footsteps. They might say 'If Sean can do it, why can't I do it?' Hopefully it gets them playing basketball at a much younger age than I got started."
Marks would never admit it, but his status as an NBA player makes him one of the more recognizable New Zealand natives in the United States. Lucy Lawless (aka Xena: Warrior Princess), director Peter Jackson, professional golfer Michael Campbell (winner of the 2005 U.S. Open) and Steve Williams (Tiger Woods' caddy) are on the short list. So are the lead characters from the HBO television series Flight of the Conchords. The comedy about a pair of oddball Kiwi folk musicians living in New York City has developed a cult following.
"I love those guys," Marks says. "They're phenomenal. They've almost put New Zealand back on the map the last couple of years. I get a kick out of that."
And what about Marks himself?
"I'm way, way, way down on the bottom. There's probably another 50 or 100 guys in front of me. I'm definitely proud to be from New Zealand. It's a beautiful country. I'm proud to call it home."
The nation's breathtaking scenery is on display in Hollywood blockbusters such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. But New Zealand remains largely unknown to Marks' teammates, and that, he says, can lead to some humorous exchanges: "Whether guys see things on the Discovery Channel or Flight of the Conchords, who knows? They come with a 'g'day mate' and a 'how's the sheilas,' and all that kind of stuff. They get it a little bit wrong, but it's OK."
An NBA locker room can be a merciless environment, so it's probably to Marks' benefit that his teammates are unaware of New Zealand's staggering sheep population — approximately 10 sheep for every one person.
"Don't tell (Hornets forward) David West that," Marks pleads. "Out of all of them, he probably ribs me the most."
One topic Marks' teammates have inquired about is the haka, a traditional war dance performed by the Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand). Marks, who formerly played for the New Zealand Olympic basketball team — known as the Tall Blacks — participated in the haka as a pre-game ritual. With its bellowing chants and warrior-like pantomime, the haka is a mesmerizing spectacle. Since joining the NBA, though, Marks says he's unveiled the haka only on rare occasions.
"Basically what it is is a challenge," Marks says. "In New Zealand various Maori tribes would do that before they'd go into battle together. So if one team or one tribe looked more fierce than the other, they wouldn't have to fight. They'd just call it a day there."
Marks has remained employable though he lacks the kind of spectacular athletic ability or long-distance shooting prowess prized in the NBA. Realizing that no NBA team can have 12 star players, he has helped plug the gaps that exist on every roster.
"I think the main thing is I understood my role," Marks says. "My role for many years was a backup guy — a practice player. You have to make sure you're the first one in the gym and the last one to leave and you work hard and you help your other teammates."
And the chances that the NBA player will be calling it a day anytime soon?
While he doesn't command the celebrity and adulation of a lot of his peers, Marks says he's still passionate about the game. "I enjoy the camaraderie and I still love the competition," he says. "Getting out there and banging and running up and down. I still enjoy that. As long as I'm doing that, they're going to have to kick me out."
Marks, who is married with two young sons, says he tries to visit New Zealand every summer. When he does walk away from basketball, he's not sure where he'll put down roots. But a permanent reminder of his homeland is never far away.
"I have a tattoo of New Zealand on my back," he says. "It has the 'NZ' for New Zealand, and it has the Maori tribal design around it."
Adam Norris is a sports anchor for WGNO-TV—ABC 26.