Home Sweet Home

“I remember I had this one sleepless night because just before I went to bed I went on Twitter, and it said that Russia was forming military exercises on the border of Ukraine, which was literally not even 80kms from where I was. I was thinking, f—, man, if they decide to just come over the border they would be here in an hour.” – Daniel Kickert

It was dark when Azovmash Mariupol’s import players landed in Ukraine. The meagre streetlights barely provided a flicker of light. A flash of lightning in the clouds would’ve been a better accompaniment to their journey from the airport … and so would a driver without a death wish.

You see, the pickup van had no seatbelts and the driver evidently had no concept of road safety. Think of Charlie Sheen on a cocaine-fueled rampage through the Ukraine and there he is.

He spoke no English and didn’t believe in second gear. No one could prevent him swerving at 140km/hour around potholes guarded by witches hats and old rusty tires, and barreling down whatever side of the road he deemed suitable. No seatbelts. No road rules.

Stuck in the back of the rattling pickup truck, Daniel Kickert and his new teammates exchanged stunned glances, drawn breaths and then a simple question: “What have we done?”

It was an odd thing for professional athletes to say. Or maybe it wasn’t. From loony fans to sketchy surgeons, European basketball has a way of drawing you to the fire, no matter where you are.

But the fire is a little different in Ukraine.

It was a memorable first night with Azovmash, as were many others during his two-season stint with three different Ukrainian clubs.

“When my driver picked me up my second year [in Ukraine], he would pass my seatbelt around behind my seat and click it in so that the belt alarm wouldn’t ring,” explained Kickert.

“I would have to unbuckle it and put it on normally. Every time he would say, ‘No! You don’t need’, and look at me like I was crazy. It’s never ending.”

Somehow, Kickert survived and adapted fast. He had spent two years at the Australian Institute of Sport, four years in America at St. Mary’s, and eight years uncovering every sweaty gym in Europe, and yet, Ukraine delivered the definitive cultural knockout.

“Ukraine was obviously very different to anywhere I’ve been,” said Kickert. “That was a big culture shock to go there.”

Strange though it felt, Kickert would soon grow accustomed to the obscurity while embracing the wonderfully different personalities in, and around, the team.

“The Lithuanian guys even said, ‘what’s going on?’. It really was just a completely different atmosphere,” added Kickert.

“It was just weird, man. It took a while to get used to that, but you eventually stop seeing it. At the end of the day, you get to do what you love, train every day, and come home and hang out with teammates who are all good people.”


Sometimes everything you love is everything you’re familiar with. For Kickert, it’s family, friends, winning and St. Mary’s.

He played four years at St. Mary’s in California from 2002 to 2006, and was the all-time points leader (1,874) till Matthew Dellavedova (1,933) edged past his tally in 2013.

Kickert, now 31, returns to St. Mary’s most years to catch up and compete with fellow alumni and coaching staff. Indeed, he’s one of St. Mary’s finest products. But few outside the program realise his significance in the context of Australian basketball.

Patty Mills and Delly earn the NBA paychecks and headline St. Mary’s pipeline to Australia, but it was Kickert’s early success that paved the way for today’s Aussie invasion into college basketball and particularly at St. Mary’s. No, he wasn’t the first Australian to play college ball, but he was a key cog of a second wave of Australians to hit American shores. Simply, he’s one of Australia’s most underrated figures in basketball.

“It’s nice to be part of that first or second wave of Australians to really hit it. The guys before me were the first sleight of guys to go over,” shared Kickert. “And then my year was an even bigger group of guys”.

“A healthy percentage of the guys I played with at the Institute [AIS] played in college,” he added.  “So yeah, ever since then, everyone saw that we had successful careers and it opened up the floodgates for people to recruit Australians.”

It’s axiomatic among college and NBA scouts that Australians are typically levelheaded, coachable and well-conditioned athletes. Of course, the talent comes in fits and spurts, but ultimately, it’s an assessment sprung from model cases like Kickert’s college career.

In many ways, his production consistently outweighs any hype. As Melbourne United Coach Chris Anstey suggested:

“I don’t think [Kickert’s career] is under-appreciated on purpose. I mean, it’s hard to appreciate what you don’t know exists. So I would suggest that if more people were aware what he done then they’d be more appreciative of it. The fact is he was at St. Mary’s before Australia really put collegiate basketball in the spotlight. He played in European leagues that don’t generate much media in a time when others have been playing in the NBA and Spain. He’s been a hell of a player without that spotlight on him.”

Signing with Melbourne United this season after entertaining the idea for a few years, the former Gael has finally returned home… some 14 years on since he left Melbourne for the AIS.

“I just got to an age where I really want to play in Australia before I’m done and still be effective. I didn’t want to come back when I’m 35 and be ineffective. It all fell into place this year,” said Kickert.


News flash: Pro ballers don’t live anything close to a normal life. It’s saturated with injury rehab, off-hours, fat paychecks, country hopping and flying. Pick an airport. Any airport. Kickert has likely walked through it.

On the other hand, rebel uprisings and extreme political instability aren’t normal either.

Imagine, just for a moment, that your safety and livelihood could no longer be guaranteed. That’s what happened to Kickert.

Here’s a simple five-step When-Should-We-Commence-An-Exit-Strategy cheat sheet for your future travels.

Warning A: A few of your local Ukrainian teammates leave Kiev.

Warning B: Rebels seize an airport in the West of Ukraine.

Warning C: Your club tells you that you’re more than welcome to stay, but they can’t ensure your safety or that they can pay you.

Warning D: You scroll your Twitter feed, skip the part where Joel Embiid slides into some DMs, and read that Russia was forming a military exercise on the border of Ukraine, which was literally not even 80kms from where you are.

Warning E: Still hanging around with good ol’ optimism? Yeah, umm… your team, which was funded by a huge steel factory, no longer exists.

Fortunately, Kickert commenced his exit strategy in February after Warning D.

“I was thinking, f— man, if they decided to just come over the border they would be here in an hour. So the next day, I booked all my flights and got out the next morning,” said Kickert.

Seriously though, he was fortunate. The morning he left, protestors overthrew one of the government buildings in the city he roomed in, and replaced the Ukrainian flag with the Russian one.

A chaotic situation like this often shifts life and the game of basketball into perspective. You grow familiar of hearing stories laced with “stray dogs, drunks and corrupt police” in Ukraine. It’s shocking and even a little terrifying. Yet, travel is the ultimate teaching tool.

“Under it all, people are all the same. There are good people everywhere and ordinary people everywhere,” Kickert reflected.

When we speak of the power of sports today, it’s always in a commercial sense. Brands, lockouts, TV deals, small and big markets dominate the conversation. It’s so easy to forget all about sport’s ability to crush prejudice, form unlikely friendships and broaden horizons.

“But winning the Prince’s [of Asturias] Cup in Spain [2008] and making playoff basketball, and doing all of that, and realising at the same time how lucky I was to go and play in places like Serbia. I would never go to places like that if it weren’t for basketball. I think you get to an age where you really begin to appreciate how cool it is,” concluded Kickert.

After more than a decade playing ball overseas, Daniel Kickert has a suitcase full of stories and experiences.  For now, however, he’s just happy to be home.


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