Kane Pitman's Journey From Australian Oil Refinery To NBA Press Row

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Thanks to his penny pinching throughout the regular season, reporter Kane Pitman can cover the Eastern Conference Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Thanks to his penny pinching throughout the regular season, reporter Kane Pitman can cover the Eastern Conference Finals between the Toronto Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

May 20, 2001. Milwaukee Bucks versus Charlotte Hornets. NBA Playoffs, second round. You probably remember nothing about that series. But Kane Pitman? He remembers.

"That's really when I took note of basketball," Pitman says. "And Milwaukee won that game, and Ray Allen played really well. Ray Allen ended up being my favorite basketball player to watch. The crowd was just insane. I was like, ‘You know, this team's pretty cool.’ "

Pitman was 11 years old. He’d come across the game flipping channels while sitting on his parent’s couch in Geelong, Australia. That’s the town near Melbourne where he grew up. The Bucks play 9,800 miles away.

At first, Pitman just followed the team by checking out the box scores. Then, he started getting online radio feeds of Bucks games. As soon as he could afford it, he bought NBA League Pass to watch the games.

"So, yeah, I really haven't missed a game — whether it's radio or watching — for a long, long time," Pitman says. "Like, maybe 2005."

Ray Allen was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1996. (John Zich /AFP/Getty Images)
Ray Allen was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1996. (John Zich /AFP/Getty Images)

For a while, Pitman thought about pursuing a career as a writer. But as his high school graduation approached ...

"I thought to myself that I didn't want to go to school anymore," Pitman says. "I just wanted to get to work and earn money and do that sort of stuff. So I sort of pushed that aside."

Just four days after finishing high school, Pitman started working the graveyard shift at a massive oil refinery. His dad worked there, too.

"It was hot — it was really, really hot," Pitman says. "And in summer in Australia, you know you could have a 120-degree day — or 40-plus degrees Celsius — and you're out there in overalls and hard hat and working with 500-degree products and that sort of stuff. So it was hard work."

An Unusual Pastime

When he wasn’t working, Pitman could often be founding playing Australian rules football. His love for "footy," as Aussies call it, was pretty typical. His love for the Milwaukee Bucks was not — especially back before the Bucks drafted Australian Andrew Bogut with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 Draft.

The NBA wasn’t very popular in Australia. And the Bucks consistently ranked near the bottom of the NBA standings. But no matter — they were Pitman's team since he first fell for them in 2001. Even though, for him, their games tipped off mid-morning.

After work, Pitman would watch replays of the games. And he’d do his best during the day to avoid finding out the results.

"I would go to sort of extreme levels, I guess," Pitman says. "I would just like be, ‘All right, phone's off for the day.’ Because my friends knew that this is what I would do. So they would text me and say, ‘Well, the Bucks played really well today’ or something like that. People, they used to laugh at me for doing that. Because they would know if they needed to contact me on a day the Bucks played, I'm off the grid."

In 2015, Pitman hit a crossroads. He tore his ACL. He spent his rehab doing —  what else? — watching the Bucks, who finished with a .500 record and made it to the first round of the playoffs. Pitman flew to Milwaukee to watch their playoff series against the Chicago Bulls in person. Milwaukee felt comfortable: a midsize city in the shadow of a nearby metropolis. Kind of like Geelong.

"It felt pretty familiar," Pitman says. "Obviously a little bit colder. I will say that. It was a little bit colder."

The Bucks lost the series. But the trip got Pitman thinking more about bigger questions in his life. The job at the refinery paid the bills but didn’t satisfy him. He was in his mid-20s and started thinking back to his teenage years and his dreams of becoming a writer.

"I was like, ‘I think that I've watched enough basketball or been around enough basketball that I feel like I have the knowledge that I can actually do this,’ " Pitman says.

Sticking With It

In the wee hours of the morning, when the oil refinery didn’t need tending, Pitman practiced writing. An editor at "The Pick and Roll," an Australian basketball blog, became his mentor.

