• Australian basketball legend Andrew Bogut (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
I’ve always believed that if you’ve been to a sporting press conference or heard one post-match interview - you’ve heard them all. This most certainly isn’t the case for one of Australia’s most prolific basketball icons, Andrew Bogut.
By
Lucy Zelic

8 Jul 2020 - 2:55 PM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2020 - 2:55 PM

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The sublimely talented 35-year-old became the first Australian to be the NBA’s first overall draft pick in 2005, won the Championship with the Golden State Warriors in 2015, is a stalwart for the Boomers and has paved the way for local talent looking to cut it abroad.

But there’s so much more to Bogut than his accolades on the court.

In a sporting landscape that has become obsessed with perfection and watering down it’s identities (because heaven forbid they have an opinion outside of their calling), Bogut has managed to maintain his sense of self through his raw, real and honest approach to everything and everyone.

Like him or loathe him, the proud Australian born to Croatian parents continues to provide the dose of entertainment laced with reality that we all need.

In our chat, Bogut reveals why his future plans are on hold, how his upbringing made him who is he today and how he channelled being bullied at high school into his love for basketball.

Lucy Zelic: Andrew, thanks so much for making the time to chat. It's been such a full-on 2020. What's your take been, firstly on COVID-19 and, secondly, how have you navigated through this crazy period?

Andrew Bogut: Yeah, it's been an interesting year. We were towards the end of the season when it really got crazy and in the middle of the Grand Final series. I was a part of the Sydney Kings and we were a part of a pretty tough decision of having to somewhat figure things out for ourselves, we didn't get a whole lot of support from the league and we basically came to the decision that we would stop travelling. We had to go to Perth for Game Four and elected not to for numerous reasons. It was just a stressful time, especially for our international and import players, not knowing if they could get back into the States - there were rumours of lockdowns travelling into the US, so we were right in the middle of it. We pulled the plug on the Grand Final, ended up essentially forfeiting and losing, which was fine, that's how those things go. To me, it's still unknown. We have medical professionals guiding us with what to do and what not to do but I honestly think people still don't know 100 per cent what this thing is capable of. Is it serious? Is it not? The diagnosis of how it's transmitted are changing by the week so it's pretty concerning when you get mixed messages every other week from health professionals, so it’s not an ideal time.

LZ: You were really vocal at the time and pretty much said, it's fine that Perth have been awarded the Championship, but that wasn't the problem - you had issues with the way that it was handled. Now that we've got the benefit of hindsight, what do you think they could have done differently?

AB: I think just being more proactive was the biggest thing. We were the ones initiating the calls for the most part - our club. Before Game Two, I believe Perth travelled to Sydney, travelled back to Perth and I think they had someone there playing that was diagnosed with COVID. There was no push for extra testing for us - there was none of that. They could have quelled a lot of the stress just by saying, 'look guys, we know there's some concerns at the end of this series. We've got testing for every player on both teams and every staff member, we're trying to support you guys'. That would have been like, 'hey, at least they're trying to be proactive and support us'. All the guys have kids - because it was a Grand Final series, we had players with their grandparents or their parents in town so I think if they could have just squashed some stress for the fellas, it definitely would have been a positive and it could have maybe prolonged the series. But, like I said, there wasn't a whole lot of support there and, in fairness to the league, it's an unknown that went from zero to 100 within a week. Unfortunately, they weren't really prepared for it - not many businesses, not many organisations, not many people have dealt with this before, it's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing but, more the proactiveness was the frustrating thing.

LZ: I was reading an interview with you where you'd said after 19 months straight of basketball, it's almost nice to just relax and get to know your kids in ways that you didn't know them before. What's this period like been with your family?

AB: Oh, I've definitely got to know them more! The first month or two after it, we didn't go out at all, we tried to adhere to the restrictions and keep it locked down, especially in Sydney. Sydney was crazy when it all started - you couldn't buy toilet paper, you couldn't get rice, you couldn't get pasta; at least where we lived in the surrounding suburbs. It's been good to be around the kids more, there's no doubt about it but as human beings and kids, you want to be out and about exploring and I think after about a month of it, their point of frustration was probably as high as ours. We try to do different things and creative things to keep them entertained rather than just being on the iPad playing games or doing the same old stuff.

LZ: What about your body and your fitness? How's that all holding up?

