An ode to Andrew Bogut and Australia’s greatest NBA career

In April 2010, with his Milwaukee Bucks destined for a return to the NBA playoffs, Andrew Bogut was putting the finishing touches on his career season.

Averaging 15.9 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, Bogut had ascended to the levels expected of a number one overall draft pick. He was playing like an All-Star – despite being over looked in the initial round of selections, and again as an injury replacement, just as Ben Simmons would be years later. When the season was finished, Bogut would be voted onto the All-NBA 3rd Team. He was judged to be one of the 15 best players in basketball; the third best centre. He had turned the corner. That’s what makes the events of 3 April 2010 an unfortunate pivot point in his NBA career.

As Bogut hung on the rim after a fast break slam, a nudge from Amar'e Stoudemire brought him crushing down to earth. Bogut writhed in pain as he hit the ground. His arm was shattered. A broken hand, dislocated elbow and sprained wrist was the extent of the damage. Broken bones would heal, but this was a truly irritating act of misfortune. At the very moment Bogut’s career was peaking, it was thrown into chaos.

“I finally turned that corner,” Bogut told me last year. “I was averaging 14 and 10, 12 and 10 a year and then all of a sudden, I finally turned that corner and was really affecting the game at both ends.

“Then I went down with something that really changed the trajectory of my career. My shooting touch, and a lot of my strengths that I used went haywire because the touch went out the window. It was really tough, mentally.”

It’s hard, impossible perhaps, to fully comprehend Bogut’s NBA career without the improbability of this moment. The ‘what if’ game runs rampant. One on hand, it was a cruel blow to a young athlete entering his prime. Bogut’s offensive talents were irrevocably diminished because of the fall. Then again, that’s the life of a professional sportsperson. Injuries happen, and for as much as you wish they didn’t, Bogut most certainly enjoyed a luscious basketball life once he returned to action.

During his four year statistical peak from 2007 – 2011, Bogut averaged 14.0 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 34 minutes per game. He led the league in blocks in 2011. He championed a Bucks’ defence that was one of the NBA’s most effective, relative to their overall talent.

On the day he announced his retirement from the NBA, Bogut left the Association in the top 100 for career blocks (80th), blocks per game (55th) and defensive rating (91st). For the true analytical mavens, he ranks inside the top 50 for career field goal percentage (38th), rebounding percentage (34th), defensive rebounding percentage (16th) and block percentage (32nd).

Bogut played in 694 regular season games (the most ever by an Australian) and 58 playoff games. To top it all off, he retires with over $115 million (USD) in salaries earnt. “Looking back, I’m still very lucky to be playing in the NBA for 12 years and doing what I love,” Bogut added, when we spoke in Dallas last January.

There is that trademark self-awareness seeping out. Bogut understands his place in all of this – the sporting world, media, and community – better than any athlete I have ever covered. It came across through the many iterations of his NBA career. As a Buck, Bogut enjoyed the chasing stats phase of his journey. He was a franchise player in Milwaukee. No doubt about it. Then as basketball mortality started creeping in, he pivoted gracefully, embracing a reduced, yet wildly fulfilling, role that declined as his NBA career waned.

Landing on Golden State wasn’t the cakewalk it now appears. When Bogut was traded to the Warriors in 2012, they were still loveable losers with just one playoff series victory in 20 years. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson were there, but they weren’t the Splash Brothers yet. Draymond Green was still at Michigan State. Mark Jackson, whom Bogut will seldom speak positively of, was a head coach devoid of offensive intellect. Owner Joe Lacob was infamously booed on the night Golden State retired the number of Chris Mullen. What did Lacob do to draw the fans ire? Among other things, he traded for Bogut.

It’s easy to look back at those Warriors and see the foundations of a dynasty, but in the moments after Bogut was shipped away from Milwaukee, predicting transcendent greatness in The Bay would have been lunacy. Three years later, the Dubs were NBA champions.

In 2015, Golden State punctuated a charmed 67-win regular season with their first NBA title since 1975. Bogut captured NBA All-Defensive honours while anchoring the NBA’s best defence. He had finally reached the pinnacle of his profession, yet the best was still to come. The Warriors encore brought an assault on the history books.

What followed was a 73-win season that fashioned a craze not seen since Michael Jordan retired. Golden State seized the hearts and minds of NBA diehards and casual sporting onlookers alike. The absurdity of what Bogut’s Warriors accomplished cannot be understated. They surpassed the 72 wins of Jordan’s Bulls; a mark widely seen as the NBA’s most unbreakable record.

Golden State couldn’t punctuate their remarkable season with an NBA championship – LeBron James’ defining moment, along with Bogut’s health ailed them at the final hurdle – yet their achievements go beyond any singular accolade. They created moments that have defined this decade of basketball: Game 25 in Milwaukee, Curry’s shot heard around the world, Game 6 in Oklahoma City, thousands of fans locking into arenas early to watch Curry warm up. Those Warriors created a movement. “It was really really crazy,” Bogut said of the experience. “It was something you will always remember.”

