Hungry Jack's NBL
CJ Bruton on his new role, leading the 36ers and growing the family legacy
By Liam Santamaria
The CJ Bruton era in Adelaide is about to begin.
Recently announced as the new head coach of the 36ers, Bruton is currently champing at the bit to get to South Australia and start working with his squad.
It’s an intriguing squad he’ll be working with too. From new recruits Mitch McCarron (whom Bruton describes as “a giver”) and Dusty Hannahs (whose stroke he labels “wet”) to club legend Daniel Johnson (a guy who has “caused headaches for many teams over his time”), there’s plenty of high-level talent.
There are also talented youngsters, including Next Stars wing Mojave King and Filipino phenom Kai Sotto; guys who Bruton says are in the perfect environment to “learn how to be a pro.”
Bringing all those elements together will be perhaps his biggest challenge.
A six-time champion as a player, Bruton has spent the past five years honing his coaching skills in Brisbane. It’s a role that has seen him learn the coaching ropes under the guidance of long-time mentor Andrej Lemanis.
This year, however, CJ felt it was time to step up. And after being overlooked for the head coaching role in both Brisbane and Cairns, Bruton got scooped up by Adelaide, who last week signed the 45-year old to a multi-year deal.
On the back of that announcement, Bruton caught up with NBL media this week for an in-depth conversation about becoming a head coach, how he thinks his new squad will play and his family’s rich history in the game.
This interview has been edited here for brevity and clarity. For the full conversation, click on the video link below.
CJ… welcome, mate, and congratulations.
Thank you, Liam. Excited to be on your show, excited to be a coach in the NBL and super excited, not only for the fans and for the team, but to get started on making a difference on the court and in the community.
What were you thinking when you started to hear that things were changing in Adelaide and they were going to enter the market for a new head coach?
Well, to be honest, I was thinking that they'll do their homework. Clearly, there's a few names that jump out to me that they would look to go after. From the Andrew Gazes and the John Rillies of this world, to even someone like Adam Caporn – you’ve got to go and explore that so I didn't think anything of it.
I was in Brisbane and I’d just seen Kai Sotto in the building at Auchenflower Stadium. I was like, this is the guy I’d tried to get to Brisbane. I remember telling Sam (Mackinnon), ‘you didn’t do a good job right now, we should’ve already had this kid.’ But I was proud of him to be playing in our competition and I told him ‘I look forward to it but I hope you don’t have a great game against us’. Now I’m coaching the kid!
But when that phone call came from ‘JVG’ (36ers GM of Basketball Jeff Van Groningen) I thought it was just (going to be) ‘let's have a catch up and see where we're at’ and he said, ‘you're the target and we really want to see if this is something that you're interested in.’
I look at Adelaide as an organisation and what they've been able to put together as a team. I look at where they've been in the past, understanding the richness and the culture and the players that have been there. I think that (36ers owner) Grant Kelley is doing an amazing job behind the scenes of putting everything on a platform, building a culture and growing the game… and I just thought it was a perfect fit for all of us, to be honest.
This appointment marks the latest chapter in the story of the Bruton family’s influence on the NBL. I mean, there have been only seven seasons across the entire forty-four year history of the league that haven't included either you or your legendary dad as either a player, a coach or a front office executive. That's absolutely remarkable! What does it mean to be, not only continuing, but continuing to grow that family legacy?
I don't want to get to tears but I could right now when I sit and think about everything that my father has done. He's given me a platform.
My dad is unique. His charisma, his ability to connect with people and to help an organisation impact lives all around Australia and the globe. It's been something that I've watched from afar and (thought) ‘Wow, you're an amazing person.’
Then I've got my mother. I feel like I've got my mother's heart. Understanding just how much you need to give. I've been able to help so many – the way my father has been able to – and to not lose sight of why we are here on Earth: to make a difference. Pave the way for others to be able to reach their goals. This is just who we are and from what my father created, I’ve been able to stay in the game and do that.
There are always challenges and setbacks in life but how I've been able to manage those things and move on and still feel connected. From finishing off in New Zealand to the way (Larry) Kestelman has maintained our league to the highest standard… He saw a piece where (he said to me) “I can't have you not part of it, what role do you want?” When I chose not to be the coach of the Bullets it was about helping an organisation get back to its grassroots and understand that we have talented players in Queensland. I wanted Queensland to be great and to recognise all the kids there that have a chance to play in the NBL… to be able to pave a way and be a part of their success and journey along the way.
