Keeping it together: Why Joe Ingles is the ultimate glue guy

I’d heard all the stories. The legend, even. Joe Ingles is a great guy. One of the best.

Ingles is the everyday guy. An Aussie larikkin. A mate who has your back. On the basketball court, he is the sort of person who doesn’t care one iota about individual acclaim, preferring to make you look good. Off the court, he is the joker that every group needs – someone who can make light of any situation.

Don't sweat it

Here's a fun little tale about Joe Ingles, during his rookie year with the Jazz. Through no fault of his own, he found himself in a bit of a quandary – as far as quandaries go in the life of an NBA athlete.

Ingles was part of a ‘road crew’ – featuring himself, Steve Novak, Gordon Hayward and Dante Exum – a clique that frequently hung out together during road trips. One evening, the group began discussing plans for the night, over text messages.

“I don’t think Joe was sure exactly what we had in mind,” recalls Steve Novak, a good mate of Ingles'. “We’re in the NBA, what are we doing? Are we going like, dancing? Are we going to the Cheesecake Factory? What are we doing?

The group texts pinged back-and-forth, and a dress code was finally agreed upon: sweats only. But by the time the group also decided on a destination, they inexplicably changed course with their choice of attire. Rather than look like “slobs” – as Novak put it – they settled on casual wear.

There was only one little problem – no one told Ingles. He came down for dinner, dressed in his baggy sweats - the obvious odd man out. Hilarity ensued.

“For whatever reason, his [sweats] looked like he was wearing pyjamas – it was like a grey hoodie, with the grey sweat pants,” says Novak. “We were all in jeans, and he looked like he had just rolled out of bed wearing his pyjamas out for dinner!

“He came downstairs and was like, ‘what are you guys doing?! We all agreed on sweats!’" Novak says with a chuckle, remembering Ingles' mock outrage. “That was one of the first times that I remember feeling like, I like him – we can make fun of him.”

It would have been a bland, unsatisfying ending to the story if Ingles had headed upstairs to change. But we're talking about Joe Ingles the legend here. True to form, the man headed out for dinner without a second thought - "pyjamas" in tow, joining in the laughter with his mates like a good sport.

Even off the court, Ingles just makes everything better.

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“[He’s a] good one, young Joseph,” says Trevor Gleeson, in agreement.

Gleeson, Ingles’ assistant coach with the Australian national team, waxes lyrical over the swingman and his ability to bring people together.

“He is a great locker room guy. He’s one of the guys that coaches love having in the locker room.”

But the legend goes deeper.

“Every single teammate that I’ve met, every coach, everyone who’s been affiliated with him loves the guy,” says Brad Ames, his long-time agent from Priority Sports, and one of Ingles’ closest confidants. “Which is a bit odd, because he’s kind of a sarcastic a--hole sometimes.”

“To be honest, I can’t stand him much,” Novak jokes. “I can only be around him for 5-10 minutes at a time before I lose my mind. I gotta hear about how his wife, Renae, is so famous as a netballer. I gotta hear about his dog, named Moose. Who names their dog Moose?”

“I don’t know what it is about him,” muses fellow Boomer Ryan Broekhoff, when asked about Ingles' character at national training camps. “He has a quirkiness about him – a big personality – but [he] brings a friendly way about providing leadership. He makes everyone feel really comfortable.”

“That’s because Rowdy [Broekhoff] doesn’t talk,” Ingles quips, when I tell him about Broekhoff’s assessment. “He makes me feel like I talk a lot.”

Talking hoops

Joe Ingles and I talk over the phone.

Only he calls me. Can you imagine that? One of Australia’s biggest basketball stars found the time to call me, not once, but thrice, during the day. He wants to make sure that I get all that I need for this story.

I'm beginning to see it: Joe Ingles has always been about making everyone around him better.

I'm curious to learn more about the man. I’m keen to understand why teammates and coaches love him. Most importantly, I want to know what hoops means for Joe, and vice-versa.

