There’s an NBL incubator found far from the Centre of Excellence in Canberra and the Breakers academy in Auckland.
Since 1997, Metropolitan State University of Denver has developed players who’d go on to NBL careers both substantial and otherwise. The school is responsible for Rookie of the Year winners, three-time champions and, on some nights this season, 40 percent of the Cairns Taipans’ starting lineup.
The main campus provides views of mountains and the downtown Denver skyline, and sits right near the home of the Nuggets. About 20,000 undergraduates go to the 51-year-old school.
Its teams, the Roadrunners, compete in the NCAA’s second division. The men’s basketball team plays conference games in cities including Spearfish, South Dakota and Las Vegas, New Mexico.
“I absolutely loved it,” Luke Kendall said of his time at Metro State. “If I could’ve gone back for a fifth year, I would’ve.”
The story of how a Division II school in Denver became a breeding ground for NBL players has roots in the late 1970s at Loyola Marymount, “a Jesuit university that rests atop a bluff overlooking West Los Angeles,” in the words of Jonathan Abrams.
Mike Dunlap played on the LMU basketball team from 1978 to 1980 and then moved into an assistant coaching role. Ed Goorjian was an assistant in Dunlap’s last playing season before becoming head coach. Dunlap met Ed’s son Brian, who spent time at the university in the summers. The pair’s friendship would be an influential one.
Dunlap later coached sessions at Albert Park for members of Brian Goorjian’s Eastside Spectres and Bruce Palmer’s North Melbourne Giants, though he’d eventually get a meatier NBL gig.
His first head coaching stint was from 1989 to 1994 at California Lutheran University, where he coached Australians including Rupert Sapwell and Jason Smith (“Jason was a phenomenal player. Had he not hurt his knee, he would’ve played in the NBA,” Dunlap said.).
Dunlap’s program developed a good reputation early through his Australian Cal Lutheran players, aiding his efforts to recruit more from these parts.
“Once those players got back to Australia, they said it was a good thing, and Australia’s a small, small place in terms of basketball world,” Dunlap told Downtown in May last year. “After that, things worked out great.”
In 1994, he returned to Australia to take over the Adelaide 36ers for three seasons, his last head coaching stop before he got to Metro State in ’97.
“The groundwork of knowing Australia was mostly paved by working in the NBL,” he said. “You have a little bit of a reputation as a developer of players, next thing you know, you’ve got really good players playing for you at Metro State.”
The Roadrunners gained an Australian flavour at the beginning of Dunlap’s tenure. The newcomers to the team in his first season included Kane Oakley and Lee Barlow, two Aussies who later played in the NBL. They were among the five Australians on the 1999-00 team that won Metro State’s first NCAA Division II championship. Barlow was the school’s second-leading scorer that season and had 17 points in the final against Kentucky Wesleyan.
He joined the Brisbane Bullets in 2000, the year he finished at Metro State, and spent 46 games across two seasons there. Oakley also went straight to the NBL after his time in Denver—he began a 155-game career with the Cairns Taipans in 2001.
The Roadrunners’ next national title would also be won with Australian help.
Luke Kendall was training with the Brian Goorjian-coached Victoria Titans after he finished high school, and the Goorjian-Dunlap link opened an opportunity for Kendall to go to Metro State.
He knew there were other Australians at Metro State, Goorjian regarded Dunlap highly, and Dunlap came over to talk with Kendall’s family. That all contributed to Kendall’s choice to pass on Division I offers, including one from Drexel, and join Dunlap’s program before the 2000-01 season.
“My goal was to play in the NBL and play for Australia, and I knew I had to go to the best and I knew he was regarded as one of the best, so it was a no-brainer for me,” Kendall said.
A year later, he was joined at the university by Mark Worthington. A friend of Goorjian’s had seen Worthington play and told Dunlap about him. Worthington said in a 2013 interview with The Pick and Roll that Metro State was the only school to contact him.
The Roadrunners won their second and most recent national title in Worthington’s first season, 2001-02, this time with three Australians on the team. They again beat Kentucky Wesleyan in the championship game.
By the time Kendall’s career at the university ended in 2004, Goorjian had become coach of the Sydney Kings. Kendall reunited with him, knowing both the opportunity he had given him with the Titans and his status as Boomers head coach.
“There was a couple of other offers, but I was always going to go to Sydney,” Kendall said.
Worthington again followed Kendall a year later by joining the Kings in 2005, the year he was named Division II Player of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches. He won NBL Rookie of the Year, and was a different player to when he first arrived in Denver.
“Every year he got better. It was like a different player from one year to the next,” Dunlap said of Worthington’s career at the university. “He needed time and opportunity and development, and he got those at Metro.”
The other Australians Worthington played with in college include Drew Williamson and Dave Barlow—he also played a year with future Adelaide 36ers import CJ Massingale—and Dunlap noted that having his countrymen around was a good thing.
“The Australians do a great job of taking care of each other. Culturally, you don’t have to even address the issue,” he said.
“Mark’s rapid rise came because of his talent, and also give credit to the other Australians for helping him.”
In 2006, Dunlap moved across the street to become an assistant coach with the Nuggets. His successor at Metro State was Brannon Hays, who had played for Dunlap at Cal Lutheran and been an assistant coach of his at the Roadrunners and 36ers. Though Dunlap was gone, the Australian presence continued during Hays’ tenure.
