Chris Goulding on returning to Melbourne, defending in Italy and more

When Melbourne United was eliminated in the playoffs last season by an experienced New Zealand Breakers unit, many thought it would be the last time Chris Goulding would be in the NBL for the foreseeable future.

Coming off a second place finish in the MVP voting, Goulding seemed too talented to stay in Australia, despite the NBL’s vast improvement on and off the court in the last 12 months.

Some floated around the idea Goulding could be a long shot to make an NBA roster. Others wondered if he would follow Josh Childress’ footsteps and give the NBA D-League a shot. Immediately after United’s season concluded however, Goulding decided to head off to Italy and join Auxilium Torino.

While his experience overseas was ultimately successful, once Goulding had made his mind up he wanted to come back home, re-signing with the club that has given him so much was a no brainer.

“In Melbourne, there was something solid in front of me,” Goulding said about his decision to re-sign, in speaking with The Pick and Roll. “Once I decided, you know what, I want to be in the NBL, well then it was really an easy decision for me to go back to Melbourne.”

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Melbourne United is without a doubt, ecstatic with Goulding’s decision to stay, with coach Dean Demopoulos calling him “the face of the franchise,” via the club's official website. The free agency process wasn’t a certain time for Melbourne though, with Goulding explaining there was little communication between the parties before his personal decision.

“Once I finished the NBL season, I really didn’t have much of an idea,” Goulding said about his plans after United were eliminated. “I hadn’t spoke to Melbourne about re-signing and we hadn’t gone into specifics.”

While United were always keen to keep their superstar guard on board, Goulding was determined on continuing to play after the NBL season. Goulding was looking to go back overseas, but where that was going to take him was anyone’s guess.

“I was really excited to get back over to Europe,” Goulding said, as he spent his 2014/15 season in Spain, with CAI Zaragoza. “I had a good time in Italy, but I would have had to wait until the end of June to get anything solid, anything you can hang your hat on.”

Eventually, Goulding opted for the comforting continuity of Melbourne, over the uncertainty that he would have faced otherwise.

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Melbourne has had quite the busy off-season, with the signing of three-time NBL champion Cedric Jackson, and Goulding is eager to finally be on the opposite end of Jackson’s dominating performances.

“It’s going to be good,” Goulding said about playing with Jackson. “He has terrorised us the last few years. I think it’s going to be really exciting and I think he will fit into the way we play really well.”

While the Jackson signing was a major coup for the club, United haven’t been able to keep together the roster that helped them finish on top of the ladder last season. Most notably, All-NBL First Team selection Daniel Kickert is off to the reborn Brisbane Bullets (which was where Goulding got his first NBL gig), while the status of names like Stephen Holt, Hakim Warrick and Brad Hill are still up in the air. Regardless of how the new roster might look like when next season begins, Goulding is focused on winning once again and improving the club as a whole.

“I think [it's] much the same,” Goulding said, when asked about what his expectations are for United this season, compared to last. “Every year, you want to win it all, or every year you want to make the playoffs and see what happens. It really is like that. Anyone would of said we were a favourite to win the championship [last season] but then you come up against a team that’s finished fourth but they’ve won four out of the last five championships. There’s no easy team.

It really is about getting better and improving our culture and everything to do with our organisation needs to get better so that we can put ourselves in that position again. Then you go at it again and hopefully it’s a better result.”

With Kickert departing, United are lacking in their big man depth. However, one of Goulding’s close mates and Boomers mainstay, David Andersen, has been linked with the club and could be on the way in the coming months. Goulding, unsurprisingly, would welcome the addition, but is remaining mum on the topic.

“It would be good,” Goulding said about the prospect of Andersen coming to Melbourne. “I speak to Dave every week, I speak to him a lot, especially when I was over there [Europe], we were on the same time zone. He is my roommate on the Boomers, so we’re good mates. It’s no secret, he knows I would love to have him here but to be honest, it’s not something we have spoken about really seriously because he is in the midst of a season.”

The new and improved NBL

Goulding’s decision to stay in Melbourne goes hand in hand with the NBL undergoing a rejuvenation last season. With new prominent stakeholders, such as Larry Kestelman and Jeremy Loeliger at the helm, the interest in the NBL saw a vast improvement over years past, as TV ratings and crowd numbers were up. From a player's perspective though, Goulding believes the amount of options the NBL keeps open is a major factor in better players wanting to join the competition.

