BY MATT MCQUADE
Over the years, the National Basketball League has seen a number of quality big men lace up their boots and patrol the paint.
Names such as Mark Bradtke, Dean Uthoff, Chris Anstey, Ray Borner, Matthew Nielsen and the like have graced the hardwood, giving their teams a point of difference in a competition where the small man has ruled for decades.
But it’s difficult to come up with a huge list of great NBL pivots – at least, a list of guys at the position who would be considered superstars and/or Hall of Fame material. On the other hand, when you talk about some of the great guards and backcourt combinations that have played over the more than 30 year history of this league, you come up with almost an embarrassment of riches.
From pioneers like Calvin Bruton and Rocky Smith, to the superstars of the 1980s like ‘Mean’ Al Green, Steve ‘Mr Magic Carfino, Owen Wells and Phil Smyth, the golden era of backcourt talent in the 1990s with Andrew Gaze, Ricky Grace, Shane Heal, Darryl McDonald, Derek Rucker, Lanard Copeland, Dwayne McClain, Brett Maher and Darnell Mee, and the 21st century standouts like CJ Bruton, John Rillie, Mathew Campbell, Kirk Penney, Gary Ervin and the like – if you like watching guard play, the NBL is the place to be.
And of course, I’ve often spoken about this incredible crop of point guards in the league this season – with the standout MVP candidate in Cedric Jackson leading a remarkable group who have made a significant impact in 2012/13 and unquestionably raised the level of play.
Historically, there have been many teams that have done well in Australia’s elite men’s competition based primarily off the strength of their backcourt. In the 1980s the Canberra Cannons’ dynasty was fuelled by the legendary Phil Smyth-Herb McEachin duo. The Adelaide 36er juggernaut in the middle of that decade was led by the dynamic combination of Al Green and Darryl ‘Iceman’ Pearce. And starting in 1992, the greatest backcourt combo the league has ever seen was born when the Melbourne Tigers recruited a skinny dude who had played in the NBA with Philadelphia and the LA Clippers named Lanard Copeland and teamed him with the best player this country has produced in one Andrew Gaze.
Those are but three all-time great backcourt units – a case can also be made for the CJ Bruton-Jason Smith partnership at the Sydney Kings; Gordie McLeod and Alphonse Hammond back in the day with the old Illawarra Hawks; and Brett Maher and Willie Farley with those powerhouse 36er squads in the late 1990s.
These days, the amount of backcourt talent is such that in order to be competitive in this league, you’ve got to have at least All Star calibre talent at the guard positions. Think New Zealand with Cedric Jackson, CJ Bruton and Daryl Corletto. Or Melbourne with Jonny Flynn and Chris Goulding. Even Sydney with Ben Madgen and Corin Henry before he went down and was lost for the season.
And then of course, you have a duo in Perth right now which may very well be one of the greatest we’ve ever seen in the National Basketball League – Damian Martin and Kevin Lisch.
There’s little doubt that Martin is one of the best defensive players in league history; a relentless, ferocious competitor with an incredible motor who never stops coming after you all 40 minutes. And Lisch, no weak link himself at the defensive end of the floor, is the reigning NBL Most Valuable Player thanks to his imposing offensive game and a reputation as one of the great clutch performers in the league today. Ask many people around the league who they would most want to take the last shot in a game, and you better believe Kevin’s name will come up more than a few times.
Not bad for a guy who many Wildcat fans had urged the team to get rid of early in his first season – a season that, by the way, ended with Kevin winning the Larry Sengstock Medal as Grand Final Series Most Valuable Player in leading Perth to their record-breaking fifth championship.
If Perth is to eventually prevail over New Zealand in a Grand Final series most believe is inevitable, a large reason will be down to Martin and Lisch winning their backcourt matchup against the likes of Jackson and co. It is a matchup that will be epic in every way, assuming of course that it all goes down as expected.
