The Medibank National Junior Classic brings back fond memories for NBL veteran Owen Odigie.
Odigie, a product of both the McKinnon and Dandenong junior associations, completed his sixth season in the NBL this year, his third as a member of Melbourne United.
The 24-year-old appeared in twenty games for United last season – as a starter in eight – adding some much-needed grunt to the high-scoring Melbourne line-up.
Playing in front of a sold-out Hisense Arena is a thrill but it was during his junior days – participating in elite junior tournaments like the Classic – when Odigie truly fell in love with the game.
“I absolutely loved playing basketball growing up,” Odigie said. “I remember playing every single day of the week.
“I started at McKinnon, it was a very small club and I wouldn’t change that for the world. As I got older I got into the state program and ITC, which is now called NITP.
“That definitely started me on the track to becoming a professional, those early mornings, getting up for that and then going to school really helped me become more organised and more driven to what I wanted to achieve.”
Odigie also recalls numerous Queen’s Birthday long weekends spent battling in Australia’s most prestigious junior basketball tournament.
“I really loved the Classic,” Odigie said. “I played in it a few times with my McKinnon teams when nobody expected us to make it or do well but we fought each time and got better.
“I absolutely loved those long weekends and playing with my team.”
A 6-foot-5 small forward with an elite combination of speed, length and athleticism, Odigie spent a number of years at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) – now known as Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence (CoE) – before progressing to the NBL.
He was a standout junior; regularly selected to represent his state while also donning the green and gold at FIBA U17 and U19 World Championships.
“I see them as different stepping-stones,” Odigie said. “Each level I progressed through kind of prepared me for the next one.
“Getting up early twice a week for ITC kind of prepared me for the AIS where I trained every single day of the week, early mornings and late nights.
“That prepared me and helped me step up into a professional team where we would train every day but in a way that was a bit more demanding on the body.
“Looking back, it’s been stepping-stones along the way.”
Another one of those steps, Odigie says, was his participation in tournaments like the Classic, where he got to test himself against the nation’s best.
“Playing against kids from other states which you don’t get to do every week,” Odigie explained. “Being able to see where you’re at, playing against other guys from other states.
“Going back-to-back-to-back and having to fight through fatigue and stuff … it’s all really valuable experience.”
Of course, at this level, there’s more to it than just experience. Elite tournaments like the Classic also represent an opportunity to impress.
“There are always coaches and people around at the Classic and if you play well you get spoken about,” Odigie said. “Tournaments like the Classic can really help your development and getting your name out there.
“It’s one of those places where, as a junior, you can show that you are able to perform on a national scale.”
That means driving your team forwards at every opportunity; displaying dedication, focus and teamwork.
Odigie learnt early that basketball is not all about getting buckets; that getting stops and earning your team extra possessions on the glass are equally important.
His other message is to avoid getting ahead of yourself – a trap young players often fall into when engaging in tournament play.
“Stay in the moment,” Odigie said. “Concentrate on each game as it comes and worry about the next one once the previous game is over.
“As you’re doing that, look after yourself – that’s a big one for me – look after your body.
“I’ve had injuries for quite a while now and looking back at my time as a junior I was pretty healthy so I guess I really took that for granted but it’s never too early to look after your body and stay on top of it all.”
As for parents, Odigie’s advice is simple and straight to the point.
“Let your child play,” he said. “They started playing because they love the game so take it easy on them.
“Enjoy the game, enjoy your child playing and support them as much as you can.”