By Brett Maher | The Olympics! By a triple Olympian
Pictured: Brett Maher Court. Brett's name is synonymous with state's our elite, pro, national league basketball team, the Adelaide 36ers. If you do not believe me here is a pic of the court they named after him, it has his signature there in the middle of the court.
Preface by Janx.....
Not many athletes have had an 18 year pro sports career, let alone in a league like the NBL was during Brett Maher's career, sometimes considered one of the better professional pro-leagues in the world. The success he had in his pro sporting career speaks for itself; captaining the team to 3 NBL titles, 3 Olympic games etc. etc. etc. etc. This blog discusses his Olympic experience, from someone that has been there - THREE TIMES. It is a great read for any young athletes aspiring to represent Australia as a Boomer, their supporters, or anyone interested in the Olympic experience and mindset of an athlete like Brett.
Country first! That is the mantra I continually hear from so many of our current and former Australian reps I speak to at all levels. Even the coaches in the college system, that have also played or coached for Australia at International level, reverberate the same mantra. This "country first" mantra has come up on a number of occasions when asking about timing for visits, summer school in the states or going to prep or High School early that could create timing conflicts for their Aussie rep opportunities.
Talking to Americans. Sometimes by their own admission their culture is more self-serving, priorities are about me; what does this event do for me, why would I do that and what will I get if I do. Most Aussies may have a slightly different mindset and I think learning the Aussie mindset will help US College coaches better recruit Aussie kids. It will also help kids coming through our system to understand what values lead to top Aussies being so heavily recruited by Division 1 US College coaches and beyond.
Why is this "Country first" mantra so prevalent in the culture of our elite athletes and coaches?
For a professional in the sport, Olympics or world champs are not exactly going to be financially rewarding. Likewise for a young player coming through some may put perceived exposure of playing on American soil (in prep schools, High Schools etc) above Country first, but if they do they may be missing the point. They may not fully understand the premium that many college coaches are putting on Aussies and why that is. For the professional participating in Olympics, you risk injury playing at such high levels and if you do fail you fail on a world stage and this could harm your pro stocks. Here is my take why the country first mantra exists despite the above drawbacks. There are two perspectives a to why; the self serving and the self effacing.
It is the opportunity to compete at the highest level on the world stage, to challenge yourself, sometimes to be identified for more international competition in the professional ranks (refer Shane Heal picking up an NBA contract off the back of Olympics performances).
However, for Aussies the country first mantra is not always just about self serving ideas. It is about our great values of going into "war" with your countrymen against the rest of the world, the mateship with the guys you grew up within our pathways (at elite levels our pathways are fairly pointy and guys at this level literally grow competing with and against each other a lot), the opportunity to put back into our sport to help its profile and inspire the next generation. These self-effacing values I feel are captured whenever you talk to the guys that have competed for Australia on the global stage. Hearing them interviewed, their US-born team mates speak about them, ultimately for guys like Joe Ingles, Bogut, Mills, Exum, Baynes or Dellavedova etc these values they developed in Australia's pathways are why they are now such a valuable commodity in the NBA. Now, many US College Coaches are also wanting some of that Aussie mindset.
I hope what comes through in Brett's blog, at least it did for me, is how amazing and rewarding the "country first" mantra can be. From hanging with the dream team 2.0, to "Drewie's" flag incident, to playing with your elite countrymen on the global stage, even down to the Olympic village experience and bay marie food in Utah (nice one!), the pride and memories Brett has in playing for Australia is apparent.
Before Brett gets started I want to mention 2 personal stories which highlight the qualities of the man.
Heat sessions. When I was at Norwood (South Australian District/Rep Club), we approached Brett to run clinics for us at the time for a few of our best kids at the club. Straight off the bat he said yes. He had no ties to the club, no relationship with us but he was very open to our proposal. The kids loved the sessions and a couple of them are still playing Premier League, 13 years later. Not sure if he even remembers these sessions but the manner in which he worked with the kids, at the height of his own career and stardom was absolute class and amongst the best workouts I've ever seen. The intensity in the athletes was obvious as was their improvement in the months they worked with him.