Somewhat fittingly, Bogut replaced Longley as Australia’s representative on the NBA’s gold standard for singular season success. He surpassed the one who came before him. The one with whom he was always compared.

“I looked up to Luc [Longley],” Bogut said. “He was part of a really good team with the Chicago Bulls. So watching Jordan you got to watch Luc as well, they were on the same team and he was part of one of the winningest teams of all time.”

Replace all mentions of Longley with Bogut, Jordan for Curry and Chicago Bulls with Golden State Warriors, and you have characterised the mindset of budding Australian basketball starlets. Except 2015 is a different beast, and Bogut’s range of impact dwarfs everything that preceded him. A technological age provides a public dais unimaginable just 20 years before. That makes Bogut the most available export in local basketball history, and perhaps, Australian sporting history.

Podcasts with Bill Simmons. Twitter spats with Elizabeth Cambage. Broadcasted critiques of the NCAA system. Political opinions carrying weight in a foreign land. These might not seem huge, or even relevant, but they are significant developments. All of them. They give credence to the Australian sporting community. Kids from Victoria aren’t meant to be capable of these things. Well, that used to be the case. Bogut pushed the boundaries. He raised the bar.

Despite his trailblazing ways, Bogut will likely never hold the historical significance of Longley, for Longley was the first to make an impact on the NBA stage. He opened the door that Bogut sprinted through. In 20 years time, his resume will (hopefully for Australian basketball) pale in comparison to that of Simmons, for Simmons is the first global prodigy to jump into the crucible of American basketball. He is simply a better prospect that Bogut ever was.

While Bogut will never leapfrog the cult-like status Longley garnered, and he never forced a millennial generation into a flush like Simmons is currently doing, he leaves the NBA with a legacy unmatched. He, at time of retirement, owns Australia’s greatest NBA career, both in terms of resume and impact.

“I think he is the most dominant player,” Longley told me last year. “The most influential player that we have ever produced. No question.”

The NBA gave Bogut an almighty platform. His excellence on the global stage allowed everything else to follow. It also happened at the perfect time, right as the basketball movement in this country was exploding.

It’s easy to forget that Bogut played his first NBA game in 2005. When he debuted for the Milwaukee Bucks, Ben Simmons was only nine years old. Longley had only been retired from the NBA for four years, and the NBL still featured the Melbourne Tigers, West Sydney Razorbacks and Hunter Pirates. Much has changed.

Thirteen years later, Bogut has triumphantly returned home. A commitment, both physically and financial, in the Sydney Kings signals a transition into the next phase of his basketball life. It comes at the expense of his NBA career. One that was winding down to a halt, in any case. What felt like an inevitability in short bursts with Dallas, Cleveland and Los Angeles is now absolute. Bogut’s NBA career is over, and so ends nearly two decades of playing on an American platform. Much of that time was spent as a lone statesman for Australian basketball.

Luke Schenscher made his NBA debut the same season as Bogut, but was gone from the league 18 months later. Nathan Jawai enjoyed his fleeting NBA moment at the end of the noughties. That didn’t last long, either. David Andersen came, and ultimately, went with the lockout in 2011. It wasn’t until Patty Mills, who as drafted by the Portland Trailblazers in 2009, that Bogut had an Australian running mate with staying power. Even still, this was years before Matthew Dellavedova, Joe Ingles, Dante Exum and the rest of the cavalry came flooding in.

On the court, Bogut was the connective tissue between the pioneers and the golden generation. Off the court, he was an omnipresent figure central to the sport’s growth. Yet despite all his accomplishments, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Bogut’s legacy remains incomplete. That the greatest accomplishments of his basketball life are yet to occur.

Returning to the NBL is no fundraising junket as he rides off into the sunset. The fact Bogut has right to 50% of the Sydney Kings franchise – if he wants it – is a sure sign of his investment back into the sport. Bogut’s brand will bring prosperity to the NBL. He dominated on the biggest stage and his abrasive nature – love it or loathe it – is everything the league needs.

Then we have Tokyo 2020, and the Boomers' assault on Olympic Gold. Not since the Socceroos 2006 World Cup campaign has an Australian sporting team’s appearance at an international event meant so much. A crescendo is building and expectations are rightfully sky high. Bogut has reinforced his desire to compete at a fourth Olympics. A relaxed NBL fixture will assist his efforts in getting there healthy. And while the young bucks will be leading the charge in Tokyo, Bogut’s experience and veteran savvy will be crucial, as the group looks to rebound from the golden heartbreak suffered in Rio. The imagery of Bogut walking away, with an Olympic medal in hand, is tantalising.

Andrew Bogut retires from the NBA as a champion, a pioneer and as Australia’s greatest male basketballer. His basketball journey isn’t yet over, but thanks to a stupendous international career, his place in history is secure.