A HOOPS SNEAK PEAK: Birdseye View of Wildcats Open Training

To say Wildcats fans have been ‘blessed’ by the team’s envious NBL history, would be understating the obvious.

Since the kiss of success first wet their lips in 1987, winning every year without fail has become ingrained in this organisation. The winning culture and the vibe it instils, permeates everyone in Wildcat country: the players, staff, the ownership and of course the fans. Even the dear old Betty’s who may find it increasingly difficult to negotiate the stairs and seating arrangements at WA’s State Basketball Centre still arrive for this ‘open’ training session dressed in full team attire, armed with a willing winning smile and ready chants of “Let’s go Wildcats” on their weathered lips.

The rich history of winning is evident in the soft, reinvigorated glow of their world-weary eyes, yet here I am for the first time; and with so many wins despite the yearly weight of expectation, I ask myself – are too many taking the Wildcats achievements for granted?

The open training session marks a celebration of their 13th NBL Grand Final series and prospect of an eighth NBL title. Those milestones would be the culmination of a 31st straight playoff appearance – each one a runaway all-time record in NBL annals.

As I look around, my only wish is for more people to share in this sense of expectation and euphoria.


LIKE BEING BACK IN HIGH SCHOOL

It’s almost 10am and I am seated now.

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My choice is the far middle aisle, a couple of rows from the back. I can stretch my legs out that way and have prime viewing both left and right to see everything.

Approximately one-hundred and fifty media, fans of all ages and support staff are in attendance. The quiet rumble of perhaps fifty different concurrent conversations echo throughout the well-appointed training courts.

Thud. Thud. Thud.

The familiar sound of orange ball on gleaming hardwood quickly breaks the heightened white noise, only to be replaced by loud cheers and the sound of hand on hand.

Casually entering the playing area is the reason for this sudden change in the air. Burnie’s shabby-chic bushman, Matt Knight slowly walks alone with ball in hand. Years of toe-to-toe battles with other behemoths in the paint have silently aged this basketball warrior; the wisp of now greying hair above the ears, grows ever larger too.

Matt entering first, alone, is a symbolic moment for those who caught it. The Game Review Panel –feeling their own assessment of a two game penalty was too severe — sent his charge of intentional contact and unduly rough play to an independent NBL judiciary for determination.  A reduced one game ‘suspended’ sentence and $1000 fine were levied instead.

Thoughts of missing two key games in a championship series for something so incredibly minor, surely plays on the mind of any athlete.

The farcical kicker in this debacle, overheard being described by the man himself as “like being back in high school” – was an unheard of requirement to send a personal written apology to Travis Trice for the alleged egregious actions (should have been called a foul at the time and nothing more). Hopefully it doesn’t have to be hand-written because Travis won’t know what he is reading, as teammate Damien Martin can readily attest*.

Everybody should find the League and Game Review Panel’s actions here questionable and utterly unnecessary.

To tell a 31-year old league veteran to complete something of this nature is laughable and smacks of amateurism. One wonders if the NBA would ever tell a veteran of their league to write an apology to another player? I think we both know the answer to that.

“It was a nervous 48 hours, but to know I’m free to play game one, it’s a huge relief.” Matthew Knight

None of this appears to have affected Matt in the slightest. Rather, it became an opportunity to laugh heartily about what ‘his’ letter will say with some familiar Wildcats staff. The Pick and Roll was lucky to get a copy of the first tongue-in-cheek draft which can be read here.

Loose. Relaxed. Joking. They are common threads over the next few hours for the defending champs.


THE NEXT IN LINE? A HEAD COACH IN WAITING?

The players have been on-court for a few minutes, lightly warming up by shooting in their different cliques.

Only three of the four hoops are used throughout the day, which was odd at the time, but the reason for unknown.

The Coaching staff is deep in discussion, just in-front of the scorer’s table. They presumably are going over the course of action, who does what and confirming to each other the key areas of focus.

NBL WILDCATS 36ERS

A tall bearded figure breaks from the group. Taking a few steps up the aisle and into the seated area, he has the now customary “housekeeping” to go over with the crowd. Assistant Coach Matt Neilsen looks fit enough to still be on an NBL roster, his height is imposing and beard game still strong. With all the bouncing balls, swishing of nets and laughing going on behind him, it is difficult to make out everything being said.

Emergency Exits – Check. Bathrooms – Check. Merchandise stand – Check.

Next, the important stuff.

Whilst we are fans, here to be engrossed and feel a part of the team, we are definitely outsiders and are told there will be a strict no photos or video policy once the session commences. Neilsen says “it’s fine if you want to take some now and the next few minutes but once we get going, please don’t”. He looks over at me madly snapping some shots with phone. I smile slightly and nod – wearing a red shirt that blends into the seating hasn’t worked.

Matt further explains, it can get noisy and for ‘the viewing public’ to remain as quiet as possible. This includes “keeping loud cheering and clapping, particularly when the Coaches are addressing the team on- court, to a minimum”. On cue just behind and to the right of Neilsen, Jameel McKay (the Wildcats unheralded big man import) throws down a sky-walking one-handed tomahawk.  Impressive. For many of the younger fans here, still transfixed by their heroes being just a few feet away in the flesh, it was too much not to let out a wide-eyed “whooooooaahhhhhh” in unison. All Matt can do is sheepishly smile.

