Q&A: Aaron Fearne on the Taipans, ‘The Disease of Me’ and the Keys to Championship Success

Cairns Taipans Head Coach Aaron Fearne has one of the strangest accents you’re ever likely to hear.  It’s got a bit of everything in it; Australian, Kiwi, American, Canadian….  That’s what you get when you’re born in Sydney to an Aussie father and Kiwi mother, grow up in New Zealand, play college ball in The States and then return Down Under to work.  All that with a year in Toronto added in just for taste.

The bottom line with Fearne, however, is not that he speaks in an interesting way.  It’s that he’s got interesting things to say.

Known for being a straight-shooter, Fearne guided the Taipans to the 2011 Grand Final and was recently named the 2014/15 season’s first Coach of the Month after Cairns’ impressive 6-0 start.

Fearne sat down with Downtown to discuss his team’s fast start, their recent struggles, his development as a coach and working with players such as Scottie Wilbekin and Aron Baynes.

Matt Burston recently said: “Fearney’s been amazing this season. We want to win for him.” How have you grown as a coach over the past year or so?

I’m very competitive – I hate losing more than anyone.  I’d probably go over the top if it didn’t go my way.  I guess when I played I was very competitive; I would do different things to try and influence the game… whatever it took.  I guess coaching wise, I challenge the group to be the aggressor, to never quit, and I guess I’m definitely a perfectionist when it comes to executing our rules. I don’t give much leeway to that. We’ve got rules in place for the guys to follow and I believe in them, definitely defensively. I definitely believe in what we’ve done and it’s been successful and you’ve got to have the professionalism, the preparation, the concentration and the discipline just to do it over and over and over.  And when an individual breaks out of that it just puts doubt in the rest of the team and that really frustrates me. I hold guys very accountable to that and put a lot of pressure on the guys just to do that.

Coming into this season I’ve been trying to just be a little bit more relaxed and not probably come across so strong during games; because guys have got to compete and they’ve got plenty of other things to worry about.  There is no doubt that still happens at training and when it comes to video but we want to be a bit more relaxed on the sideline this year and so far it’s worked.  The trick is obviously for the guys to follow the rules, they’ve got to execute at a high level and it’s a two way street, it’s not all me having to change and guys have definitely got to keep improving and executing.

One thing players always respect in a coach is a willingness to learn and take on feedback and I read recently that some of what you’ve just been talking about came from player feedback from last season. What was the process of receiving that feedback?

We obviously meet with each individual player and I give them feedback as a player and how I thought they performed.  We talk about areas of the game they were good at, areas of the game they’ve got to improve in both physically and mentally, change in their bodies, getting fitter, whatever that is. I would always ask the question too; ‘what are my positives and negatives in different areas, preparation, training, plans and game demeanour?’ and just take feedback.  The message from a lot of the guys was pretty consistent, it was obviously what a lot of the guys felt. You know, if I expect them to make changes I need to make improvements as well and, as a coach, you’re always learning, there’s always something you can learn.

I was with a lot of the coaches in Vegas at the Summer League this past year and we all sat there and talked and that’s what we talked about. It was just a chat to each other and we’re always learning, always asking each other questions about ‘how do you deal with this situation and how do you deal with that situation?’  We all have different ways of going about it but it’s good to listen to see how the other coaches in the NBL look at thing… you might pick something up. If you go to Summer League and you pick up one thing then you’ve got better – you can improve something.

That was the feedback I got from players, that there were some things I needed to improve on and I’m trying to do that.

Last season must have been fairly frustrating for you, was that the toughest season of your coaching career?

Yeah, it was tough, it was tough last year. It was just a combination of the previous two seasons.  The season before that we’d obviously gone to the NBL Finals, we’d turned over half our roster and you know there’s an expectation here with the Cairns community to be a playoff team, and it should be that.  Then the year after we miss the playoffs by one game and then we play last year and we miss the play offs by one game.  You know, it’s frustrating all the way round and the pressure that comes with that and the talk within the different streams that it can come from… you know, it gets difficult.  But I thought the guys were pretty good when it was frustrating and we still had a chance right down to the wire and we missed out by a game and it’s no good.  Things can turn pretty quickly; you can be great, you can be pretty poor for a patch and then all of a sudden you’re in a dog fight and that’s no good.