The Lisch-Martin Wildcat combo is as good as it gets at this level. And should they win a second title together, you have to start seriously putting them in the same stratosphere as the legendary Gaze-Copeland and Smyth-McEachin duos. Considering how great some of those past backcourts were, that’s really saying something.
This week I spoke to one member of the Wildcats’ superb backcourt, one of the truly nice guys in the league, Kevin Lisch, to get his thoughts on Perth’s season, his aspirations of playing for Australia and the probable upcoming confrontation for all the marbles against New Zealand.
That was a great weekend for you guys, particularly the comeback win against Melbourne.
Yeah, we kinda treated that as a playoff game. Having four games in like ten days or whatever is a good test for us. The Melbourne game...with their physicality and the fact they are fighting for a playoff spot, we looked at that as a playoff game. I think it was great...we kinda grinded it out, stuck to our game plan towards the end of the game, made some plays and hit some shots in the fourth quarter and won it.
Rob Beveridge has talked about the fact you guys haven’t quite got up to speed offensively as yet. How important was it to have that fourth quarter against the Tigers when you went 7 for 8 from deep?
It was obviously very nice to see for a change (laughs). I think that throughout all this, the thing we’ve seen is that our defence can win us a lot of games. As you know, come playoff time that’s going to be huge because it’s going to be more of a grind; it’s not going to be free-flowing. I think it’s been great that our defence has been there all season for us and hopefully we can add in a little more offence, you know, maybe make a few more shots here and there, and I feel pretty good about it right now.
Talking about that defence – Bevo says this might be the best defensive group he has ever coached. Where does that intensity and toughness come from as a group?
You know, we really have been amazing this year. I think at the beginning of the season, Bevo talked about really getting after it in the fullcourt, but in the halfcourt we’re going to make it really hard for teams to score, really look to contain people a lot more. I think that’s been a big thing. Obviously having the best defensive player in the league in Damian Martin on your team helps quite a bit. I think we’ve played into that thinking – that we’re going to get after it in the fullcourt and play up-tempo, but we’re not going to be kamikaze about it; we’re going to be smart about it. I think we’ve bought into it and we continue to buy into it, because we see so many areas we can get better at.
You talked about Damian Martin. Your partnership with him is exceptional. What are your thoughts on ‘Damo’ as a player?
I mean, this is my fourth year with Damo. He just makes life so much easier for you as a guard. I think the thing you appreciate the most as a player is that you know what you are going to get every single game from him. There’s that consistency. It’s a real attribute as a player – I feel there’s certain guys who when they get on the court you know you can win with them and he’s definitely one of those guys. It doesn’t matter who you are playing – you’ve always got a chance to win with this guy.
Leading on from that, the guy Damian is most connected to is Bevo, given he’s been coached by him since the age of 15. Similarly, Bevo was the one who recruited you, brought you out here and has stuck by you. What are your thoughts on Bevo as a coach and person?
He’s just been absolutely unbelievable. I mean, people are always talking about how good the Wildcats have had it, you know, we’ve been together as a group for years. But it’s tough as a coach too, because with that familiarity can sometimes breed, not contempt (laughs) but contentment, being comfortable and not pushing each other. But as a coach, every day he’s been able to motivate us and to push us, and really help us to police ourselves out there. He has the ability to be your coach and your mentor, while just having a lot of fun at the same time.
The standard response to this next question is ‘one game at a time’. But I have to ask it anyway – are the Wildcats already eyeing off New Zealand, given you and the Breakers are far and away the standout teams this season and almost certain to meet in the championship decider?
Oh, there’s no doubt about it – most people are expecting us to meet in the Grand Final. The next closest team is what, six games behind us. But it’s funny – when it all comes down to playoff time, you just have to expect the unexpected. Teams view it as a new season and everybody is pretty much on a level playing field. With that being said, we’re not looking forward at all to playoffs or anything. We still see it as we’re chasing New Zealand and we want that first place spot.
You obviously have an awareness of how passionate the fan base is in Perth. Early in your first season in the NBL, there were many people calling for you to be dumped. How tough was that to deal with?
