The Goorjian philosophy: On developing Boomers culture, the Tokyo Olympics and more

Brian Goorjian shares thoughts on his coaching journey, growing the Boomers cultural identity and how the CBA experience helped the recent Olympics.

Credit: FIBA

As a kid growing up in Sydney during the early ‘00s, Kings games were instrumental in cultivating my love for basketball.

On one particularly memorable occasion, eight year old me was fortunate enough to chat with the team’s then head coach, none other than the legendary Brian Goorjian. His friendly and open nature, asking if I had enjoyed the game, and showing a seemingly genuine interest in my recent Under 10s fixture, left me with the strong impression many of Goorjian’s players, staff and competition will likely agree with: Goorjian is not only someone with a masterful basketball mind, but a man of character who treats everyone with respect and honesty.

Over a recent Zoom chat with Goorjian, the six-time NBL champion and recent Olympic bronze medal winning coach spoke fondly and with great appreciation for the coaches and mentors that paved the way for him during his illustrious career, starting with his high school and college coaches. “I was really fortunate my whole way through. The coaches that I played for were high quality people that I admired and learned from. Starting with my high school coach, he ran a tremendous program —development, culture, character, just the mindset if you’re part of this team— that this is going to set you up for your life. These things that are not only basketball-oriented, but are going to make you a better person and make you successful in society if you take what you’re doing here and apply it.” 

Goorjian touched down in Australia in 1977. His introduction to life and basketball in Australia came under the tutelage of the great Lindsay Gaze, who Goorjian recalls would coach the Under 18s, then the Under 20s, then literally mop the court himself, before commencing training for Goorjian and the rest of the Melbourne Tigers. 

“Lindsay Gaze had a huge effect on me. He had no ego and just loved basketball, a hard worker. I found him an offensive genius with strategies offensively… reading the defensive player, movement off the ball and cutting were all really good things I carried over into my coaching. Personality-wise he cared about his players, cared about the team and had no ego, and that was a lot different than where I came from in the American system.” 

When learning the intricacies and nuances of the craft during his transition from player to coach, Brian also recalls the mentorship of current Milwaukee Bucks assistant and former Adelaide 36ers coach Michael Dunlap, who was unfailingly there for him “all the way through” as a mentor.

Under the influence of his mentors, Goorjian utilised his infectious charisma, positive attitude, and eventual mastery of the game to forge what many consider to be the greatest coaching career in the history of the NBL, and likely Australian basketball. No other NBL coach has won more games than Goorjian, who during his first stint in the league from 1988 to 2009 recorded quite an extensive resume:

  • 514 wins (at a 70%-win rate)

  • Six NBL championships

  • Six Lindsay Gaze NBL Coach of the Year awards (named fittingly after his former coach)

  • 19 consecutive NBL playoff appearances and

  • 13 NBL Grand Final series appearances.

Discussing his tenure in the NBL, Goorjian shared the importance of recognising fit, especially two-way fit between a player and coach. “A huge aspect of it, you realise as a coach that you’re not for everybody… When you come into the NBL, there’s a lot of very very good players, great players, and they don’t want to play for me. I don’t suit them.” Goorjian talked about knowing the players who were attracted to his system, knowing who to recruit, and emphasised that there were many great players but it was just “horses for courses”, in his words.

Using his experience with Sydney Kings and South East Melbourne Magic as examples, Goorjian talked about how success can be found through establishing a clear sense of culture and vision and then building the team accordingly, but also being mindful of development and changing situations when fit was no longer ideal.

“We developed a style of play that was easy to recruit to. I was always taught that the winning is in the picking, and move them before they move you. As a coach, you have to sense, this [situation] is starting to wane, they’re moving to a stage in [their journey] where this no longer suits them. Move them along, before they get grumpy on your bench.”

“… the Magic was a slow build, [the team had] a style of play: defence, development, youth. And then we went across to Sydney and it was a little bit different: more explosive offensively, more open and free flowing, but again with an element of youth to it and development: come to this and you’ll reach your goals and you’ll win. And Sydney was an easy market to recruit to.”

When it comes to developing a strong sense of culture, there is not a more perfect example than Goorjian’s profound influence as coach of the Australian men’s national team. During the recent Tokyo Olympics campaign, we heard the Australian Boomers’ core players such as Patty Mills and Joe Ingles constantly discuss the pride of representing Australia on the international stage. The history of basketball in the country and depth of Boomers culture, served as the driving force behind the team’s ‘Gold Vibes Only’ pursuit of the nation’s first Olympic medal. This deep rooted sense of culture that is engrained in the nation’s best players, is not something that sprouted overnight. Goorjian went on to explain the amount of time and energy that was put into developing a team culture, during his years as head coach from 2001-2008. 

