One of the first things I wanted to change when appointed AIS Head Coach in 2010 was the pathway that had been created from the AIS to college basketball in the USA. What I wasn’t expecting, after 20 years in the NBL, was the massive resistance to the suggestion that perhaps we could do it better here is Australia, resistance for players, coaches and administrators.
One of the first calls I received once I moved into my AIS office was from the coach of St Mary’s University, Randy Bennett, a coach that had received great support from the AIS and has even had several past and present AIS coaches with the St Mary’s program. He wanted to touch base and establish a relationship with the new coach.
Brett Brown who was the Boomers Head Coach at the time also initiated a phone conference between the Boomers coaching staff, Randy Bennett and myself to discuss my plans. I thought this very odd given St Mary’s had no real interest or connection to Australian basketball except for wanting to recruit our best players.
There clearly though was a strong connection between the AIS basketball program and St Mary’s. I found it a little intriguing that such relationships hadn’t been established with the NBL clubs. Just as intriguing was that a KPI of the program was to graduate AIS players into US college basketball.
I should emphasise my proposed plan was to provide a better pathway here in Australia for our best players.
It is also important to note that there is a difference between what is best for Australian Basketball and what might be a beneficial life experience for a young basketball player.
In my mind, some of the outstanding players who currently play on our National men’s team would have helped the popularity of our NBL and boosted the profile of our programs if their pathway to professional basketball was through our league, not via a USA college. Players like Brad Newley, Joe Ingles, Chris Goulding, Adam Gibson, Damien Martin, David Andersen have all travelled through the NBL to the Boomers but the bigger stars like Simmons, Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills and Matt Dellavedova have gone the college route. Dante Exum went straight from the AIS to the NBA.
The popular perception is that our current crop of NBA players has made it to that level by attending US college but that belief is mistaken. All those players reached the international stage and came under the NBA spotlight by playing for Australia on National Junior teams and for the Senior Men’s team in Olympic and World Championship competition. Ben Simmons has even come out lately and stated what a waste of time college basketball was. Imagine if he had been playing in the NBL these past three years and then going on to be the number one pick of the NBA draft – there have been other number one picks who have not been based in the US.
It would be better for Australian basketball if all our Boomers were familiar faces to the Australian basketball public, through their development and involvement with the NBL. At times now the Australian public first are introduced to players once they have made the Boomers, there isn’t a connection with the fans that is developed when a player’s growth and development is with the NBL teams.
While I have no doubt that it might be a great life experience to go and live in the USA for a few years– most might question that now after the recent election fiasco - I also have serious reservations about whether this is the best way to develop our best young players.
There are over two hundred Australian’s currently attending college’s in the USA and while the clear majority of them will never play for Australia. Would they be better able to reach their potential by attending college or by working their way through the levels of play currently in Australia?
Some important differences between the US college system and our own club system include;
There are restrictions on how long players can spend practising with the coaches – no such restrictions exist here
Basketball is seasonal in the USA, teams start practise mid-October and it all concludes in March. Therefore, the rest of the year players do not have access to competition and training with their college coaches and team mates. There is some minimal training allowed but it is only a couple of hours per week under strict guidelines – remember they are meant to be there for school – no such restrictions exist here.
There are also different academic standards between both Countries. There are many stories of players having studied a field in the USA only to find they need to do additional University time here in Australia to meet our standards. I know of one player who completed schooling to be a surgeon in the USA but to practise here in Australia he would need to do another couple of years of University.
If you think that US college coaches are better than our own NBL and SEABL coaches, then I’m afraid you are mistaken. I have visited many college programs over the years and certainly some of the best coaches in the world are working at the highest level of college basketball, however this is not the level most of our players end up. St Mary’s as an example is a lower level division one school, there are over three hundred and fifty division one schools in the USA.
One of the most important aspects of success at the college level is recruiting, not player development. If you can get yourself into the position of being able to recruit talented players, then that enhances your chances of winning games – the number one KPI of a college coach. The schools who have created strong links with Australia like St Mary’s and before them Metro State have benefited from being able to recruit players who were capable of playing at a higher level but were convinced of the merits of attending a school that already had connections to Australia.
Again, I emphasize that I’m promoting what is good for Australian basketball.
I have met many players who have gone to the States and had a wonderful time, usually the highlights revolve around the people, the fun they had and a little about the basketball. Most find the coaching confrontational and aggressive, many have either wanted to leave or have left due to the drill sergeant mentality some college coaches have.
The educational advantages of getting a college scholarship are often promoted but you can also get a college education here in Australia. Once you balance out the flights back and forth over four years to the US for players and families then the HECS fees don’t seem so high.
I had negotiated with the University of Canberra full academic scholarships for all the players in the AIS basketball program, in return they had requested some badging on the AIS uniform, this proved to be a stumbling block in seeing through the proposal however it convinced me that here is Australia, with a little work, our Universities are also open to academic scholarships for athletes who can demonstrate high performance in a sport.
I believe with the right leadership we could create pathways for our players through our club programs, work with State based Universities to provide quality education that can coexist with elite basketball requirements and provide a better alternative to what is perceived as the American dream.
Why not create an Australian dream?
The end result for me would be a more popular sport here in Australia and a greater connection with our best players and our basketball fans and better overall players. A more popular sport would obviously attract more TV and media interest which could also provide more money for the sport adding more professional opportunities for coaches and administrators in the game, just like what occurs now in the AFL.
When I was in Montenegro a few years ago, I met a young player named Nikola Ivanović. He was about 17 at the time and we spoke about his career plans. When I asked him if he intended to play college basketball in the USA he looked at me with a puzzled look on his face and said “Why?”
The last thing they want to do over there is play college basketball. They want to play for their club and get into professional basketball as quickly as possible. They can also attend University there while pursuing their basketball career Their perception is college basketball in the USA is a complete waste of time.
I read with interest a couple of years later that Nikola hit a famous buzzer beater from just inside the centre line for the Montenegro National Men’s team in a historic win over Serbia in the 2012 European Championships.
Most think I’m dreaming or anti American and that was certainly the vibe I got while promoting the concept while AIS Head Coach. I’m certainly not anti-American, I have some great American friends and some American’s who have relocated to Australia have done great things for Australian basketball, as have many more Australians
So, what’s the point I am trying to make here? I think we blindly believe American college basketball is the best pathway for our best young players. I think we could do it better here and do something for the popularity of the sport at the highest level. I say “why not?”