Make no mistake, the NBL’s revival this season is as much about the personalities as it is about the standard of play. They’re the reason why stadiums are filling up across the country and why we tune in to Fox Sports five nights a week to catch the action.
There is no bigger personality than Melbourne United guard Chris Goulding. From his long hair to his showman style and dominant on-court play, it’s easy to see why Goulding is considered one of the faces of the league.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Chris Goulding’s journey to become one of Australian Basketball’s biggest stars began rather humbly, as a development player with the Brisbane Bullets. His ambitions early on were not what you’d expect from someone with seemingly this much talent.
“I was amazed at the fact that I could even go and train with the Bullets and be on the same court as those guys,” Goulding told Downtown in an exclusive interview this week.
“CJ [Bruton], Sammy Mackinnon, [Mark] Bradtke, those sort of guys … so my goals were pretty much not to embarrass myself or get kicked out. It was kind of mind-boggling for me to be there in the first place.”
Former Brisbane and Gold Coast teammate Adam Gibson, recalls Goulding’s humble beginnings.
“Obviously as a young kid he didn’t play much, but he definitely worked hard,” Gibson told Downtown.
That work ethic, like with so many players, is something that has defined Goulding’s journey. His time as a development player with Brisbane under Joey Wright and Perth under Conner Henry were important in his growth.
“To have a couple of coaches at NBL level believe in me and have the confidence to put me out on the court as a young fella, it was good for my confidence to know that if I kept working hard I could feel more at home in the league,” Goulding said.
“At that stage, all that us development players wanted was to be in the 10-man roster. If you made it to the ‘10’ from a development spot it was like ‘oh you’ve made it’ … We were just working towards hopefully the next year, or in two years, getting put into the 10-man roster.”
Goulding finally “made the 10” back in Queensland with the Gold Coast Blaze, again under Wright, but his career took off when he signed with the Melbourne Tigers for the 2012/13 season.
“You could definitely see it happening when he was on the Gold Coast; he had some pretty big games, but kind of just in patches,” said Gibson.
“Obviously playing behind someone like James Harvey, so just limited minutes. But he had that massive, massive jump [when he got to Melbourne] and I guess it’s kind of taken him to where he is now.”
The Tigers handed him an expanded role; they needed him to score and as he got more experience, his game took off.
“I moved down here, got into a starting role and felt more comfortable with how I could play in the league,” recalled Goulding.
“That’s a big thing. Development players are not comfortable yet and the only way you get comfortable is by playing. Someone needs to take a chance on you.”
Goulding continued to put in the work and the results started showing for him. In 2012/13 he averaged 15 points per game and earned an NBA Summer League stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He then increased that scoring output further the following season with a league-leading 22.8 points per game, following one historic afternoon against Sydney to end the regular season.
On March 9, 2014, that former development player, who was just happy to make the roster, became the first (and only) player to score 50 points in a 40-minute NBL game.
It was a watershed moment that put the Goulding name on the international map and started to change his perspective.
“I wouldn’t say once that happened I thought ‘wow, I’m so much better now than two days ago’, Goulding explained.
“I guess it was a bit of a culmination of some hard work that I and that team put in throughout that year. It was kind of cool that we were able to get the Tigers back to the playoffs that year and that was the game that sort of sealed it.”
Nonetheless, his goals did start to shift from that moment on as he realised he could possibly compete abroad.
“Obviously, a lot of people probably took more notice, whether it was overseas or wherever after that game, but I’d like to think that wasn’t the only reason,” Goulding said.
“Because I have a British passport I used to hear a lot – ‘oh you should go to Europe or do this or that’, which I always thought in the back of my mind.
“It wasn’t at the forefront of my thinking until after those couple of seasons with Melbourne.”
Another goal that became attainable around that time was making the Boomers squad.
“Once I started feeling really comfortable in the league, you start to set different goals,” Goulding admitted.
“So after those couple of years in Melbourne, thinking about [playing in] Europe and thinking about the Boomers, that’s when that sort of stuff turned into goals for me.”
Those goals would quickly become reality for the emerging star.
He had another go-round at NBA Summer League, before leveraging that experience to sign with CAI Zaragoza in the Spanish ACB. While the ink was drying on that contract, Goulding donned the green and gold at the FIBA World Cup in Spain.
“Making that World Championship team with the Boomers was one of the biggest accomplishments of my life, so that was amazing and then to spend the year in Spain after that was another big thing to tick off.”