Well, I think as a player you learn that’s just fans being fans and they are passionate. At the same time, when I came in, it was a blessing that I was kinda naive about everything (laughs). I don’t go and read the web threads and stuff like that. I mean yeah, you hear things here and there, but Bevo’s formed such a tight-knit group that I always felt safe, even though I’m sure there were times that I wasn’t that safe (laughs). But I think that because of the culture that Bevo formed, I always felt good, you know. I never look at it now and think ‘oh I told you so,’ stuff like that, but I think it was pretty sweet that he stuck by me that first season and we wound up winning the championship. That was a pretty good feeling.
When you first came out to Australia, did you believe you would stay here for as long as you have?
No (laughs). Coming out of college, I was like “mom and dad, I’m going to go out to Australia for a year, then we’ll go from there.” I figured I’d end up in Europe or back home if I got homesick. Never in my life did I imagine I’d be here for a fourth year, married to an Australian girl and looking to get citizenship. It’s been a 180 (degree) turn for sure.
What has the experience been like as a player at Perth Arena playing in front of those 10,000 plus crowds every night?
It’s unbelievable. We’ll be playing our tenth game or something like that at home this week, and every time you go in there the support is unbelievable. You just can’t describe it, because the fans are just so passionate like you said, and it’s just so much fun to play in front of them. It’s kinda hard to explain, but it’s just a blast.
What did winning league Most Valuable Player last season mean to you?
You know, it meant a lot. Obviously I guess when you receive the award you’re like “oh, that’s alright,” because you’ve still got playoffs and that’s what you are focused on. So you don’t really get to think about it at the time. But it really was an honour – it says you worked hard, you got some recognition, and it’s a testament to my teammates, to Bevo and all the other coaches. It is pretty rewarding, I’m not going to make any bones about it. I think it’s something that when you retire you look back on it and think that was pretty cool. I’ve never been one who likes being in the limelight for individual things, but that was pretty special.
And recently, you were named to the Perth Wildcats 30th Anniversary All-Star team. That must have been a tremendous thrill, considering some of the names in that group.
That was probably just as special as winning the MVP. I mean you look at some of the guys on stage with you – Ricky Grace, James Crawford, (Andrew) Vlahov, Paul Rogers, Shawn (Redhage) is up there, Mike Ellis...it’s just amazing, and then there’s me (laughs). That’s kind of what you’re thinking – it’s like “wow, I guess I’ve done some good things, but I definitely didn’t expect this.”
I want to go back to your past quickly– your dad played quarterback in the NFL and went to famed university Notre Dame. Was there ever a chance you would follow in his footsteps?
No, not really. You know, he used to coach a little bit when he retired, and I used to go to all the practices all dressed up in all the football gear – this is probably when I was five years old. But I never wanted to play football – I guess I was introduced to basketball and just loved it from day one. I always wanted to play basketball.
You played for Coach Rick Majerus at the University of St Louis, who unfortunately passed away late last year. What was that college experience like, and how much did his death hit you personally?
Yeah, I had Coach Majerus for the last two years of my college career. The man was probably one of the most knowledgeable coaches, Xs and Os wise, in the game. I learned so much from him. When it comes to coaching, he was a tough customer. Pretty much for those two years, it was tough...he came in trying to change the culture and he was tough on me. But I think in looking back on it now, he was doing that to make me better and make the team better, so I appreciate it so much more now. With him dying...I knew he was sick, but still, you know, it’s a shock when somebody who has done so much for you dies. It was a great experience at St Louis and I learned so much from him.
Finally, you talked about the fact you got married to Rachel and you are going to become a naturalised citizen. Along with that is an opportunity to play for Australia. What would it mean to you to become a
Boomer and play at the World Championships or Olympic Games? It would be pretty much the pinnacle of my basketball career. I would absolutely love that. You know, obviously I’m getting citizenship because I married Rachel and I love Australia, but at the same time, it would be just unbelievable to play for the Boomers. Hopefully down the road I’ll have a chance to try out, so we’ll see.