So we settle into the conversation and just talk hoops.

He rattles off pivotal moments in his career like he’s churning information out of an old-fashioned Rolodex – snapshots that have been neatly compartmentalised, ready for consumption.

You know the story by now.

There’s the time he was signed straight out of school at the tender age of 18 years old, plucked from the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) to become the first recruit for National Basketball League (NBL) expansion club, the South Dragons. By the end of year three, after winning an NBL title with the Dragons, Ingles had outgrown the domestic league and sought new challenges overseas.

“I’d never been to Europe much before that. I was basically packing my bags – I think I was 21 or 22 – and heading to a tiny little city [Granada] in Spain. I had a great time there. I played with guys that I’m still really close with now – one of the closest teams I’ve been on throughout my career.”

Then there’s that moment when he produced his best game ever for those Spanish battlers, CB Granada, against a perennial Euro-powerhouse, Barcelona. A week later he’s in Barcelona, playing for the famous Spanish giants as their newest recruit.

“That was awesome! I loved my time at Barcelona,” says Ingles. “[At the same time] it was frustrating, because it was the biggest club in Europe and we had 15 guys who could play on any other Euroleague team. A lot of us were resting games, we were rotating through on who sat out, and that was frustrating. But we won a lot, we won a ton of championships – won the Spanish league twice, won the King’s Cup twice.”

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He concedes that his relationship with the Gasols is “really good”, after spending months together with the Spanish brothers. The Gasols, as you may recall, had trained with the Barcelona squad during the 2011 NBA lockout.

“I think Marc probably had a little bit to do with [Memphis] originally being interested,” Ingles says. “I know he enjoyed playing with me in Barcelona.”

By then, the NBA community was already well aware of who Joe Ingles was.

The NBA first heard of Ingles when he declared for the 2009 NBA Draft.

“People knew who he was. We’d hyped him up pretty heavily for the draft,” says Brad Ames, who has managed Ingles’ basketball affairs since he was a teenager.

Despite going undrafted, Ingles’ reputation continued to grow, following a successful career in Europe. A strong performance for the Australian national team at the 2012 London Olympic Games, only cemented him further within the NBA radar.

An offer from the Memphis Grizzlies followed, but Ingles turned it down.

“I had an offer from Memphis to go over there and I still don’t know 100 percent why I didn’t take it,” he says.

But perhaps in his heart of hearts, he knew the reason: he had been oh-so-close to winning a Euroleague title.

From 2011-2013 Ingles’ Barcelona squad had been to the Euroleague Final Four, only to miss out on advancing to the title game on each occasion. He had been so close to tasting the ultimate success.

“A lot of Australians don’t really understand what it means to win a Euroleague. When you’re based over there for so long, it’s obviously the biggest tournament they have,” says Ingles.

He knew he had unfinished business to attend to.

Ingles would ultimately forgo the Grizzlies and sign with Israeli outfit, Maccabi Tel-Aviv, coached by David Blatt, no less. It was a decision that was vindicated. That very year, they won the Euroleague title, with Ingles finally achieving one of the greatest accomplishments possible in the Euro-game. That milestone also marked the time to finally take the plunge, and try to cut it in the NBA.

“Being 27 at that point, my window for getting over there was closing. It made me more comfortable about going over there and try and make an NBA team. I didn’t have any guarantees.”

So with no promise of a contract, he headed over to LA, only to be cut by the Clippers on the penultimate day before clubs had to finalise their roster for the 2014/15 season. It was a frustrating experience for Ingles, considering he felt that he had done enough to stay on the team.

“Even Doc [Rivers] has said publicly that they would have liked to keep me, but they had an injury. Jordan Farmar was injured, and Jarred Cunningham, the other player, it was either me or him [to make the final roster]. He was a point guard, so it made sense. I’m pretty realistic with things and with the way it was.”

Not two days later, the Jazz called. They must have seen something in Ingles.

The Glue Guy

How do you quantify being a glue guy? How do you sell that to NBA teams within a competitive player market?

