CREDIT: The Players Herald – http://www.theplayersherald.com.au/toughest1/
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NBL.COM.AU
There’s often a focus on the invaluable role your teammates play in your career, however an equally special relationship is that of your opponents.
Your opponents aren’t your friends on the court and they won’t catch you when you fall. In fact on the contrary they’ll be the ones to shove you on the way down as they unapologetically play to win.
Being tasked with “who is my toughest opponent?” it was too difficult to limit it to one person. Having played for a decade in the green and gold, a decade in the NBL and yearly battles against the Tall Blacks, I have chosen 3 guys that standout all for different reasons.
Mika is one tough S.O.B. I had the pleasure of being Mika’s teammate when we won a Championship with the now defunct South Dragons. Training was brutal every day. My respect and admiration for this guy is second to none. He is under sized but is so physically strong. Couple that with a relentless desire to pursue every rebound as if his life depends on it and you have a warrior in every sense of the word.
His improvement from back up player to heart and soul of not only the New Zealand Breakers but more importantly the New Zealand Tall Blacks has been incredible. The hours put in to become a threat from the foul line where teams could sag off him early in his career speaks volumes to his willingness to improve.
Playing alongside the likes of Kirk Penney and Corey Webster both incredible international scorers would normally mean less attention. However, the amount of time and focus of the Australian Boomers game plan has always revolved around keeping him off the glass and defending him in the post and his incredible passing ability off the block.
One of my lasting memories was during game 3 of our championship run with the South Dragons. I was sitting on the bench when Chris Anstey ran through Rhys Carter. A melee erupted and Mika was the first in there to get after Chris Anstey. On that Melbourne Tigers team I had one of my best mates in Luke Kendall and good friend Stephen Hoare, both physically strong individuals, trying to hold Mika back. He looked like a man possessed. He was dragging Kendall and Hoarey in the pursuit of getting to Anstey. I was glad he was on my team.
One of the things I love about Mika is that while he is one of the most feared competitors on the court he is one of the most caring family men off the court. He has built his reputation on nothing more than hard-work and his incredible will to win.
A bit like myself in he was one of the more hated figures in the NBL. I even disliked him when I first started in the league. I tried to knock his teeth out in one of the finals games. However, it wasn’t until we teamed up to play in the Beijing Olympics did I realise why I disliked him. He’s so damn good at basketball.
Chris was incredible. At 7 foot he was arguably the best shooter in the league along with the most intimidating presence in the paint. He led the league in rebounds and blocked shots while devastating teams with his array of offensive moves whether in the paint or from deep.
Playing in a time before Australia was on the map globally and in an era where social media wasn’t available, his basketball accomplishments are remarkable. He was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks, moving to the Chicago Bulls and winning an MVP in Russia. You don’t do these things without being a great player.
His basketball IQ was off the charts. Whether it was posting up and getting his team into the bonus or delivering that back breaking three that would bury a team, he understood the moment and rarely failed to deliver.
I loved that people commented on how weak he was because he wasn’t your typical five man that posted every possession. If you knew his weights coach Bruce Grey you knew that his lower base was incredibly strong. When you ran into his screens you stayed hit. He had sharp elbows and bony knees but he was strong and tough to move when he decided to go somewhere even though he looked like an octopus setting up a deck chair at stages.
Chris has become one of my best mates. We can chat about basketball, we can chat about life but he’s one guy that I’ll always have time to have a beer with and talk about the 2 championships he took off me, the 1 championship I took off him and the fun we had playing together with the Boomers and Melbourne Tigers.
When you are THE guy on the USA National Basketball team, you know you’re good.
Who you may ask? How good is this guy? Talk about an intimidating athlete with an unbelievable basketball IQ, without doubt he’s the toughest player I’ve ever had to defend. It’s one thing to be the guy in your NBA team, but when you’re THE guy on the USA national basketball team you know you’re good. He didn’t necessarily score the most points but he set the bar for his teammates.
LeBron is Magic Johnson 2.0 at 6ft 8 and 113kgs his passing ability, speed and strength make him a match up nightmare. During the 2006 World Championships I was given the choice of starting against Dwyane Wade or LeBron. I took LeBron as a logical match because of similar attributes minus he’s awesome and I’m an NBL player.
He posted me up the first play of the game. He winded me when he dropped his shoulder into my chest; I thought that I was going to block him without any air in my lungs only to see him whip the ball to Shane Battier in the corner for a three-pointer to start the game. That first possession alone let me know that I was dealing with an opponent on another level. A legend that has gone on to arguably become one of the top 5 players of all time in the NBA.
Through my four encounters with LeBron, I noticed a few things but one thing stood out to me. He is a great guy. It’s amazing how the media can portray someone as a hero or a villain. I was lucky enough to strike up a conversation with him on our way to the locker room during our game at the 2012 London Olympics. I mean he never had to go out of his way to talk to me but he’s genuinely a great guy. At that stage I didn’t know that it would be the last time I would face him but it was a surreal moment that lets me know how fortunate I’ve been and how much basketball has given me.
At the end of the day I’m fortunate to say that I’ve played against LeBron. When my kids Taz and Axel are a little bit older I can’t wait for them to understand the cool things I’ve done. Playing against LeBron is one of my greatest highlights. I think my boys started to understand a little when I was telling them about Kobe and his retirement but to me, I appreciate everything LeBron does on the court.
All three have similar traits; fiercely competitive, hardworking, and great guys. I’m fortunate to call Mika and Chris mates and both have been wildly successful in the NBL. I’m jealous of their success. We all want to win Championships and all three guys have done that on multiple occasions.
With every elbow to the ribs, every stare and every bit of trash talk, the drive to win is fuelled by our opponents, it certainly always brought out the best in me.