Catchup on Men's program. When Brett was coaching our men's side at Sturt we caught up over a coffee to discuss my u18 Div 1 boys at Sturt. They had a long way to go when Brett and I met. Again Brett was giving of his time. Open to ideas and opportunities to integrate them into the men's program quickly, mentor them if needed and offer me some tips and insights into getting them ready. Again, going the extra mile, but it was his down to earth demeanor and great insights I valued the most. 5 of these guys are now the featured athletes on this site and some of the best players in the country in their age group.
There's a few more and I know many more out there in SA but you get the idea...
Over to Mahersie......
Pictured: Mahersie with "that look", about to attack or dish out another dime?
The road to any Olympics is extremely difficult and has changed so much for basketballers over the past 10-15 years. When I was trialling for the ’96, 2000 and ’04 Olympics all of the players came from within the NBL so it was easy to gauge your competition and for coaches to keep an eye on all of the talent. Whereas now, 90% of the team are playing in the NBA, NCAA or Europe with only a small contingent playing in the NBL. This may make it easier for the coaches to select players because most of the team pick themselves but to keep track of them all, stay in contact, organise training camps and practice games etc must be a nightmare.
Just prior to the Olymics in ’96 we played against the ‘Dream Team’ in Utah which was probably the second best team ever assembled after the original ‘Dream Team’. I recall when they arrived at 1am in the morning because I happened to be awake and looking out my window when I saw a bus with about ten police motorbikes in a cavalcade in front of it coming down the main street. I was not sure if this was a basketball team or the American President arriving. There were about 500 people out the front of our hotel waiting for them and it was 1 AM! Their team was comprised of many legends of the game that I had grown up idolising and watching on television, with players like; Gary Payton, John Stockton, Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Scottie Pippen to name a few. At game time, the intro to the game was amazing especially when they announced home town heroes Karl Malone and John Stockton, 18,000 fans screaming. We got beaten by about 40 points and I played limited minutes that game and went 0-2 from the field, but had the best time. When we got back to the hotel we had a post game meal with the USA team. I was really interested to see what we would be eating, so I lifted the lids on the bay maries to find cheese burgers and fries, could this day get any better! We then asked them if we could get their autographs and they said yes. Our whole team disappeared upstairs to get things to sign and came back down like little kids getting signatures off our idols.
Pictured: Dream Team 2.0, who Brett and his team were fortunate to play against on a couple of occasions, included some of the legends of the game.
My first Olympics in 1996 was in Atlanta. I was 23 years old and had been starting for the 36ers for the last three years. As one of the up and coming players I was given an opportunity to see what the ‘Big Stage’ was like and gain some experience for coming years. I wasn’t expecting much court time as I was backing up Shane Heal and Andrew Gaze who were already dominating in the NBL and had played at several big International events. As expected my court time was minimal but it was so good to be part of a team that outperformed most people’s expectations and finished fourth (Janx: one of the highest finishes of all time for the Boomers), losing to USA in the cross overs and Lithuania spanked us in the Bronze medal play-off(Sabonis played one of the best individual games I have ever seen in that game). This Olympics also included one of the best games I have ever been involved in, which was our game against Croatia that put us into the medal rounds. The game had everything including Toni Kukoc’ in his prime (albeit with a broken thumb), clutch free throws and an unforgettable three pointer by Tony Ronaldson from the corner which won us the game. We equaled the best ever result for an Australian Men’s team at an Olympics.
Pictured: Brett Maher with his famous, text book, pull up jumper with Lamard Odom and Allan Iverson looking on.
Off the court was such an eye opener as well. The village was so full of life with unbelievable athletes everywhere you looked. The first thing I saw when we arrived at the Atlanta village were the heavily armed guards at the entry to the athlete’s village which made me feel quite safe and secure. We were housed in dormitory style accommodation with two players per room on the same level as the Australian tennis team. There were so many things in the village that could become distractions including: 9 McDonalds outlets, 2 eating halls, movie theatre, bowling alley, arcade hall and live shows by many prominent world renowned artists. I even saw Tony Bennett and Jerry Seinfeld perform live near the village. For me the best part of the Olympic village was the camaraderie formed by all of the Australian athletes who came from different sports and backgrounds but showed immediate interest for the other sports and their results.
