Brett Maher: ‘People don’t realise how close I was to leaving Adelaide’
Brett Maher is regarded as one of the greatest players in the Adelaide 36ers’ history. However, the three-time Olympian and three-time NBL champion almost left his hometown club. He went One on One with Tom Staggard to talk about his hoops career.
Tom Staggard: Can you run me through your early years and your first memory of picking up a basketball as a kid?
Brett Maher: I started playing basketball when I was about seven just playing with the school team.
I had a good mate who loved basketball so we’d get to school early and play, we’d play at recess, lunch and after school – I was addicted to shooting hoops.
I played a bit of district basketball at South Adelaide when I was about eight years old and went through to under 12s until I moved to Sturt.
I played at Sturt until I was in under 16s and then I was selected in state team before I moved to the Australian Institute of Sport.
TS: You joined the Adelaide 36ers in the early 90s. What was the club like back then and how did it change and evolve over time?
BM: Yeah so 1992 was my first year and before I signed with the 36ers, I signed an intent to sign contract with the club when I was 15.
Gary Fox came to my house and I signed that before I left for the Institute.
Three years later, I came back at 18 and had my first year with the Sixers.
That was actually the first year of the old Clipsal Powerhouse as it was known in those days.
I was lucky enough in my first few years to play behind Butch Hays who, in my opinion, was one of the best American players to come out here as a point guard.
Then I had Phil Smyth come back home who is probably the best point guard to ever play for Australia, so I was very spoilt as a young professional learning from those two.
I had Mike Dunlap come in as coach in 1994 and he kind of thrust me into the starting five in a sink-or-swim kind of move and I stayed there ever since.
TS: Who were some of the players of that era who you really enjoyed playing with as a younger guy at that time?
BM: I had some great players to play alongside, especially when we won the championships in the late 90s.
We had Darnell (Mee) and Kevin Brooks as our import tandem and that was pretty special.
Mark Davis played with me for the first half of my career and he was unbelievable as well.
We won the championship with Willie Farley as one of the other imports in 2002 so I was certainly paired up with some fantastic players during my time with Adelaide.
TS: You had a fair bit of team success under Mike Dunlap without any silverware. What were those years like and how did the dynamic shift when Phil Smyth came in as head coach?
BM: The first two years I had Don Shipway, then I had Don Monson from Oregon come out.
Both of those guys were old school type coaches and really preferred the older guys.
Mike Dunlap had a real up-tempo system and liked the younger guys.
He really helped to work the defensive side of my game and really upped the intensity.
We played with such a fierce intensity under him as coach and played a real college style of game.
That really flipped a bit in 1998 when Phil came on board because we had a bit more of a veteran team there who knew what they were doing.
Phil’s style of coaching was a bit more free-flowing and he loved to positively reinforce players which really worked well with the group we had in the late-90s and that is why we had so much success under him.
TS: You won three NBL championships in your career. What did those titles mean to you at the time?
BM: I think after losing in 1994 we had a burning desire to win one and we hadn’t won since 1986 so it was a 12-year break between drinks.
When we won in 1998 it was a bit more relief than anything, especially playing against Brian Goorjian’s teams who had dominated those years.
The second one we were the team to beat and that was a great win.
In 2002, I think we stole that one because most people predicted us to finish about 5th or 6th but everything just went right around finals time and we had some really good role players in that team who stepped up at the right time.
TS: Willie Farley was a teammate of yours during that 2002 championship winning run. What was he like as a player and how was it to play alongside him?
BM: We called him the little mini Jordan.
He reminded everyone so much of Michael Jordan.
On the break he looked a lot like him and he would pull up for fadeaway jumpers much like MJ – he was a little carbon copy.
The first time we saw him we met up with him on a tour of China in pre-season and saw him first hand.
We gelled straight away and the way he fit into the team was fantastic.
He kept up such form all season and he fit into Phil’s system because it wasn’t very regimented.
He picked it up, ran with it and it worked for everyone.
TS: The Australian team which you were a part of ran into a star studded USA team at the 1996 Olympics. What was it like to share the court with some of the biggest names ever to play the sport?
BM: It was huge.
In all honesty, I would have loved to have played against the 1992 team because that’s the best team of all time.
However, that 1996 team was unbelievable the talent they had on it.
You could just see when they played everybody that they’d beaten everyone mentally before the other team had even stepped on the court.
I can recall we played them prior to the Olympics, in Utah, and we had a meal with them back at the hotel and Ray Bourner broke the ice for everyone and asked them for some signatures and photos – we were like little school boys.
They were just amazing and they beat everyone back then by about 30 so for me it was a great measuring stick at that point of my career to see where we were all at.
When we played them again at the 2004 Olympics we were unlucky not to win.
We led for three and a half quarters and they just overran us in the last couple of minutes so it was really good to see the transformation of basketball, not only in Australia, but around the world because teams were actually capable of beating the Americans.