Nothing has come easy to Joey Wright as a player or coach in the NBL but he wouldn’t change a thing about his Australian journey as he takes great pride in helping build Adelaide back into a power with his youngest daughters by his side.
Wright claimed his third NBL Coach of the Year award this season having led the Adelaide 36ers to a first minor premiership since 2000 as they look to make the Grand Final for the second time in his tenure.
The 36ers host the Illawarra Hawks in Game 3 of the semi finals on Thursday night at Titanium Security Arena with a spot in the Grand Final against the Perth Wildcats on the line as Wright attempts to win the Sixers their fifth championship, and first since 2002.
Wright is in his fourth season as coach of the 36ers and given he took over with the club having claimed three of the last four wooden spoons, it has been a commendable performance to have already made one Grand Final and be a chance at another.
The Adelaide chapter of Wright’s career in the NBL and Australia is just scratching the surface though.
After completing his college career at the University of Texas, Wright put together a successful playing career overseas as a point guard that culminated in two years in the NBL with the Geelong Supercats.
Wright then began his coaching career in 1997 with the Austin Cyclones in the Southwest Basketball league before subsequent roles at Regents School of Austin and St Edward’s University before he returned to Australia.
He took over as coach of the Brisbane Bullets midway through the 2002/03 season and had a tremendously successful tenure being named Coach of the Year twice and winning the 2007 championship.
That’s where the rocky times began for Wright. Despite proving how good a coach he was, he suddenly was out of a job when the Bullets folded.
After a year coaching in Cyprus, it was back to the NBL for Wright as he replaced Brendan Joyce as coach of the Gold Coast Blaze.
He again proved his coaching abilities with two semi-final appearances with a strong team where they came up short against the Perth Wildcats on both occasions, but one of those was ravaged by injury.
Despite again ensuring his team was a force on the court over the three seasons, Wright was left on the outer when the Blaze folded following the 2011/12 season.
Wright couldn’t say no to coaching in the NBL and living in Australia as he arrived in Adelaide to replace Marty Clarke for the 2013/14 season.
Despite the troubles Adelaide was having on and off the court, Wright has helped turn things around on the court while plenty of work has been done off it to again make the Sixers a stable member of the NBL fraternity.
Wright has now coached more than 400 games in the NBL, is now in his 14th season as a player and coach living in Australia, and is a championship-winner and three-time Coach of the Year.
The 48-year-old wouldn’t change anything about the journey despite the challenging times along the way.
“I never thought I would get to 400 games,” Wright told NBL Media.
“It has gone so fast and the thing that I love about it the most in getting to 400 games, is that I get to impact young men in a positive way over a number of years.
“Not only that, but they have a positive influence on me and who I have become is a lot about who has been around me. I get a lot of positive energy from those guys also like I hope to give to them.”
Looking back to his first impressions in 1995 of the NBL and Australia, Wright quickly fell in love with the country and the league. That’s why he wanted to get involved as a coach in Brisbane back in 2002 and despite seeing his jobs at the Bullets and Blaze taken from him, he always wanted to continue here.
“When I came as a player, one thing you learn right away is that Australian people are some of the best in the world,” he said.
“I loved who they were with so much integrity so I always wanted to come back to coach so when the opportunity arose, I still only thought I would do it for a couple of years and end up back in the States. But 14 years later I’m still here.”
Having played and coached in both America and Europe, there was just something about the NBL that Wright has always felt a real affinity to. The chance to build teams and work with players to develop them over a number of seasons is what he enjoys most.
The evidence of that is plain to see if you look at the teams Wright has coached at Brisbane, Gold Coast and indeed now Adelaide.
“I coached and played in Europe as well as the States, but here you are able to work with someone and see them develop and grow as individuals,” Wright said.
“You can have someone on your team for two or three years and see them grow so that is really pleasing, but in Europe it’s all chop and change all the time.
“That is one thing that has appealed to me and then it’s just the league itself, it always stood for something. I could have played longer in Europe or coached there, but coming here where in basketball you just rock up to play each other and see who is best. That’s always been really important to me.”
Things may look rosy with the job Wright’s done in Adelaide to ensure the 36ers pulled themselves out of four disappointing years and even longer without being a genuine championship contender, he does admit it hasn’t all been easy.
Things off the court have been challenging for the Sixers and with the development of the NBL in recent times, there’s been occasions when the future of the 36ers has been in question.
