I vividly remember sitting in Phil Smyth's office at the 'Clipsal Powerhouse', when he was coach of the 36ers, having a conversation with him about my future. I was back home in Adelaide from the AIS for Christmas.
I had been lucky enough to train with the 36ers during that break, which was a dream come true at that stage of my life. The free farmers union ice coffees we could grab out of the fridge to take home after practice made me feel like I had really made the bigtime. Watching Darnell Mee and Kevin Brooks going at it every day, alongside Brett Maher and Mark Davis; all stars I had watched from the stands as a kid, was a tremendous buzz for me. Shooting sessions with Paul Reese was like a free, front row seat to a stand-up comedy show, and David Stiff was happy to conduct individual workouts with me after every practice, even though I didn't feel worthy of such attention. This had a lasting effect on me for many reasons.
But this particular conversation with Phil and his longtime assistant Steve Breheny was the biggest turning point for me and my career. We were discussing my path after the AIS. Stay and play for the 36ers in the NBL, or head over to the States and play college ball. There were pros and cons for both but one thing Phil said which I've never forgotten was: "You can play NBL at any time, but once you play NBL you can never play college basketball. You might as well go and experience it for a year, at least". College rules stated at the time, if you played in a professional league anywhere in the world, you were ineligible to play college basketball. That "one year experience" turned into almost seven years stateside and I experienced things I could have never imagined while sitting in Phil's office that day.
I had the opportunity recently to head back to the college I ultimately chose to attend, Georgia Tech, for only the second time since I graduated in 2005. I was excited to see how much the school and the city of Atlanta had changed since I left. While I was there I constantly found myself saying the dreaded old man cliché "Back in my day...". The basketball stadium and practice facility has undergone a $50 million renovation since I left, which has transformed the facility into one that could rival any of the NBA clubs I have seen. The Georgia Tech campus and the downtown city itself, which Georgia Tech lies smack bang in the middle of, was almost unrecognisable to me with all the developments that have taken place. "Back in my day" it was surrounded by areas I quickly figured out were no place for a 7-foot fluorescent white, baby faced Australian to be frequenting. On campus there were also incidents such as a drive by shooting at the student outdoor basketball courts near my dorm room in the middle of the day, and a team manager was once mugged at gunpoint on the way to the locker room to do the team laundry. Nowadays the surrounding areas and most of downtown have been transformed into an eclectic array of hipster bars, classy restaurants and fancy apartment buildings, attracting a diverse population into the downtown area.
It was great to reminisce with a lot of my old teammates, coaches and the wider community of Georgia Tech, including the alumni and fans. I was really looking forward to catching up with some of my old team mates and college friends, some of whom I haven’t seen since I left. It was a different scene this time though as it involved a lot more home cooked meals and dinner parties with kids, rather than dodgy bars and packed nightclubs where we spent our college years hanging out! Seeing these friends just reminded me of the "side effect" of traveling the world playing basketball. It is not only experiencing so many wonderful and unique cultures and places, but meeting people with such diverse experiences, outlook, and lives to your own, of which the lessons learned and perspectives gained through these friendships are invaluable. The alumni and the fans were excited to see us at a football game we attended. The students had no idea who we were, except for the NBA star Jarrett Jack who was with us! I think some of them were around 5 years old at the time we made it to the national college final, I don't think Facebook was even invented then. It was a proud moment as they all had similar things to say to us. Something along the lines of... "I have never been more proud to be associated with Georgia Tech than when you guys made the run to the championship game. That was the greatest time of my life as a Georgia Tech student/alumni/fan." It was great to hear and extremely special to be a part of the school’s history and folklore.
The interesting thing is when we all got together to catch up we hardly spoke about the wins and that 'magical' run to the championship game. A lot of the conversation was around the hardships we went through before we got to that stage. The 40 point losses that were handed to us, being torched by Carmelo Anthony in the Syracuse carrier dome in front of 30,000 people. The embarrassing losses to schools in "weaker" conferences than us who we were supposed to beat, especially with one of the best recruits in the country on our team the year before our Final Four appearance, Chris Bosh (who ended up becoming an ok player in the NBA, you might have heard of him...). The 6am running sessions where people were throwing up was discussed quite humorously, along with teammates running and practicing through cramps, muscle spasms and injuries. We laugh at it now but at the time they were the most brutal and intense demands I’ve ever put my body through, which I am still paying the price for today. We laugh at it now because we realise it was necessary. We are able to laugh at the embarrassing losses because we realise it made the victories that much sweeter, by fighting through the adversity we persevered and came 9 points short of claiming the ultimate prize in college basketball. By doing all that work, and fighting through the adversity, we were not guaranteeing ourselves a spot in the Championship game, or even a tournament berth, but we know now, by not doing that work, and not fighting through the adversity, we could guarantee we would never have made it to the championship game.
I'll always cherish my years at Georgia Tech, as it was a place I experienced some of the lowest lows and the highest highs of my life, and met so many amazing people and lifelong friends. Who knows what would have happened if I had of taken the comfortable option and stayed home to play with the 36ers straight after the AIS. But I’m glad I had that conversation with Phil and ultimately decided to head overseas to college and 'experience it for a year!'
7ft fluorescent white, baby faced Australian basketballer. Former NBA, Georgia Tech and NBL player.