Leaving a Positive Imprint
By Erin Hallissy
Photograph by Toby Burditt
Aussies bring no worries, mate, to Gaels basketball
Head coach Randy Bennett noticed something remarkable in McKeon Pavilion last season, something that demonstrated just how much a contingent of Australian basketball players had transformed his men’s basketball team.
It wasn’t the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!” chants after three-pointers by Gaels from Down Under. It wasn’t the Australian flag hanging from the pavilion’s back wall or the fans dressed in T-shirts decorated with kangaroos or Southern Cross constellations.
For Bennett, the greatest Australian influence revealed itself when the players lined up on the court for the national anthem, their arms draped around each other’s shoulders, with Omar Samhan on the right end holding his hand over his heart.
“Nobody else does it. Our guys do it,” Bennett says from his office, where a framed copy of a Sports Illustrated feature on the Aussie players hangs behind his desk. “I’m not sure which guy or guys started it, but I would imagine Pat (Mills) had something to do with it.
“That’s ‘team.’ It’s genuine. This team is tight,” Bennett continues. “They care about one another. They’re making a statement when they do that.”
The five Australian players — Patrick “Patty” Mills (drafted in June by the Portland Trail Blazers), Carlin Hughes, Lucas Walker, Ben Allen and Clint Steindl — imported a very team-oriented approach to Bennett’s program.
“All of our guys are unselfish, but these Australian kids are into the team,” Bennett says. “There are a lot of kids over here that you have to sell on the team. They’re raised on their individual accomplishments. Australian kids are really into the team camaraderie. They like having fun with the teammates, whether going out with them or playing games or sitting around talking. They come up with their little chants, team songs. We’ve just had a lot more of that in our program since these guys came in.”
The Gaels have reaped a great harvest from the infusion of Australians. Its mid-major Division 1 program is now well-known both in the U.S. and in Australia, where 16 of its basketball games last season aired live on ESPN Australia.
“When you talk about Saint Mary’s over there, they’re mentioned in the same breath as Duke or UConn,” says Tim Coakley, producer of “Aussie Hoops America,” which has aired on ESPN Australia for two years. Coakley, who has followed Aussie players throughout NCAA basketball, says Saint Mary’s program is unique, and not just because the team had five Australian players, including the popular and talented Mills.
“The thing that stands out for me is the way the students have embraced the Australian players,” says Coakley, who hosted his pre-tournament show in Moraga last March. “It’s almost as though these Aussie players are playing in their own country. They’re so welcome and so much a part of the Saint Mary’s family.”
In the Beginning
The Australian branch of the family started with Adam Caporn, a guard Bennett signed just before the 2001-02 school year in his first year as head coach. Bennett didn’t know much about Caporn except that he was available, had good grades and was a captain of his team at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).
Bennett, who knew a little bit about the AIS before he came to Saint Mary’s, has since become an expert on the elite institute set up after the 1976 Montreal Olympics to train young Australians to excel in sports. All of Saint Mary’s basketball players (including Louella Tomlinson and newcomer Kate Gaze on the women’s team) are products of the AIS.
After his good experience with Caporn, Bennett recruited Caporn’s younger teammate at AIS, Daniel Kickert ’06, who signed with Saint Mary’s because “he trusted this situation and liked what he saw.” Bennett — and Gaels’ basketball fans — liked what they saw in Kickert. He became the all-time leading Gael scorer, and is now playing pro ball in Spain.
“Daniel had such a great career. He made it popular for Australians to play at Saint Mary’s. Adam started it; Daniel took it to another level, and then Pat (Mills) has taken it to another level again.”
Still, no one — not even Bennett — would have predicted in 2002 that the Australians would become a huge story for the Gaels. After all, Bennett also recruited players from other countries, including Samuel Saint-Jean and Frederic Adjiwanou from France, Reda Rahlimi from Morocco and Rafael DaSilva from Brazil.
But when Carlin Hughes and Lucas Walker transferred to Saint Mary’s after two years at Montana State-Billings and began playing in 2007-08, the same year that Mills showed up as a freshman, the Aussie contingent had become more than a novelty. When Ben Allen and Clint Steindl played in 2008-09, suddenly the team was nearly half Australian, and Gael Nation was flying two flags, U.S. and Aussie.
“It’s part of the identity of our program,” Bennett says. “I think we’re the only (NCAA Division 1) team that has five guys from the same country other than the United States. All the sudden, all of our games are on in Australia. Saint Mary’s basketball is associated with Australian players, which is great. They’ve definitely left their imprint on our program in a very positive way.”
Embracing the mates
Hughes’ dynamic, fun-loving personality helped propel all things Aussie to the forefront. He taught the Saint Mary’s Gael Force the Aussie, Aussie, Aussie cheer at
MidKnight Madness in fall 2007, and a tradition was born, quickly picked up by alumni fans.