“Yeah, it’s very difficult,” concedes Brad Ames. “Even with the advanced analytics, I haven’t found a stat I can really show what a guy like Joe can bring to a team.”

Ames points to how Ingles has a knack for developing relationships; a critical, but often overlooked skill with team-building honchos who prioritise talent. Take for example, the time when fellow Maccabi Tel-Aviv alum, Tyrese Rice, flew all the way from Russia to Australia to be at Ingles’ wedding.

“[It’s] just an example of the relationships that he’s able to build in short time periods with guys, just because of the type of person he is,” says Ames.

The common denominator that has made Ingles valued as a teammate, and as a person, has always been his ability to make everyone around him better. Part of that process comes from acceptance – an understanding of who he is, and what he can do.

Ingles ponders this for a moment – reliving his career in his mind and wondering how he finally got to the point of accepting who he was.

There was the time as a South Dragon, when he dropped 29 points on debut, and everyone thought he would be an all-time dominant scorer, “or something crazy.”

“I’ve never been a guy who’s going to go out and be flashy and average 20 points-a-game and kind of attract those people to watch you play,” Ingles says. “Every team I’ve been in, I think has been pretty specific to how I can help – they know before I come in what I’m going to do.”

Ingles, the realist, is refreshingly honest. He doesn’t shy away from classifying himself as a role player, a reality that many players instinctively fight against. If anything, Ingles seems proud that he came towards self-actualisation relatively seamlessly.

“A big part of roles on a team is being able to accept them,” he says. “There’s a lot of players I know who are probably better than me and who should be in the NBA, but can’t accept being a role player on an NBA team.”

I tell him the angle for this piece; that it’s about Joe Ingles being labelled the ultimate glue guy by Quin Snyder. Does he feel entrapped within that label? What does it even mean to be a glue guy?

“Not allowed to shoot 15 shots [per game],” he quips playfully, before returning to seriousness.

“I was always happy to help others, and I think I’ve brought that into my basketball by trying to get other guys to get better. If some guy’s not playing as well on a certain night, [I] try to get him involved, try to get him an easy shot.”

The Booker connection

I ask him about his chemistry with Trevor Booker; how they work the pick-and-roll, and how he seems to bring out the best in the Jazz big man.

Ingles seems genuinely chuffed that someone pointed it out; that someone actually noticed. It’s a tiny window that reveals a fascinating existential debate within Ingles. The selflessness that defines him as the glue guy, and a lauded figure within his own team, makes him invisible to the casual observer.

“Funny that you asked that,” says Ingles. “Because not many people notice that, so it’s nice to know.”

He calls Booker “probably one of the most unselfish guys” that he’s ever played with; a guy who he’s developed a deep understanding and friendship with, something which has reaped on-court benefits.

“I knew the player that he was, he was going to set a great screen and get me open, which really ended up getting him open. We just built that through playing together. We sit next to each other in the locker room as well, and we’re both the oldest in the team!”

How Ingles fits into the Jazz

At this point, Ingles is effusive in his praise of a teammate, and seems more concerned with talking about shared team success, than his own individual contribution towards it. He seems more interested in being the glue guy who greases the wheels of a Jazz machine that seeks on-court perfection.

“I know me and Gordon Hayward, we grew a great relationship because he found it easier to score when I was on the court because I would be able to create for him, and he didn’t have to do everything himself.”

He goes on to describe how he’s a perfect complementary piece within a Jazz offense that “wasn’t set for Gordon Hayward or Rodney Hood" but instead, an offense "where everyone was involved in every possession.”

“I think we were first or second in passes-per-possession, and the Spurs were the other team that were top 2,” he says. “Me being the way I am, and the way I play, it kind of came naturally to me to just kick it, and swing it, straightaway.”

He enjoys being part of a Jazz locker room that’s “pretty hilarious” and just a “good bunch of guys”.