The other huge highlight for me at all three Olympics was the opening and closing ceremonies. That moment when you walk in to the packed athletics stadium and walk around the track amongst the best athletes in the world still gives me goose bumps and it’s hard to describe the euphoric feeling that you have. The 2000 Olympics was probably my favourite because Andrew Gaze got to hold the flag at the opening ceremony, which was great for him and Australian basketball. When selected, he was told two things by John Coates; to have fun and when he got half way around to dip the flag at the queens’ representative. With all the commotion and excitement he got a third of the way around and forgot when he was supposed to dip the flag so in true Drewey style he proceeded to dip the flag to everyone for the remainder of the lap.
Pictured: Brett and his team for the 2000 Olympics included many Aussie greats and legends too.
At the 2000 Olympics I was excited for several reasons; 1. We were playing at home in front of our home crowd 2. The team was playing very well in all the lead up games 3. I was coming off some very good seasons in the NBL including 2 championships. Expectations were high on this team as we were labelled the best Australian Team ever at that stage and when you look at our roster you can see why. With probably our best chance ever to get through to a gold medal game we matched up against France in the crossover, but were beaten convincingly. This brought us up against Lithuania again for the bronze medal game and we were very confident about this as we had beaten them in a lead up game one week prior to the Olympics. What we didn’t take into account was how much they had improved throughout the tournament and they went on to beat us easily, to have us finish fourth again.
I have always put the team first, but on a personal note I was quite disappointed with my court time in Sydney (2:50 for the entire tournament) considering my form in the NBL leading up to the games. A week after the Olympics I announced that I would retire from representing Australia if the current coaching staff was appointed as I believed they had no faith in my ability at that level and this would give someone else an opportunity. What this also did was inspire me to work harder on my game as I didn’t feel like I had proven to myself that I could perform on this stage, yet.
When I look back on finishing fourth twice at the Olympics I am extremely proud as the calibre of talent on all the other teams was amazing. It’s hard to explain to a lot of people back here in Australia just how good the teams from especially USA and Europe are. The difference between the top 12 teams in the world now is so miniscule, it comes down to which teams can perform consistently and in the big games at the right time of the tournament.
Brian Goorjian was appointed as the head coach for the 2004 Olympics, which I was excited about as I knew he was a fantastic coach and we had had many great games against them over the years which had built up a really good rivalry. Not many things always run to plan and my journey to making the ‘04 team was scattered with many hurdles and obstacles. In 2003 we lost our son Hudson to a rare disease and I also required a discectomy for a compressed disc in my back. Sam Mackinnon was recovering from a knee injury and I had my back injury so Coach Goorjian gave us both until the final deadline to get healthy and then had to decide which one of us he was going to take. Luckily my recovery went well and whether I was ahead in my fitness/agility from the injury or was a better fit for the team make-up I will never know, but I was extremely thankful for being selected. My driving force through the whole build up was the fact that I wanted to dedicate my performance at the Athens Olympics to Hudson.
After losing nearly all of our experience after the 2000 Olympics we had a very young team in ’04 with a young Andrew Bogut starting for us in centre at the age of 19. Being young our consistency wasn’t what it needed to be and we lost a few crucial close games which had us finishing outside the top 8 in 9th position. The highlight game for me was when we played USA and led for three and a half quarters. We lost concentration for 5 minutes and that was enough for their talent to gain momentum and finish over the top of us. What it did re-enforce to me was how far basketball in Australia has come from a time where we were happy to be on the same court as USA (and try and get their autographs), to a time when we can actually compete with them.
Due to a rushed build up to this Olympics I ended up carrying a few niggling injuries through the tournament but was given amazing opportunities with court time and felt like I performed well re-enforcing to me that I could compete at that level against the best in the world.
To represent your country for me will always be the highest honour you can achieve in basketball and I am very thankful for being selected to go to 3 Olympic Games. They have provided invaluable learning experiences and lifelong memories which I cherish dearly.