Pitman asked his editor to be critical, because he knew it was the only way he’d learn.

"There was times where I would write big features for them and write them four times, because he was like, ‘Look, I don’t think this is ... I don’t think this is good for you,’ " Pitman remembers.

Pitman stuck with it. Last season, he took another big leap. He traveled to California to see the Bucks on a road trip. But he wasn’t just a spectator anymore — he was on assignment. And he came upon Matthew Dellavedova, an Australian who happened to play for the Bucks.

"They practiced at a little high school gym in Beverly Hills, and I showed up," Pitman says. "[Dellavedova] was out with an ankle injury at the time, so the whole team left. All the other reporters that were there left, so I hung around by myself and ended up getting him by myself for sort of 5–10 minutes.

"As soon as I started talking, he was like, ‘Where are you from?’ And he’s from Melbourne himself, or just outside of Melbourne. So it makes it easy. You can talk about things outside of basketball." 

Matthew Dellavedova playing for the Bucks in 2017. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Matthew Dellavedova playing for the Bucks in 2017. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The editor started to come around to Pitman’s writing. And he planted a seed.

"He sort of floated the idea first and said to me that, you know, ‘You're putting in the work. If you want this to actually be a career, then it's not going to be easy, but we can get you a foreign media visa, get you over there, and you can work as a freelancer,’ " Pitman remembers. 

"And then we got to the point in August last year — so the NBA season was roughly two months away — and he sort of just messaged me and said, ‘Look, if you want to do this, then I think it would be in your best interest to be there for the start of the season.’ "

Fear The Deer

By this point, the Bucks had become a far better story. The team of nobodies that Pitman had followed for a decade had become an up-and-coming contender, thanks largely to Giannis Antetokounmpo — or, as he’s commonly known, "The Greek Freak."

Pitman decided to go. But first, he had to stockpile cash. The visa he’d carry through would forbid him from making money from American companies. He knew to plan for a year of little — or even zero — income.

“If you aren't happy — and I wasn't really happy with what I was doing — why would I keep doing that for another 30 years?”

Kane Pitman

"I just worked a lot," Pitman says. "I was working, you know, 70-hour weeks and rotating between days and night shifts. So, uh, yeah, I was angry and tired all the time. But, in the back of my mind, I knew that if this is what I wanted to do, and I wanted it to make it work, then I wasn't going to be thinking about working those hours when I got over here and I was covering NBA games. I'm like, ‘That's going to be worth it in the end.’ "

Pitman worked nearly three months straight. Even when he was home, he couldn’t calm his nerves enough to get much shuteye. He was about to move to a city where he knew only a handful of people to do a job that probably wouldn’t pay, with everyone and everything familiar a 24-hour flight from him. In early October, days before the Bucks season was to begin,  Pitman packed two suitcases and boarded a one-way flight to Milwaukee.

"Once I got on the plane, I think I was cool with it," Pitman says. "I was like, ‘All right, this is, like, going to be an adventure. We'll see what happens.’ " 

Once in Milwaukee, getting a press pass with the Bucks was actually easy. Arranging an apartment proved tougher.

"They wanted to know my weekly income to get the lease," Pitman says. "So that provided some challenges. Because I was trying to explain — which is ridiculous — I was trying to explain to the landlord that I don't have a weekly income, but I have savings. ‘This is what I'm trying to do. I'm going to do some freelance stuff.’ And he was like, ‘Well, how much are you going to earn?’ And I'm like, ‘I don't know. That's out of my control. Hopefully enough that I can eat.’ "

Making Ends Meet

The Bucks have two other beat reporters: Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Eric Nehm of The Athletic. The trio became close friends, exchanging wisecracks before press conferences and ribbing each other on Twitter. One difference: the other two are salaried and travel on expense accounts. Pitman pays his own way. Sometimes, that means he has to get creative.