Does anyone want a Top Four spot? You could be forgiven for asking that question after what was a wild Round 19 in the iiNet NBL Championship.
Townsville comes into Perth after winning eight of their last ten and looking like a solid bet to make the playoffs, only to get their doors blown off by the Wildcats. Sydney dominates for large stretches at home against Cairns, but lets it all slip away and loses their seventh straight game to put their postseason hopes in extreme jeopardy.
Cairns’ victory over Sydney gave them the impetus to launch an assault on the playoffs, but then they go home and cough up an 18 point halftime lead against the downtrodden and playing with zero confidence Adelaide 36ers. And the Crocs go into Wollongong and get comprehensively thrashed by the depleted Hawks in a dreadful performance that harkened back to the way they played during their 0-10 start to the season.
Get the picture? I haven’t included the Tigers’ loss to Perth at the Cage in this analysis, if only because Melbourne played very well and were just undone by an outstanding ballclub in the fourth quarter. But it’s remarkable that we have a situation where a few teams were given a great opportunity to make things easier for themselves yet failed to take advantage last weekend.
It means that no less than five teams are still well in the hunt for those two remaining playoff berths. But who will step up and show they want the extreme challenge of taking on the Perth or New Zealand juggernaut?
Round 20 in the iiNet NBL Championship begins with a rematch of a thriller last week as the Perth Wildcats do battle with the Melbourne Tigers at Perth Arena in an unusual Thursday night timeslot.
The Tigers controlled most of that game at the Cage and looked set for the signature win I predicted, but once again, the Wildcats just showed how tough they are to kill off, even without big man Matt Knight, who suffered an ankle injury early in the fourth quarter and missed the rest of the game. It didn’t matter, as a Wildcat long range attack in the final period got them over the line.
Knight should be fine for this game, but again, his propensity to get injured is a massive concern and could be the difference between Perth winning a championship and New Zealand creating history with a three-peat.
Jonny Flynn gave Perth all kinds of trouble last week and clearly the emphasis for the ’Cats will be to make adjustments and prevent his damaging forays in the keyway; they also will look to ensure that Chris Goulding can’t hurt them from the perimeter.
The Wildcats respect the Tigers greatly, and that close game last week will have been good for Perth to ensure they won’t approach this with any complacency or overconfidence.
Since losing their home season opener to Adelaide, the Wildcats have been devastating at Perth Arena, winning nine straight games there by an average of 17.5 points per game, with four of those victories coming by more than 20 points. I’m not expecting that kind of blowout this time, but I do think Perth maintains their dominant run at home.
When Wollongong lost three starters to season-ending knee injuries, they were basically written off as a playoff contender, but thanks to other teams falling by the wayside find themselves still in the thick of the postseason hunt and with a favourable schedule the rest of the way, starting with this game against the Adelaide 36ers on Friday night at the Wollongong Entertainment Centre.
After a brilliant win over Townsville at the Sandpit last week powered by the brilliance of Adris Deleon and the outside shooting of Oscar Forman, the Hawks find themselves at 10-13 and in fourth place on the ladder with five winnable games remaining against Sydney at home, Townsville and Melbourne on the road plus two home games left versus a 36er ballclub that has underachieved mightily this season.
It says a lot about the outstanding culture at the Hawks that they have taken hit after hit this season yet continue to persevere, and they will approach this game with the same kind of passion that has always typified them as a franchise.
Adelaide had a morale-boosting win over the Taipans in Cairns last week and still present a threat despite being all but out of playoff calculations. But in Jason Cadee – who nailed the winning three last week – Adam Gibson, Stephen Weigh, Daniel Johnson and Anthony Petrie, the Sixers have enough talent to give Wollongong pause.
They will have trouble slowing down NBL Player of the Week Deleon and Malcolm Grant however, and Larry Davidson’s mobility and skill will be an issue for the Sixers.
In the end, the Hawks just have too much to play for, and they should get past Adelaide at home.
