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Q & A with Andrew Gaze

He played more than 600 NBL games. Won two NBL championships. Was named Most Valuable Player a record seven times. Went to no less than five Olympic Games. Carried the Australian flag in the Opening Ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games. Played in the NBA with Washington and San Antonio and has an NBA Championship ring courtesy of the Spurs’ 1999 victory. Was the first Australian ever to play in an NCAA Tournament Final. Is a member of both the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame and International FIBA Hall of Fame. The thing is, all those remarkable accomplishments only scratch the surface of what Andrew Gaze has meant to the sport of basketball in this country. It’s safe to say that whenever the average Australian thinks about basketball, the name they often think of first is Andrew Gaze. And that’s amazing, considering the exploits of superstars like Luc Longley, Andrew Bogut, Patrick Mills and Matthew Dellavedova in the NBA and more recently the emergence of tyro Ben Simmons as the unquestioned future of the sport. But such has Andrew – who also has built a great career in the media with Fox Sports and SEN Radio and remains involved in the sport at many levels – meant to basketball in this country. And now he looks to add to his incredible legacy as the twelfth head coach in the history of the Sydney Kings. There’s no doubt it’s an immense challenge – one of the biggest in Australian sport. What Andrew and the incoming hierarchy have been asked to do is resurrect a once powerful franchise – both on and off the court – that hasn’t seen much success since coming back to the National Basketball League in 2010. However, while Andrew’s basketball credentials are impeccable, what’s interesting about his appointment is that many in the sport have questioned whether he is up to the task, considering he will be a rookie NBL head coach of a franchise that has always had to deal with heightened expectations. Unfair or not, it’s the type of intense scrutiny he will have to cope with as he begins this journey. When you are a Sydney King, you feel the blowtorch more often than not. But to his immense credit, he is determined to face it all with the same legendary competitiveness that made him arguably the greatest player this country has ever produced. Andrew sat down this week with Matt McQuade to talk about his coaching philosophy, his vision for the team and the challenges that lie ahead. Q: First question is the simplest. Why do you want to be an NBL coach? A: Well I enjoy the competition and I enjoy the challenge. And when it comes to the NBL, there’s no bigger challenge than the Sydney Kings. For me, it was a tough decision with my family and having to leave home, but given the new ownership group and with Jeff Van Groningen there, I just felt that if I was going to do it and have a go at it, this is one of the better situations. The club is well resourced, they are really well managed, and while there’s an understanding that it might take a little bit of time to put it together, you’ve got every opportunity to have the ultimate success. Q: One of the big questions many fans are asking is “Why have the Kings gone for yet another individual with either zero or limited NBL coaching experience?” What’s your answer to that, and what do you think you’ll bring to the role that makes you prepared for what is a significant challenge? A: Yeah, it’s understandable that some people may think that way. But I would like to think that my history in the game and the way in which I played the game would hold me in good stead. And since retiring about ten years ago I’ve worked extensively at a junior level and also at the lower level of the senior ranks. I think what you get to do at the lower levels is that you learn about developing a philosophy and how to implement a strategy. And you’re also concentrating on not just a system but the fundamentals of how you execute that system. I’ve had that grounding, and then for the last few years I’ve been taking teams to China once or twice a year on tours, and throughout that time I’ve gotten to coach many NBL players. So while I’ve not coached yet at the NBL level, I think I’m well prepared. And there are many examples of coaches who have stepped into the coaching ranks that have been successful despite not having what some would say was the requisite level of experience. I guess the obvious one at the moment is Steve Kerr at the Golden State Warriors. So you know, there are obviously some risks, and it’s not unreasonable for people to ask those questions and think there might have been alternatives. Look, it’s a pretty significant task with the base we are coming off. But I actually think the Sydney Kings were better last season than their record indicated. I think they had a real tough run with injuries, I think they made a poor decision in getting rid of Damian Cotter, and there’s a lot of things you could look at last year to say they should have been a lot better. So hopefully we can retain some of those players, bring in some new talent and build a team that has a good crack at it. It’s not just what happens on the floor either – there’s a new management group and new staff from top to bottom and I think there’s a chance to implement a new culture as well. Not to say the previous one was bad, it’s just that sometimes a new direction can be helpful in generating some success. Q: You’ve had a tremendous relationship with Jeff Van Groningen