An hour in and the easy camaraderie between the team and Matt is fairly obvious. In all walks of life, respect can only be earned and Neilsen has the NBL background and championship pedigree for his words to carry weight. It’s noticed in the attention paid to the smallest of details, the mundane, ‘the easy stuff’. It was Neilsen who constantly rammed home the need to get those small things right, every time. “Good habits” he says aloud. The players listen intently keen to get it right. The little things, the basics – are often the difference between a W or L .

To reinforce the need for good habits, he can be heard pointing to spots on the floor and bellowing throughout the meaty portion of training. Sometimes, the message is for the whole team to digest, a simple “Go. Go. Run it“, or “Well done. Nice finish, Case”. Other times he’ll walk up and talk to an individual “Bryce, don’t go until the screen is firmly set. We don’t want any moving screen calls. Yeh? Wait till they are set, OK?, then go” Bryce nods, knowing he went a tad early on that set play.

After running the same play again “Angus, stay strong on the screen, don’t slip it early. Focus”

The tone used by all involved here is calming and the language simply about getting the message across. There is no exacerbated yelling and screaming displayed or foul-mouthed tirades in a Bob Knight sense. The players too, often give their point of view on a play and different side action or read on it. It’s encouraged and fostered by everyone making the environment one of brotherhood and acceptance.

During 5-0 walk through’s, it is the veteran leaders Shawn Redhage and Damien Martin that often talk with Trevor and point out a different read or angle that can be used.


LOOSE, CLINICAL, FAMILY, EFFICIENT, FUN

The first portion of training – the stretching and skills warm-ups – took me back to my younger days. Pairing up, the players compete against each other on various hand-eye coordination tests. The losers all have to do push-ups before starting the next comp.

First pair to complete ten wins. There are wraparound’s of head, waist, legs then pass to partner with the left hand, figure eight’s and pass, crossover twice then pass etcetera. The players enjoy the chance for some friendly banter as they do for the whole session.

The Assistant Coach trying to run this portion of training has his work cut out for him.  The players are constantly at him, in a friendly way, for not being clear with the instruction “what are you talking about? You said first to fifteen” “Jameel I said first to ten, it’s always first to ten” is the quick retort. The back and forth needling for losing a drill or being a cheat is constant, exactly like family members going at each other all the time.

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This is where things get interesting and fast.

The players form into two groups, one at each baseline. At each end, a player moves to mid-court (to receive a pass), another moves to the sideline about quarter way up (to get the pass from the mid-court player, then run it). It’s going to be end to end passing down each sideline, with two balls going down each sideline. One by one, a player goes in for the lay-up, the other trails for a mid-range shot at the free throw line. You still with me? Trevor Gleeson turns to the stands “Alright, the goal is to get sixty buckets in just two minutes”. The sideline agitator cracks a rare smile, as if to say ‘strap yourself in folks because this is a lot of fun’.

Let me tell you, this was not easy.

Today, Perth does it with 8 seconds left. One thing that stood out – besides the non-stop, helter skelter nature of the drill – was the need for constant communication from the passer and the guy next in line for it.

Trevor turns to the stands again “Next up we do it with three’s. Still two minutes, still have to get sixty”. OK, so they only just made sixty when shooting it from the rim and midrange. Hmm, this is going to be tough to get I thought to myself.

In a direct parallel to the team’s 3-pt shooting over the season proper, they come out colder than a frothie from a barbie eski. Ice cold. Nearly a minute has lapsed and there is only twenty on the board. You sense there is no panic, just a greater focus.

Again, like the season proper, the team rallies. After each bucket, the players yell the climbing score ever louder, to encourage each other. The shots start falling. Just like scraping into the playoffs at the final call, the sixty comes up with just 1.5 seconds left.

There are high fives and cheers all-around.


IS THERE NO END IN SIGHT?

The legacy left behind is this: The Perth Wildcats are the best franchise of the NBL’s storied history. It’s a fact that can’t be disputed. And, if you only looked at the past you’d miss the point – the Wildcats are the best team of the past decade and the best team of the past 4 years. Perth is about to play in it’s 6th Grand Final series of the last 8 years.

This will be Trevor Gleeson’s 3rd Championship series in 4 years at the helm, as he quickly builds a record surpassing all others at Perth. Despite the early season import woes, injuries to key players and calls for his head after each moral sapping loss; Trevor always manages to have the team peaking at the pointy end of a season. He deserves a mountain of credit for getting it done.

The Wildcats too, continue to build upon their extraordinary history with each passing top four finish, finals series and championship trophy accepted.  They go from strength to strength with no real sign of abating.

There is no panic when times are tough, like being last on the ladder at one point this season and in serious danger of being ‘the ones’ who messed up a lasting legacy. Perth just bunkers down, trust themselves to get it done, transfixed only on what they can control in the here and now.

The names and faces have constantly changed over time but as the old saying goes ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. The Wildcats have no need for catchy slogans or inspirational quotes hanging from a wall to get the job done either. Maybe there is some kind of subconscious understanding at work with this franchise displayed through actions alone:

‘Trust and help each other. Working together towards the goal, a championship, is a lot easier than trying to do it alone’.

That might be a catchy slogan, if unoriginal, but it won’t be hanging at the Jack Bendat Basketball Centre or at Perth Arena anytime soon – they need the room for those other kind of banners.

As I sit here now, my only wish is for more people to share in that sense of expectation and euphoria for what this ball-club is doing.


*Damien Martin was on local radio station 92.9’s morning program Thursday 24th February and as a good teammate should, gave Matt’s writing ability a gentle ribbing.

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