AB: Oh, fitness is at an all-time low. To be honest with you, I haven't done anything since the season ended. Number one was, finding a facility to do it in was pretty hard the first couple of months and I just wanted a break. I had a pretty whirlwind two years where it was non-stop. It was the NBL season, then [I] joined the Warriors over in the States, then went straight to the World Cup with the Boomers, then came back to the NBL again so it was a pretty crazy couple of years. I didn't get much rest; I had some injuries that I played through so the body was definitely raring for some rest. But I'll start-up again pretty soon and see how I feel and then make a decision. As I've said on record, I'll wait until the end of the year till hopefully this all passes and then figure out if I'll have my one last dance.

LZ: You made the decision that you were going to leave the Kings in May where you had two great seasons with them. Was there an option in your mind where you considered staying on with them or are you looking for something else? Obviously the pandemic has thrown so much doubt over everything, including the Olympics, which you've already said you wanted to be your swan song - but where is your head at now?

AB: I think there's been a bit of misdirection in the media from the Sydney Kings announcement - that was never shunning the Sydney Kings, it was more a decision out of respect because I haven't decided whether I want to play on, number one. Number two, their free agency period was starting so, if I'm dangling and saying 'oh, I'm one foot in, one foot out, I don't know yet, give me more time', it's actually hurting the Sydney Kings roster and trying to establish what they're going to be as a team. I honestly didn't want to sign anywhere because I don't know what's going on with COVID, I don't know if the NBL season is going to start on time, I don't know if the NBA season is going to start on time. There's rumours now that even the Olympics next year, there's a slight chance they might not go ahead, so who knows? I just wanted to actually wait till the New Year and I potentially could re-sign with the Sydney Kings - that's definitely a possibility. It's a possibility to maybe go over to the NBA and play a couple of months and have that as a primer for the Olympics - there's plenty of options. I just thought signing with someone now, committing now and then putting my body through training and doing a pre-season, then that league where I've signed pulls the plug and then I've put miles in my body, which right now I can't afford to do - it's just not something I wanted to do. The other thing was moving the family, two kids and then moving to a new city and then it's for nothing if the season gets cancelled. It was just one of those things where the best decision is to stay where we're based and just wait this thing out and, once there's some concrete decisions, wrap my brain around it, say, 'okay, this is going ahead', and make a concrete decision of signing with X, Y, Z.

LZ: I remember you coming out and saying that you wanted to have 'some skin in the game' when you'd signed with the Kings. There was a mention of your contract, including a 10 per cent stake in the club when you officially retire. Is that something that you're still really passionate about?

AB: Yeah, it is something that's on the table. I don't know where that's going to go when I'm done - I'd like to be involved but it does take a lot of time and a lot of effort. I've thoroughly enjoyed working with the Sydney Kings - the rebuild that was put together and Paul Smith the majority owner, I'm a big advocate of. I think at times (he can be) a controversial figure but I think his heart is in the right place; passionate. The more passionate NBL owners you can get, the better. We've had a history of having passive NBL owners that kind of see it as a chance to get in the media, or a chance at being involved in pro sport but not really having that passion or heart, whereas Paul Smith definitely has that, so that's been enjoyable. Signing Will Weaver as coach and Chris Pongrass as GM and everything they've done to turn that franchise back to a winning organisation has been very fun to be a part of so I enjoy that aspect of it. But, obviously two young kids and all that kind of stuff, it'll be a decision based on how much time I have to commit to it. I wouldn't do it just to tick a box - I'd only do it if I could 100 per cent commit myself to it and give it the attention that it deserves. So that'll be a decision that I'll make once I retire.

LZ: I had the chance to meet Paul Smith and I really liked him. As you said, he's a bit of a controversial figure but I like the fact that he's really passionate and that he just comes out and says what he thinks. I think that's something that's really lacking in the sporting landscape. It's why I've always been a really big fan of yours, because I think that you've managed to retain your sense of self without becoming overly sanitised. Why has it been so important for you to stay true to who you are?