It will be interesting to see how the Taipans respond this week as they take on the Townsville Crocodiles on Saturday at the Cairns Convention Centre, after their coach Aaron Fearne labelled them soft when they gave up an 18 point halftime lead last Saturday night and lost a stunner to Adelaide at the Snakepit.
Considering the resolve they showed in overhauling the Kings in Sydney the previous night, the Taipans’ collapse at home was shocking and they wasted a golden opportunity to keep themselves in the hunt for a playoff spot. But as Fearne said in the post-game press conference, his team’s inability to protect leads and close games out has been their undoing in 2012/13.
Right now, their postseason hopes seem rather forlorn, given they still have games against New Zealand and Perth upcoming. Still, this crazy season means they aren’t out of it by any means, and they get a chance to deal another blow to the aspirations of arch-rival Townsville, who are coming off a horrendous Round 19.
You can’t sugar coat it – the Crocs were abysmal last week, getting blown out by the Wildcats in Perth and obliterated by the Hawks in Wollongong. It was a giant step back for the program after they had done so well to resurrect their season, and you wonder if they still have enough fight left in them after last week’s disaster.
However, Paul Woolpert is an excellent coach, and I’m sure he’ll have his charges ready to go in what really is one of many do or die games remaining on their schedule – and like Wollongong, they have enough time and winnable games ahead to be right there at the end for a Top Four spot.
The last time these two played was a double overtime classic at the Swamp, and Cairns had several opportunities to close it out, but just couldn’t get it done. Based on what both teams produced last week, this one is really a head scratcher to try and predict, but I think the Taipans will rise to the occasion in front of their home crowd and barely outlast Townsville in this fourth game of the Reptile Rumble – even if the Snakes lose, Townsville needs to win by at least 22 to secure the regular season series, and that seems unlikely.
After Sydney coughed up a solid lead against Cairns last week in what was a disappointing loss at the Crown Kingdome, Shane Heal was a frustrated man in the post-game press conference, lamenting the fact his team was in control of the game for large portions yet lost its way at crucial times.
If they carry forward that lack of focus on Sunday afternoon to their matchup with the relentless Perth Wildcats in Sydney, things could get very ugly in a hurry.
Come in against the Wildcats and show any weakness for one second – they will attack like sharks with blood in the water. With Damian Martin leading the way via his almost maniacal commitment to defence, Kevin Lisch supplying the heavy artillery from the perimeter, Matt Knight doing the grunt work inside and Jesse Wagstaff providing anything that’s required, Perth just keeps coming after you, and never lets’ up.
To be fair, with Corin Henry gone for the year, no one expects the Kings to do anything the rest of the way this season – and that’s understandable given they have lost seven straight games and still have a rough schedule to deal with. But one thing about this team is that they have shown they are at the best with their backs to the wall, and they will come out and play with a nothing to lose attitude.
Ian Crosswhite has been outstanding late in the season; Ben Madgen will get his numbers and Aaron Bruce gives them a solid playmaker with Henry not there. But with Luke Martin buried way down deep in Heal’s doghouse, the guard depth is questionable – Graeme Dann was playing a lot of point last week – and it’s tough to see how the Kings, despite the fact they run very good sets offensively, will be able to cope under the immense pressure the Wildcats will undoubtedly bring to bear.
Sydney will play their guts out, but in the end Perth’s depth and relentlessness takes their toll and the Wildcats keep the pressure on idle New Zealand with a solid road victory.
Popular columnist and basketball tragic Matt McQuade has written for the National Basketball League and Basketball Australia since 2005 and was previously a regular contributor to national periodical Pro Basketball Today. He’s the play by play caller for Sydney Kings’ games on Sydney Kings Radio alongside NBL legend Bruce Bolden, and you can also hear him every Sunday night from 7:30pm with Cameron Luke on SEN 1116AM radio in Melbourne and on the web at www.sen.com.au with his weekly NBL wrap-up on the ‘Hoopin Around’ program.