One of his teammates in Zaragoza was former NBL MVP and current Illawarra Hawks guard, Kevin Lisch, who has fond memories of his season with Goulding.
“He was so much fun to play with on the court. I think we really played well together,” recalled Lisch.
“I didn’t really know him that well before he got there but I enjoyed riding to the games together, getting to know him. Obviously he’s a great player, but he was really a great teammate.”
Lisch and Goulding, two ballers renowned for their work ethics, pushed each other to get better each and every day. It’s no accident they’re both enjoying tremendous success this season.
“I think his game in Europe developed to where he’s not so one-dimensional; you know a catch and shooter and a scorer. He’s become really good off the on-balls; a good passer,” said Lisch.
“His ball handling has gotten a lot better and I think his time in Spain, the same with me, helped us not be one-dimensional. It’s given us both a more well-rounded, better perspective on the whole game.”
That perspective has helped shape the personality that‘s been entertaining Melbourne United fans and crowds across the country.
“I’ve always been kind of an emotional player,” admitted Goulding.
“When I was younger I didn’t understand the bigger picture. I’d get too emotional because I wanted to impress people. But I think once I got a little bit older, I made a conscious effort not to react to anything that was going on cos life’s too short. It’s just a game of basketball at the end of the day.
“So the last year or so I’ve tried to enjoy myself on the court and obviously we’re emotionally attached so you get pissed off when you’re not winning, but you want to enjoy it when you’re doing well and winning also.”
That on-court persona – the signalling to the crowd, the pointing to the sky, the smiling to the commentary booth, the chatting with opposition players and coaches – are a big reason why he’s quickly become one of the faces of the NBL, despite being absent last year.
Melbourne head coach Dean Demopoulos is enjoying every moment of coaching Goulding this season. He smiled when asked what he’s enjoying most.
“Two things come to mind and I think they feed off one another: competitiveness and joy” Demopoulos told Downtown.
“He really likes to compete and I think he really enjoys the game as the vehicle for the competition. I think his play reflects that.
“He’s a very creative guy. A very unique man – very unique. I think he’s one of a kind. There are not many like him if there are any.”
Goulding’s team-mates feed of their leading scorer’s energy. Whether he likes it or not, he’s the leader of that team.
“The rest of the team kind of follows him without him wanting them to or asking them to or anything else,” Demopoulos continued.
“It’s just part of it, you know, part of being who he is. It’s more of a gravitational pull than anything else.”
Demopoulos is steadfast in his belief that Goulding, despite all his previous success, is only just starting to realise how good he can be.
“He’s starting to see passes that he hadn’t seen before, starting to play with the ball,” he said.
“He’s gotta make plays for others and he’s seeing it and it’s not just the rim any more. I couldn’t be more pleased with his development.”
Teammate Nate Tomlinson has seen firsthand how Goulding’s game has developed since his last NBL season two years ago.
“I think he’s a lot more of a complete player. I think he understands the game a lot more; he’s not just trying to score and he understands both ends of the floor,” explained Tomlinson.
“He’s also more of a playmaker. Obviously guys are keying in on him and trying to stop him from scoring and he’s able to make plays off the dribble; passing and scoring, whereas I think back in [2013/14], well, he had to score a lot for us that year.”
Tomlinson can also see how Goulding’s attitude and self-belief have changed following his time abroad and with the Boomers.
“His confidence is unbelievable right now,” Tomlinson said.
“Obviously having the success he had in the NBL two years ago, him coming back this year feeling like he’s a better player, I think it’s just taken him to the next level.”
Exactly what that next level is for Goulding is unknown at this stage. He only signed a one-year deal with United and, even if outsiders are constantly discussing his NBA-level talent, Goulding hasn’t contemplated his individual goals beyond this season and the Rio Olympics.
“I’m going to be completely honest – there are none. My family loses their mind at me because, my girlfriend wants to know what we’re doing next year or in a couple of months’ time, or even in two weeks’ time and I can’t tell her,” Goulding explained.
“That’s just the nature of the business.”
Business is good right now and Goulding is unique in the way he thinks about the entire product. He’s not just focused on winning games; he’s very much aware of his role in the ongoing viability and success of the league.
“I was right in the league at all the heart of its troubles in recent years. I’ve always been a proponent of ‘we’ve got a great show and a great league’ and so many times people would bag the league. They’d say ‘basketball’s dying’, yet they hadn’t been to a game in 15 years,” he preached.