over many years. How much did that play into your decision to come to Sydney? A: Well if it wasn’t for Jeff Van Groningen, I wouldn’t have accepted the job. I’ve known Jeff a long time, and I know his commitment to the game and how he goes about running a business. He does that aggressively, but with extremely high principles and values and good ethics in the way he goes about it. We want to make sure that everything we do is legitimate, that we do things with high integrity and we are extremely honest in all our dealings. Jeff represents all that as well as anyone. He’s already proven in the past what he is capable of in the Brisbane Bullets and putting together a spectacular program there that was good enough to win a championship. He has the capacity to both identify and recruit talent. And these days, players need to know they will be treated in the right way, where’s there’s great respect and honesty and that’s what Jeff is all about. Q: The team announced this week that championship-winning coach Dean Vickerman has agreed to be your lead assistant on the bench. Talk about that appointment and how crucial it will be to have a really solid coaching staff, and indeed the whole support staff, around the group. A: When I took the job, one of the things I negotiated was the ability to appoint my own staff – at least two assistants and other support staff that I thought were absolutely necessary for the club to have success. Both Harvey (Lister) and Jeff were completely on board with that. So when I was looking at the available talent out there, Dean Vickerman was at the top of the list. I’ve known Dean my whole life – he played with the Melbourne Tigers as a junior, I played alongside him, I’ve watched him work his way up through the ranks as an assistant coach and then of course the work he did as a head coach with the New Zealand Breakers. I think his demeanour and style of coaching is something that will be good for me…he’s very calm and measured whereas I can probably get caught up in the emotion of the situation sometimes. I think to have that balance there will be great and I also respect the way players have played for him. The Breakers had to go through significant adversity last season, yet were still able to work their way to Game Three of the Grand Final Series. That spoke volumes of the way he was able to deal with difficult circumstances. His coaching style and the way his teams play fits the system we are trying to introduce. So I’m ecstatic that Dean is on board – even though I know some people might suggest that you don’t want someone who is ambitious in that role. But I’ve known him a long time and I actually want someone that is very ambitious and doing their very best to become a head coach. That said, I know Dean is very loyal and he will definitely have my back, so it’s a really healthy situation. I just feel really lucky that we’ve got someone of Dean’s calibre into the program to help me on this journey. AG lecternQ: The other big coaching announcement this week is that another Melbourne Tigers legend, one Lanard Copeland, has agreed to come on board as an assistant. How do you feel about the reunification of the greatest backcourt in NBL history? A: Well, Lanard has had head coaching experience recently at the Broadmeadows Broncos in the Big V competition and is doing very well there. I think he brings emotion and passion to the game. He’s never down, he’s always up and he’s always got a smile on his face. He’s someone that brings a bit of personality to the group, who can keep things light when they need to be but knows when to be serious. The work he’s been doing at coaching academies over the last few years, that individual skill development – I think he’s going to be outstanding at that, and I’m wrapped to have him on board. Q: Your dad is a FIBA Hall of Famer and unquestionably one of the greatest coaches in Australian basketball history. He’s also one of the guys who brought the famed shuffle offence from Auburn University to the country and won a couple of NBL titles with that. How much of an influence will Lindsay be on your coaching style and on the type of offensive and defensive systems you want to install? A: He’s had a profound impact. Much of his principles and what he implemented are things I strongly believe in. Those elements are going to be there, no doubt whatsoever. However, the game has changed. You’ve got the 24 second shot clock with the 14 second reset for example, and it does impact the systems you put in place. I mean, we will use aspects of the shuffle offence, but it’s not something we’ll exclusively do. The shuffle offence takes a bit of time for everyone to get on the same page and it’s pretty labour intensive to teach it. But I’m a big believer in sharing the ball, getting it through hands, and the action away from the ball just as much as it is on the ball. These days, teams are more looking towards on-ball action with the pick and roll, but I’m maybe more focused the other way with action off the ball, moving without the ball, and making sure we’ve got a system in place that gives players the opportunity to exploit their skills. It’s not easy when you’ve got a talented group and you’re trying to keep them involved with sharing the ball and moving the ball. But we’ll recruit the type of players who can handle that type of system and if we get it right it’s going to be pretty tough to beat.   