1) Andrew Gaze
It’s hard to think of a more universally-loved Australian athlete than . Grey at the temples by his 20s, the shooting guard represented the country in astonishing five Olympic campaigns between 1984 and 2000. He won every local accolade possible in the NBL and even managed to squeeze in an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs during one of his two stop-offs in the NBA.
Though he was a college star at Seton Hall and had a fine international record (Gaze is a Fiba hall of famer), the 6’7” Melbournian was probably unlucky that his lengthy career occurred at a time when NBA teams were less willing to look abroad for talent. His first stint, with the 1994 Washington Bullets, yielded an average of 10 minutes of game time during only seven outings. Suiting up for his debut against the Denver Nuggets, he became only the second Australian to reach the level after his Boomers team-mate Luc Longley.
In a diary compiled for One on One basketball magazine during his 10-day contract with the Bullets, Gaze spoke with bewilderment of his new surroundings. Setting a team record on the leg press at one of his first training sessions was about as good as it got. Even then he realised he’d only achieved the feat because “no other player on the team [was] stupid enough to extend themselves” in training activities. The resultant soreness lasted for days. The Bullets well and truly stunk it up that year under Wes Unseld but Gaze can always say he played alongside cult heroes like Tom Gugliotta and giant Romanian Gheorghe Muresan.
Against the Warriors he sank a couple of threes but got towled up in the other direction by Latrell Sprewell (“I had the feeling that I was pretty well at his mercy,” noted Gaze). Brought in during junk time against the Lakers, Gaze already found his status as fourth-quarter fill-in “monotonous”. Gaze finished his brief stay in the big-time with a late three as his team were belted by Orlando and a fresh-faced Shaquille O’Neal. Worse was to come on the way home when he had everything (including his game-day jersey) but the clothes on his back stolen a short time before he was due to fly out. Unseld was promptly sacked and Gaze wouldn’t see an NBA court for another five years.
That second stint in San Antonio was a little longer and fortuitously timed, as it turned out. Gaze didn’t set the world alight in 19 appearances with the ’99 Spurs, nor make the play-off roster, but his involvement was enough to score himself a championship ring as David Robinson led San Antonio to the title. On balance, it was just reward for a lifetime of devotion to the game. It also produced this wonderful Sportsworld feature hosted by Paul Roos:
2) Luc Longley
Though it’s often acknowledged that Gaze is the best basketballer that Australia has produced, it’s hard to argue that his long-time national team-mate isn’t the most accomplished. Switching across from the Minnesota Timberwolves with similarly excellent timing (well, there were a couple of lean years before the famous return of Michael Jordan), Longley claimed three championship rings as the starting centre during the Bulls’ second three-peat of championships between 1996 and 1998.
His rise to the big-time came with when US college recruiters, keen to check out fellow West Australian Andrew Vlahov, stumbled across Lobley in 1986. Longley was the first Australian to appear at NBA level and moved beyond the realms of novelty player when he arrived at the Bulls following four years of unglamorous slog at Minnesota.
Life in the Jordan era wasn’t always roses, either. "It took me a little while to get used to playing with someone like MJ, or someone that good to be frank, and it took MJ a while to realise what my strengths and weaknesses were," . Still, the Aussie contributed 9.8 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in those three championship-winning years, which included the Bulls’ record-breaking 72-10 winning season. Often tasked with stopping giants of the game like O’Neal and Patrick Ewing, Longley didn’t just coast along for the ride.
And what was it like for the fresh-faced Aussie when he first entered the league? Take it away, Mike Munro…
3) Shane Heal
Most commonly known to US basketball fans on account of during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics campaign, also had two high-tempo stints in the NBA during a decorated career.
After the controversial Olympics stoush, Barkley concluded, “He’s a talkative little fellow. I told him that if I don’t take that off Americans I’m definitely not going to take it off foreigners.” Still, Heal’s chutzpah had earned the attention of NBA scouts and soon after the Games he found himself jetting off to the States again. First stop was at the Minnesota Timberwolves, who signed Heal to a three-year contract on account of the he’d put on during that clash against Dream Team II. “It is wonderful for Australia that a short guy can make it to the NBA,” concluded the trash-talker’s trash-talker Gary Payton, who’d also tangled with Heal at international level.
Once he’d arrived on basketball’s great stage, injuries and a failure to adapt to the Minnesota lifestyle dampened Heal’s spirits somewhat and he’d only last out one season before heading home. He did however find found a mentor in Wolves veteran Terry Porter, who Heal had initially rubbed up the wrong way by refusing to carry out rookie-hazing activities like carrying the bags of senior players. “I’m not a rookie mate,” said Heal. “I’ve played for 10 years and I’m not fucking carrying your bag.”
In a game against the Seattle Supersonics and facing another barrage from Payton, Heal got hot in one of the great quarters by an Aussie in the NBA. Five threes in the fourth quarter (a Timberwolves record) soon shut his opponents up. Later Payton gave Heal an appreciative hug and Barkley also took time out to congratulate the Aussie on his meteoric rise.