We’re also battling against the big boys.  If you look at other sports, lower budgeted teams – lesser resourced teams - it’s not like they are consistently playoff teams in other sports around the world. It can happen from time to time but the big boys are the ones that are always playing for that stuff.  But we’ve got what we’ve got and we work as hard as we can to try and achieve that playoff goal and then go from there.

During that period of time late last season you spoke of the need for leaders within the group to step  up in the big games.  One of those guys you talked about was Alex Loughton… has he grown as a leader over the past nine months?

He has. I think his demeanour this year has been great. I think he’s kept the game really simple; he shot the ball well - he’s a shooting big, that’s what he does well and that’s what he needs to keep doing well for us to be successful. I mean, he always plays hard, he always plays with some physicality. He plays like a leader and, you know, he’s getting on… he wants another crack.  He was part of that team that lost an NBL Championship and he wants another chance.  He had a great off season and he’s had a good start to the year.  He’s definitely driving the group, along with Cam Gliddon.  He’s been really good, and hopefully he can continue to play that way and stay healthy and give himself another chance.

When you were watching Scottie Wilbekin play in Vegas, what was it that stood out about his play that made you feel like he was your guy?

We had a list of guys that I was looking at in Vegas.  A guy that we were looking at was a guy by the name of Will Cherry.  He played for in the D League and I spoke to some coaches over there and they said ‘this is a guy you should definitely look at; he would be good for Australia blah, blah, blah.’ Will Cherry played so well in the Summer League that he’s signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers recently and is on their roster.  Those things kind of happen and that’s why you have a list.

Scottie was one of those guys. There were certain things I wanted: I wanted someone who could move the ball, was willing to move the ball, was a good athlete but ultimately number one, could really defend.  Scott’s a high quality defender and he’s been on a winning program. He’s a winner - he’s played in huge games. They are attributes that you want. That’s what he brings to us and he started the year pretty well.

There will be a learning curve for him.  At times it will be up and down. He’s a young guy still and he’s playing against guys that are ten years older than him, who have played ten years of pro ball so they’ve seen it all.  He’s been great but teams are starting to play more physical, individuals are targeting him and trying to ruffle his feathers.  When he gets through that he’s going to…. He’s won us games and he’ll continue to do that.

In terms of coaching young imports like Wilbekin and Torrey Craig, do you feel some extra responsibility to develop them and help their careers or is your job simply to win NBL games?

No it’s both. Ultimately you want to win but you’ve got to get better and it doesn’t matter if he’s twenty-one years old or thirty two years old.  Like, there are things Matt Burston can get better at so I work him just as hard as I work Scottie Wilbekin at twenty one years old. Scott’s got bigger and better aspirations and you never know where Torrey can take his game so we want to improve their games.  Everyone’s got weaknesses so you’ve got to get better at them and make their strengths better and we definitely do that here.

In your opening couple of games the ball was flying through hands at a remarkable rate but recently it seems to be sticking a little bit.  Is it hard to get guys to play that way, week in and week out?

[laughs] Absolutely, it’s the hardest thing.  We run systems – we obviously run our flow offence and the shuffle – but if you purely just play ‘motion’ obviously the art of that is simply to move the ball, move each other and get ball reversals. So within our stuff that’s what we need to do and, you’re right, early on we were as tough as hell to defend because the ball just moved and everyone was contributing. Recently teams have defended us differently – stopped us from freely moving the ball – and no matter what we face we’ve got to move it. I don’t care if they’re switching, zoning, pushing the on-ball, going under… it’s got to move, it can’t stick. It’s not me against you, it’s us against them.

That will be a learning curve which we’re going through right now because we have been very good and teams have had to find ways to disrupt us more.  I say it to the guys, ‘you’ve got to put a lot of hard work into winning’. It’s hard to be good all the time and that’s what we’re going through.  We’ve got to find a way to come out the other side and get back to what we were doing.