“They always talk about four year cycles. So when Sydney finished —and there’s a lot of parallels to what’s going on right now— a lot of guys played longer to play in the Sydney Olympics, and what you had was virtually the team retiring at the same time… what I walked into [following the Sydney Olympics] was a team with no culture, no understanding of international basketball or the Boomers.

“One of the first things, or the hardest thing [that we decided to get done] leading into Greece was that we were going to develop a culture, a strong culture of the green and gold.” A consultant was brought in to work on this aspect with the team every night during camp, after dinner: on various qualities like empowerment, the leadership team, and what the vision of a Boomer would look like.

Stepping away from the international coaching stage following the 2008 Olympics in Beijing (which saw Australia fall, after a quarter-finals loss to a Kobe Bryant and Lebron James-led USA team), Goorjian felt comfortable that he had made significant inroads with the national team and that the squad (including Andrew Bogut and a young Patty Mills and Joe Ingles), was in a good position to hand over to the next person. “So I walked away from [Boomers coaching], feeling like I’d made some real good inroads, I left the team in a much better place, and that’s always something that you’re always trying to do as a coach, than when I left it.” 

From there, Goorjian went on to pursue an exciting new chapter in his coaching career. He relocated to China and spent more than ten years there, becoming the longest serving internationally born coach in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), coaching various teams including the Dongguan Leopards and Xinjiang Flying Tigers. Always fully committed to the task in front of him, Goorjian never considered the possibility of returning as coach for the Boomers.

“Absolutely zero. Interesting that you sit here, and you’re in quarantine now and you take this all in and think back. The national coaching job is not something you aspire to. It’s you do your job, and you go about what you do, and it’s like making an All-Star team or something like that as a player. It’s you do your job and if they think you’re worthy, fine.”

But Goorjian also elaborated on how the process happened on this latest Boomers coaching role, and how things got started quickly after his signing with the NBL’s Illawarra Hawks.

“From [signing with Illawarra], within a month, I was kind of tapped on the shoulder and [told] there’s an opening [for the Boomers coaching role]… and you’re the right guy for the job. I think it was important to them that there was somebody coming in that they knew. This is a real important build for a long period of time, and Patty [Mills] and Joe [Ingles] knew me. I coached them, there was a respect there, and a rapport there.

“Again, I know this is long but there’s a history to all this stuff. This was a big decision for me, it wasn’t something that I was thinking about. And to be truthful with you, it wasn’t something I really wanted to go into. I was too worried about the prospects of ‘here’s a great team, it’s done so well, and the only proposition is medalling’. I have so much respect for the international game: Serbia, Croatia, France, Spain, Lithuania, to go along with Slovenia and all. To get to where the team was prior [in earlier tournaments], I saw as a real challenge. I was nervous about stepping in and delivering. And Patty and Joe, the conversations with that leadership team —Andrew Bogut, Mills, Joe, Delly and Aron [Baynes]— which I did have discussions with. [It] made me think, right time, I’m in.”

But when he did, he knew the stakes involved.

“… I just knew that this was a big time. And we’re on the positive side of this now, that we got the medal. Everybody was following, and everybody was excited but also in taking the job, I understood where it was at.”

Goorjian added emphasis on the gravity of getting over the medal hump this time, gesticulating as he carried on. “There was also a real pressure, knowing that what would happen if this didn’t happen.

“Just really pleased that it went so well, and the guys played like they played and the culture of the team and that everybody got a chance to see how special this group was. The following [attention] was something that the whole team was aware of, and was talked about. We knew that we had the country’s attention, and really wanted to deliver.”

But it is interesting in hindsight, that some of the things that he learnt during his time in China had a positive inpact on the Boomers’ recent success in Tokyo. 

“I learnt a lot over there… I learnt more flow at practice, less of my voice… which was due to obstacles that came up [in China] and it influenced your coaching. To make a correction you’d have to work through an interpreter and they don’t speak your language. So you’re injecting there’s a long process. So try to organise practices and develop schemes where you didn’t have to talk. And when you did talk, it was verbal keys. Like passing lane, driving lane, keep your elbow in instead of longwinded conversations like I used to have.

“[It was] much more free flowing offensively: much more open, much more push to the ball, spacing. I was much more a system team, much more grind team. Everybody touches the ball, [there was] a lot of screening. So offensively it opened my eyes and developed change in me.

