From the day he was born until he was 14-years-old, Andrew Gaze had a nine-court basketball stadium as his backyard.
His father, Lindsay, was the general manager of the Victorian Basketball Association in Australia and their house was attached to a massive sports facility called Albert Park. “I don’t know a day without basketball because of the environment I was born into,” Andrew says.
The story of Andrew Gaze and his passion for the game began in that stadium and eventually led him to play professionally in four different countries, participate in nine combined Olympic and FIBA tournaments and have an inconceivable NBL career. He is, without question, one of the greatest Australian basketball players ever.
At 6-7, Gaze was big for the guard position and a knockdown shooter. He retired as a seven-time NBL MVP (the trophy is now named after him), 16-time NBL scoring champion (including one season in which he averaged over 44 points per game), and as the all-time leader in points, assists, field goals made, three-pointers made, and free throws made. He also won two NBL titles with the Melbourne Tigers and an NBA title with the San Antonio Spurs. Though he had just two brief stints in the NBA (26 total games), Gaze had several more opportunities to join the League. For various reasons, as he details below, he decided to pass on them.
His greatest honor was being able to represent Australia in international competitions. After a remarkable 16-year run with the national team, Gaze currently stands as the second highest scorer in Olympic history and the third highest in World Cup history.
Since his retirement in 2005, he’s served as a coach (most recently with the NBL’s Sydney Kings) and commentator. SLAM caught up with him at the 2019 World Cup in China, where he was calling games for FIBA, to discuss his journey, the state of basketball in Australia, LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton joining the NBL and more.
SLAM: How would you describe your game?
AG: Slow and unathletic [laughs]. One that relied more on experience and structure… To see how the game is played now, it’s athleticism and a lot of natural ability. I came through an era where I was fortunate that I played with teams and for coaches that had enough structure that I could exploit my skills. I was never athletically gifted or good enough to just go out there and show my talent, I needed a lot more system to help me contribute.
SLAM: Did you have other offers to join the NBA throughout your career? If so, why did you pass up on them?
AG: My boyhood dream was always playing for Australia. The closest I got to knowing about the NBA was having the Converse Larry Bird and Magic Johnson pictures up on my wall. I had a life-size, full-scale picture of Pete Maravich on my wall. Our exposure to the NBA was really limited. Obviously, you know about the players. But we’d get a Sports Illustrated or something that’s three months old and try to learn about the League. We didn’t get to see a lot. It was on television a little bit, but not consistently. So never really got to see a lot. My dad would have friends in the States who would send him out tapes that we would get to see sometimes. But it wasn’t like today where you can just pick up your phone and see a game.
SLAM: Do you ever think about how things would’ve gone if you had moved to the NBA at the peak of your career?
AG: I remember there were times where I had some opportunities to look at programs. Probably the one that stuck out the most was following my time at Seton Hall [Gaze played for Seton Hall during their run to the NCAA Final in 1988-89, averaging 13.6 points and 4.5 rebounds], probably around 1990-91. I remember my dad was really good friends with Dave Gavitt who was the commissioner of the Big East Conference. He went on to be the general manager or somehow involved with the Boston Celtics and he was really keen to get me over there. At that time, I think it was probably a lack of self-belief and a lack of feeling like that was something that was going to be a priority or that that was something where I really had the confidence that I would be able to contribute.
And like I said, when you’re born into a family and environment where your whole being, your whole sense of doing something enormous was representing your country and competing in the Olympic games. As obscene as the money was in the NBA back then, and even now it’s off the charts, the experience is why I would’ve wanted to go, more-so than, Well, this is the NBA. I just didn’t have the same motivation, I guess. I regret nothing, but it’s something that I look back on and perhaps because you get caught up in the narrative of the NBA and what it means today you go, Well, maybe I should have been a little bit more dedicated to that. But I have no regrets. I’ve been blessed and I’m absolutely realistic about the opportunities that I’ve received and how I have no right to be disappointed or regretful of anything because I’ve been given way more than I should’ve ever received. I’m just incredibly grateful for the opportunities I did have.
SLAM: Who were the toughest players you ever matched up against?
AG: Oscar Schmidt was just a freak. Great size, he could shoot the ball from anywhere, and his greatest asset was that he could miss six in a row and it didn’t faze him at all. He had this incredible self-confidence and great ability. And with his size, he was very, very tough to stop. Matching up with Drazen Petrovic was very, very difficult. We learned a lot from those experiences. Toni Kukoc—he was at a younger stage when we got to play against him, but even then, you saw this incredible talent with his size and passing ability. Reggie Miller in the 1996 Olympics. The World Championships when we played in Toronto—Shaq was on that USA team. I think Mark Price was on that team. Dominique Wilkins, too.
SLAM: What are your thoughts on LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton joining the NBL and how do you think it will impact the popularity of the league in Australia?
AG: The popularity is getting stronger. But it is pretty popular [already]. The league has got great recognition. It’s getting better. The marketing of the competition is a whole lot better now than it was a few years ago. Those guys coming through, and it’s not just those young guys. You know, Torrey Craig came through. Terrence Ferguson was a young guy, he came through. There have been many players that have come through the Australian system and gone on to the NBA. If you go back, I think it would’ve been in the 1990s, Doug Overton came out of college, went to Australia and went on to have a long, successful NBA career. And he’s just one example of many who’ve had that experience. Our league right now, it’s great to have the young guys coming through because it’s recognition. One, of the standard of the competition. But two, of the development programs we have in place. You look at the Australian players who are now in the NBA and the systems that we’ve had that have enabled them to have their skills to play at that level. And beyond the NBA, even at the next level down, I think we have over 200 kids at various levels playing college basketball. We got players in Europe playing at a very high level. I think that’s evidence of the development programs… With the guys you’re talking about with RJ and LaMelo, I think that they have respect for the teaching and the coaching that can help them on their journey.
SLAM: What sort of things do NBL programs preach that can be beneficial to guys like LaMelo and RJ?
AG: I think that they will learn team concepts. I know perhaps at the next level that becomes even more significant, but how you can work with the ball and away from the ball is just as important. Understanding team concepts. Because when you start matching extraordinarily elite athlete with extraordinarily elite athlete, then the IQ of the game, the understanding of how you read and react and how you work with your teammates to create opportunities—I think that’s a little bit more prevalent in our league.
What we do is a little different from the college system. I look at a lot of college games these days and I think that they’re a little bit behind in regards to the rules—as far as the shot clock is concerned, as far as borders are concerned. I think that because of the rules, along with other things, there’s attractiveness in coming to Australia, which might provide a better example of what they might receive at the next level.
SLAM: Are there other players in the NBL right now that you think have a future in the NBA?
AG: I think there are many players right now who are more than good enough to play [in the NBA]. A lot of it is being in the right place at the right time with the right program and system. You look at Mitch Creek, for example. He’s good enough. There are a lot of worse players in the NBA than Mitch Creek. You look at Chris Goulding. He could possibly find a home. They’re getting a little older and maybe the opportunity isn’t there for them, but there’s a lot of players either in Europe or around the world that are good enough to play but just need to find the right opportunity with the right system.
Our development programs—there’s a lot of kids coming through right now. There’s a kid that’s two years away from college. He’s only in his second to last year of high school. That’s Josh Giddey. I coached him throughout the juniors. He’s got college programs ringing him up and saying come play for us. And there’s a number of Josh Giddey’s in Australia where they’re so young so there’s still a lot of years to develop, and who knows how they end up turning out. But there are a lot of kids that you look at coming through the ranks that are potential NBA talents.
Alex Squadron is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @asquad510.
Photos via Getty and Zach Samberg.