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Friday , 7 June 2024

Gold standard performance

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The Americans introduced basketball in the Philippines in 1910 as a women’s sport, trickling through the public school system.  Since then, basketball has become a social phenomenon ingrained in the culture. From the affluent areas of Makati to the makeshift courts in Tondo, everyone wants to hoop. Nike recognises this and has reported that nearly 40 million people in the Philippines have played basketball, making the Philippines their third largest basketball market behind the United States and China.

This is an exciting time to be a Filipino-Australian basketball fan this month. The FIBA Basketball World Cup will take place in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia. There are 32 countries competing to win the Naismith Trophy (named after Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of Basketball) and to be crowned the best basketball team in the world. The teams will play 92 games in 16 days. 

The Philippines is in Group A along with Angola, Italy and the Dominican Republic; all are competing for the top spot in their group. Australia is in Group E and it is competing to get to the next stage of the tournament against Germany, Finland and Japan. The Aussies are playing their group games in Okinawa, and they are hoping to get to the medal games that will be played in Manila.

I had an opportunity to sit down with legendary coach Brian Goorjian for a chat at the State Basketball Centre in Wantirna before his Coaching Seminar, in which he spoke to over 200 Basketball coaches hosted by the Knox Basketball Association. I attended and took copious notes trying to absorb wisdom from one of the most successful coaches in the history of Australian basketball. Coach Goorjian is the current head coach of the Australian Men’s basketball team (The Boomers).

Coach Goorjian first took on the role of the national head coach in late 2001. The team was left in disarray as the senior and more experienced players retired at the same time from international basketball after the Sydney Olympics and finishing fourth. Andrew Gaze, Luc Longley, Mark Bradtke, Andrew Vlahov and Shane Heal all retired. Coach Goorjian had to rebuild the national program and his philosophy was “Defence and Culture”. It was a rebuilding phase for the national team, and it had to be done swiftly. Coach Goorjian recalls that he only had NBL players to work with, and Andrew Bogut was the lone NBA player. Fast forward to 2023, wherein the current 18-man roster, there are 11 current NBA players in the squad, six being from Victoria, including Josh Giddey, Dyson Daniels, Dante Exum, Matthew Dellavedova, Jock Landale and Jack White. 

Coach Goorjian said, “I have a unique opportunity to coach a team after being absent for 11 years, coming back with a massive talent pool, increased skill level. Coming back medalling and being a perennial top 4, it is really unique.” Goorjian added, “This would not be possible if we did not invest in our grassroots programs, encouraging kids to try the sports, building stadiums, building the Basketball Centre of Excellence (COE) and having our players go through that. We now have players emerging with such talent, better than the players in the Gaze era of the late 90s and early 2000s. We used to lose a lot of athletes to Aussie rules football and swimming because they were more popular. Now we are attracting new athletes, and they want to give basketball a try.” 

The Boomers team will start their training camp in Cairns. They will head back to Melbourne for a few tune up games against South Sudan, Venezuela and Brazil before heading to Okinawa to start their FIBA World Cup campaign. I asked Coach Goorjian on what the final line-up would look like and how hard it would be cutting the roster from 18 to a 12-man squad. Coach Goorjian relayed that he is looking for a player with the style of play suited for the tournament; there may be a guy who is a better shooter but not necessarily the best player. Coach Goorjian added, “These players are not in competition with who they are. I am looking for the style of play and the right skills package; it is positional. We are loaded in the 2 and 3 spots, and the interior is a little thin. I will be making tough calls, and people from the outside will say why so and so is picked over that guy. It is purely a style of play, and it will require me to make the tough call.”

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This new crop of Boomers has lifted their game to a new level, and it all came from the core leadership group that kept the team intact, focused and accountable. The glue that is spearheading this culture change came from the leadership team led by Patty Mills and Joe Ingles. With most players playing in the NBA, they bond and remind each other that we are still Boomers and they have a mission to accomplish.

Coach Goorjian told a story about the start of the Tokyo Olympic training camp, and the theme was Gold Vibes Only. That translated to leaving your troubles and baggage at the door in the next few weeks. We are only having Gold Vibes, and our actions and efforts have to be of Gold Standard, a mantra and measuring stick that the players held themselves accountable to. Coach Goorjian added that his role became a facilitator on how the team is living the Gold Vibes only. As you know, the Boomers reached their best result in the Olympic basketball competition by earning the bronze medal. The change of values, leadership and how the players conducted themselves is a great example of a cultural and paradigm shift; it can also be adapted to any organisation. 

I would be neglectful if I did not mention the incident that happened in Bulacan on the 2nd of July 2018, an event that was a dark moment in basketball in general. Former Boomers captain and now appointed Director of Senior National Teams-Boomers and Opals and two-time Olympian Jason Smith said, “It was terrible. It was bad for the sport, the players involved and for the two countries. There were heavy penalties and it was just ugly.” He added, “The good thing that has come of it is that FIBA has to take steps in security at the events for not just the safety of the players but also the crowd. I understand how people can get passionate about the sport. It does that, and emotions can affect the athlete and the crowd. But it was just terrible.” Coach Goorjian also recalled that moment, and he added, “It was horrible that the incident happened. Who is at fault? Who did what to whom? That is irrelevant now. It is about learning from it and moving on.” Coach Goorjian continues, “When I first landed in Manila, I thought I was going to be treated differently being the Australian head coach and having the negative baggage surrounding what happened. Far from it, I was welcomed with open arms. Players, coaches, and administrators welcomed me. The PBA was a great support for my team Bay Area Dragons. I lived there for a year and it was an unforgettable experience. My players are looking forward to coming back. I have seen plenty of basketball in my life but the passion, emotion, playing in that atmosphere, that arena (MOA Arena), I have never played in an environment close to that. “ Coach Goorjian summed it up by saying, “Yes there were some altercations, players thrown out but after the game, it’s all hugs and handshakes. We just get on and look forward to the next game.”  

To sum it up, all eyes will be on the FIBA Basketball World Cup. Coach Goorjian is feeling good about Australia’s chances of getting to play in the finals of the tournament and to be back in Manila once again. Coach Goorjian and his team, the Bay Area Dragons will return and compete at the next PBA Commissioner’s Cup starting in October. It has been said that the ball is round and everyone in the competition has a fighting chance to go home with the trophy. We hope that both Australia and the Philippines get through to the tournament’s final stages and both teams finish on the podium. Basketball in Australia as well as the Filipino community, can take this opportunity to embrace the love and passion for the sport, enhance the relationship, be in lockstep and move towards the betterment of the sport and community. Let us make the most of this tournament, support the grassroots programs and reflect on how far both countries have progressed in the sport and if we do that, that’s as good as winning a medal.  

Gold Vibes Only!

Until next time STAY FOCUSED!

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