After lucrative stints in Europe and some time back home in the NBL, Heal got one more crack at the NBA in 2003 with a six-game stay at San Antonio. Australia has never since boasted such a deadly three-point scorer.
4) Andrew Bogut
He’s a divisive figure in NBA circles, . Maybe it’s because he’s never been happy to just blend in and or let others dictate terms. He certainly throws his ample frame around (often more at his own peril than that of his opponents) and never takes a backward step against bigger-name opponents. He’s also not shy about when it’s warranted and even calling out his fellow players. In essence, Bogut goes against every stereotype about Australian athletes being laconic and amiable and there’s something oddly endearing about that.
Rising out of the unlikely basketball breeding ground of Endeavour Hills, south-east of Melbourne, the son of Croatian immigrants starred for the University of Utah before being claimed by the downtrodden Milwaukee Bucks with the first pick of the 2005 NBA draft. Early on he was surprisingly durable for an aggressive seven-footer and actually strung together more than 150 consecutive games for the Bucks before injuries became a problem. Still, by 2010 he’d become the first Aussie to earn all-NBA honours and the sky was the limit.
Since then the constant incursion of injuries has resulted in endless and frustrating periods on the sidelines, but it’d be a brave or stupid critic who questioned Bogut’s commitment. Most of those ailments have been caused by the center’s whole-hearted playing style, or (well, Amar’e Stoudemire fans would say so, anyway), so he mostly gets a pass for his injuries.
When luck has been on his side, Bogut has been among the best genuine centers in the league and a defensive beast. Traded to the Golden State Warriors in 2012, he’s manfully set about extracting the most his body will allow and contributing solidly to the resurgent franchise. In recent times Bogut’s absence due to a cracked rib was probably a telling factor in the Warriors failing to get past the Clippers in the NBA play-offs. No Aussie player has worked harder and come back as often as Bogut and with a little more luck he’ll soon surpass Longley’s record for NBA games by an Australian.
5) The year of the Aussie
If you’re talking consistent game time from a variety of players, there has never been a better year for Australian basketballers at NBA level than this 2013-14 season. Regular game time for Bogut, , and Matthew Dellavedova has provided a feast of NBA TV content for patriotic Aussie fans.
Mills has been sensational off the bench at San Antonio, scoring 10.2 points per game in an average 18.9 minutes of court-time (shooting 40% from the three-point line, no less) under coach Gregg Popovich. Speaking of Mills’s rise, Popovich recently claimed that his Aussie point guard had come on leaps and bounds compared to his status a year earlier. “He was a little fat ass,” said Popovich. “He had too much junk in the trunk.” Returning in better shape this year, Mills has become an invaluable contributor in covering for the often-injured veteran Tony Parker. As hard a taskmaster as “Pop” might be, there’s no better man from whom to learn the game. Mills is walking proof.
The Spurs have also had another Aussie on their books too in Baynes. The Kiwi-born center has come from a long way back to establish himself as an imposing presence off the bench for San Antonio. Like Bogut he’s not afraid of the physical and though he doesn’t yet boast the profile of some of his countrymen in the league, more performances like his 10-point play-offs cameo against Portland might soon change that.
Most surprising of all this season has been the effort of to force his way from Summer League hopeful to regular contributor off the bench for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Suiting up for 72 appearances in his rookie season, the back-up point guard managed 4.7 points and 2.6 assists per game in an average of 17.7 minutes. There’s never been to be cheering on Aussies competing in the home of basketball.
6) The Best of the Rest
Of the dozen Aussies to make it into NBA ranks, it’s fair to say that the overwhelming majority have been players who’ve been genetically blessed by being really, really tall, but that’s not to take away from their achievements against the world’s best. is typical in the sense that despite being 6’10”, he often had to tussle against even taller and more physically imposing players at the top level. Bradtke’s shot at the NBA came when the Melbourne Tigers stalwart was 28 but in 36 appearances for the Philadelphia 76ers he could only manage seven minutes per game providing depth from the bench.
Likewise, seven-footer was a serviceable if unspectacular player over the course of three seasons for the Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls in the late-90s. A Boomers regular who spent long stints in the NBL and various European Leagues, Anstey was originally drafted by the Portland Trailblazers at pick 18 of the 1997 NBA Draft and on-traded to the Mavericks. Things started well with a 26-point performance against Boston during a rookie year in which he averaged 5.9 points per game, but two seasons (including one with the post-Jordan Bulls) later he was gone from the league for good.
Others to make their brief mark at NBA level include cult-favourite , nicknamed “Outback Shaq” on account of his imposing physical presence during stints with the Toronto Raptors and Minnesota Timberwolves. managed 31 appearances across a couple of years with Chicago and Portland, while has put in productive spells at Houston, New Orleans and Toronto during a nomadic professional career.
Saving the best for last and granting that it’s now beyond the point of convincing him to don a Boomers jersey, there’s nothing entirely wrong with cheekily claiming Melbourne-born Kyrie Irving as our own as well.