Trevor Gleeson grew up in west Warrnambool as a basketball-mad kid. Now he's preparing as an assistant coach in the NBA. JUSTINE McCULLAGH-BEASY spoke to him about his rise to the world's top league.
TREVOR Gleeson walks into his new office in Toronto Raptors' headquarters, sits down and looks up.
Adorning the wall is a framed Perth Wildcats' jersey, his surname emblazoned on the back.
It was a special gift from his new club, recognising the impact his former club had on shaping him as a basketball coach.
Five NBL championships in eight seasons ultimately earned Warrnambool-raised Gleeson an assistant coaching contract in the biggest league in the world, the NBA.
The sentimental addition to his office gave Gleeson a sense of belonging.
"It was a really cool gift, just to walk in there and see that," Gleeson told The Standard from his new Canadian base.
"Perth has a great culture and this seems to me straight away that they value people too."
It took a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prise Gleeson out of Western Australia.
Perth had become his base. Wife Dawn and children Taj, 13, and Shae, 11, had established connections and the Wildcats - the most successful club in the NBL - were a championship contender year in, year out.
His investment in the Wildcats is evident. He still refers to the team as "we".
"We challenged for a championship last year and I think we can challenge for a championship again next season," Gleeson said.
"I wouldn't have gone if it wasn't the NBA.
"I've had job offers in Europe and Asia before, on better financial terms than I was on in Perth, but I've always turned them down because Perth was where we were raising my family and it was a great situation where I got to coach basketball every day.
"The organisation was great, the owner Jack Bendat was fantastic and the only job I would've left for was the NBA and I was very fortunate to get a job at the Raptors."
Gleeson arrived in the United States six weeks ago.
In between workouts, training camps and the NBA Summer League, there's been little time for his ascent from basketball-mad Warrnambool schoolkid to Raptors' assistant to hit home.
The season tips off in October - 82 games, including 41 on the road, form a jam-packed schedule.
"It is kind of crazy. In the month of November we have 10 away games and then five games at home," Gleeson said.
"In 30 days you've got 15 games. You are going to go through patches where it's just plane, game, plane, game.
"Last time I coached over here (at Sioux Falls Skyforce in the G-League) the most games was 64 in a season and you really only knew it was game day, travel day or practice day.
"I'd assume it would be very similar to that."
It's lucky Gleeson is used to spending countless hours in the air.
Perth travelled regularly and endured the longest flights in the competition.
"The good thing is it's not commercial, it's chartered and you can pick the time you want to go," he said of the NBA.
"Being over here on the East Coast, we're not far away from New York, Boston, Philly, Detroit.
"It's a shorter flight compared to Perth where you're on the flight for a minimum of 3.5 or four hours, if not five hours."
Gleeson knows his chance in the NBA has stemmed from the NBL's revival.
Chief executive officer Larry Kestelman took charge of the Australian-based competition in 2015 and has overseen TV broadcast deals, the implementation of the Next Stars program, which saw LaMelo Ball suit up for Illawarra Hawks before being drafted at pick three, and expansion with South East Melbourne Phoenix and Tasmania JackJumpers joining.
"People (in America) used to ask 'what's the NBL like?'," Gleeson said.
"Now they can name every team, every city, every player, who is coaching where.
"It is really on the radar of basketball.
"I kept on saying to our young kids 'if you're good enough, the NBA is watching' and hopefully that transfers to the coaches as well because there's a lot of great coaches in the NBL who could transfer skills over to this level."
Gleeson wants to showcase his own skills as a game-day tactician at Toronto.
The 53-year-old believes 2019 championship-winning coach Nick Nurse will allow him to thrive.
"It is the one thing that got me the coach over here with Nick - he said 'I have workouts guys, I have scouts, what I want is to exploit other teams' weaknesses," he said.
"I am excited to do that because Coach Nurse is very open to ideas and he's not set in concrete.
"He wants to push the envelope. It breeds new ideas and breeds creativity.
"To be in that kind of environment in the top league in the world is a dream come true."
Nurse - the 2020 NBA coach of the year - wants to expose his assistants to a variety of roles too. They won't be pigeon-holed.
"Our roles will change, we won't just be coaching offence or defence," Gleeson said.
"We'll be changing every 10 games. His thought is it improves your coaching skills and gets you ready to be a head coach.
"One block of games we'll be concentrating on defence, another block of games it will be offence and another block of games it will be special teams.
"We'll rotate those around and see where we land."
Gleeson, whose resume includes Olympic Games and world championships, is, like most people, a fan at heart.
The first time he coaches against the NBA's elite will be special, as well as against the Australian contingent including Patty Mills and Joe Ingles.
"You look at the schedule that comes out and you look at when Steph Curry and Lebron James' games are on and the same with Brooklyn and Kevin Durant," he said.
"You get to see them up close and how quick and fast they are, the skill level they have and just how tall they are.
"You stand next to them and you think 'oh my god'.
"You're seeing these legends and you think they're about six-foot-six and they're 6'9, 6'10.
"It will be good to try and put some schemes in place to beat these guys."
Everything in the NBA in big - the players, the hype, the money, the endorsements.
It's a world away from the west Warrnambool commission home Gleeson grew up in with mum Margaret and siblings Anthony, Colin, Shane and Annie.
"It is mind-boggling the pay scales. (Compared to) the NBL you'd put a couple of extra zeros on the end of it, maybe two or three zeros," Gleeson said.
"They are nice additions but as soon as you walk into the gym everybody is the same and you get to work to try and improve."
But there will be perks.
"Hopefully I might be able to get into a passenger seat of a nice Ferrarri or Maserati," he said cheekily.
"Even when you look down the sidelines (rapper) Drake is over there, he is the number one ticket-holder."
Toronto Raptors start their 2021-22 season against Washington Wizards at home on October 20.
It will be a homecoming at their 16,000-seat stadium after the COVID-19 pandemic forced them out of Canada last season.
"Toronto last year played in Tampa because there was no international travel so they haven't played here (for a long time)," Gleeson said.
"They tell me when we play here it will be our first home game in 600 days.
"It is going to be a really big build up."
Gleeson, who flew to Los Angeles from Sydney at the start of August on an aeroplane with just 22 people, said Canada opened its international borders to vaccinated travellers recently.
He knows to expect phone calls from those back home when Australia opens its international borders.
"I just got off the phone to Anthony Haberfield," he said of his long-time mate.
"They can't wait until the borders open up so they can come out and watch a game.
"A lot of friends have said that so I just hope they don't all come at once and want tickets at the same time."
Gleeson's immediate family will join him in Canada after his children finish the school year.
They wanted Shae to complete her primary schooling before packing up and moving halfway across the world.
Toronto, "a young, multicultural, friendly city", will become their new base.
"The best thing is the modern technology, Facetime and Whatsapp, and I talk to them three or four times a week," Gleeson said.
"There's still no substitution for a cuddle from your kids and family. Hopefully this is a small sacrifice for bigger rewards down the track."
Gleeson knows Australia will always be home even for wife Dawn, who hails from South Dakota.
"She keeps on saying she's Australian and says 'how am I going to tell people in Canada that I'm Australian with an American accent'," he laughed.
"Australia will always be home, without a question.
"Who knows what is down the track, I could be here for one year, for 10 years or 20 years but I still plan to be back home (eventually)."
Our journalists work hard to provide local, up-to-date news to the community. This is how you can access our trusted content:
- Bookmark https://www.standard.net.au/
- Make sure you are signed up for our breaking and regular headlines
- and newsletters.
- Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.
- Tap here to open our Google News page.
- Join our Courts and Crime Facebook group and our dedicated Sport Facebook group