LeBron’s Aussie Sidekick Uses Grit to Offset Tall Poppy Syndrome

Updated on
Matthew Dellavedova
The Cleveland Cavaliers' Matthew Dellavedova. Photographer: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA Finals have made a star of Australian guard Matthew Dellavedova, and the biggest obstacle to his marketability might be his cultural heritage.

On a Cleveland Cavaliers roster depleted by injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, the formerly unheralded Dellavedova has been the most valuable player not named LeBron James during the championship series, helping the team to a 2-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors. Dellavedova flustered league Most Valuable Player Stephen Curry on Tuesday for a second straight game while scrapping, diving and exhausting himself to a season-high 20 points.

The 24-year-old’s grit and tenacity -- he had to be hospitalized with cramps following Tuesday’s 96-91 win -- are treasured in Australia, but overt self-promotion is frowned upon, according to Rick Burton, former commissioner of the country’s National Basketball League.

“There’s a thing down there called the tall poppy syndrome, which is anyone who tries to self-promote will then be cut down by the entire country,” Burton, now a sports management professor at Syracuse University, said in a phone interview. “I’d be very surprised if he tries to leverage this, as opposed to letting it just fall off on him. It’s counter-cultural to how Australians are raised.”

Dellavedova showed it Wednesday at a news conference in Cleveland when he was asked about his sudden popularity.

“To be honest, I’m not really paying attention to any of it,” he said. “Just locked in on the goal and the job that needs to be done. So, yeah, that’s about it.”

Movie Stars

Tall poppy syndrome typically is reserved for people such as movie stars who forget where they come from, said David Wolf, a former general manager of the National Basketball League’s Sydney Kings. Dellavedova’s on-court persona is a perfect fit for the country, Wolf said.

“There’s nothing but unadulterated joy about the success that he’s having on the world stage right now,” Wolf said. “Coaches are showing photos of Matthew Dellavedova as an example of what tenacity, head down, bum up, work hard -- what the results can be.”

The best-of-seven National Basketball Association series is the highest-rated through three games since Walt Disney Co.’s ABC began broadcasting them in 2003. Tuesday’s Game 3 was seen by an average of 13.7 percent of homes in 56 of the top U.S. television markets, a 33 percent increase from a year earlier, Disney’s ESPN said, citing Nielsen data. The series resumes with Game 4 in Cleveland on Thursday.

Game 3 aired in Sydney from around 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. While Australian interest in basketball pales in comparison to sports such as rugby, there has been an uptick this season with a record seven Australians playing in the NBA, said Wolf, who represents athletes with former NBA player Shane Heal at Sydney-based Full Circle Sports Management.

Lowest Paid

Dellavedova, a free agent after the season, earned $816,000 this year, the least of anyone in the Finals, according to ESPN. Irving, whose Game 1 fractured kneecap led to Dellavedova’s boosted playing time, is in the middle of a five-year, $90 million deal.

Dellavedova had nine points, three steals and five rebounds in Game 2, and helped limit Curry to 19 points on 5-of-23 shooting. In Game 3 he had 20 points, five rebounds and four assists, joining former Los Angeles Laker Elden Campbell as the only players in NBA history to score at least 20 points in a NBA Finals game after averaging fewer than five during the regular season.

“Delly’s the most Cleveland-like Australian I’ve ever met in my life,” Cavaliers coach David Blatt said at a postgame news conference. “And if you’re from Cleveland, you know just what I’m talking about.”

Workmanlike Style

The workmanlike deportment will benefit Dellavedova if he seeks more endorsements, Wolf said.

“He always needs to be true to himself and his brand, and I don’t think anyone needs to tell him that,” Wolf said in a phone interview. “Because of that authenticity, he would absolutely have commercial appeal in Australia.”

Dellavedova has U.S. marketing agreements with Nike Inc. and trading-card company Panini America Inc. His management team is looking to expand his U.S. partnerships to include sports equipment, food and beverage, and fitness, according to his agent, Bill Duffy.

“He’s gone from zero to 100 rapidly and has transcended solely an Australian audience,” Duffy said in an e-mail. “He’s a basketball player first. The growth of his brand and marketing comes second for him, and we have respected and applauded that approach.”

Local Interest

Dellavedova also has interest from “three to four” companies in the footwear, equipment, apparel and nutrition sectors in Australia, said Bruce Kaider, who represents his marketing interests there.

If Dellavedova seeks such opportunities, his heritage and playing style would make him an apt pitchman for a variety of companies, according to Bob Dorfman, executive creative director of Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.

His willingness to sacrifice his body for the game would work with products such as Pfizer Inc.’s Advil or Johnson & Johnson’s Band-Aids, while his nickname would fit with brands such as Kraft Foods Group Inc.’s Oscar Mayer hot dogs or Hormel Foods Corp., Dorfman said in a phone interview.

“I bet every Cleveland restaurant will soon have a Delly Sandwich on their menu,” Dorfman said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE