Andrej Lemanis is an Australian who Kiwis love. His six seasons coaching the SKYCITY New Zealand Breakers, culminating with their first Australian NBL championship title, have made him synonymous with New Zealand basketball.
As head coach Lemanis has steadily guided the Breakers up the Aussie NBL table from near the bottom to the very top, via a thrilling three-game finals series against the Cairns Taipans.
Lemanis is also assistant coach of the Australian national team, the Boomers, and his commitment to both teams sees his life full of basketball coaching year round.
Lemanis grew up playing basketball and competed at a senior level for Victorian clubs St Kilda Saints, South Melbourne Saints and the South East Melbourne Magic, who won the 1992 Australian NBL championship.
In the years following the NBL victory, Lemanis found himself weighing up his future as a player in a sport that was then only semi-professional in Australia. Someone suggested he might be good at coaching.
Nearly 20 years later, New Zealand basketball has benefited hugely from his expertise. The rise and rise of the Breakers has dramatically lifted public support for basketball and has strengthened grassroots development around the country.
The 2011 NBL Playoffs: Getting there
Looking back, Lemanis firmly believes that making it to the finals playoffs this year wasn’t just about what he and the team did this season alone.
“There was nothing that magically happened this season to get us into the finals. It’s been something we’ve been working up to for a number of years.”
A heavy investment in junior development has played an important part in the Breakers success.
“It’s almost funny – suddenly everyone was talking about our incredible depth of talent and what a surprise it was. But the reality is that didn’t come about because we went out and bought the best players we could.
“It was because we invested time and effort into junior development over a number of years and were able to bring these players along, which got us to the point where we have a very solid team and great depth of talent.”
Lemanis believes it’s impossible to buy the sort of player depth that the Breakers have had this season. He says it’s something that must be nurtured over time.
“One of the most enjoyable parts of the season for me was seeing the culture and the effort and values we’d been working on for three or four years develop into seeing everyone acting in the best interests of the team.”
“One of the risks you take with having such talent and depth within the league is that some players might get disgruntled over lack of playing time, or whatever, but because we’d put so much focus on the team itself and not on the individuals, the players were happy to play their part at the level that the team needed. Everyone bought into the ‘team is everything’ philosophy and understanding that if the team does well, the individuals do well.”
Lemanis also believes that a sense of self-confidence is important for a team to be able to reach the grand final series in the NBL. He thinks that New Zealanders in general have an aversion to saying, ‘I’m really good at this’ and that’s not necessarily a good thing at the elite sporting level.
“If you think you’re going to lose, then you will. There needs to be a certain confidence within a sporting team to be able to go out and achieve some good things. We’ve had some good experiences over the past few years – getting to the finals and winning some big games. So we started to understand what it took to get to that next level and say, ’hey, we’re good enough to go and win this thing’.”
The 2011 NBL Playoffs: what went wrong and then what went right
Lemanis is open about the second game of the finals, where the Breakers travelled to Cairns and were beaten in overtime 85-81.
“I think we played poorly. We certainly had the chance to win the game. The coaching team came out after watching the video and said, ‘well, the good news is that we played terribly.’ We played terribly and still had a shot at winning it, which meant going into the decider, if we played well, we could win it.”
Leadership is vital after losing a game, says Lemanis. It’s at times like the end of that game when the leaders of the team can really make a positive difference.
“CJ Bruton is a great example of a good leader. He’s inspiring and understands what it takes to make teams win. Immediately after the Cairns game, while everyone was a bit depressed in the change rooms, he stood up and said, ‘hey, we’re exactly where we want to be. We worked hard all season to get home-court advantage. So now we’re going home to play game three in the grand final series.’ So we flushed that game down the toilet and moved on.”
“I think that’s something we’ve learnt to do really well now, as a club and a team, is to focus on today and on the next game and forget what’s happened previously. We focus on what we can control today and worry about the future when it arrives. It’s not exciting for the media, but it’s an effective strategy.”
The Breakers went on to win the third and final game 71 – 53 in front of a packed stadium. It’s fair to say the crowd went wild and the team was elated. But Lemanis’ first reaction was relief.
“I went through quite a few different emotions. The first one was definitely relief, which was a weird feeling for me. I’d won one of these championships as a player, and was over the moon after the game, but as a coach it was more a sense of relief for the club and that everyone’s time and effort had been worthwhile. It was great to see everyone who had invested something in the club enjoy the win.
“The boys had been the best in the league all year, but to prove it by winning was also a relief. You don’t get too many opportunities to even try to win it, so to see them achieve what they deserved to achieve was a proud moment.”
Coaching a team with a lot of away games
One common theme of Kiwi teams playing in Australian competitions is the huge amounts of travel involved and the Breakers have clocked up their fair share of frequent flyer miles over the past few years. Lemanis says team management is key on the road.
“Of course there are the obvious challenges of cancelled flights and mucked up bookings, but the single biggest challenge we’ve had to overcome as a club is that mentality that if you lose on the road, it’s OK, because the circumstances are less than ideal. We’ve worked really hard on removing that mentality from our club. We believe that we can travel a long way to play a game and still win. That’s so important.”
Coaching is communication
Lemanis’ coaching career spans almost 20 years, and he’s not planning on slowing down soon. He says his style has evolved over the years and is a far more inclusive coach than the one he was when he started out.
“I used to be much more of a dictator than I am now – these days I involve the team in the decision making process much more than I used to. I still make the calls, because that’s my job, but I work hard to provide opportunities for everyone to have their say.
“Keeping the lines of communication open is important. At the end of the day it’s about helping people be the best they can be and providing the environment for people to thrive – in whatever ways you have to get the most from them, so they can focus on their sport, on enjoying it and getting better at it.
“For me, that’s the most rewarding part of my job – seeing people thrive. A great example of that is Tom Abercrombie. He came back from college in the States and had such a negative time that he was close to quitting. So to see him three years later win MVP, it’s a very satisfying thing. It’s nice to know that maybe I had something to do with that.
Juggling the needs of different players is a challenge for a coach, says Lemanis, but it’s arguably the most important part of the job.
“I know I keep repeating it, but communication is key. You’ve got to give everyone a chance to say their piece. Basketball is absolutely a team sport and we do a lot of stuff together, but as coaches, we also take the opportunity to work with each player on their own to meet their individual challenges and needs.
“Some guys need a kick up the arse, and others need an arm round the shoulder and sometimes they might need both and that’s the art of being a coach – being able to pick those times and give the players what they need.
“If you provide an environment where they know you have their best interests at heart, then you’ll always find a way to get through to them and you’ll always hear what they’re saying if you give them the opportunity to communicate back.”
On the Web
Here’s Close Up‘s look at what it took to get the Breakers to where they are.
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