Tim Bauer

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Andrew Bogut: The Comeback King

Andrew Bogut, Australia’s first NBA superstar and reigning NBL MVP, speaks exclusively with Rolling Stone Australia about his career, his plans and his musical tastes.

Andrew Bogut is easy to spot. When he strolls into the restaurant attached to Novotel on Brisbane’s Southbank, the guests and staff getting about their morning look like they got shrunk in the wash. His Sydney Kings teammates are on the far side of the room enjoying breakfast before their matinee game against the home side, the Bullets. Basketballers are typically large people. Bogut towers over most of them.

The 35-year-old shouldn’t be doing much of anything right now, let alone playing a 15th year of professional basketball. When the giant Victorian does hang up his boots, his career story will be anchored around his injuries, just above his long list of achievements. Bogut has had some unlucky breaks, the types you watch on YouTube and can never unwatch.

The ugliest, a fall during a game in 2009 which ended in Bogut’s shooting arm folding backwards, his wrist and several fingers snapped. NBA legend and Dream Teamer Charles Barkley remarked at the time that it was the worst he’d seen on an NBA court. Only a sicko would argue.

Later, in 2012, Bogut came down on an opponent’s foot, cracking his ankle. It’s one thing for a 5’10” accountant to break his leg on a night out. It’s another for a behemoth listed at 213cm and 118kg to bust a wheel that’s required to get him up and down a court for up to 110 games in an NBA season, more if national team duties are required. The ankle required microfracture surgery, a radical procedure where holes are drilled into the bone to try stimulate growth. It doesn’t always work.

“The ankle still bothers me every now then, it swells up,” remarks Bogut. “That’s just the reality. For the rest of my life, I’ll still work out and lift weights. Do pilates, yoga, physio, osteo. If I just stopped doing all that, I won’t be able to walk.”

Photo by Tim Bauer.

Bogut is doing more than walking. Today, he’s the marquee player for a resurgent NBL. The reigning MVP and defensive player of the year. Bogut was on court last November when the Kings played against the Illawarra Hawks before 17,514 at Qudos Bank Arena, busting the league’s attendance record that stood for more than 20 years.

Crowds are up around the country. Bogut and his enormous profile are partly to thank. His return to the league after an impressive NBA career has opened the door, if not floodgates, to sparkling U.S. rookies and veteran Aussies who in another era would have logged a few finals years in Europe.

The centre also credits league owner Larry Kestelman for the turnaround. “Larry opened his wallet and spent, you know, somewhere between $40 and $60 million over the last five years to get the league back on good terms.”

Five, six years ago, he says, the league “was borderline semi-professional. The NBL wasn’t a world class league. It’s top five if not top three league in the world right now as far as competitive, competitive basketball goes. Salary is a whole different story.”

There’s still a lot of work to do, Bogut adds. “Having full time referees, that’s number one on the agenda.”

Bogut is Australia’s first NBA star. Luc Longley, and his three championships alongside Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, is arguably the most decorated. Andrew Gaze is the best who stayed and played in Australia. Bogut was the first NBA “franchise player.” Drafted at No. 1 by the Milwaukee Bucks, Bogut had a solid, but slow career start. “Bigs” are often given time to develop. And injuries played their part.

When he hit peak form, Bogut averaged a double-double in three consecutive seasons (double figures in three main categories, typically points and rebounds or assists). In his prime, he averaged a double-double for a half-decade stretch. At his position, he and Dwight Howard were the two best ballers in the game, anywhere. All-NBA honours came. And again, injuries. Each time, Bogut made a comeback, his body changed and his game tweaked.

In the year after wrecking his elbow, Bogut led the association in blocked shots and was for a time on track to set a new Bucks record in that category. With a dodgy arm, he produced his best rebounding figures in his career. His shot, however, was ruined and his confidence shooting the ball would never return.

Photo by Tim Bauer.

After the broken ankle,  Bogut was shipped to Golden State Warriors, an underperforming team in San Francisco with some shooting guns and, in Steph Curry, a special talent whose ankles were flimsier than Flakes. If only these guys could play defense. That’s where Bogut slotted in. With the big guy patrolling the middle and freeing up the shooters by setting blocks with his huge body, the Warriors became a dynasty. Bogut patrolled the middle when the team won in 2015, and came close the following year when LeBron James steered his Cleveland Cavaliers team to a miraculous finals win. The Warriors might have won had Bogut not injured his knee late in the series.

To the casual sports fan, Bogut is known for the stack of money he has earned over his playing career (according to Spotrac, he’s made more than US$117 million before tax, just from his NBA earnings), and his penchant for speaking his mind. “I’m probably the most bullied athlete in Australia online, which is fine. I give as much as I take,” he says.

Bogut has been known to speak out from his Twitter account on anything from plastic bags to politicians. His views can be on the nose for social media users. “I’m polarising. People either like me or you don’t, which is perfectly fine. But if you’re going to criticise me about something you better hope that you don’t have any history of doing what you’re criticising me for.”

Off the court, the big guy is putting his wealth to work. While playing in Golden State, Bogut networked with tech types. He once found himself in a poker game with the biggest Silicon Valley investors in the world. His portfolio today includes a state in the Cloud9 esports team. He’s a part-owner in the Sydney Kings, with an option to grow his stake.

Now married with two small kids, Bogut still has unfulfilled ambitions on the court. “The MVP award last season [I won] in the NBL, I’d trade that any day if we’d have won the championship.”

Bogut has his eyes on the Olympics from July for what would be his fourth campaign, and a chance for glory alongside Australia’s NBA All-Star Ben Simmons. “A gold medal or any medal at the Olympics or the Worlds (World Cup) would be history-setting for basketball in Australia for our men’s programmes,” says Bogut.

“To even be competing for medals is a big thing that’s not really spoken about considering where we’ve come from the last decade. To get those three trophies in my career, I’ll be very happy with that career.”

“I’m polarising. People either like me or you don’t, which is perfectly fine.”

After Australia came agonisingly close to winning a medal at the World Cup in 2019, the next tournament won’t come around until 2023. Clearly Bogut wants to milk some more years out of his body, which he admits is banged up this season. His agent is in talks with NBA franchises on a cameo similar to his brief stint with the Warriors last season which culminated in another run to the NBA Finals, with victory just out of reach as injuries blew through the squad. Bogut, however, was fit.

“There’s a couple teams over there I’m chatting to.” He’ll go “if it’s the right situation.” The right scenario would include a team with a chance of going deep into the playoffs. Golden State are out of the playoff picture.

Bogut admits he has been approached multiple times by politicians to join their ranks when he’s done with sport. “I keep an open mind. I’ll meet with most politicians, left, right, conservative, whatever.” When asked to rate his chances of running for a seat, the athlete isn’t enthusiastic. “I highly doubt it. Having to sit in a room with people that are just bullshitting, going around in circles, I don’t have time for that. That’s not on my bucket list.”

What is on that list is seeing more shows. Bogut has seen the world through the lens of professional sport, but doesn’t have many shows to show for it. In fact, he’s seen just one concert; Fleetwood Mac. His playlist includes a mix of rock and pop from the ‘70s to the ‘90s. And a lot of Croatian music; a throwback to the playlists of his parents. He rates Staind’s Aaron Lewis and Bruce Springsteen among his must-sees. “I’ll definitely spend more time going to concerts. The Wiggles are next on the list, obviously.”