Adelaide 36ers head coach Joey Wright has coached over 350 NBL games. He’s one of the league’s best coaches – respected throughout the country with results and silverware to back it up.
He’s been named Coach of the Year twice and won a championship with the Brisbane Bullets in 2007.
Last night in Melbourne, I stayed focused on Wright; documenting a game in the life of one our league’s most high-profile and interesting coaches.
Always the sharpest dressed in the building, Joey works the sidelines like he’s ready to catch and shoot at any moment. He paces like a caged tiger for much of the game.
“There it is! There it is!” he yells after an early Adelaide basket.
Nobody – no player, official or fan – is more locked into the game.
Wright never stops coaching, barking instructions to his players on the court and keeping those on the bench engaged and aware. There’s nothing cross-legged or Lindsay Gaze about Wright’s approach.
“You boys need to get that shit sorted out!” he barks at two of his players late in the second quarter. “We gave up six points on the f–k ups between you two! Talk it out!”
It’s an aggressive approach, one Wright feels he can use thanks to the strong relationships he has with his guys.
“All my players know how much I love them,” he tells me post-game. “When you spend as much time with them and care about them in all areas of their lives you can push them into areas that maybe some coaches can’t.”
It’s a trust built up between player and coach – one Wright believes goes further than the game.
“There’s not one guy in that locker room that doesn’t know what I’ll do for them… nothing to do with basketball, just in life in general.”
One of the compliments often paid to Wright is that he is very much a ‘player’s coach’. He knows what makes ballers tick.
Having recruited forward Lucas Walker from Melbourne United during the offseason – and played him off the bench for the team’s opening games – Wright started him last night in Melbourne.
“Usually guys want to play good against their old team – a little extra energy and effort there,” Wright would say post-game.
Players respect that in a coach. They remember that kind of stuff.
Wright’s relationship with the officials is a more complicated matter.
“That’s bull…!” he yells at referee Raoul Kirsten after a controversial call.
He’s a master at cutting loose to make a point, but cutting it short to avoid giving away free points.
It’s a constant conversation with the referees; sometimes heated, often one-way but always professional.
Speaking post-game, Wright resists the idea that he ‘works’ the officials.
“I’m not really trying to work them,” he says. “I see the game a certain way, they may see it that way or see it a different way. That’s it. But I’m not working them in any way.”
But that doesn’t stop him speaking his mind. Asked whether he has a handle on the officiating this season, Wright responds emphatically.
“I have no idea,” he says. “But I don’t think I’m the only one. That’s probably all I can say.”
Pressed further, Wright expands on his frustrations.
“We’re so far on the other side of the spectrum from one quarter to the next right now that I just have a hard time coaching them to do this or do that,” he says.
“It just seems to be extremely random on both sides.”
Despite only working together for the past couple of seasons, Wright’s relationship with Assistant Coach Kevin Brooks is tight. When Brooks talks, Wright listens.
The two competed against each other in college – Wright at Texas and Brooks at Louisiana – and twenty-five years later they’re a good combination on the sidelines.
“We have different personality types which I think is always important,” Wright has said. “He’s more laid back, more reserved, more clear, and he can see the fun side in most things.”
Brooks is also a keen observer and analyst of the game. His back-and-forth with Wright flows throughout the game.
“Gotta get Majok in some on-balls,” Brooks suggests. Wright makes it happen and the results are instantaneous.
Defensive breakdowns early in the third quarter have Wright losing his mind. His forehead dripping with sweat, he snaps a timeout at the score-bench and rips through his squad.
His team responds, but Melbourne’s offensive firepower eventually gains back the advantage.
Chris Goulding, Melbourne’s marquee scorer, was coached by Wright in Brisbane when he first entered the league.
“It’s going up,” Goulding cheekily tells the media bench while standing next to his former coach. It does too, but rims out.
A couple of minutes later, early in the final quarter, Wright senses the moment. Down 8 after a Kenyon McNeail basket, Wright knows the game is on the line.
“Right now!” he screams at his squad. “Right now!”
His dress shoes are a blur the next two possessions, a level of defensive intensity matched by his players once, but not twice.
A stop and an Anthony Petrie basket cuts the deficit to 6 but a Daniel Kickert three-pointer (6/9 for the evening) soon puts the game away.
“Defensively we had a few breakdowns that gave them an advantage there for a stretch, but overall we played pretty solid defensively. We’ve got to do a better job offensively,” Wright says post-game.
“We’ve got to make shots. We’re getting looks and we’ve just got to make them. We’re shooting 30 per cent from the field, 30s from the three – that’s just not going to be good enough to win ball games.”
In the end, Adelaide were outmatched by the red-hot Melbourne United last night. They’re now 1-2 as they prepare to play Cairns and Sydney on consecutive nights next week. And with import Kenyon McNeail struggling with a shoulder injury, the odds are beginning to stack against the 36ers.
“We play 9 games in 30 days and then we back up with 8 games in 30 days,” Wright says.
“With our schedule – which seems to be unlike some of the other teams in the league – we said that if we had everyone healthy that would help us. You’re playing games and you can get into a rhythm. But if we had one injury it’d be tough, because we play a lot of games.”
But don’t sleep, Joey Wright teams rarely miss the playoffs.
Adelaide have a fight ahead of them but, with Joey at the helm, you’d be a brave man to Wright them off.