AB: I'm not sure. I think a part of it is upbringing. You'd know, the Balkan, the Croatian ways - you get asked a question and you answer it. By all means, I'm not always right, by all means, I'm not always wrong but it's my honest truth. If I ask someone a question about, 'hey do you like me? Do you want to be mates?', or whatever it is, I'd rather them give me an honest answer, so I know where we stand. If I get the PC, PR talking points, I don't know where I'm at with you. I don't know whether I can trust you, I don't know if it's a facade. Unfortunately, we see that with a lot of athletes and some of it, I don't think is their fault. The media and PR training, especially within football clubs, they don't want any controversy, they don't want anyone to give an opinion and that's why you get the standard, 'oh, yeah I did it for the boys. Oh yeah, it was a great win'. I turn it off, I just can't watch press conferences. There are a few people that I'll watch; a few coaches and a few players because I know it'll be entertaining and they'll give me the honest truth but it's one per cent of the sporting landscape. Unfortunately, that's driven by clubs, by sponsors - if you say something that's against the grain, you're in trouble and you're not deemed as a good ambassador for a company or a brand or an apparel label and that's where we're at: money talks. We've seen that a lot, especially in the last year, there's been a lot of controversy around the hypocrisy of certain players and I think what reared that ugly head for me was the Hong Kong-China situation. You've got players and coaches and GM's around the world that [say], 'we're for human rights and we're for this', when it's in their own backyard and when it's a simple question about Hong Kong's democracy and their human rights and people, it's, 'oh no, I don't know enough about it or I can't comment on that'. It's like, hang on a second, last week you commented on human rights and how passionate you are about it, well how about this? Go home for an hour, read up on it and then get back to me. They're not going to because China, especially in the NBA landscape, is funding that league and paying bills so that's the hypocrisy of it. I've always been cognisant of not being a hypocrite, so probably at times I have been to a small iota and that frustrates me. I try to make sure that everything I'm saying, I'm kind of living.

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LZ: The whole China situation that you copped so much abuse over was mortifying. I couldn't believe it. It got to the point where, when you were over there playing a game, someone threw a bolt at you in the stadium which is just mental. I feel like social media has a lot to answer for that. How do you feel we've lost our way in that department?

AB: Yeah, it's not great. I've disconnected from social media, I am obviously big on social media but the last month, just with everything going on in the world, I've just gotten away from it and have actually been in a better headspace. I don't know what the ratio would have been when I first got on social media, maybe 60-40 positive, 70-30, because there's a lot of people you'd meet; we conversed on social media before this interview, so there's a lot of networking, a lot of great people you meet but now, I think it's flown the other way - I think the negative's outweighing the positive. At the end of the day, the opinions on there are a minority and it's 10 per cent of our community. I've got a lot of mates that are labourers and cafe owners and everyday working people and my ultimate test for anything trending on social media is asking them. I'm telling you, 90 per cent of the time, they have no idea what I'm talking about. This goes to tell you how much of a bubble social media is. But the China thing, look, I think if I played more of a victim and gave a press conference about how much of a victim I was, it probably would have got more tread but definitely a lot of abuse. Having a bolt thrown at me, I think it was one of the later stage games in the finals, I obviously could have portrayed it as a bigger victim, but at the end of the day I just got on with it - it is what it is and getting booed and all that, whatever, I played into it but it definitely was an interesting time. I was just more worried about getting out of the country to be quite honest with you. I flew out with, I think Patty and Luke were on my flight, and I kind of got Luke to go with me through customs just because I was like, 'look I don't know if I'm going to get pulled into a little room and I might disappear for a couple of days'. That was more concerning to me than anything else happening. But, you're in a foreign country and getting death threats every day and all that kind of stuff - it definitely is interesting.

LZ: I want to talk a little bit more about your Croatian upbringing, what it was like growing up in your household and when did you realise that basketball was really something you wanted to pursue?

AB: My childhood was great for the most part. Obviously you were part of a Croatian household too, memories of going to the local Croatian dance every month essentially, and every big event: Easter, Mother's Day you'd go with your Croatian mates and have Croatian food and Croatian singers. I really miss those days. I really, really enjoyed that. I felt like growing up in a Croatian house, it felt like you were in Croatia but then the moment you'd leave you weren't, if that makes sense. Because you'd talk Croatian, you'd eat Croatian food and you had Croatian ideals. The good thing was they really translated well to the Aussie culture - I think it's very, very similar to an extent, especially being a Catholic Christian nation at that time, they had very similar ideals culturally so we felt like it was good. I guess that mentality of seeing the old man get up to go to work every day and running his own business as basically a tradie, a labourer, a mechanic - to see that drive and just having the old man able to run his own business, coming to a country which he didn't speak a word of English when he was 16 years old; I think that's the Aussie dream and that's why I love Australia. I think it's the best country in the world as far as, if you have a crack, it will give you what you put in back. I kind of followed that with my sporting career to an extent. It was putting in a lot of time and I guess seeing your parents, your mum and your dad work very, very hard, it was like, 'well, if I'm doing something, whether it's sport or whatever it is, I better be putting in the same time and effort', and that's how I treated it. Also, for me, it was an outlet too. I wasn't a great student. I wasn't a horrible student but I wasn't someone that was very book-heavy and invested in trying to be a great student - I invested in sport and that was my outlet. Every week I'd just look forward to the games on the weekend and getting through school. That was a part of going through bullying in high school. Being the tallest guy in my class, I copped a lot of sh*t from older years, year 11s and 12s when I was in year seven and eight. I guess my outlet through all that frustration and scuffles and all that kind of stuff was basketball.

