Slam-dunking cancer: How basketball great Glen Denham found his true calling in education

Basketball titan, educator extraordinaire, cancer survivor … there are many threads to the Glen Denham story, but one constant. This is a fellow driven by a burning passion and fierce desire to succeed, with a bent for leadership and inspiration that might be a gift from the heavens.

Denham was, in his day, a heck of a basketballer. One of the very best this nation has produced, truth be told. He had a fabulous motor, ferocious passion and drive to succeed, and an off-the-charts IQ inevitably placed him a step ahead of his opponents at every turn. He was also an extraordinary leader of men.

He spent most of the 1980s and ‘90s traversing the upper echelons of the New Zealand game, named recently at No 10 among the finest 40 players in 40 years of the Kiwi National Basketball League. He made his first appearance for Otago at the senior level when he was a 15-year-old schoolboy savant at King’s High in Dunedin, and went on to play 169 games over 16 years for the Tall Blacks (1984-99), 11 of them as a captain who wrung the very best out of his scrappy underdogs.

He was big (2.01m, or 6’7 in the old money), but not spectacularly so by the standards of his sport. In fact, for someone who wasn’t particularly swift, nor athletic, nor what you would call a natural shooter, he was remarkably effective. His great friend and long-time national colleague Byron Vaetoe described him as “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, which was intended as a mighty compliment.

Photosport

Glen Denham had an outstanding NBL career, but always saved his best for the Tall Blacks singlet.

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You will get no argument from Denham, who is refreshingly self-deprecating for someone so flaming good at the sport that dominated his life for so long. “The day after I retired at 36, I patted myself on the back and thought, ‘GD, man, you played 20 years, and they never found out that you couldn’t play,” he tells Stuff.

“People always said to me, ‘hell, you got 35 points and 15 rebounds, how did you do that?’ Honestly, I don’t know.”

More on his basketball later, for it’s a big part of his tale. But Denham is 57 now, and has had another two decades fully focused on the second vocation that took priority when he hung up the high-tops. And he’s come to an important realisation about the business of educating young people to be the absolute best versions of themselves.

“I am blessed to find two passions, but my greatest passion is teaching and running schools,” says Denham, now into his seventh year as principal at Massey High School in west Auckland. “I could tell you some stories that would curl your hair at these …. some would call them low-decile schools.

“I took over a school that was rated the third worst in the UK, and in four years we went to an ‘outstanding’ rating. In Croyden, my last job (before returning to New Zealand) was running three secondary schools and five primary schools. It was awesome. It’s about leading with a certain heart to serve these kids at Massey, and in London, and I was involved in schools in Enfield, in Peckham, some really tough areas. I’m telling you now, I’m blessed to have the best job in the entire world.”

If you can’t tell already, Denham is a stream of consciousness guy. Always has been. Always will be. Just to add some context: this writer went through secondary school with him in Dunedin, and played a lot of sport beside this remarkable competitor. He was the premier basketballer of his age-group in the country, but also played volleyball, cricket, football, tennis … heck, anything he could find time for, to a very high level.

Even then it was clear he had special qualities, not just as a competitor, but a leader. He had a remarkable gift for bringing the best out in whatever group he was part of, and challenged his peers to better themselves. But he always – always – lived the standards he demanded of others.

Photosport

Glen Denham played 16 years for the Tall Blacks: ‘When I put the jersey on I felt I was Superman.’

“All I want when I retire from teaching – and I would swap all my days playing basketball for one more day teaching – is that when someone gives a farewell speech for me, people would clap, and then they would go, ‘oh, I think he played sport as well’. Then I would know I’ve done good things,” he says.

“My best days are not behind me … even though having cancer, battling with cancer, has been hard. I know cancer will kill me. I’ve got no doubt about that. But it’s not today, and it’s not tomorrow, and in my heart I believe my best days are still ahead of me.”

They might well be given what Denham is achieving in the education sphere. His true passion, remember. He spent 15 years in the UK schools system and is now into his seventh back in New Zealand. He has been a principal for 17 of those years and a champion of the under-privileged almost all that time.

“The greatest thing in my life so far is being involved with kids. I don’t talk to them about basketball. I’m there to serve them … Like me growing up in a single-parent household, it’s tough. I know where they come from. The saying I always refer to is we refuse to cuddle our kids into poverty. We must go above and beyond … if not us, then who? If not now, then when?

TORIKA TOKALAU/STUFF

Glen Denham was a Kiwi basketball great, but he believes education is his true calling in life.

“It’s why our kids at Massey all wear full uniforms. It made the news. I put them all in blazers and ties, from year 9 to 13, and for a week it was like I’d stolen someone’s kidney. The whole first week there was a media frenzy, but I want our kids to stand shoulder to shoulder with the kids at private schools and say my qualifications are just as good, I look just as great but I’m a bit tougher than you.

“We need a seat at the table. Our kids don’t seek equity of outcome, it’s equity of opportunity. We just want the same shoes as Usain Bolt, the same training. We just want to line up and run. It’s about discipline and pride … the stuff we had at school. That’s what we did at King’s. That school had gone through tough times, but our basketball and volleyball teams gave heart to the staff. We became great, and it was an important first step.”