They all spend time together off the court, whether it be through meals, movie outings, or even just coffee catch ups. It’s a group that wants to be together, and it’s the type of environment in which Ingles thrives in.

Now no longer a rookie, Ingles doesn't forget to hand out sound advice to a new teammate, whether it be on fashion, dinner choices, or where to be on offense. As one of the oldest members of the Jazz, he’s equal parts brother figure and teammate – always there to give advice, a hug, a knowing smile – and ever the Aussie larikkin.

“I always am. I always have been,” he says. “It’s one of those things that ties in with being that glue guy, and being able to relax guys, and help guys, and see things that you see on court that someone might have missed. Or [things] that they could do better, or that they’re doing great.”

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The Ingles/Novak maneuver

There’s an incident that probably encapsulates much of what Ingles brings to a team. It occurred during a random practice in his first season with the Jazz. Unsurprisingly, that Jazz squad – which throughout the course of the season had suited up eight rookies – turned out to be one of the quieter teams that Ingles had been a part of.

The coaching staff were running defensive drills. There was a discernible lack of talk amongst the team, a critical ingredient for any good defense. Quin Snyder grew increasingly concerned with the lack of chatter within the group, or more pointedly, the lack of willingness to communicate. So Ingles took matters into his own hands, with a little help from Steve Novak.

“Me and Steve Novak went around screaming stuff during defensive drills,” recalls Ingles. “Just because Coach wanted to hear people talking. It would make other guys feel comfortable to talk if me and Steve were yelling random stuff.”

Only that wasn’t the only reason. According to Novak, a bit of subterfuge was afoot.

“Some days you’re just dragging the tyres. And so we made the point to exaggerate it a bit more, just to get out of the drills and be done sooner,” recalls Novak. “[We] tried to make Coach Snyder think that we had a lot of energy, when we were just trying to fake our way out of it.”

So Novak and Ingles schemed behind the scenes to get the squad an early mark from practice.

“I remember Joe was yelling so ridiculously loud, and calling out some of our coverages in transition, that Quin pretty much laughed," says Novak. "He pretty much said like, ‘great job, Joe. You’re really doing a great job of being vocal. Oh my God, everybody hears ya!’

“That was exactly what he wanted, but it was to the point of okay, next drill. You guys are doing it! You guys are doing it right. You got energy, so we’re moving on.”

That sort of stuff won’t show up in advanced metrics or opponent scouting reports. It won’t be noticed. It probably wouldn’t be mentioned outside of the inner-sanctum of the Jazz locker room. But it is the sort of stuff that binds the team, and defines who Joe Ingles is.

“I’m always happy and talkative," says Ingles "I mean, I’ve got a great life so I don’t know why I wouldn’t enjoy it?”

Be like Brett Maher

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So what led him to this life? What shaped him to be this way?

How does a kid who grew up in the sleepy town of Happy Valley, Adelaide, end up in the NBA? How did he beat the odds and make his NBA dream a reality?

“I didn’t at all!”

Ingles never wanted to play in the NBA. Or more accurately, he never really thought about it.

As a kid, Ingles was obsessed with Aussie hoops. He religiously consumed NBL games on television. He had dreams of becoming the next Brett Maher, the 3-point shooting basketball icon from his same hometown of Adelaide. He’d stay up late into the early hours of the night to follow the Australian Boomers at the Olympics, dreaming of being on the world stage one day, just like his heroes.

“Growing up, wanting to be a basketballer from Adelaide, all I wanted to do was be like Brett Maher, originally. That was the guy that I watched, and the guy had obviously played for Australia, and done all that before me, so he was the one that I looked up to.”

Like most kids in Australia, he had dalliances with Aussie rules and cricket before settling with basketball. When I asked him why he chose hoops, he simply concedes that the decision was based purely on having “more friends” who played the sport.

Joe Ingles has always been someone who wanted to be part of a collective – to be someone who could help make things, and situations, perfect. Not that he wasn’t up for challenges.