LZ: I'm surprised they had the balls to take you on, given that you were the bigger kid?

AB: Well, when I am in year seven and they're in year 11 or 12, it wasn't really a fair fight. I copped it a fair bit but I gave back a fair bit too [laughs]. I wasn't a perfect guy, I probably engaged in some of that at some point in my high school as well - I'm not going to say that I wasn't. I'm not sure the psychology of it but maybe you think, if you're getting bullied, that's the normal thing to do to someone else. But, high school was pretty toxic at times and sometimes you've gotta let kids figure it out for themselves and other times you've got to make sure that the right help is available. It was definitely an interesting time and there were days I didn't want to go to school, that's how bad it got at times: just hearing the same old thing every day. You get pretty street smart - it was knowing certain parts of the school. I'd try to not go through certain entries at times and try not to walk past a certain group of kids that I knew where they hung out just because I knew it will avoid a confrontation or a scuffle and that was the reality of high school for me.

LZ: Do you feel like that had an impact on you when you reflect on the person that you are today?

AB: Oh, no doubt. I grew up in an area that wasn't by any means an aspirational area that you want to move to and live in. I think it made me very street smart. First and foremost; the streets near my school were areas where drugs were dealt on a daily basis. So, I kind of figured out when you would see a drug deal, getting asked if you want to buy drugs when you're walking home in your school uniform, that kind of stuff. It kind of puts the forefront on you to be street smart - you need to stay away from this area because there's junkies there, you need to stay away from this area because I might get rolled and I might cop a beating. That was just something that I learned very, very quickly but also to try to keep some some sort of academia smarts as well, so I feel like my personality has a good mix of that. That's something that I try to teach my kids - they're very, very sheltered and very, very lucky and live a very good life but I also want them to learn that, unfortunately, there's some sketchy people out there and there's certain things you need to learn at an early age.

LZ: And what about the moment you realised that basketball was something that you really wanted to pursue?

AB: I did a lot of sports as a young kid. I did gymnastics first, which is mainly because my sister did it and she was five years older so for the parents, it was easier to drop us off at the same spot. I hated it. I could not stand it. I'm not the most flexible guy to start with and you'd think it'd just be jumping on trampolines and mats but it's much harder than that. I did a bit of Vickick at the time, which is now Auskick, so that shows my age. I enjoyed the footy, mum didn't really because it was Melbourne winters - you get in the car muddy and all that kind of stuff. I did a bit of Taekwondo as well and then I think my dad had a hoop that was drilled into a wall at his mechanical workshop, which the panel beaters next door used to dry things once they painted them. I just started throwing a tennis ball at first and then a soccer ball and then a basketball and just instantly fell in love with it. I just loved it. It was starting to get on TV, free-to-air at that point on Channel 10. Every Saturday morning they had the game of the week and my eyes just fell in love with what I saw and just loved it ever since. I begged them to start playing basketball and they were kind of like, 'here we go again. This is it. You're not changing sports again. If you pick this, you're stuck with it'. I chose basketball and then never really looked back. I loved it. I really enjoy just the competitiveness of it and the more time that I put in away, the better I got. On top of that, it was an outlet away from some of the hardships you have to deal with as a kid.

LZ: You came through the college system in the US, you spent 13 seasons across the NBA, you were the number one draft pick by the Bucks in 2005, then you won the Championship with Golden State in 2015. You truly are a basketball icon in Australia. Have you had a chance, particularly throughout the pandemic, to take stock of everything you've achieved so far?

AB: Look, a little bit. I still hope that I'll play on but we'll see. I've probably had the biggest rollercoaster of a career out of a lot of NBA athletes. Just my journey itself, from a junior, to college, to NBA and I was finally, from an individual standpoint, coming into my prime as the number one pick in my second, third, fourth year and then I just had a horror-run with injuries. Not just injuries but things that were debilitating to my skill of playing basketball. I think the proudest part of my career was itching out 14 years in the NBA when I'd argue most people with the injuries I had would get eight or nine years. I'm proud of just being able to bounce back constantly and make sure that I always found that light at the end of the tunnel, which was hard at times. It was very, very hard. My proudest thing is bouncing back from two car accident-type injuries and being able to explore the world and come back and play in Australia, which was always something I wanted to do towards the end, and just create different experiences for myself and the family. To be able to play at the highest level for fourteen, fifteen years is something. If you told me as a kid that I'd do that, I'd tell you you were crazy. My dream was just to play in the NBL, the fantasy and pipe dream and Unicorn was, 'oh, the NBA would be great', but let's be honest, it's not realistic. The only guy we had at that point, that played any meaningful role or minutes in the NBA was Luc Longley and that's one out of millions of Australians. So, to be able to get over there and have a long career, be a trendsetter somewhat and open that door up for scouts to come over here and look at Australian guys and now we've got 10 guys over there playing - I think it's been sensational.

