One on One with Mark Worthington

Mark Worthington is a respected legend in Australian basketball. His list of accomplishments starts with a terrific stint at Metro State in the USA where he collected the NACB Division 2 Player of the Year award. He went on to win NBL Rookie of the Year with the Sydney Kings, became an NBL champion with the South Dragons in 2009 and made it to four All-NBL First Teams. He is also a two-time Olympian and has represented Australia at every major tournament.

photo credit: MR FOOJI via photopin cc

This interview came about due to comments from VFL/AFL legend Kevin Bartlett about the current state of the NBL:

"The home-grown stars just can’t be satisfied, it’s lost its position in the minds of sports fans and that spells death unless a panacea is found." - Australian basketball needs cure: Bartlett, SportSenTral

Subsequently, Melbourne Tigers Captain Tommy Greer came back with more:

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With this interview, we not only discuss the background and history of Mark’s career, but also the NBL and the future of basketball Down Under.

Firstly, the team at The Pick and Roll would like to thank you for your time and willingness to participate in this interview. As an Australian basketball icon, it really shows your dedication to the promotion of basketball in this country and we appreciate you taking the time out of your schedule.

Can you give us a little bit of an understanding around who your idols were growing up and who had the biggest influence on your career?

Growing up in WA I was spoiled for role models in the Wildcats. Crawford, Fisher, Grace, Pinder, Ellis brothers etc. However one man stood taller than the others and has always been my role model, and that's Andrew Vlahov. I’m very fortunate to have a great relationship with him now. My parents were my greatest influences however growing up. Both worked extremely hard to give me every opportunity to be successful in basketball.

What prompted your decision to go to Metro State back then?

After being rejected from the AIS (best thing ever now, devastating at the time) I wasn’t left with many options. Metro contacted me, the only school to contact me so it was a very easy choice in the end. Mike Dunlap did so much for my career and couldn’t be thanked enough for it.

You tried out for the West Coast Eagles AFL team. How did that come about, and why did you pursue that?

I received a voicemail while on my layover coming back from the London Olympics in Singapore. I was asked if I was interested in coming to Perth for a week for a tryout. After just competed in my second Olympics I thought it wouldn’t hurt to tryout and not have the ‘what if” question lingering at the end of my career. A very exciting week and glad I had the opportunity to do it.

You have played professionally in Europe and in South America. What draws you back to the NBL?

I think once you leave Australia you appreciate what a great country you're in. I wanted to comeback and settle my family down after what has been a hectic 5 years of constant movement.

You have experienced a wide range of emotions with the NBL – winning a championship and then watching your team fold almost immediately. Can you run us through how that affected you?

photo credit: MR FOOJI via photopin cc

Still surreal that it could happen. The Dragons was an amazing club and it's unfortunate that we lost not only two great owners in Cowan and Geminder, but ultimately losing Goorjian to China and Ingles to overseas. A massive domino effect from that club folding.

Being back with the Melbourne Tigers this season - how does that make you feel?

Really happy. Anstey has been great. Learning from DMac has been unbelievable, there’s one guy I would have loved to play with. He sees the game really well. The Tigers organisation has really turned the corner and I can see a positive future.

You’re a youthful 30 years young and no doubt grew up with the NBL in its “prime”. What can you tell readers about that era?

I remember the great rivalries: Magic v Tigers, Wildcats v 36ers, Sydney v West Sydney. Somewhere we have lost those great rivalries. The doomsday double road trip of Adelaide/Perth was a known nightmare and the league had great heroes and villains. It was an awesome time as a fan and I could only imagine what it was like as a player.

Basketball in Australia in terms of participation numbers and at the “grass roots” level is still extremely high. How can we best make use of this market to develop the sport, the NBL and the players themselves?

I think if there are direct links between pro teams and juniors. At the moment there is no connection. Those kids are our future. We have been out in schools for the last few years but we need more direct contact with junior associations. Make the parents feel like their children are supporting someone whom their kid has a connection to on the highest level.

