A familiar champion was crowned, Wollongong and Townsville fought for survival and won, Kestelman bought (and likely saved) the league, NBL players became NBA names and in the end, an air of excitement has swept the sport for the first time in years.
But even with the NBL’s newfound stability and direction, an age-old player debate continued: Is Europe really greener than the NBL?
After three consecutive 15+ point seasons in the NBL, Ben Madgen is the latest established Australian pro to exercise that theory, signing to play this season with Verviers-Pepinster in Belgium’s Scooore League (Division 1).
Madgen chatted with Downtown about his decision to leave the NBL, David Barlow’s point of view, his time in Belgium so far, and Shane Heal’s influence.
You’ve established yourself as a key player in the NBL, why did you make the jump now to Europe and into the Belgian League?
It wasn’t just a rash decision. It’s been something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I wanted to become a premier player in the NBL first and then look to explore opportunities overseas. But Sydney was great. Playing my first five years of professional basketball I couldn’t have asked for anything better. The organisation treated me really well for five years but I felt like I just needed a new challenge.
Shane Heal was one of those guys who pushed me to have that as a goal. I think it was right for me to explore my opportunities overseas and have a crack. So far it has been great – beautiful country, playing all over Europe, and my teammates, coaches have been fantastic. I think I’m going to have a lot of fun here.
You have the European bug. David Barlow called it an epidemic. What’s your take on it?
It was fantastic to get a player’s point of view, particularly someone who has been in Europe for a number of years. I’m very new to the European game and it’s all still very exciting for me. But I’ve heard mixed reviews about guys not getting paid or [they] weren’t in a great situation. But I’ve also heard other guys say they absolutely loved it and they wanted to retire here and live in Europe.
For me so far it has been absolutely wonderful and it has been everything that I hoped and wanted it to be. But you know; that’s from a very fresh point of view. David had been in Europe for like five years so it’s a bit difficult to comment. I think the NBL is a very attractive league. It’s a short league so you can do both. That’s something I could consider next year playing in the NBL and playing the last three or four months in Europe.
Did the type of things that Barlow discussed in his piece ever draw into your own calculations?
I did have some anxiety there for a while. It was a big career move. I was in a very comfortable position in Sydney. I’d made a name for myself and I was one of the main players; everything was cozy. I could have lived out my career there and been cozy.
I have a great mentor called Justin Papps. He works with QBE and he used to have a consultancy firm and he’s great about helping me through leadership decisions meeting with me regularly once a month during the season and after the season. He sat down with me many times during the decision making process.
So between him, my wife, my agent and I, we really decided that you could live comfortably [in the NBL] but if you really wanted a new challenge and to take risks, then you really need to go do it. And I’ve always thought if it goes down badly then I can still return to the NBL and have that insurance policy.
So the Belgium waffles and chocolate didn’t seal the deal for you?
(laughs) I’m trying to stay as healthy as possible but I’ve definitely tried a little bit of everything so far. I think that will be something more for the offseason.
Which personality wins out now – the guy with a sense of adventure, or the guy that just wants to test himself with new competition?
From a purely basketball perspective, I just felt like a new challenge was needed. I’ve been playing against the same guys for five years in the NBL. But I just wanted to play a different style of basketball and really develop as a player and be able to compete at a different level; to really motivate myself even more and to be able to become a better player.
So I thought ‘what a huge challenge to come to the other side of the world and try to make a name for myself’. But also my wife and I sat down with my agent, and she really wanted to go to Europe and spend a year over here as well. So ensuring that she was happy and it was something that she wants to do as well, was also a big factor.
You’re only a few weeks into your European experience but where have you encountered that ‘new challenge’ thus far?
Definitely the practice. In Australia, we practice once a day and it’s definitely a little more relaxed. But here, we practice full on – train two sessions a day, weights in the morning. I like to work hard and work on my game but this was a different level. So it took me a couple of weeks to get used to it – having a lot of ice baths and trying to seek out massages at any chance.
My body has adapted well now but it was definitely a Boomers camp every day. They really get after it. It has been fantastic, I already feel like I’m getting better, fitter and stronger. So I’m really looking forward to seeing that translate on the court.
Every guy who plays in Europe has their go-to “Man, Europe is crazy” story. So have you had one yet?
Cause I’ve only been here for a couple of weeks, it’s been all relatively chilled out and just been playing games. But we played three games in four days. Then we had practice and then we were supposed to do a spin class, which they called ‘active recovery’. They hooked us all up with heart monitors and did like an hour max bike session, which was like ‘what the hell?’ I know it’s preseason so you’ve got to expect it, but it was a bit of a ‘what the ….’ moment.
How much of a factor did Shane Heal play in your decision-making? And throughout your career?
Shane has been a fantastic mentor for me ever since he came to the club. I learnt so much from him and I still talk regularly with him even though he’s moved on from coaching the Kings. We’ve remained close friends.
Before I came over here, I went to stay in Brisbane for a week and worked out with Shane twice a day every day to get ready, get a good base and get my confidence going, so when I came over here I was in great shape.
So he has been a great mentor and friend and I’m still contact him from over here. He has so many tips. He’s played over in Greece and the NBA so he’s done it all and there’s no better person to ask for advice and mentorship.
You were teammates with Josh Childress last season who has played just about everywhere. Did you share much conversation about playing basketball in Europe?
Yeah, he was at huge clubs and there was real pressure on him to perform. He enjoyed Europe but I think he definitely found his love for basketball again in Australia and in Sydney especially. He’s probably more happy in Australia than here, but he said it’s a great experience. When I talked to him about going over, he said it’s definitely something you should look into and you’d be able to play over there and play well, which gave me a lot of confidence as well.
Were you ever close to venturing over to Europe previously?
Last season. I had contact with Fuenlabrada in the ACB in Spain but then I got hurt. That would have been a good taste for European lifestyle. I’ve had a few contract offers in Europe in the past but I’ve always been contracted with the Kings.
So… will you return to the NBL?
The NBL is a fantastic competition. I always had a plan of coming over here and coming back to the NBL a better player; a more seasoned player. Be able to play at different levels and gain a better understanding of the game from over here and listening to different coaches and players. But I really love playing in the NBL and the lifestyle. So I will definitely play again in the league. But right now my focus is here.