No one is more synonymous with the Cairns Taipans than coach Aaron Fearne and he continues to be proud of what the Snakes have been able to accomplish but is already starting to plan on how to improve further in 2017/18.
Fearne and the Taipans are two forces that can’t be separated. He was part of the Snakes as a player in the foundation years before going on to be an assistant coach before helping Nate Jawai achieve his NBA dream.
Then he returned for the 2009/10 season, took over as head coach and has remained at the helm ever since taking Cairns to its first ever Grand Final appearances and another Finals appearance this season after finishing in second position.
Despite the disappointment of losing in the semi finals to the Perth Wildcats, Fearne can’t help but be proud of the work put in by everyone at the Taipans to ensure they remain such a competitive part of the NBL from the league’s smallest market.
Just being competitive isn’t enough for Fearne though, he desperately wants to be part of bring a first championship to Cairns.
“I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly with the club folding and coming back only to almost fold again and come back. The community has rallied behind the club and the Cairns City Council and CQU have been a huge part of what we’ve been able to do over the years,” Fearne told NBL Media.
“It’s a passion for me and I’m a competitor and want to win, but I know what we are faced with and we are always going to want more and challenge each other within the club to want more.
“Sometimes you get a yes and sometimes a no, but that’s part of trying to drive to be better. I would love nothing more than to bring a championship here, it would be a huge accomplishment and we’ll keep working really hard for it.”
While winning the championship is the ultimate goal, Fearne is equally passionate about and committed to developing basketball in the whole region.
“It’s just not about the Taipans for me either, it’s about the whole basketball community in Cairns. I started my coaching at Cairns basketball in under-18s and the Taipans Academy in the under-23s,” he said.
“That’s when I coached Kerry Williams, Nate, Aron Baynes and guys like that so that was my first passion there while playing for the Marlins. The last couple of years we’ve taken over the mentoring of the rep coaches at Cairns basketball so the four coaches involved in our program mentor the age groups there.
“I want kids from Cairns to play at the national league level or better. You aren’t going to churn out NBL level players every single year in a small market like this. It’s the whole community scene basketball wise for me that I want to see thriving. My wife coaches there, my kids play and I’ve seen it all.”
That’s all bigger picture talk.
For Fearne and no doubt his Taipans players, the pain is still burning that they weren’t part of the recent NBL Grand Final series.
The Taipans played their first three games of the season on the road and eight of their opening 12 away from Cairns, but the Snakes managed to stay afloat winning five and losing seven.
They were able to start building some momentum come the back end of the season with new import Tony Mitchell replacing Fuquan Edwin and providing some impetus.
The Taipans won their last three games, six of the last seven and eight of the last 11 to finish at 15-13 and to close the regular season in second position.
Game 1 at home in their semi-final series to Perth was one of those nights where everything that could go wrong, just about did. Wildcat Bryce Cotton caught fire and the result was a big win for the ‘Cats.
To Cairns’ credit, they made all the necessary adjustments for Game 2, trapped and double-teamed Cotton to close him down and put together a game that had all the makings of one that should win in the playoffs.
The downfall was the Snakes couldn’t make their shots and the result was the season was over earlier than they hoped.
Fearne was proud of his group for how hard they fought but it was always going to be tough to bounce back from losing Game 1 at home.
“We didn’t have a lot of impact from Nate. He woke up sick that day and didn’t go to Shootaround and ultimately we needed him to be an impactful player for us in the playoffs, and that didn’t happen. Then you have to be able to make shots,” Fearne said.
“We did some really good things in that second game defensively and to hold them to 74 gives you a chance, but we just couldn’t score the ball well enough. It’s hard to win when you put so much pressure on your defence to have to try and win the games which has kind of been our thing over the years.
“We’ve always defended really well but don’t have the firepower to get a lot of easy baskets. But that’s what we are faced with and we’ll keep finding ways to improve.”
Fearne is looking ahead to next season with some decisions to be made on what they need to add to try to go that one or two steps further.
They will lose Mark Worthington to retirement and it looks as though Mitchell will be unavailable to return whether that was a possibility or not.
Time will tell on imports Travis Trice and Nnanna Egwu while the Taipans do have captain Cameron Gliddon along with Mitch McCarron, Jarrad Weeks and Nate Jawai signed up with Stephen Weigh and Alex Loughton having options to return.
It’s decision time for Fearne and the Taipans on what they feel they need for 2017/18, and what they can add to that group.
“We pretty much have six guys under contract. We’ll have to go and see what we do with the three import spots,” he said.
“We can only move forward based on what we know right now and we have to decide if we need to improve in the Australian department or stay the same and spend more time together and get better at running our stuff.
“We’ll go through all those things but that’s what we have locked in at the moment and we’ll see how it pans out from here.”
When the Taipans signed McCarron coming into the season after he had played one year in Spain after his college career at Metro State, he came with a strong reputation but that counts for little in the NBL until you perform.
He continued to get better as 2016/17 went on and has such a competitive spirit that he became an instant fan favourite with the Taipans.
Fearne was delighted to sign him and to have him secured going forward.
“His athleticism is very good, his physicality is very good and he can make plays off the bounce, he can shoot the ball, he can get on the rim and his biggest strength is that he rebounds better than the position he plays. He will be a star in this league for years to come,” Fearne said.
“He is just a second year pro and our youth probably came out a little bit in the playoffs when you think about that experience that Perth team has together. Our young guys will learn a huge amount from that experience and Mitch is one of those.”
Loughton is 33 and played 258 NBL games, but the veteran’s body held up well after struggling with injury the previous couple of seasons.
He also played a strong role off the bench, shot the ball well and provided that veteran presence which all adds up to Fearne seeing no reason why he doesn’t have at least one season left him.
Particularly with the departures of Worthington and Cam Tragardh over the past 12 months.
“I think Alex had a really good year and one of his better ones in some times. I thought he was very at ease with himself in terms of his role and he had a good year physically,” he said.
“I thought he really shot the ball with a real smoothness to his shot that I hadn’t seen in a while at the end of the year, which was great to see.
“He was really good for us and it’s good that he was in a good place mentally and it helps when physically he is in a good place.
“He has been here for a couple of years now where he’s really battled through some major injuries and had horrible off-seasons trying to recover and comes out and still plays well. He is really happy here too and you never know what can happen, but we’d like to have him back.”
Another player who Fearne developed a tremendous respect for and relationship with was Egwu.
His professionalism, commitment and willingness to work tirelessly on his own game and to do anything to help his team made him an instant hit.
That’s why Fearne had full faith that he could deliver when starting ahead of Jawai in Game 2 of the semi-final series in Perth and he put in a strong performance with nine points and five rebounds.
Again his impact was more significant than just his numbers with the energy and effort he brings, and he even nailed his third three-pointer of the season.
Fearne isn’t sure if he will come back for a second season, but sees no reason why it couldn’t be a possibility.
“That’s his second year as a pro after his first year was in the D-League and he is a first-class individual. It doesn’t come much more high character than Nnanna and his teammates, the club and the fans all loved him,” Fearne said.
“He came to work hard every day and he is low maintenance. He played his role to the nth degree and will keep improving. He can’t not improve because he’s such a hard worker. There are parts of his game he is very good at and parts he will never be good at, but every player is like that.
“We have big plans on wanting to bring him back for sure. It’s easy to say that but a lot more needs to go into it for it to happen, but he’s a quality person and a very good player for us. He can easily go out and start in this league because he defends really well, he will rebound and play above the rim.
“He can knock down a jumper from time to time so he will only get better at that as well. He’s a fantastic person.”
Written for NBL.com.au by Chris Pike.