There’s a great anecdote from Gordon Monson of The Salt Lake Tribune about Ingles’ early aspirations to be a professional basketball player, the next Brett Maher. Back in the day, Ingles’ dreams were met with resistance from a certain Mrs O’Reilly, who questioned his career choice.

“It’s weird. I can remember exactly where I was sitting and I remember the whole thing perfectly,’ he recalls. “My mum was sitting next to me and the first question she asks is ‘what do you want to be when you’re older?’ I looked at mum and she knew what I was going to say.

"The teacher obviously didn’t and she kind of looked at me and just said that ‘you have to pick something more realistic.’ In my head I was swearing at her and doing all kinds of things.”

There’s no vindictive tone from Ingles though. Nor lingering resentment. But the incident did serve to provide some motivation. You see, Joe Ingles the glue guy, has been seeking challenges throughout his career.

“I think for me, originally it was just to play professionally. I didn’t care where it was. Obviously the 36ers were what I grew up around, but I didn’t care where I went to play. As I grew older, the dream was to go to Europe and I got to do that. To win a Euroleague, and I got to do that. And to play in the NBA, it’s all slowly happened. It hasn’t happened overnight like a lot of people. But I wouldn’t change the way my path has been for anything.”

Just be Joe Ingles

Context is everything.

A player is never defined solely by some intrinsic value. The environment they have been a part of, plays a significant role. It’s the whole chicken and the egg thing.

Ingles’ determination, and identity, has been sculpted as much by those who have touched his career, as well as his upbringing in Adelaide.

“I feel like I’ve been really lucky with who I’ve played with and where I’ve played,” recounts Ingles. “My first couple of years at the Dragons with Shane Heal was a huge part of what I became. Jacob Holmes and Adam Quick – just so many guys that have helped me become the way I am.”

Jacob Holmes, an uncompromising veteran also hailing from Adelaide, was the ultimate role player – a player synonymous with unselfishness, and one who had won a championship with the Adelaide 36ers. He’d been signed by the South Dragons, in their inaugural season, to provide some veteran leadership, character and on-court toughness, the sorts of qualities that were crucial for a fledgling organisation.

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During those early years at the Dragons, Holmes would often chauffeur a teenage Ingles to-and-from training, because Ingles had yet to obtain his driver's license. They already had a connection, with Holmes having known Ingles since he was a trash-talking 15 year old kid playing in the South Australian state league. He would go on to become one of Ingles' closest mates.

Holmes would often use the time during those car rides to impart advice to a young and impressionable Ingles. The message was simple: Just be yourself.

“And that’s the great thing about Joe. He’s never, I think in his career, ever forsaken what he’s truly about, his game style, and what he values in basketball”, says Holmes. “He’s the glue guy. He’s someone that does a multiple array of things on the court. He can rebound, he can run, he can shoot, he can get off-the-dribble.”

Jacob Holmes’ favourite memory of Joe Ingles isn’t even one related to basketball.

One Christmas Eve, Holmes and his wife decided to invite an 18 year-old Ingles for Christmas dinner in their Melbourne home. It was a simple, but heartfelt gesture, considering how basketball had taken Ingles away from home since he was 16.

The couple did not expect much. What would you expect from an 18 year old kid coming for Christmas dinner? They’ll probably bring themselves, right? You’re lucky if they show up on time.

“I remember Joe turning up on time, bringing a present for my wife, thanking her profusely for having him over, sitting down eating dinner with us, and leaving,” he recalls. “Both my wife and I went, ‘yeah, he’s got it.’

“I don’t know what it is. But he’s got that personality where you go when he needs to turn it on, when he needs to be kind, and nice, and proper, he does it.”

That proverbial switch, to do what the situation demands – to make the collective situation better – is something that Trevor Gleeson has witnessed first-hand.

The Boomers were set to duke it out in a high-stakes 2014 World Cup Pool D game against perennial Euro-powerhouse, Lithuania. Sensing the enormity of the moment, Ingles did what Jacob Holmes had implored him to be, years ago: Just be Joe Ingles.

