The NBL’s biggest off-season addition may turn out to be the Sydney Kings surprise signing of 7-time MVP Andrew Gaze as Head Coach.
You might be thinking a lot about the rising NBL wave we are all riding at the moment: about the number of elite Australian players who have come back to play here, rather than overseas; about the high level of play from all 8 teams in the early rounds; about the increasingly talented batch of imports that seem to hit our shores; about the subtle changes to court designs (both good and bad); about the style simplification and visual clean up of team uniforms… and on and on. There is a hell of a lot to be excited about.
Lately, I’ve been pondering one question in particular:
Do former stars, like Andrew Gaze, actually have successful coaching careers?
“Gee-whiz fellas, how did you miss that? Photo: Zimbio
From his first moments in the NBL, there was always a great sense of anticipation when watching Andrew play. Maybe a nervous trepidation, thinking about how your team would try and nullify the crafty, silver-haired maestro of the hardwood. Was it even possible? Or maybe, like so many Australian hoops fans, you were probably salivating at the shooting hellfire he was about to unleash, a bevy of buckets, to be served fresh from the kiln.
For a young fan, he made basketball look so easy, as though he had been touched from above.
Fast forward to the present day and the final chapters of Andrew’s truly immortal basketball story are starting to be written. After a number of years out of the game – perhaps fighting this inevitable path – there is once again, a great sense of anticipation surrounding Andrew Gaze and it’s all too familiar.
Watch Andrew as he theatrically stalks the sideline: he’s always encouraging his players with a thundering clap or fist pump; he’s upbeat and engrossing, yet calm during timeouts; he’s constantly working the officials after every call or no call.
He is a man visibly invested and completely in his element.
One would assume there are mistakes yet to be made and lessons that can only be learnt in the heat of battle. Coaching is a tough gig after all, even for a basketball savant. Sydney nonetheless, have been making a lot of noise lately, with some sweet on-court music.
The Kings have already banked a 5-game win streak and currently sit two wins clear on top of the ladder. It is fair to say that Andrew is well and truly exceeding all ‘reasonable’ pre-season expectations, both of himself and the franchise he so passionately leads.
No doubt, having elite talent on your roster – like Brad Newley, Kevin Lisch, Steve Blake, Josh Powell and Long Arms Whittington – is certainly integral, but that alone doesn’t guarantee success. Being able to harness and unleash the talent as a symbiotic collective, while managing the different egos and personalities of an organisation, not just the players; has always been the key ingredient to a coaches longevity and ultimately their professional success.
Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich, Brian Goorjian: they all knew how to be grand puppet masters. They understood how to get the best out of their teams and each reaped amazing rewards for having that ability.
Only twelve games into the 2016/17 NBL season and Andrew, along with the exceptional support staff he handpicked to assist him, have the Kings playing unselfishly and cohesively as a unit. Confidence amongst the group is sky high right now and it shows in their attitudes and the exceptional way they have been playing.
In what could be a storybook start to Andrew’s rookie coaching campaign, Sydney have emphatically announced their arrival as genuine championship contenders. From last in 2015/16 to being crowned champs the next year: Why not?
Some people are blessed, don’t doubt it could happen.
How many truly great players become great coaches too? There’s not many that can do it. You have to be in control of a game, while no longer being able to physically affect it as you could before. Most elite athletes find that transition too difficult to overcome but there are always exceptions to every rule.
It’s ridiculous to imagine Drew’s coaching legacy someday reaching the same dizzying heights of his playing resume, that would be an act of pure folly. The great ones however, aren’t constrained by those kind of thoughts. The great ones are special, they have something, an aura that breaks the mould. They appear blessed, everything they touch turns to gold and it all looks too easy for them.
Andrew still exudes that greatness on a basketball court. Wearing a suit and dress shoes:
It’s still his domain, he is still the man.
More than anything else, coaching is a game of the mind. History is full of bit players who couldn’t make it physically but became exceptional coaches professionally, owing to their high basketball IQ and man management skills.
Where Andrew might be able to separate himself is his awareness of what the players are experiencing at any time – he’s seen every basketball scenario possible – and also having the acquired knowledge to remedy the situation.
He is also smart enough to get out of his own way when required.
There is a real joy watching his players succeed, he is uplifting them at all times and the guys are feeding off it.
Is there an historical beacon from our leagues past that can be looked upon?
Australian Basketball Hall of Famer Phil Smyth, is a good example of what can be achieved by a star player when he pivots his attention to the clipboard. Phil turned the Adelaide 36ers into a league powerhouse immediately, winning 3 championships in his first 5 years as 36er coach.
He also provides something of a cautionary tale for Andrew to ponder in the coming years: You have to know when to walk away.
If you’re not a coaching lifer, like Dad, you have to know when to call time.
Leave them wanting more.
How differently would Smyth’s coaching career be viewed if he had walked away, say, 4-5 years earlier? He’d be a god, wouldn’t he?
“Whatever this journey of mine is, I just want the players to enjoy the experience, to be able to enjoy the wins and deal with the losses” Andrew Gaze 2016
However long Andrew continues his journey, the early evidence suggests: his players will be enjoying many more wins than losses over the coming years.
Hiring Andrew Gaze to be Head Coach wasn’t the gamble many suggested after all. Did they forget he’s the son of a coaching legend and a legend in his own right?
It’s highly possible the next few chapters to be written of Andrew Gaze will be much like those that have already played out his whole life: fairy-tale and incredible.
You get the feeling this was how it was always going to happen anyway, the orders came down from up high a long time ago:
“Gazey, little buddy, basketball will be your passion and your sanctuary. It’ll be your heaven man, your calling and your purpose… Your soul mate for life!” The Man Upstairs circa 1965
In the end, it really doesn’t matter how successful other star players were after becoming coach. This is Andrew Gaze after all.
It’s still his domain and he is still the man.
Some people are blessed, remember? We should all be thankful he’s back in the league.