Denham isn’t just a talker. He’s a doer. Ask the pupils and staff at Massey who are proud of what their school has become under his watch. When he took over at the Oasis Academy Shirley Park in Croydon, London, it was a sprawling organisation, covering primary to secondary, struggling to make headway with its large strata of kids from working-class and immigrant families.

“When Ofsted (the UK’s education standards authority) came in after four years and rated us outstanding, I remember all the staff leaving, and I was standing outside with a guy who had taught there for 40 years. He said ‘I can’t believe it. In a community that literally has nothing, for us to put outstanding outside our gates, to say to people we are worth something…’

TORIKA TOKALAU/STUFF/Western Leader

Massey High School students Alysa Bult (left) and Senri Kamiya, in the school uniforms introduced by Glen Denham.

“When I’ve taken over schools there was no Plan B. Plan A is university for our kids; Plan B is unemployment. It’s like when I was playing … there’s only one outcome. For my kids it’s we will be great, and we will get a seat at the table.”

Cancer brought Denham home to New Zealand, to be closer to whanau … to home. He calls it his “blessing”. It’s a remarkable spin on something he is adamant will kill him one day.

He had felt fine, but his wife Anne persuaded him to get a health check because his father had died from the disease at a similar age. Doctors told him he had a shadow on his kidney which was a massive tumor. But they were hopeful they had caught it in the nick of time.

He recalls being stunned by the news. After, on the train back to Croydon, he got off at Battersea Park, sat on a bench and “bawled my eyes out”. This lady came up behind me, a black lady, she put her hand on my shoulder and said ‘are you OK?’ I said ‘no, I’ve just found out I’ve got cancer’ … then I looked up, and she was gone.

“My mum said it was an angel…. I know it wasn’t but every time I go back to London I go sit in the same seat at Battersea Park just to say to her, ‘I’m going to be OK’.”

Cancer was a tough battle for Denham. It spread into his lungs. He had chemotherapy, radiation, steroid treatment … you name it. It knocked him around more than his toughest basketball opponent ever did.

“Cancer was a great leveller,” he says. “The sky is a bit bluer, the grass a bit greener … it sounds weird, but I count it as a blessing. You filter out all the stuff that’s not important, and you focus on what is … I’ve got to make every day count because I’m grateful to have every one of them.”

Glen Denham, top row second from right, won back to back NBL titles with the Canterbury Rams in 1989 and ‘90.

For the record, he’s feeling fine now, the cancer is in remission, and he’s boxing on. He doesn’t want anybody’s pity either. He’s been to support groups, and he’s seen what he calls “the real heroes”.

“I just refused to let it beat me. I didn’t want cancer to take what I love to do. I’m not going to wear it like a cloak. I feel very stoic about it. If someone said you’ve got terminal cancer, I’m OK about that. I’ve built a great life, I’ve got a great family (three adult children), great friends. I feel very calm. But, just like when I played basketball, I’m going to squeeze every bit out.”

Speaking of basketball, Denham was rapt to be included among the NBL’s 40 best in 40 years. He feels proud of his body of work in the league (where he played for Otago, Canterbury and Waikato over a decorated career that included two championships and a bevy of individual honours) and also of the part he played in a pretty special era.

“I just hit it right. It was on television, it was really popular, we had some great imports, people like Kenny McFadden and Clyde Huntley who were special players … there was a lot of media, speaking gigs, I had a shoe contract with Nike. It was a real highlight winning back-to-back championships with the Rams. We had a great coach in Keith [Mair] but our trainings were vicious and when we played on Saturdays it was just so easy.

“But I was desperate to go home (to Otago). It just meant so much to me seeing my mum in the stands, and my old school teacher. I will always be from Dunedin, and going home and seeing the stands packed was special.”

Denham was a stone-cold killer in the NBL (he once scored 50 points for the Nuggets), but always saved his best for the national team. “I only cried twice when I was in the Tall Blacks,” he reflects. “When I got my first jersey I remember going back to my room and bawling my eyes out because I thought of my mum, I thought of Craig Dunlop and Brian Drake (his manager and coach at King’s) … and when I took it off for the final time. I can’t begin to tell you what it meant to me to play for my country.

“I was quintessentially Clark Kent. When I put the jersey on I felt I was Superman, I was bulletproof and could do absolutely anything.”

That wolf in sheep’s clothing had some career. He thinks back on his early days in the Tall Blacks, on their first tour to the US in 1984, going to the 1986 world championships and then in the latter stages making the final of a big international tournament in Rotterdam, part-timers rolling seasoned pros. He was never prouder than when he had the silver fern on his chest.

He puts his achievements down to a rounded sporting career as a youngster. He used to open the batting and bowling at King’s with a prodigious young talent called Ken Rutherford and was picked for the New Zealand senior men’s volleyball team while still at school (though went on a national under-20s basketball trip instead, because that was fully funded, “and we didn’t have a spare $300”).

“I hated leaving the gym thinking anyone was better than me, or our team. When we lost I wanted to train again right away,” he recalls. “Basketball taught me three important things: always assemble people around you better than yourself; always share the vision; and don’t be afraid to call a timeout, and re-evaluate.

“I’ve always led. My greatest strength has always been people, not the bloody running round playing basketball. It was just trying to get 5 per cent more out of everybody else, and then we became unbeatable.”

That cancer had no idea the opponent it picked when it landed in Glen Denham.

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