Was that a conversation five years ago? An opportunity for you to perhaps be in the big chair in Brisbane from day one?
It was. When I sat with (Larry) Kestelman that was the conversation. I was like: you know what, I’ve just had my third child. As you know, with some jobs you get hired to get fired. So I looked at it as: there's so much more that needs to be done behind the scenes.
While I’d been playing I’d been learning from all the coaches; from (Brian) Goorjian and Joey Wright to (Andrej) Lemanis and all my junior coaches along the way. To be able to bring that all together and see it from a different role and be able to deliver that to the team.
(Being an assistant in Brisbane) was a great platform. I had the national coach to learn from and for him to critique me and tell me: take that out, do this here, keep that shorter, this is great, love that. And then (I was able to) grow within the organisation. He left me with my wings, he didn't clip ‘em, and I was able to continue to fly the way that I saw I could be a benefit to the club.
Now you’re going to Adelaide and it's the tenth club that you and your dad, combined, have been a part of in the league. It’s the club that your dad had those famous clashes with back in the day. What does it mean to now be a part of this prestigious organisation?
It's a dream come true.
As a kid growing up I was wiping the floor saying ‘one day I want to be a pro.’ And then, as I was playing, it was all the stuff that you deal with as a point guard; managing a team, being able to deliver on what the coach asks you to do and do it at a high clip. Then I started evolving; learning everyone's personalities and what needs to happen behind the scenes, how families are brought in and how you make this work.
So for Adelaide to give me this opportunity, you've warmed my heart and now I want to deliver in spades. By how I work within the community but also on the floor; helping our young players understand how important it is to represent the Adelaide 36ers the right way. We haven't been there in a while. We've got a lot of great pieces but, as you know, it's great having nice guys and great guys, but when it comes down to it, I need soldiers and warriors that are able to fight and go to battle. I'm interested in seeing their personalities evolve and develop over time and how close we can come to being successful at the highest level and win a championship in Adelaide.
Let's talk about that roster. You've got a difficult task because you've got some really high-level, experienced guys – guys who have the caliber to win a championship and want to win a championship. But you've also got some teenagers – some kids with NBA aspirations on their minds. How are you feeling about juggling all those different elements of the job?
I'm excited. It's the balance of youth and experience.
For me it always comes back to: this ain’t about you. This is about the club and buying into: here's how this works for us to be successful. Everyone has their own individual piece along the way and we all want to see everyone reach their targets. But, as you know, in a 40 minute game not everyone can reach that target. So there's a process behind that for us to get to that next level.
I think this is a great platform for our young kids to learn how to be a pro. For 19-year-olds Kai Sotto and Mojave King... this is about learning how to be a professional. We’ve got great leaders with ‘Macca’ (Mitch McCarron), Dusty Hannahs and ‘DJ’ (Daniel Johnson) – experienced players that have been around… and for me to understand just where you need to be at that time and in that moment. Just for everyone to have that understanding and be able to enjoy that process.
Lastly, how do you see the 36ers playing under your leadership?
Well, when you look at the roster and, even though I didn't put it together, it's been plugged in as a unique team. With that group, just looking at it, you have a chance to play both styles. I can play in the half court but I can also play fast. It’s about getting that balance right… but (we’ll play) a fun style.
In saying that, everyone wants to do the same thing. Every coach wants to play with pace. But you have to get to a certain level of understanding… there's a structure part and then there's the freedom where you give the ball to a Brett Mahers or an Andrew Gaze and he goes and makes a play. You give it to ‘DMac’ and watch him do his thing or the Shane Heals.
Well, now I've got ‘Macca’ or ‘DJ’ or Dusty Hannahs. I've been with him for a few days, since he got out of quarantine, and you better go over the screen. That’s what I’m telling everyone. ‘Cos he's pretty wet out there. So to be able to have handy intangibles and have guys that can set screens and get people open. I mean, ‘Macca’ is a guy that loves to get out and run and he's a willing passer. So look to see us get up and down quite a bit more instead of just walking up and playing a half-court set.
Well, I’m looking forward to seeing you standing up on those sidelines, mate. So congratulations again and all the best for the season ahead.
Appreciate it. Looking forward to catching up during the season.