“I think it’s fantastic,” Goulding said of the NBL’s resurgence. “One of the biggest things that will be key to player retention and getting new big name players in is the shorter season, is the compressed season. We have been crying out for more games in less time for years and years. I think the Grand Final was finished at the start of March. I was in Italy at the end of February and they were like, what, you just finished a season, how can this happen.

I was lucky enough to go to Italy, Kevin Lisch, [A.J.] Ogilvy went to Puerto Rico, [Angus] Brandt’s in Lithuania, it just opens up a whole new world of what you can do as a player. Now you’re not just in the NBL, and that’s it, you don’t get to play anywhere else unless it’s SEABL. Now, you genuinely can be half the year in Australia and almost half the year in Europe, or wherever you need to go. For some guys who play really well, it’s early enough to go to the NBA, as you saw with Childress who went to the D-League. So, that’s massive, it is really big.”

One of the main reasons the NBL has struggled to maintain relevance in the Australian sporting landscape over the past few years has been the lack of marquee talent in the league. However, with the likes of Kirk Penny and Ogilvy returning to the NBL last season, and imports Jerome Randle and Casey Prather making major impacts, the general public is starting to take notice of the elite level of competition Australia has at its doorstep.

“Once you start getting the better players, once it’s put out there for people to see, it’s only a matter of time before people realise that it’s a really good product,” Goulding said of the NBL’s improved popularity.

His time in Europe

Goulding has no worries scoring, as he put up 18.4 points a game last season, while connecting on 41.4 percent of his field goals and 36 percent of his three-point attempts. During his time in Italy though, Goulding wasn’t asked to score. Instead, it was the little things that kept him on the court, and even though Goulding wasn’t too pleased with his performance overseas, it will ultimately serve as a benefit for him once the NBL season tips-off.

“I had a lot more opportunity to do better than I did,” Goulding said of his time in Italy. “I didn’t think I played fantastic. There were things I did really well that kept getting me playing time which aren’t on the stat sheet. Believe it or not, sometimes they put me on the best offensive player on the other team; they had me playing more defensive roles.”

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As much as Goulding was surprised he was asked to be a defensive stopper, he is hopeful that the experience will help fast track his improvement in that area of the game.

“I would think so,” Goulding said, when asked if he had taken anything away from his defensive stint in Italy. “I’ve been working on my defence for the last couple of years, trying to mark better players in the NBL, whereas when I first started out, everyone else would pick up their man and I would sort of float around and pick up whoever.

It’s definitely something I’ve been working on the last couple of years and it’s a big part of why I wanted to go to Europe as well, was to defend some other players, defend different sets, because I know if I can do that and come into camp improved, it’s going to be better for me.”

Taking up a larger defensive responsibility wasn’t the only difference Goulding found in Europe however, as the physicality and versatility of players was another differing aspect from the NBL.

“There’s a lot of big, athletic bodies,” Goulding said about the differences between the European and Australian game. “I wouldn’t say it’s a lot more physical but there is differences in the [physicality]. Some of the guys you come across are 6’9 and built 100 and you know what kilos and can jump out the gym and they’re playing the three.

Italy was weird; they loved getting small scoring guards. Every team would have a small scoring guard and then the other end would be a 6’9 three-man or a Serbian seven-footer that has elbows out to here.”

Moreover, Goulding was able to play an important role with Torino, despite joining the squad mid-season.

“We wanted to avoid relegation,” Goulding said about Torino’s goal while he was there. “I sat down in the coach's office the first day and he said, look, I don’t need someone who’s going to score 20 points, I need someone who’s going to come in, bring good energy, bring good work ethic in training, because I think sometimes they would sway a little bit with how they trained throughout the week and it was leading to some up and down performances. He [coach Francesco Vitucci] said, go out there, play the right way and whatever happens, happens.

I was fine with that and I knew that coming in. When we avoided relegation, 6,000 fans stormed the court; it was dead-set like we won the championship. It was fantastic because if they went back down to the second division, people are losing jobs; it’s people’s livelihoods. It really was a big thing for the city of Torino to do what we did.”

While Goulding thoroughly enjoyed keeping Torino afloat in Italy’s premier division, his mindset is now solely set on ensuring that Melbourne basketball fans are able to taste the same glory.

Glory, and a championship.