“I think you could see how the Boomers played… if you compared it to [former Boomers head coach Andrej] Lemanis’s teams were, [those teams] were tremendous in the half court offence. We were definitely not as sophisticated [as previous teams]. We were more simplistic, more spread, more clarity, and again, that was something I learned in China. It was really helpful in this because I only had five days of practice and I had six new players. So to put in Andrej’s system, [the] flow is pretty complicated and something that we ruled out right away. So being able to go into my Chinese bag was a real positive.”

“Defensively, flying around a lot more. You can see it in the Boomers’ doubling the ball on the on-ball and rotating, as opposed to dropping and keeping everybody at home and packing it, which was more of a staple mark of what the Boomers used to do.”

Simplicity also played into how the team would play, and it started with the roster selections, and how that would shift strategy. Multiple Zoom discussions with assistant coaches Matt Nielsen, Adam Caporn and David Patrick were had, on figuring out the system that would be installed within the short time available. The core players —including Mills, Ingles, Dellavedova and Baynes— were obvious locks but some were subject to flux. For example, Ben Simmons.

“And the complication, being honest with you, was: do we have Ben Simmons or don’t we have Ben Simmons? … So we cut a lot of stuff up from Philly, and had options within this style of play. The drags, the step ups, the horns suited him. But obviously he can play in the block, he can carry the ball up and back people down and post up. Just trying to look at what Philly does, and how we’d had a little package in what that was doing for Ben, and we definitely had a style of play in place.

“The word we kept using was clarity. And simplistic. Not get bogged down in practice sessions five on oh, running through sets and running through plays. No time. Get away from it, keep it simple, keep it simplistic. That was all orchestrated before we got the team in. There were discussions with the leadership team on this, in Zooming: here’s what we’re looking at, here’s what we’re thinking about, give us some feedback. Not only culturally wise, but team-wise, offensively and defensively, much stronger if there’s empowerment and the players are involved in this, and they were. There was a stamp of approval on how we were going with this offensively.

“There was the same energy towards the defence, it was completely changed. With Andrew Bogut it was more two on two, drop and they did a great job of it, they were very good at it. And now Andrew isn’t there, and there was a lot of aspects to the offence: the post feed and movement off the post. The step ups were very much Andrew, elbow catches. He’s not there.”

“So on the on-balls, we went with doubling and rotation. We knew we had length in Matisse [Thybulle] who’s special, we had Dante Exum coming into it. Nick Kay and Jock [Landale] are versatile, and that was different to most of the teams we played. We were on that page from the very start, to the very finish. And our second option to everything, if we didn’t want to fly around, was switching. You saw that in the last game against Slovenia, when we started switching Nick Kay and Jock, onto Luka [Dončić], so we didn’t have to rotate around and made him shoot over the top."

“Offensively, our structure’s what you saw… At the very start, we were very on-ball orientated, very early in the shot clock. And we played Team USA and they switched everything, so off the first screen, they would switch, [Draymond] Green would be on Patty, we’d spread and we’d play one on one. We were 13 down in the first half, and we talked about, in those options —we call them gaps or splits— we can throw the ball instead of using the screen, and split off and go get the ball back. And now you’re getting a cut, and you’re getting ball movement. And that became a feature of the change in the structure that we had. Not going on-ball right away as much as we were doing and getting ball movement and cutting and then coming back into on-ball late in the clock. So within our system we made change starting from the USA game in Vegas, and got better and better and better at it.”

Goorjian also shared how his longstanding reputation for lengthy, gruelling practice sessions were reshaped in China, and how being more efficient and reducing burnout helped this Boomers team stay fresh and ready.

“I was known for long, hard practices and a lot of grind. And one of the things that I also learnt in China, was one of the negatives - they overtrained and they grinded people out. What I got very good at, in China on my teams, was less was more. And I became very good as a coach in the 75 minute practice. And I used to go for three hour, or two hour [sessions] twice a day. And that really suited this team.”

As a young coach, I was particularly interested in understanding Goorjian’s coaching philosophy when competing against talented opposition, and whether it would be more important to trust in your defensive system or to make rotational adjustments when facing the likes of Slovenia’s Luka Dončić or Team USA’s Kevin Durant. 

“I always say, plan A and plan B. We were very fortunate [against Slovenia] as our defence was built on defending the on-ball. Yellow is showing and getting out there, making him draw that ball back and then he’d get rid of it and they’d try to play four on three, and then now we’re in rotation. Red is doubling him and making him get rid of it, not leaving till he gets rid of it, and then denying him the ball back.

“Now we worked on that every day. So, that aspect of it —side pick and roll, middle pick and roll, horns— so we [didn’t] have to do anything different when we play Luka. We’re in reds, and we work on that every day. A lot of [other] teams that were in [drop coverage] or playing the on-ball like they had prior, now you’re making a huge adjustment to do that. You’ve never done it before, we play it like this, now we’re gonna have to do this. The Luka situation suited us.