“Joe came out, very aggressive, in the first quarter,” recalls Gleeson. “I think he scored 11 or 12 points in the first quarter. He led from the front. Patty didn’t play in those championships, Bogut didn’t play, [so] we needed that leadership. He really stood up to be counted.”

For Gleeson, Ingles was the constant chameleon – always doing whatever was needed in order for his team to have success. But he’d always do it his way.

“Joe will say something sarcastic, he’ll also give you encouragement. [But] there’s a time and place for everything. Joe has a good handle on that – when to lighten the mood, and when to lock down and [do] what needs to be done. He has a great feel for what the team needs.”

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Is Joe Ingles misunderstood?

My conversation with Joe Ingles is drawing to an end.

He’s come across exactly as advertised – someone who is genuine, generous, and most importantly, only cares about making everyone around him better.

He's someone whom Jacob Holmes said genuinely “cares about what you’re doing, and what you’re up to, when realistically he has every reason to be really focused on himself. He’s always quite giving in his time.”

So it seemed like a good opportunity to ask him something that had been nagging away in my mind. Truth be told, I was inspired to write this piece after seeing a tweet from Bill Simmons during the regular season.

Loved GSW snapping into champion-mode. So impressive.

Unrelated: someone needs to explain what Joe Ingles does to me. I'm at a loss.

— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) March 31, 2016

It made me think what a guy like Joe Ingles brings to a team. It made me question how value on a basketball team is truly graded. It made me consider the harsh reality that glue guys may well be stuck in media purgatory – not good enough to attract headlines, and ironically, not bad enough to attract headlines.

Sure, Simmons’ tweet was a rhetorical question, but I felt that it deserved a response. And who better to respond than the man himself?

So, I took the plunge. What were your thoughts on that Simmons’ tweet? How do you feel when others don’t necessarily understand your game?

Ingles’ tone noticeably hardened. It’s a jarring departure from the larrikin persona that many know him by, and the happy-go-lucky spirit that just exuded from him during this interview.

“I’m not too fussed with what other people say,” he says. “I think if I was, I’d probably have quit by now.

“I’m not going to shoot bad shots. I’m not going to steal a rebound off a teammate to get my stats. Obviously if I wasn’t helping, I wouldn’t be playing with the Jazz. I think any team when they get around me, or a coach or a player, once they’re around me on a regular basis, they would understand. But for the people that watch a game every 50 games of the Jazz, because we’re not on national television as much, of course they would watch it and probably not be sure why I’m over there.”

It's true that talent comes in many forms. What if Joe Ingles’ singular talent is his ability to inspire excellence through his sheer force of personality?

He might not be the most gifted basketballer, nor the most physically dominant athlete on the court. But what if we were all looking at it the wrong way? What if Ingles’ greatest basketball gift has always been his ability to bring people together – by being a great teammate, and by being a great person – and just being Joe Ingles?

“He’s always been driven to achieve greatness. And greatness is always relative,” says Holmes. “There’s always someone better. Joe was never going to be LeBron James because he’s a different beast. Joe’s greatness is the fact that he’s continued to strive for excellence, and strive to be the best of what he is.

“He’s always doing it in a fashion that is very collaborative, and in the best interests of everybody.”

So perhaps Joe Ingles is being wildly modest with his self-assessment when he says he “wasn’t the most talented guy.”

Joe Ingles is most definitely a difference maker on a basketball team. It might not be immediately noticeable because he’s not the highest scorer, nor the flashiest player. But he’s always done it his way.

He has always been comfortable in his own skin, and comfortable being known as the glue guy.

“I think the thing that has helped me get to where I am today is accepting what I can do, and what I can bring to a team – not try to do too much, and not try to be someone that I’m not.”

After all these years, Joe Ingles continues to be the guy that helps to build winning cultures. He’s your best teammate, the first one to put an arm around your shoulder, and the first one to offer you advice, when needed. He just makes everything better.

He is the ultimate glue guy, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.