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David Barlow's career resurgence is exactly what Melbourne United needs
It’s difficult not to get swept up by David Barlow’s resurrection story. The 35-year-old Melbourne United forward has battled through a parade of career-altering injuries since he rejoined the NBL in 2014. His value as a teammate was never in doubt, the future of his playing career was a murky issue. Through a combination of sheer hard work, persistence, and some luck, Barlow is rewarding his team's faith.
Barlow traces his physical struggles back to a single point in his career. After sustaining an Achilles injury, the two-time Olympian was forced to sit out the entire 2015/16 season. That moment kicked off a rollercoaster ride back to optimum health. “[It] kept me out of the game for an extended period of time, and it was very difficult to get back into shape following that,” said Barlow.
He was able to return to the court the following year with a diminished role, but for Barlow the minutes didn’t matter. “I was so happy to be back on the court, even if it was in a lesser capacity, I didn’t care. Just being able to be out there and run around was a huge success for me. With my Achilles injury I couldn’t even walk, so just to be out there, I was stoked.”
“[The Achilles injury] kind of set off a couple of other things in my body. I had this recurring knee soreness, tendonitis in my knee, which really has limited my ability to get low or move with any sort of agility, or to perform any kind of explosive movements.
“It’s been a trial and error process, and just constantly trying to stretch this or strengthen that, whatever it takes to try and fix this, and [to begin with] nothing seemed to work.”
Barlow is a big believer in developing one's strength and flexibility, and takes great care in nurturing those aforementioned pillars of fitness. The weight room is quite literally his workshop, where he tinkers and refines his body to keep it in optimum shape, and constantly works to iron creases out. During the recent offseason in a Bali weight room, the 35 year-old Barlow tried a new leg strength exercise, which finally offered some glimpse of hope for his knee ailments. “There was a muscular imbalance in my quads and doing this [exercise] made my quads function a bit better, and as a result it fixed my knee. So I kept doing it and I kept feeling better and better.”
Now that he is no longer grounded by leg injuries, Barlow now plays with a youthful bounce in his step, his powerful frame quite obviously having the wheels back on. He puts the ball on the floor with far greater confidence and regularity, and his rejuvenated explosiveness makes him a genuine threat when finishing at the rim. Previously relegated to a perimeter catch and shoot sniper, the ten-year NBL stalwart has rediscovered the complete game of his younger days. There is an infectious energy to his on-court presence and his newfound confidence in his body has fuelled renewed excitement.
“When I was younger I used to play a certain way. Then you start dealing with injuries and you have to modify your game. Now I’m starting to feel I can do the thing I used to do. Not only has it been a lot of fun for me, but I also think I can get better. I feel like I need to learn how to do certain things again now that I’m healthy.”
Although his body is now feeling the best it has in years, the former Metro State Roadrunner doesn’t solely attribute his new responsibilities and opportunities to his hot form and health. Sometimes luck and a change of circumstances are just as important.
“Last year our starting power forward was Tai [Wesley], and he was absolutely killing it. So there was significantly less opportunity there because he was doing such an amazing job. He obviously left the team and went to New Zealand, so there was a hole that needed to be filled.”
It was a perfect storm. With Wesley off to pursue a new chapter with the New Zealand Breakers, Barlow was given the chance to show off the fruits of his labour. His minutes this year have more than doubled from last season. His points have more than tripled, and his rebounds and assists are at career-high levels.
Barlow’s longevity is remarkable, and is made even more impressive by the impact he is having at his age. He’s one of league’s model stretch forwards, with the size and strength of a big man, and the shooting ability of a guard. His hybridised and versatile style is the result of a long basketball education, one that has perfectly shaped him for the modern game.
“I think I’ve been lucky with the transformation of the game. I was raised as a guard. Back when I was initially a professional, the size of every position was much bigger,” said Barlow.
“There were big guards across the board, and the small forward position was no different. Most of my early days I played the small forward position.
“With the evolution of the game it’s become more of a perimeter-based, faster, small-ball game. Now I play a different position because of that. Having that education as a young professional has helped me transition to this role. I think I’ve been lucky with how the game has evolved and I think it has contributed to my longevity.”
Although many athletes at Barlow’s age are sometimes forced to confront life after basketball, it’s not a subject at the forefront of the Melbourne native’s mind. For now, the future is nothing but basketball.
“I grew up as a kid who absolutely fell in love with basketball, so be able to do it as a job is the best thing ever.
“There is no plan for me to give up on that, I’ll do this until no one wants me. For me it’s like, ‘who wouldn’t do that?’ My body feels better than it ever has so I don’t really think about age. I’ll try my best to play and contribute for as long as I can. When it’s over it’s over, but I don’t put a time limit on that.”
When the bell finally tolls on Barlow’s career, it will be the end of one of the greatest the NBL has seen. For now, it’s full steam ahead for the rejuvenated veteran.