Written for nbl.com.au by Tom Hersz
When you think of legendary figures in the history of the NBL, one name that casts a shadow over the coaching greats we’ve seen is Brian Goorjian.
Having won six NBL championships and six NBL Coach of the Year awards, it’s tough to name many better and Goorjian, by virtue of winning half his titles with Melbourne based teams, will always be linked with the city he still calls home when he’s not in China.
Now back in Melbourne for an extended period of time, Goorjian’s latest coaching gig is as the Assistant Head Coach of the Zhejiang Guangsha Lions of the CBA and his troops are spending a big chunk of their preseason there.
Recently, the Lions took on Melbourne United in a preseason exhibition match – one of several the Lions are playing while in town – and while Goorjian’s team went down 77-97, his presence on the sidelines still loomed large.
And he is loving having the chance to coach against and in front of familiar faces after typically spending 11 months of the year in China for the better part of a decade.
“I get back to Melbourne, but this is like an extra bonus,” Goorjian told NBL Media post-game on Sunday.
“Being able to do our preseason here and playing games against a lot of people I enjoy, and see a lot of people that I haven’t seen … I’m just really enjoying it.”
Goorjian wasn’t necessarily looking for another job in the CBA for this season after ending his last contract a year early.
Between coaching in the CBA and working with the Chinese National team, he’s had very little down time and was looking forward to taking some time away from China to refresh, reset and learn from some different coaches, before this opportunity arose.
“I said [to myself] it’d be nice to go watch Brett Brown [and] learn a little bit from him, go see Mike Dunlap, come and watch some games here and I was kind of going into that mode,” Goorjian explained.
“I got a call from Guangsha who is one of the better organisations in the league and one of the better areas. Mentally I was preparing myself that I’m probably going to have to sit out for a year and they called; I was excited about doing it.”
With it being difficult for Chinese teams to tour the US due to restrictions on playing NCAA teams, Goorjian suggested coming to Australia instead. Not only is it closer to China, but also there are no restrictions on who they can play games against, so it made sense.
“It’s ticked every box since we’ve been here,” admitted Goorjian.
“The people have been lovely, great training facilities and then games like this.
“It’s not about winning for us right now and I’m sure it wasn’t for United either. We’re trying to develop a couple of kids and see if they can help us in the rotation, and we’re trying to play tough competition and get better at things that we’re bad at.”
Goorjian knew what he would get out of the practice games here as he keeps a close eye on the NBL from China. He watches a lot of games and is really impressed with the overall package that the league delivers now.
He believes the talent was always there dating back to before he left, but the off court details have caught up. That, he believes, is what is moving the league to an even better place as it enables NBL teams to attract a higher calibre of player from overseas.
Few of the guys from our 2009 @NBL championship team! 10 years ago we did something special! Still believe that team could of beat any of the other great teams that they talk about! pic.twitter.com/Ip1mQuEiVG
— Joe Ingles (@Joeingles7) June 29, 2019
“The Tigers [versus] Dragons final [2008-09], when you look at the 10 guys that were on both rosters, I mean NBA players; Donta Smith, Tremmell Darden, Joe Ingles,” Goorjian explained.
“Where it’s changed is Larry Kestelman and what he’s done off the floor.
“My Dad used to come when I was coaching in the late 90s and early 2000s. He’d watch a game and go ‘this is the best-hidden secret in Australia. That is a great game of basketball, but nobody watches it; nobody knows it’s going on.’
“And what Larry’s done is he’s fixed that. He’s made it where everyone [now knows].
Goorjian has seen it first-hand when traveling overseas.
“You go to the Vegas Summer League, everyone’s asking [about it] cos they know I’ve been there.
“You know, ‘What’s going on over there?’ ‘How are they getting all these guys from America?’ ‘Why do they want to play there?’
“And it’s the same thing when you go to China. It’s getting out.
“And when I watch the games on TV, the production of it, the TV package, the actual event itself, the way it’s promoted, it’s great.”
Goorjian credits Kestelman with saving the league. After coaching at four different teams and seeing all of them exit the league in some way or for some period of time, Goorjian needed a change after the Dragons folded in 2009.
The league was not stable and that is why he left to pursue opportunities overseas.
“He’s fixed that,” said Goorjian of Kestelman.
“I’m so happy to come back and see the game; for all these young kids and all these people that are being developed, now they’ve got a place to play at home.
“People have said that when it gets good, the people that are playing overseas are going to come back. And that’s what’s happening. I’m just thrilled for everybody.”