“Our plan B on a good player, on all these systems: what do you do when you don’t fly around? It’s hurting you, and you’re late on rotations, or the team’s tired? We had switching.

“One situation where we really did struggle was how they used Durant. Durant wasn’t an on-ball, they would get him somewhere, open him up, and they would hit him when the court was spread and let him play one on one. Doubling, racing a guy over there and rotating [was] not something that we had worked on, and something we didn’t go to. If I had it to do again, it is something I would have done.

“My answer: if you have to do something that you haven’t done or you don’t touch each day - for me, I feel uncomfortable. Sideline out of bounds play, with a second left. Drawing on the board, I feel uncomfortable. If it’s been done every day at practice and you say we’re running C and they look at you and boom, they’re out there, I feel better. And it’s the same thing: you’re always on your defensive schemes, you’re always preparing for the best. It was a big part of what we did going into the tournament if we play against some of these great teams that are great on the on-ball, we have something for that.” 

Through a combination of the pride instilled in each player with the strength of the Boomers culture, and by preparing their on-court schemes for the very best that international basketball has to offer, Goorjian’s team in Tokyo was able to achieve what no Australian men’s team has done before: capture an elusive bronze medal. When asked the significance of this Olympic medal in relation to the many other accolades throughout his career, Brian’s response was emphatic.

“No thought process at all, by far. There’s been some tremendous moments and great times, but nothing like this.

“I know how I felt prior, and I told you about the real strong thought process of taking the [Boomers head coaching] position, and my concerns. The whole time, the Wollongong, the Illawarra situation was going on and we were playing [in the NBL season]. It was a thing over your shoulder. This is coming, this is coming. Nerves, good nerves but knowing what’s expected and the importance of this, and getting to Irvine and stepping on the floor and getting in the mix. It hit you right away, this is powerful. I knew, the team knew that the whole country was watching.

“And now as I say this, the euphoria that you’re feeling right now. Now, the alternative of that: of losing that game or not getting [to the medal], would’ve been horrific. I am just so pleased obviously, that it went the way it did. I know what an effect this had… it’s important for basketball. The fight that Australia’s had, coming in the 70s as being a third-tier sport. Cricket, Aussie rules, rugby league, rugby union. It’s a sporting nation and basketball, going back to Lindsay Gaze and Ken Watson, Brian Kerle. The fight that those guys had to make basketball respected in our country.

“To move it and it’s moving in a direction and now the timing of this. All eyes on this and then the culture of it, Patty Mills, Joe, Aron, Bogut had built. I thought it’s just such a tremendous job of bringing in the past, making the culture night was incredible, the focus on the past was enormous. Gold Vibes Only. Gold Standards Only. That’s the present, right now. The responsibility of the team, what’s required right now.

“And then the touching —so it’s not like what happened after Sydney— of Josh Green, of Matisse Thybulle, Josh Giddey, Duop Reath. Those guys are being touched by this culture. So when they come into Irvine and it’s their team, it translates as opposed to walking in and they’ve never touched Patty, Joe, Aron, Bogut. It’s a huge, huge, huge difference.

“I know, all of Australia —and we knew, we discussed after we lost to Team USA— was a driving point. The whole country’s going to be watching this next game, there’s 15 people in this room that understand and know the culture, and how special it is… what good is it if it’s only in this room? We’ll never have this opportunity again where you have the whole country watching you play. You don’t have to do anything different than we are. Do it at a level you’ve never done it before. Just go take that energy to another level.

“From the time the ball went up, you felt it. The guys had a tremendous will. The bench, the staff, soon as that thing was over, it was just a feeling like, the feeling I had before was intense and stronger than I’ve had in the feeling afterwards… I was definitely aware of it and it isn’t anything close to that feeling that I’ve had in the game.”

Goorjian will soon be looking ahead to his Illawarra Hawks for a second season in the upcoming 2021-22 NBL season, with a goal of building from last season. On establishing continuity, and a lasting culture within the franchise that can be compared to the likes of the Perth Wildcats and Melbourne United.

Given his track record, it’s safe to say that there is no better man for the job. For the time being, however, his mind remains in the moment, counting down the remaining days of his quarantine in Darwin, before he returns to celebrate with his family.

“Right now, every day I’m sitting in these bungalows with [assistant coach] Matty Nielsen next to me, Duop next to me, David Hillard the physio. And you get up in the morning and when you look at each other it’s still…”

Goorjian illustrates the sentiment perfectly, with a victorious fist pump.

“How great was that?”