My Journey through Junior Basketball
I started playing basketball at South Adelaide basketball club in U/10’s and in U/12’s decided to change clubs to Sturt basketball club. My family and I made this decision because the coaching at the time was much stronger and I also had a few friends playing at Sturt. My two most influential coaches at Sturt were Neil Gliddon and Neil Burford, both were excellent at developing skills and gave me a perfect springboard to make it into representative teams.
After my second appearance for South Australia at our National titles in U/16’s I was selected at the age of 15 to go to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra under the guidance of Coach Patrick Hunt. Pat is one of the most knowledgeable coaches in the world, could be quite intense and this is where he taught me about professionalism in sport and what was required to play both internationally and professionally. It was my first exposure to structured weights sessions, early morning trainings, regular individual sessions and daily team training sessions. One of the most crucial things I learnt there was how to train hard every day and to always practice at game tempo.
Towards the end of my first year at the AIS I started to get recruited by University of Arizona (Janx: Arizona plays in the Pac-12 the same league that our featured athlete Isaac White will be playing in with Stanford) in America to attend their college and was receiving weekly mail from them. Although I didn’t need to make any decisions straight away I knew I had a big decision to make. I had signed a letter of Intent with the Adelaide 36ers to play with them after my time at the AIS, but to play under the legendary Lute Olsen at a great college in America would also be a fantastic opportunity. At the start of the following year we were playing a 3 game road trip in Victoria when I went up for a jump shot early in the first game. As I landed my defensive player took out my legs and I completely tore my cruciate ligament in my right knee, I thought my career was over before it even began. This was my first major hurdle but being at the AIS was the perfect place for my recovery. I could get daily physio and massage treatment and in rehabbing my knee with an extensive weights program I was able to build up heaps more strength in my legs. After six months I was back on court with an increased vertical of 12cm. I was selected to the Australian Junior team which played later that year at the World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. Arizona was still keen for me to come and play for them and were sending some scouts over to the Championships to have a look at myself and some other players. Due to my knee injury I went from the starting point guard, playing good minutes to coming off the bench and as such Arizona contacted me after the Championships and said they wouldn’t need my services. They did end up recruiting 3 players that went on to the NBA that year. I finished off my third and final year at the AIS and returned to Adelaide at the age of 18 to play for the 36ers.
My thoughts on the best pathway for young basketballers
I believe that the same path is not right for everyone, but the path that gives you the most opportunity at furthering your career nowadays is definitely going to college in USA. Selecting the right opportunity/school is difficult and shouldn’t be made just because a school is interested in you. Players need to take into account so many things like: the coach and their coaching style, the chemistry of the team, the on court opportunities, life around campus and schooling, the weather and much more. I have seen countless kids return from college because they were disillusioned with court time, or they couldn’t handle the weather or didn’t get along with the other players or coach. On the other side if you get it right it can be one of the best experiences in your life and really set you up for your professional playing career.
The reason I say it’s the best pathway is because the Australian professional coaches keep a very close eye on all the main Aussies over in college so you don’t lose out there. Above that though the Europe coaches like Australian coaches nearly always recruit their imports out of the American system so you get very good exposure and a much better chance of getting a job in Europe once you’re finished. Then, at the far end of the spectrum it’s definitely the best way to get seen by NBA scouts and get drafted re Luke Longley, Patty Mills and Matthew Delavedova etc.
What am I up to now?
A couple of years ago I joined Champion Travel and formed the company, “Brett Maher Basketball Tours”. We work with clubs and schools to put together basketball tours from Australia to USA and also USA to Australia. These tours include games, accom, travel, sightseeing and through our unique network of contacts some really specialised, exciting NBA and NCAA experiences. The reason I got involved with these is because when I was 13yrs old I went on a similar tour to USA and had an unforgettable time with lifelong memories. It’s now my goal to create similar memories for the kids of today. Please check out our website at: www.brettmaherbasketballtours.com.au and if you have any inquiries please make contact with me.
Pictured: Running the show for the Adelaide 36ers in the NBL. An excellent option to "run the show" for your school or club basketball tour.