LZ: Was there ever a point where you thought, 'f**k it, I just want to throw in the towel, I've had enough' and where your career could have gone one way or the other?

AB: 100 per cent. The first injury was my elbow, that one was mentally hard because it changed the way I played. I mean, my shot went in the toilet for two or three years and I never really regained my outside shot after that. The bad one was the ankle. I snapped my ankle in 2011-2012 - I got undercut and landed on a guys foot and completely snapped my talus, which is kind of the inner part of the top of the ankle. I was in a boot and then had the surgery, got traded while I was injured - which kind of was a blessing because I got to a team that won a Championship - but I had a micro-fracture surgery, which wasn't reported at the time, and those surgeries aren't very successful for longevity. They take a long time to rehab and it was true to itself - it probably took me, two or three years to get to a point where I could deal with how my ankle was. So, I got to Golden State and was meticulous with my rehab, spending hours every morning before the training sessions. I wasn't training for that season, I got traded there and then missed the first half of that following season and it just wouldn't get better. No matter what I did - cold tub of ice, physio, proprioception, strengthening, staying off it; it got to a point where I literally would get home from rehab and I'd put my foot in the air because I'm like, 'I need to rest it so I can be even better for rehab tomorrow'. This was three months, four months, five months, six months, seven months and as soon as I got to any point where I was like alright, 'let's try to do a little bit of impact on the court', it would swell up like a balloon. Then I'd be back to square one with the rehab, ticking all those boxes just to get back to an on-court workout and it got to a point where I got frustrated and said, 'look, stuff it, I am just going to play on it'. (Using) a lot of painkillers - we got to a playoff series that year. Then, I spent another whole off-season rehabbing it and it was finally at a point where it was feasible to get out there. But, during that process, I got to a point where I was like, 'why the hell am I doing this? I'm doing everything right. What more can I do?' This thing just kept swelling and swelling and swelling and I was at a crossroads, I think it was like year nine or year 10. I was like, 'look, I've hit 10 years, I've maxed-out my pension in the NBA [laughs], I've made a lot of money and done pretty well and I can just put my feet up'. But something just told me, 'mate, you've still got more left in the tank'. Thankfully I did because [I] went on to be part of a Championship team and had some successful runs internationally, finishing fourth twice and all that kind of stuff, so it worked out very, very well but there were some dark times there for sure.

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LZ: I can't imagine. Who had the biggest impact on your career?

AB: For me, I get asked this a lot but there's probably not one specific guy. I worked with a guy in juniors, Sinisa Markovic - he was a personal trainer that we'd hired to just put extra time in me away from the club and all that kind of stuff. He helped with the personal development of my game individually: the skill level. There's been different people throughout the journey that I've taken positives from and I've tried to take pieces of the puzzle from different people. So, I don't think it'd be one person, I think it's numerous people. Just having a good support network. I think my wife was a huge support network, even though she doesn't know it at times. Just coming home and having a calm household, which in our business is not the case. A lot of times, the wives are wanting to be out there and put themselves out there - which is fine, each to their own - but for me that's not who I was so it was nice to come back to my wife who still to this day is relatively unknown, which is how I like it and how she likes it. Coming back to a warm home that was not superficial, it wasn't about her Instagram and all that kind of stuff so I really was lucky in that sense.

LZ: Final question. I felt like there was a lot more buzz around the NBL this past season; the crowd attendances were up and there was more of a general interest in the game. Where do you see it in the next five to 10 years?

AB: I think it's in a good spot. I think just having the ability to continue to build is important and getting world class players back like myself or world class imports, young fellas like LaMelo Ball last season - they're very, very, important. But the NBL is in a tough spot, especially with COVID; it derives most of it's income from gate revenue and fans and bums on seats and right now, that's unknown. Hopefully they can figure out a deal that can get them some extra income in that sense but look, it's trending up, the competition's trending up but I'm obviously a stickler for detail and I think there's still a lot of work to do, especially admin and front office-wise around the league. There’s still a lot of kinks that need to be ironed out for it to live up to professional standards on a daily basis. It shows glimpses of that, which is very, very positive, but I set a high standard and I think the NBL needs to set that bar higher for itself to continue to expand as a world-class league.