Kane Pitman walking with Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Courtesy Kane Pitman)
Kane Pitman walking with Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Dan Simmons for WBUR)

"Back in October, it ended up being a 1 a.m. bus from Milwaukee to Minneapolis," Pitman says. "I just didn't want to pay for that hotel the night before. So I got to Minneapolis in the early hours of the morning — 6, 7 a.m., maybe, I think. Dropped my stuff off at the hotel. Room wasn't ready. Had some breakfast. Went to practice — everyone told me I was looking pretty rough. And then I, after that, went back to the hotel. Quick nap, worked the game. Was out 5 o'clock the next morning.

"So when I think about the money I saved on that trip, it's a $20 bus ticket as opposed to a $250 flight. Those are the things that I had to do if I wanted to still be here in May."

Pitman quickly went from a curiosity to a trusted colleague and a go-to on Twitter for Bucks fans.

Although he didn’t make every road trip, he did make it out West later in the season. After covering the team’s morning shootaround, Pitman and the other Bucks reporters found themselves in a you-can’t-make-this-up moment while walking back to the hotel. A familiar face appeared.

"So Giannis is walking down the streets of downtown San Francisco — Bucks jersey, ice wrapped around his knees," Pitman says. "And we were walking with him at the time. And we were talking to him and joking and laughing around. And we got to, eventually, an intersection where we were going to keep going straight, and they were going right to the hotel.

"So me, Matt and Eric got halfway across the road. And then we, like, heard Giannis yelling out to us. And he was like, ‘Guys, we're going this way. The hotel's this way.’ And we're like, ‘Giannis, we don't stay in your hotel, OK. You're, like, the MVP of the NBA. We just write about you. We don't stay at your hotel.’ Like, ‘It's OK. Thanks for caring about us, but we're going to get some lunch.’ " 

Kane Pitman's Dream

As 2018 turned into 2019 and Milwaukee’s brutal winter gave way to spring, the Bucks just kept winning. They secured the best regular-season record in the NBA. They swept their first round series with the Detroit Pistons. It marked the franchise’s first playoff series win since 2001, when 11-year-old Kane Pitman had caught Bucks fever. Next came a second round series with the Boston Celtics, who had knocked them out in the first round last year. This year, it wasn’t close: Bucks in five.

Pitman's apartment lease ended May 1. Back in October, he figured the season may be winding down by then. But he was able to extend to month-to-month, and those midnight winter bus rides saved him enough that he can fly to away games throughout the rest of the Bucks’ playoff run. By some measures, he is living a dream. But there’s one small drawback.

"Being freelance and pitching stories and not hearing back from people and thinking, ‘Well, OK, where am I going to get my next money from?’ " Pitman says. "And that's when you start to stress a little bit and then think, ‘Well, is anything going to come for this? Or am I just going to go home and realize that I blew all my savings from the last 10 years?’

Pitman and Antetokounmpo at a press conference. (Courtesy Kane Pitman)
Pitman and Antetokounmpo at a press conference. (Dan Simmons for WBUR)

"Because I think, when I first moved here, I tried to tell myself that if it didn't work out, you'll say, ‘Well, I had a fun year and a good experience.’ And you go home and do what you were doing. But once I got here and realized that I was like, ‘No, actually, I don't want to go home and go back to what I was doing. This is what I want to do.’ "

Pitman is still waiting for a job offer that will allow him to stay in Milwaukee and keep covering the Bucks.

In the meantime, Bucks Nation has gotten to know the reporter from Australia with the reddish-brown beard. Early in the season, Pitman did an "Ask Me Anything" on Reddit. Later, his story found a bigger audience through a feature on The Ringer. And fans are reaching out to say how inspired they are by his story. His message back to them is simple:

"I'm 28, and, you know, I think a lot of people are scared to change what they're doing once they get to that sort of point and feel like they should be doing other things with their life," Pitman says. "But you know, I just don't believe that's true. If you aren't happy — and I wasn't really happy with what I was doing — why would I keep doing that for another 30 years?"

This segment aired on May 25, 2019.



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