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Pride of the Wimmera

Cairns Taipans guard Shaun Bruce, Adelaide 36ers swingman Mitch Creek and New Zealand Breakers guard Shane McDonald share a special bond. While strongly felt, it’s a bond that usually goes unspoken – acknowledged with a slight nod of the head or a firm shaking of hands. The connection stems from the fact that all three players – as well as Cairns Taipans development player Ash Constable – track their basketball beginnings back to the same small country town. Horsham, located in North-Western Victoria’s Wimmera region, has a population that would roughly fill Perth Arena. It has some beautiful botanic gardens, was Australia’s Tidiest Town in 2001 and is vastly over-represented in the current NBL. “It's a quiet thing,” Creek explained when discussing the boys’ connection. “We don't specifically speak about it but there's always that sign of respect that you’ve come from the same small country town and you outworked a lot of naysayers that said you couldn't do it.” McDonald, the eldest of the group, says the boys’ link is strong despite their differences in age. “There's always that bond. I always try to keep an eye on how they’re going; always hoping they're doing well, just because of that Horsham connection.” While small, Horsham is a very sporty town and the community possesses a special love for basketball. Creek believes that the town’s values of hard work and dedication – as well as some special mentoring – form the reasons behind the boys’ success. “It's got a lot to do with the way we were brought up and the work ethic we put in at a young age,” he said. “Also the coaching. We had a couple of great coaches in Horsham back then – one in particular – who were willing to give their time and it paid off for us in the future.” That ‘one in particular’ is a bloke by the name of Owen Hughan. As a younger man Hughan made his mark in the big smoke, playing at a high level and coaching the Coburg Giants in the NBL. In the mid-80s, Hughan and his wife made the move to Horsham where his love for the game and his focus on fundamentals has developed a generation of ballers. “I’ve been lucky enough to have played under some pretty good coaches along the way, but looking back, the influence Owen Hughan had on me playing in a small town like Horsham would definitely be the biggest,” Bruce reflected. Creek, who recalls life in Horsham as “always having a basketball in our hands”, says Hughan was instrumental in his development, on and off the floor. “Owen was in there every day. He was just that kind of guy who lived and breathed hoops and he's been such a big influence on my life,” he said. The humble coach deflects the credit straight back to Creek, Bruce, McDonald and Constable. “You can tell kids who are naturally gifted, they've either got it or they haven't,” Hughan said. “Those boys were very keen on the game and they wanted to put the time into it.” His pupils, however, believe it was Hughan’s focus on fundamentals that tooled them to take their games beyond the banks of the Wimmera River.  On this point, Hughan is willing to accept some credit. “I understood that they would never stay around Horsham, so I tried to equip them so they would be able to play higher levels instead of hanging around the town,” he said. Equip them he did, laying the foundations for careers playing ball at the highest level in the country. “He just knew how to get the best out of players. If you listened carefully, it was a whole bunch of wisdom coming out of that brain,” Creek said. “Some people missed it, but the ones that you see now doing well, they listened, and they’re playing professionally and doing something they love every day.” The Horsham boys have contested five games against each other so far this season, with another seven remaining on the regular season schedule. Coach Hughan, of course, will be watching on with pride, but always with a coach’s eye. “Yeah I watch them play, although I can sometimes be a bit critical of them,” he laughed, while taking a break from coaching the next batch of NBL ballers. “I’m quite enjoying this year, the league has gotten much better with better players around and the standard’s gone up.  They’re doing really great things, it's a really good product.” A product all the better for that small-town bond that quietly connects a handful of its players.
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