After four heart-breaking fourth-place finishes in previous Olympic Games, the Australian Boomers finally won that elusive medal on Saturday night, when they defeated Luka Doncic and Slovenia in the bronze medal game.
Brian Goorjian has always been the darling of the Australian basketball coaching ranks.
Widely regarded as the most successful coach in Australian basketball, his 20-year coaching career has yielded six NBL Coach of the Year awards in 1992, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2008, 2009, and six NBL championships. He won two with the South East Melbourne Magic in 1992 and 1996, led the Sydney Kings to a three-peat in 2003, 2004, 2005 and finally with the South Dragons in 2009.
Just when we thought he couldn’t be held in any higher regard after a stint in China, he returned to the shores he had so successfully conquered with two new missions: taking the helm of one the NBL’s most storied yet troubled franchises, the Illawarra Hawks, and taking the reins of the National side as they were on the precipice of Olympic success.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Goorjian helped the Boomers get their biggest monkey off their back. Laden with NBA talent, this generation of Aussie basketballers had been on the edge of success for a number of years, just falling short of medalling in the Rio Olympics and the most recent World Cup.
Finally, the Boomers have broken through, securing the bronze medal after defeating Slovenia. Going undefeated in the group stages, their reward was facing Team USA in the semi-finals, which was the Boomers’ only loss for the tournament. They rallied after the stinging defeat to the USA and readied themselves for Slovenia and their superstar Luka Doncic.
After years of finishing in fourth place at multiple events, Goorjian arrives with his deft touch and with contributions from veterans Patty Mills and former South Dragons ward Joe Ingles, they get over the hump and finally bring home an Olympic bronze medal.
I’m sure there were moments in the semi-final with Team USA where the Boomers were up by 15 they would have briefly dared to dream of Olympic gold, and if Team USA had sorted itself out heading into the tournament, they may have avoided USA until the gold medal match and come away with a silver.
Prior to his quest for Olympic glory, he returned to the Australian shores to take the helm of the Illawarra Hawks. The last remaining foundation club, the Illawarra Hawks had spent the better part of the last decade wobbling from one financial disaster to another, staving off bankruptcy time and again.
Heading into the 2020-21 season, even their identity had been stripped from them, beginning season simply known as The Hawks.
Enter the coach with the Midas touch and a brand new ownership group, and new life was breathed into the franchise.
The cellar dwellers from the year before were armed with new imports, Tyler Harvey; a sharp shooter from the G-League, Justin Simon, who forged a season where he may have been the best perimeter defender the NBL has ever seen, Next Star and Golden State Warriors draftee Justinian Jessop and big name Aussie recruits Cam Bairstow and Deng Adel, who had The Hawks primed for a big season.
The season wasn’t without its struggles. COVID restrictions meant his team spent a lot of time on the road at the beginning of the season.
Jessop hit the rookie wall and his form evaporated, Deng Adel never acclimatised to the NBL and was jettisoned mid-season. Cam Bairstow couldn’t shake his injury struggles and spent most of the season sidelined.
However, a friendly stretch of home games, an MVP-level run from Tyler Harvey and some adjustments from Goorjian and the Hawks, who with the insistence from Goorjian and some community support had regained their Illawarra identity during the season, made their way into the playoffs. They pushed the Perth Wildcats all the way before bowing out.
It was a season of hope and promise for a club starved of success, a club that for years had a self-imposed salary cap that left them with one had tied behind their back. Now, off the back of the success of the 2020-21 season, Hawks fans are eager to see if Goorjian, fresh off the successes of Tokyo, can finally steer the perennial battlers of Australian basketball to another trip to the promised land.
His time with the Boomers has already yielded success for Illawarra, securing the signing of Duop Reath. The 6’11 Boomer will add some much needed size to the Hawk’s front court. MVP Tyler Harvey is returning and they have added Travis Trice, who has had a number of successful stints in the NBL as an import.
Antonius Cleveland is the club’s third import. He has had brief stints in the NBA and has enjoyed a number of successful seasons in the G-League and should fill a wing spot.
They have also recruited well close to home, securing the services of Harry Froling, who will join his brother Sam as a front court presence. Froling has promised much in his fledging professional career and Illawarra will be hoping the star coach gets the most out of his new young charge.
Goorjian won’t get it all his own way, however. The defending champions Melbourne United will be looking to bounce back after an exodus of key players.
Jock Landale, the Finals MVP, has signed with the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA. In his place, another Boomer has been signed – Matthew Dellavedova is returning from the NBA to his native shores to help Melbourne push for back to back titles.
He’ll be joined by Caleb Agada, fresh off a successful stint for Nigeria where he was instrumental in knocking off Team USA in the warm-up games.
Goorjian’s former side, the Sydney Kings, have reloaded after a disappointing season and look on paper the early favourites. They have retained Jarell Martin who proved to be a force in the NBL when healthy. R.J Hunter and Jaylen Adams are their other two imports and have impressive international resumes.
Promising young Australian Xavier Cooks has re-signed and will be looking to bounce back from a season derailed by injury and signing of cousins Matur Maker and Makur Maker are huge. Makur was signed under the NBL’s Next Star program and projects to be an exciting prospect in the 2022 NBA Draft.
Never to be counted out, the Perth Wildcats, fresh off their 35th consecutive trip to the NBL playoffs and boasting ten championships, are positioning themselves for another run at the title.
Coach Trevor Gleeson has departed for a role in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors and has been replaced by Scott Morrison (no, not that one). The former Boston Celtics assistant coach has quite the roster at his disposal. Back to back MVP winner Bryce Cotton will be back and young Australian player Luke Travers, who had a breakout 2021 playoffs will be primed for a larger role.
Adding to the Wildcats’ firepower is the recent signing of Vic Law from the Brisbane Bullets, with plenty of roster sports left to fill and the backing of the intimidating home fans, the Red Army, Perth are primed to be one of the NBL’s heavyweights.
The NBL is in a great place at the moment. They have introduced two expansion teams in three seasons with the South East Melbourne Phoenix and the Tasmania Jack Jumpers.
The league has capitalised on the attention and momentum gained by having LaMelo Ball as a Next Star and has negotiated a number of TV deals including a free-to -air deal and a huge $45 million over three years deal with ESPN and Kayo to broadcast every game.
Everything is on the up and with Goorjian and the Boomers’ bronze medal success in Tokyo, basketball is at its most prominent in the Australian landscape as it has been for decades, the perfect platform for Australia’s best coach to do his best work.
2022 is going to be an exciting season for Brian Goorjian. All the right pieces are there and now it’s time for the master coach to get to work.