Q: We spoke about this at the media conference, but what does the signing of Kevin Lisch mean to this organisation, in terms of the leadership and work ethic he provides? A: When we looked into Kevin, there was no question about his skills. He’s done it with two different teams now…in Perth when he won a championship and a league MVP and was one of the leaders of that program, and then more recently with Illawarra. He’s had good experiences in Spain and in Puerto Rico, and everywhere he goes he is on winning teams. He’s an unbelievable talent, plays with a high IQ and is very good at both ends of the floor – offensively he can create for himself and for others and he’s a great on-ball defender. So the on-court skills are obviously there and clearly he’s got a strong, burning competitive instinct. But above and beyond that, as we went through our due diligence, there was not one single person or teammate who had anything bad to say about Kevin Lisch. The way he conducts himself in the community and with his family…he’s just an incredible guy who has the game and life very much in perspective. They are the sort of qualities we want to have on our team, and the impact he can have on our culture is just as important as the points he will score and the passes he will make and the defence he will play. Q: The other question many Kings’ fans have is around Josh Childress. Is Josh someone you want to bring back? A: Josh is someone I would love to have back. I think he’s an outstanding talent, and I know Jeff is looking to try and bring him back to Australia with the Sydney Kings. I think with his versatility he’s a great rebounder, he defends well and puts points on the board. And again, he’s an outstanding teammate, and those are all qualities that any team in the world would love to have. I understand Josh has ambitions of getting another NBA contract, but we’re doing whatever we can to bring him back. I admit we’re a little nervous about some of the injuries he’s had, but they are not the sort of injuries – those soft tissue injuries – that you’d normally equate to long-term issues. It’s more just bad luck injuries, similar to Andrew Bogut really, you know the broken hands and things like that. It’s a concern given how many games he’s missed, but I think you assess it and get the advice that it’s a relatively low risk as far as his injury prospects are concerned. So I want him back, but whether we can get him back remains to be seen. Q: Jeff Van Groningen has made it very clear that the team is going to be aggressive in the marketplace in terms of acquiring players, and aggressive in terms of the immediate goal of at least reaching the playoffs. Given how this team has struggled over the past six seasons, and is going through another rebuild, how much pressure does that place on you right from the start? A: I think there’s pressure on the entire organisation. I don’t think we shy away from that. The expectation of the ownership group is that we are contending for a title straight away. I do think they are realistic enough to understand that it can take a bit of time, but then we saw what happened with Illawarra last season when the season before they finished last and then went all the way through to the playoffs this year. So it’s not inconceivable to think it can be done. It’s a little more difficult this season in that you’ve got another team coming in, and that also presents a new challenge, but I tell you what, I’d much rather be in a situation where we’re all under pressure because we have the resources and we have everything we want to win a title than being someone where people think it’s going to be a miracle if these guys make the playoffs. I’d much rather be in that situation where we realistically have the tools to get it done and have the pressure to get it done instead of not having a chance at all. Q: Finally, you are coming in to the Kings at a time when the NBL has made great strides of late, yet Sydney has admittedly lagged behind. How excited are you about this challenge and its potential rewards for basketball, not just in this city but for the sport in this country as a whole? A: There’s no question that we have a great obligation at the Sydney Kings, especially as it relates to the national market. It’s the biggest city in the country, and with that comes commercial opportunities, TV rights – all those opportunities can be significantly enhanced if you’ve got a competitive Sydney Kings. But all those things are really peripheral. What’s most important is that we put a competitive team on the floor, and then the other stuff will take care of itself. There are a lot of things you can identify, and being on the board of Basketball Australia for the past seven years I’m acutely aware of the significance of the Sydney/NSW market. It is very important. We take that responsibility, we are aware of it, and we are doing absolutely everything we can to fulfil what I believe is our obligation to work our tails off to ensure that we give the team and the league the best chance for that success in the national market to happen. There are no guarantees, but it won’t be for lack of effort or lack of working that we don’t get the results we are looking for, and we have to be patient. Sometimes it takes some time. But we have high expectations, and hopefully we can get the fans and sponsors behind us and get everyone on board for what we hope is a great journey. We have a plan in place and a strategy that will deliver not only short-term success but ultimately a program that can have long-term and sustained success. Originally published by sydneykings.com, by Matt McQuade.
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