Pat Riley has talked over the years about ‘the disease of me’ – something that can impact upon teams after they achieve some success.  Usually that comes after winning championships, but can that happen within a season? Is it a possible pitfall of early season team success?

When you’re good, like you’ve played on some good teams, it’s really hard to stay that good.  It takes a lot of leadership, probably guys that have gone through it who understand, and you probably have to fail at it first to understand.  Like ‘damn, this is hard’. It’s not just ‘we’re going to roll up and be good again and again and again’.

We talk about internal and external thinking; when you start internally thinking about yourself, then we’ve got a problem. Whatever that may be; not getting enough shots, ‘damn, my shot’s not dropping’, ‘geez, why am I getting subbed out?’, ‘I’m not playing enough minutes’….. It’s just got to be all external. ‘What can I do for my team and my team-mates’.  So just mentally getting through that and not thinking about you, just thinking about us.  That’s probably crept in a little bit, which it does with every team.

You’re obviously always looking to do lots of things better but what’s the key area of improvement for you guys in transitioning from a really good team to a championship level team?

Trying to play the way we did early and doing that consistently and then we’ll just get better at it. Also, trusting the D.  We’re a pack team, we’ve got to pack it in and try to take away driving lanes, contest jumpers, communicate. I guess defensively it will be communication; offensively it will be floor spacing and ball movement.  That will be the key. That’s the way we want to play, that’s the way I want our group to play and then off the court it’s just preparation; be a pro, an unbelievable pro. That’s diet, rest, recovery, watching video, understanding game plans, understanding our system.  That will be the key. That’s the key to any championship success.Outside of game day, during the Monday to Friday of coaching, what are some aspects of the job you find particularly enjoyable?

Development. Definitely development.  Going through the junior ranks, the Taipans Academy, I’ve spent a lot of time with Aron Baynes, Nate Jawai, Kerry Williams, Dwayne Vale… I get a big kick out of developing talent. I’m no different with these guys, just trying to get them to be better pros and improve their knowledge of the game.  At the end of the day this is a job - it’s your livelihood – so you just try and educate them.  That’s definitely important. I get a thrill out of that.

Also, just trying to get a group of individuals – and all of them are very, very different as you would know, the egos, the quirky personalities – just trying to play as a team. Not everybody on the team loves each other.  You’d love that, but there are always little things that bug you with different personalities. Just trying to form all that and talk it through; ‘look there are some things I love about you, there are some things I don’t, I need you to be better at this and I’ll be better at that and we’ll get along and we’ll perform’. That’s always a huge challenge but it’s a lot of fun.

Lastly, you spoke about Baynsey and Nate Jawai just then, how proud were you watching those two guys do so well on the international stage earlier this year?

Super proud. I remember those two as young fifteen year olds.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the only one who’s has had a lot to do with their development… but seeing Aron play at Washington State, go through the hard yards in Europe, get bought out of his contract in Europe and go to the Spurs, see him win a championship, see the way he’s playing this year, the way he played at the World Cup.  But he works… he’s a pro.  He works his tail off, always wants to get better.

Nate’s blessed with a ton of talent for an unbelievable athlete of his size.  He’s played in the NBA, he’s played for some of the best teams in Europe.  He’s always had to battle with some health issues which doesn’t make it easy for him but he’s super talented and I’m really proud of both of them.  And for both of them to come from Cairns – and remote Cairns too with Nate from Bamaga and Aron from Mareeba – and want to be basketball players and where they’ve ended up today is great and aspiring for every Cairns junior. The goal for us here is to try to get a guard at that level. Patty Mills has obviously done it and we’re trying to get the next guy to do that.

Thanks so much for your time, Aaron.  We’re really enjoying watching the team play this year and hopefully you guys can get back to what you were doing earlier and make a real run of it in February and March.

I hope we can.  It was enjoyable watching them play that way and I think they enjoyed playing that way too! You’ve got to give credit to the teams that we’ve played recently that have taken us out of our rhythm, and that’s what coaching’s about, so my job and our job as a group, is to get back into rhythm. That’s the mission.


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