Of course Goorjian’s last season was also the last time that there was a cross-town rivalry in the league; something that is about to change with the South East Melbourne Phoenix joining for NBL20.
For someone who grew his NBL teeth in a lot of those rivalries from playing for the Tigers to coaching with the Spectres, Magic and Titans all taking on the Tigers; then the Kings against the Razorbacks and finally the Dragons vying for bragging rights in Melbourne, Goorjian knows how important those rivalries are to keep building momentum for the league and get more people following it.
“I think it’s paramount,” Goorjian explained.
“The history of the Magic and the Tigers. That competition going all the way back. Those were the greatest games I was involved with throughout my whole career. The passion in them, you couldn’t duplicate.
2️⃣ – In a cross town Grand Final against the Melbourne Tigers in 2009, a young @Joeingles7 and the South Dragons featuring the likes of @Wortho33, @adamgibson_1, @M1kaV and Brian Goorjian got that ? in a Game 5 decider pic.twitter.com/GoWI89ro1E
— NBL (@NBL) August 21, 2018
“And then the Dragons, I thought it’s on again. You know we played each other in the final in a knockdown drag-out five game series and I go ‘now it’s starting, it’s going to happen again’. And it fell on its ear. But now it’s back.
“I think the [new] organisation, it sounds like it’s going to be really well run. They’re putting a nice culture together. You’ve got the United over here that are the team that’s loaded and you’ve got all the guns. I think it’s another win for the growth of this thing.”
It’s not lost on Goorjian that the team chose to be known as South East Melbourne.
“I just wish they would have finished it with Magic,” he joked.
Of course the other big news in Australian basketball right now is the lead up to the FIBA World Cup in China and the Boomers preparations. And while there have been some big names drop out, there is still a belief that this Boomers team can do something special and make history.
Goorjian coached the Boomers from late 2001 through two Olympics, culminating in the Beijing games in 2008. Patty Mills who made his Olympic debut in Beijing and Andrew Bogut debuted in Athens in 2004, are now the veterans of the team and still chasing that elusive major tournament medal.
Goorjian wasn’t yet sure whether this group can reach that goal, recognising that their preparation in the lead up would be telling.
“I thought their last Olympic campaign was sensational and I thought what they did, I thought they had a camaraderie that you could see, visually, when you watched them play,” said Goorjian.
“It was a tremendous thing. You could feel it; you could see it when they played. They moved the ball better than any team in the competition and they had great and tremendous pressure on the ball.
“Now those three things are really hard to get and right now, they’ve got two weeks to go, it ain’t where it was. And nor should it be, but can they get it back with a lot of new heads?
“There’s a lot of new people and then some of these NBA guys have been sitting [since the season ended]. So it’s a really difficult situation for Andrej [Lemanis] in a two-week period.
“Do they have the personnel to do it? Yup. Are they there now? No and they’ve got two weeks.”
Obviously things have since changed with the Boomers beating Team USA on Saturday. They are a lot further advanced than when Goorjian spoke to NBL Media, but that doesn’t make the task any easier given the competition for a medal.
“I think they know this is their time,” Goorjian clarified.
“This year and next year, if we’re going to get a medal, these are two great opportunities and everybody in their camp knows it.
“Bottom line is it’s going to be tough. I watched Serbia the other night; they’re really good. The American team is still number one. That leaves one medal, so I mean it’s going to be tough but they can do it.”
When Goorjian first went to the CBA in 2009 it was with Dongguan. Coincidentally that is where the Boomers will commence their FIBA World Cup campaign next month in Group H play, so they may have an extra supporter in the stands when the ball tips against Canada on September 1st.
“I definitely plan on doing that,” Goorjian said of getting to a Boomers game.
“When we get back we’re going to Macau for about three days for a tournament and then we get back and I’ve got a week patch there. I’m sure I’ll get into Dongguan and see a game.”
For now though, “Goorj” is concentrating on his team’s preseason preparations. They took on the South East Melbourne Phoenix on Sunday giving fans another opportunity to see him back on an NBL sideline, even if we may not see it on a permanent basis any time soon.
“You never say never, but when I come back, what I’ve noticed in the last five or six years, I was really, really competitive and I had a real edge to me.
“To go back into this thing, I’m enjoying when I come back being everybody’s friend and coming and seeing people and not competing against them and enjoying their company, so I see myself more in that role.
“I want to be involved in basketball, but I don’t see myself coming back and being a head coach again.”