“Whenever we get new people to come along to games or you’d speak to them after their first game, they’d say ‘Oh my god, this is amazing. Why haven’t I been coming to games?’ So, I guess the biggest thing is just making sure we open the doors to get more people to come along for the first time in ten, fifteen years or first time ever with their family.
“I think recently with Larry taking over the league, it’s really opened the doors to a lot of people and there’s a good buzz about it and when there’s a buzz about something, more people are going to want to come and look for the first time.”
Goulding’s excitement about the NBL’s future is effervescent.
“All you hear about is the heyday and the golden days and this and that about yesteryear – which is fantastic because some of Australian Basketball’s biggest names were playing then – but it’s also on us to keep it pushing and keep it moving forward so that in fifteen or twenty years’ time they’ll be like ‘Oh I remember when I went to watch Majok Majok play’ or ‘I remember when I saw Hakim Warrick’.
“Damian Martin, [Adam] Gibson, these guys that are the Australians in the league now … Ogilvy … the guys that in however many years the kids look back and can say that they went and watched us play.”
Watching Goulding play is a treat, whether you’re a United fan or not. His personality is infectious, his style of play is entertaining and his success deserved. The talk about whether he’s an NBA level talent, whether Corey Webster should have stuck with New Orleans, why Jerome Randle or Stephen Holt deserve another shot is testament to the strength of the league, but also illustrates just how difficult it is to make it in the NBA.
“He can definitely score at the NBA level. I just think it all comes down to opportunity,” teammate Stephen Holt told Downtown this week.
“NBA GMs are always looking for youth [college kids] and the next big thing, so players like us just gotta keep working hard and hopefully the right opportunity comes.”
Lisch, whose NBA dream may have passed him by simply by virtue of his age, believes there’s plenty of opportunity left for Goulding to succeed overseas.
“I don’t see any limit on him as far as, obviously he can score, but the way he’s starting to develop his defence, his passing ability, his ball-handling, you know there are teams all around the world, including NBA teams that can use guys like him,” Lisch said.
“He’ll be the first to agree that the exciting thing is there’s so much more out there for him as a player too. He’s young and he’s got a work ethic and he loves the game so, you know what? I think it’s all in his hands.”
Demopoulos, who spent a decade on NBA sidelines, knows all too well how it can depend on the right situation.
“The world is such a situational place and the higher the level, the more situational it gets and there’s always a situation for a player that can play like Chris,” Demopoulos said proudly.
“So if that situation ever arises, it’s going to be where he’s going to have to spot somebody – you know a few minutes here, a few minutes there – and can he incorporate what he does into that? Unless he goes in and outplays everybody, which, hey – who knows man? Who knows? And that’s the thing with a guy like him; you never put a ceiling on it.”
Right now, Goulding is staying narrow in his focus. In the short term, the ring’s the thing.
“In my mind we haven’t done anything special; I haven’t done anything special,” Goulding said.
“We can’t be satisfied. We’re on top of the ladder at the moment, but so what? We were on top early on and got a little satisfied and showed what the teams in this league can do to us if you take your foot off the gas.”
Looking past this NBL season, it’s about the green and gold.
“I think about the Boomers every single day; every single training session, but not ‘Are we gonna win a medal?’ I want to try and make the team. That’s the big thing for me. Putting myself in a position to try and make the team,” Goulding admitted.
Given his selection for the 2014 FIBA World Cup team and his role in last year’s Oceania qualifying series, one may assume he was a virtual lock to make Andrej Lemanis’ final 12-man roster, but Goulding isn’t taking anything for granted.
“I was saying this the other day to someone,” Goulding explained.
“I know we’re in an absolute golden age of Australian Basketball and it’s fantastic for the game in our country, so if I can sneak in there and pinch an Olympic spot for just this one go-round, I mean I’ll be the happiest man alive.”
Right now, Goulding is making United’s fans, his teammates, and his coaches very happy with his play and personality, and that speaks to the type of person he is.
“Opposition teams and fans probably think a little bit differently, but that’s all good,” he admitted.
“I’m happy knowing that my teammates, the people around our club and my friends and family know the type of person I am.”
“Obviously I like playing with him and I think we play pretty well together, but I think just having him as a teammate, he’s just a good dude. All the off-court stuff will be what I remember a long time after basketball.”
While Goulding is humble when he speaks of himself, others, including his Coach know how unique he is.
“The ‘IT’ quality – you’re not quite sure what it is, but you know who’s got it and who doesn’t,” Demopoulos gleamed.
“He’s not the only one that has it, but he’s really got it.”
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