Having a third club fold while he was at the helm might have been too much for Wright to cope with, but the fact that it’s taken such hard work to now have the 36ers one win away from another Grand Final appearance makes it mean all that much more.
“It has been tough if I’m honest with you,” he said.
“We’ve been through a lot of adversity and through some times where it was pretty lean and we might have looked like we wouldn’t get through, but we are in a good situation now.
“We’ve got some good direction with a good owner and things are looking good, but it has been tough outside of basketball. But we’ve always tried to put that aside so that when we get to the court it’s all about basketball. Then we deal with the other stuff later.”
Without question, the tightest playing group Wright has coached was the one that won the championship with the Bullets.
That success naturally breeds that camaraderie and that’s why he is urging his current 36ers team to make the most of the success they are creating.
“I have told this group that you guys will talk to each other for the rest of your life for the way you play with each other now and that Brisbane group is the same,” Wright said.
“They all went off to play for other teams with CJ and Dillon going off like the rest of them, but they are still the closest of any group I’ve coached.
“The best memories they have from basketball is from that group they were part of. You try to bring people together and sometimes it works, and sometime it doesn’t. That was one situation where it all couldn’t have come together any better.”
Ask any player who Wright has ever coached and he will tell you how much of a player coach he is.
Wright challenges his players to give their all and to be the best they can be, but in return they get his full support.
His bond with the players he coaches is something that then continues well beyond their time together as player and coach. Adam Gibson and Anthony Petrie are two examples with him coaching the former at Brisbane, Gold Coast and Adelaide, and the latter with the Blaze and 36ers.
He has no doubt both Gibson and Petrie will bounce back strongly with the Bullets in 2017/18 after their season-ending injuries this campaign.
“A lot of the players that I’ve coached over the years I still keep in contact with. We talk on a weekly basis and we talk about what house loan they got, what car they are going to buy, what they are going to name their kids,” he said.
“I was on the phone to Adam Gibson after he got injured and the same with Anthony Petrie, so I try to keep in touch with them. I do understand that what we do out on the court won’t be bigger than what we do on the court. I get that right away.
“Both of them had to go to Brisbane for the reasons they did. If they look at that and keep that in perspective, that’s exactly what they had to do. They are both champions and warriors so I would expect them to get over these injuries to be back out there on the court and be a force before long.”
Wright wouldn’t change his 400-plus game journey, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been times where it has gotten the better of him.
Losing his job with the Bullets and with such an outstanding team he was in charge of was the toughest blow. Gold Coast wasn’t much easier to take but he’s proud he has been able to land on his feet.
“The Brisbane one was really tough because I didn’t see it coming. I’m still not a resident of Australia so I’m on a visa and after the club folded, I had a period where it got right down to the last 30 days of me having to leave the country,” Wright said.
“So I had to pick up my wife and kids, sell my house, cars and everything and leave. So that was really tough but I was able to go overseas, coach in Europe for one year and then come back here to coach down in the Gold Coast. That gave me a good opportunity to get back into the league.”
Wright might be proud of his coaching career and the lifelong bonds he has built with players and other staff members he has worked with for a long time like ‘Big’ Joe Tertzakian, but nothing trumps family for him.
Wright and wife Kim have four children together, with the eldest two now grown up and back in the United States.
Son Justin is currently in Australia to watch his dad try to win another championship while Wright is proud to be a basketball coaching father to his two youngest daughters, Sydney and Terran.
“A lot of people will see that my girls are on my hip pretty much all the time. Anywhere I go, I’ve got two little ones tagging me and they’ve learned to sit there by the court and not bother me while I’m coaching,” he said.
“Then as soon as coaching’s over, they are able to step in and be little kids and I get to be dad. I just keep them right there with me all the time. They both play ball as well which makes it easy. I’ve got two older kids who are grown now and back in the States and they are taking care of themselves there.”
Wright tries to provide Sydney and Terran with whatever perks he can with them being daughters to a professional basketball coach and the fact they love the sport themselves is just a bonus.
“They get to go in the lounge sometimes when we’re travelling and they get to come in and watch some practices, or get closer to some of our video sessions than most people would,” Wright said.
“They get to hang around the team and they are really good guys who treat them well, but to be honest there’s probably more downfall than benefit for my girls.
“They have a lot of people expecting them to be star players because they are my kids and that can be unfair, but they love basketball and I think they want me to keep being a basketball coach. I think they enjoy being daughters of a basketball coach and there is some perks to that.”