“That was the bomb,” says Michael Johnson ’87, who waves a green-and-yellow boxing kangaroo flag at games and helps lead the chants during games. “It gives us — in a very crowded market of 343 Division 1 schools — more than our fair share of above-the-fold ink and an angle that plays well for the students and alumni.”
The influx of so many Australian players on an American college team and the fans’ overwhelming support of the Gaels has drawn national media attention and accolades from ESPN broadcasters, who noted that the raucous environment of McKeon Pavilion makes it one of the most-feared arenas in college basketball.
“Is this the atmosphere that they have for every game?” Davidson coach Bob McIllip asked after the first-round National Invitation Tournament game in March. “It just blows my mind that they have this kind of crowd. This is very similar to (Duke’s) Cameron (Indoor Stadium) in terms of the noise level, the heat, the intensity, the passion.”
Hughes, who graduated in May, says his biggest surprise after transferring with Lucas Walker to Saint Mary’s from Montana State-Billings in 2006 was the tremendous alumni support for the team, both on and off the court.
“They’ve very involved,” Hughes says. “They really care about us.”
Walker remembers when the Gaels beat Gonzaga at home in 2007 and the fans stormed the court after the final buzzer.
“This was what I used to think about when I was in Montana and saying I wish I could play Division 1 basketball,” Walker says of the energy in the building.
Spreading the Word
Players have made it easier for Bennett to recruit more Australians, because they’ve told their former AIS teammates about their high regard for Saint Mary’s and Bennett.
“Kickert spoke very highly of him, and said he understood the Australian way of life,” Hughes says. “He understood we like to go out and have some fun.”
Walker says Australians appreciate that Bennett wants to groom them as athletes so they can potentially go on to pro careers, internationally if not in the NBA.
“He understands what Australians are trying to accomplish,” Walker says. “You can’t sell Australian players on the wow factor. It’s more about trying to develop as players.”
Bennett also credits assistant coach David Patrick with helping to recruit Australia’s best young players to his team. Patrick grew up in Australia and played for the Cambrea Cannon of Australia’s National Basketball League from 1999-2001. Bennett hired Patrick in 2006 from Nicholls State University.
“That helped increase the familiarity, the trust level,” Bennett says. “He’s a really good recruiter. He’s great with them once they get her. To have someone on our staff who really knows all the people over here has been tremendous. He helps them to stay on track and to 27 keep trying to achieve their goals.”
Success helps too; Walker says his time at Saint Mary’s far exceeded his expectations.
“I’m very lucky to be on such a good team. The last two years, we went to a tournament.”
Having older Australian teammates also helps the younger ones adjust. Freshman Steindl says he communicated over the Internet with Mills before he chose Saint Mary’s.
“Patty told me it was a small school and he liked that. It was a close group of guys, almost like family,” Steindl says. “And I wanted to please the parents and look at the academic side of things.”
Hughes says the older Australian players enjoy helping the younger ones, noting Steindl “asked about a thousand questions a day” when he started last fall.
“I wish I had someone around when I first got to the States,” Walker says. “I had a lot of questions.”
Three new freshman players from Australia will be around to ask Steindl and Allen questions in the coming year — Matthew Dellavedova, Jorden Page and Mitchell Young.
With Mills’ decision to turn pro, Bennett faces the loss of a leader and top player. He also watched five seniors graduate in May — Hughes, Walker, Ian O’Leary, Diamon Simpson and Yusef Smith, leaving him with plenty of roster spots for new players and returning players like Omar Samhan, Wayne Hunter and Mickey McConnell.
“I think we can replace most of that talent, it’s just that it’ll be young,” Bennett says. “We’ve had guys sitting out who I think are good players, and we’re returning four starters. All three of (the incoming Australians) will be capable of playing on a good team.”
The Gaels will travel to Australia in August to play against local Australian teams, which helps increase Saint Mary’s exposure in the country.
Bennett views the Bay Area and Australia as his primary recruitment areas. He has no quota for how many Australians he’ll bring to the team, but says he won’t bring anyone halfway around the world to sit on the bench.
“They’re coming to college to get valuable playing experience, to get a degree and to learn to live away from home,” he says. “They want to play after college. They need to have the opportunity to play so they get good. These guys are supposed to be the guys who eventually play on their Olympic team.”
Keeping the Australian pipeline flowing is fine with fans like Johnson.
“This group has shown itself to be very responsible on and off the court,” he says. “I’ll take the 28 wins, but I’ll also take the fact that we’re graduating our kids. We’re in the papers for all the right reasons.”
Bennett will also take continuing his relationship with Australia.
“I love the people over there. They’re straight-up and nice people. Their values are very high, and they’re very family-oriented,” he says with a smile. “The kids we’ve gotten have helped me as a coach to understand a different culture, and they’re helped me as a person. It’s neat to see so many of them who turned out to be great kids.
“It’ll be a part of me the rest of my life — Australia and the people that I’ve coached from over there and the people that I’ve met.”