Jesse Wagstaff was a hold-over from the Dunlap era who played his last three years at the university for Hays. He led the team in scoring and rebounding in both his junior and senior years and was named the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Player of the Year for 2008-09. He studied civil engineering technology and received a $7,500 scholarship from the NCAA for postgraduate schooling.
The Canberra native also had options of a less academic variety after his senior year finished in ’09. He was looking to join the South Dragons, where Goorjian and Worthington were stationed.
“It came highly recommended from Coach Dunlap,” Wagstaff said. “Coach Dunlap’s an extraordinary individual, and if he recommends something, it’s generally for a reason.”
A couple of days before the contract was meant to come through, Wagstaff’s agent told him the reigning champs had folded. Wagstaff knew of Perth coach Rob Beveridge—not just because his mum taught Beveridge in primary school—and he signed with the Wildcats instead. He won Rookie of the Year and a championship in his first season.
The Roadrunners were Aussie-free for the first post-Wagstaff season, which was Hays’ last in charge. The next coach was Derrick Clark, another with a Dunlap connection from playing for him at Cal Lutheran and coaching under him at Metro State. Clark also played for the Shepparton Gators in the Victorian Basketball League in the ’90s.
There was one Australian on his first team, and two future NBL guys on his 2011-12 squad—Mitch McCarron, a redshirt freshman that year, and Nick Kay.
Kay’s New South Wales under-20s coach Damian Cotter spoke well of Kay to Clark, with whom he had a good relationship. Kay met the Metro State coach while on a tour with the AIS, and Clark said he’d take a chance and offered him a four-year scholarship.
Kay trusted the opinions of Cotter and his high school coach, who both said Metro State was a good option for him. He was also encouraged by the careers that other Australians had built following their time there.
“Just that reputation of having such a strong career after, it kind of made it a certainty to go there,” he said.
The third Australian on that 2011-12 team was Paul Brotherson, a senior in his second year with the Roadrunners. Kay said Brotherson set a framework for what players had to abide by and helped with all the little things, like setting up their rooms and going to Walmart. Bar fridges and doonas don’t buy themselves, you see.
Kay knew McCarron previously, but at university they built a strong friendship, and together they helped shape the program. They recommended other Australians to the coaching staff, including Will Sinclair, who joined the Roadrunners in 2013 and was a Cairns Taipans development player last season.
The Kay-McCarron duo was important during the games, too. They both started regularly on the ’12-13 team that lost the national title game by a point to Drury. In their senior year, they were the school’s two leading scorers and McCarron claimed the NABC Player of the Year award that Worthington had won.
Players at the university got the chance to play, Kay said, which helped his game. “I think if I had’ve gone to a lower D1 school and sat on the bench for a couple years or four years, then I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities that I had being at Metro,” he said. “Going to a strong div two school was definitely the best option for myself.”
Off the court, players had to attend all of their classes, sit in the first three rows and introduce themselves to their teachers after the first class, while balancing such academic stringencies with basketball ones. Getting up at 4:30 for morning workouts was among them. High demands were part of the Dunlap era too—Kendall recalled the Roadrunners trained for an hour and a half on game-day mornings.
That lifestyle benefitted Kay when his uni career was over. “It makes being a professional a lot easier because you’ve been doing it for four years previous to playing pro,” he said of the habits he got into at Metro State.
Shawn Dennis paid attention to Kay at university and contacted him and his agent when his time there was done. That led to Kay joining Dennis’ Townsville Crocodiles for 2015-16. He became the third guy out of the Denver school to win NBL Rookie of the Year in 11 seasons.
Of the five former Roadrunners currently playing in the NBL, McCarron was the last to join the league. He signed with the Taipans in the 2016 offseason after a season in Spain’s second tier.
Clark is still the Metro State coach, and he has one Aussie on his team this season—former Perth Wildcats development player Sunday Dech. He’s a guard in his junior year averaging 13.6 points this season. Wagstaff and Wildcats assistant coach Adam Forde watch some of his games.
“You look at his stats and they’re comparable to a lot of the guys that have come through that program,” Wagstaff said. “If you’re an NBL team and you’re looking to try compare what type of player he is, the comparisons right now, especially considering he’s got a year left, are pretty good for him.”
The flow of Australians to Denver has continued, Kendall noted, partly because of the relationships that Dunlap and Clark developed with people in Australia, like Goorjian and Cotter, through regular recruiting visits. The history of Aussies playing there helps potential Roadrunners, too.
“It’s easy for Australian players to get access to myself, or Mark Worthington, or Dave Barlow, or guys that have been there before,” Kendall said. “They can get advice, and they obviously know that there’s an international connection over there.”
Kay went to the early Dunlap days for an explanation of the Australian presence at Metro State over the years.
“The foundation of it was built strong when Dunlap first got over there,” Kay said. “He brought in some guys, and the success that those guys had was unbelievable, and it’s allowed for other guys to go in there and keep that connection going.”
Dunlap hasn’t coached any future NBL players at his current job, but it’s a role worth mentioning nonetheless. He’s the head coach at LMU, and has been since 2014. He’s back atop the bluff overlooking West Los Angeles.