Do you believe that the NBL can regain its audience and supporter base here in Australia and also around the world? What will it take from the NBL, Basketball Australia, fans, supporters etc to make this happen?

Awareness is our biggest issue at the moment. In a time where we are spoiled for choice as the NBA, NBL and European basketball are all played at the same time, we need to nurture our youngest talent and make them household names. Social media has done a lot but each player needs to be able to market themselves as well as their team to sell their product. NBL fans have been doing a great job, it's now up to the new NBL to step up to the plate and so far they are moving in the right direction.

The NBL moved away from Basketball Australia this year. Has this been a positive move or is it too early to tell? Does BA still need to play a part in the growth of the sport?

BA picked up the ball back in 2008 and saved the league, but having just relinquished their duties I believe the new NBL is going to take this to the next level. Successful businessmen are just as competitive as athletes and I know that they are hell bent on making this work. So far it has been a positive change but we are still in the honeymoon period.

What do you think has been the most successful change in the NBL over the last five years, and where do you see the NBL in five years’ time?

Getting games back onto free to air TV and the release of NBL TV. Giving the loyal fans more opportunity to watch games and the opportunity of the casual viewer to watch NBL again. I think in the next 5 years we’ll have 2-4 new teams and possibly the change from summer back to winter. I know that last one is unlikely but that's what I’d like to see.

We are seeing a number of first class import players heading to Australia. This year we have James Ennis who was drafted by the Miami Heat, but we also had Jonny Flynn and of course Patty Mills came back for a stint at the Tigers. Does this add to the credibility of the competition here?

Absolutely. I think the new NBL rules favour athletes like Ennis to come to Australia and shine. Patty was great with not only his on court contribution but also his off court interaction with the Melbourne community. If we can get a constant trickle of high profile ballers coming year in year out it will continue the growth of the NBL.

Is it likely we may see more of our players return to the NBL after their stints with American college teams the way you came back? Or might we see the NBL used as a pathway for NBA draftees like Ennis?

Ideally we want both. I think there are some great juniors coming through college and would love them to come back and ply their trade in the NBL. Hopefully fringe NBA players want to come here as well. At the end of the day, the more talent we can lure back the better the product we can put on the court.

Having played in a variety of leagues, countries and competitions, where do you rate the NBL in terms of level of talent?

I think the NBL is a great league. The Europeans are very half-court orientated. South America is very athletic and individual and the NBL is a good blend of both. We don’t have a plethora of outstanding athletes but the ones we do have (Ennis, Abercrombie, Walker) are outstanding.

We are seeing a number of Australian basketball players and coaches make the leap to the NBA, most of them having cut their teeth with the NBL at some stage. Surely this captures the attention of the rest of the world?

Yeah with more awareness in the NBA, Australia is slowly getting more of a reputation but I think the guys in Europe are now playing with big name clubs where only Dave Andersen could crack that market before. I think that's where we are getting more of a reputation. Players like Ingles, Jawai, Maric, Newley, Barlow etc.

You have taken the time to do this because of your passion for the game and wanting to help it grow. Do you have a message or “call to action” that you want to share with The Pick and Roll readers?

Grab one of your friends that used to go to the basketball and bring him/her back. The NBL is filled with great players and each club does a great game day presentation. The NBL is far from dead but we need to continue to spread the word and raise awareness to this great game. Your friends won't be disappointed, and maybe a wake up call is all they needed.

There is no doubt that this NBL season has been met with a huge amount of interest, probably the most in quite a long time. The standard of talent playing in the league and the structure of the competition is allowing more access to the general public. We are now seeing games televised and Perth for instance have had crowds of 10,000+ at each home game. The time is now for basketball fans to get behind our domestic competition and really drive its success over the next decade.

Mark, once again we thank you for your time and your insight into not only your career but the National Basketball League and the state of the sport in Australia. Good luck for the rest of the year and we will all be following not only your performances and that of the Melbourne Tigers, but of the entire NBL competition.

Don't forget to follow Mark Worthington on Twitter at @Wortho44.