Dean Vickerman and the Classic

WHETHER as player or coach, Melbourne United head coach Dean Vickerman has plenty of fond memories of the National Junior Classic.

It’s something he’d look forward to all year whether suiting up or standing on the sideline to coach the next generation of basketball rising stars. For Vickerman, it was the biggest opportunity of the year and he wanted to make sure he didn’t leave the Classic wondering what if.

It’s an important step to clasp your opportunity and make a name for yourself on one of the biggest junior stages.

You can never dismiss or downplay basketball at any level, because you never know what opportunities you can generate from even the smallest chance. Even now as a multiple NBL championship winning coach and a former NBL player, Vickerman speaks fondly of his time on both sides of his game at the Classic.

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There is something about heading to the Classic that ignites passion throughout our community. The increased standard, relishing those pressure moments in the spotlight and playing off against

“I loved it – it was one of those tournaments that you had Shane Heal a couple of age groups above me – to play your game and then get the opportunity to go off and watch stars in the age groups above you was great,” Vickerman said. “It is so highly rated and so tough to get into just to start with and you know every game is going to be a really competitive game as well.”

Playing for Melbourne Tigers, Vickerman remembered the intensity and hard-work he put in before the tournament just as much as suiting up and making an impact in Tigers’ line-ups.

He believes this level of preparation is the only way to get through a gruelling campaign like the Classic and it puts players in the best stead for future ambitions of playing state representative basketball.

“As a player I always remember – you go through the process of qualification to get there, you know that it’s coming up – so I always targeted that one to be at my peak physical performance for that tournament,” Vickerman said. “Certainly there was a focus for the three-or-four weeks leading up to the tournament where I would go and get those extra shots. I would go down to the stadium after-school and make my 300 or 400 – just doing that extra work to go ahead and prepare.

“I hope the players have gone away and prepared themselves and presented themselves in the best possible shape – you’ve still got to deal with your school and different things going on there at the time but it’s important to be ready.”

His favourite memory comes as a coach as he helped get the Geelong Supercats under-12 boys into the big show in 1996 – which remains a big achievement for any country association. As far as coaching achievements went for him back then, before the NBL successes started piling in, he was thrilled to knock over one of Ken Watson’s sides in a semi-final and let his boys have a shot at the Classic title.

“My best memory was early on when they introduced the under-12s in the late 90s and I coached in about 1996 and Frankston ended up winning the championships but our Geelong under-12 team,” Vickerman said. “I didn’t think we were good enough to actually compete but we got through and beat Ken Watson’s team in the semi-finals and at that time for me was one of my greatest coaching victories.

“To beat Ken Watson in that semi-final and then we got knocked off by (Ryan) Broekhoff’s Frankston under-12s in the grand final.

“From the coaching point of view to get a chance to coach against former Australian coaches and some great players – Steve deLaveaga was coach of Bendigo at the time – to have the opportunity to see both sides of it and see the passion the kids played with in that tournament week was great.”

The Classic also forces players and coaches to reach for new heights and attain previously impossible standards. It’s the only way to shine in this arena and if you want to go on to represent Victoria or make a name for yourself in the elite leagues, this is a foundational moment you can’t underestimate.

“As far as preparation tournaments go for you to try and be a state coach or state player, to me it’s the best,” Vickerman said. “It helps get you ready, it tells you if you’re able to compete with other states, different styles and that can you do it over the course of a weekend with limited preparation time.

“I think it’s a lot about managing from game to game and to get yourself up.

“It’s a step on the pathway towards achieving state representation and puts you on that right platform to get the confidence. It lets you know that you’re ready to go to the next step.

“Either in a career playing or coaching, the Classic helps identity yourself against the elite at that level – it’s just fun to see how players or how as a coach how you respond to that.

“Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve?

“Do you go back and do it better next year?

“Did you stand up and win the whole thing and where does that take you from there?

“It’s a great measuring stick.”

Every opportunity forms the player and the coach you will be at the elite level and Vickerman’s journey to the top is full of experiences earned at every step in the Australian basketball landscape. Reaching one of those high points this year, Vickerman returned home to Victoria to help take Melbourne United to its maiden NBL title.

It was a year that just clicked together as Vickerman and the roster toiled to take the impressive grand final series over Adelaide following a thrilling 2017/18 season.

“You hope and dream in your first season that you can achieve that kind of goal – we were fortunate enough to tick a lot of things off,” Vickerman said. “We won the pre-season tournament. We had a game against an NBA club where we had a shot to win it and it gave us great confidence to win the regular season and sweep the Breakers – which was a big hurdle for us.

“They were a club that knocked us off and then to go through a magnificent grand final series where home court advantage was so important and to finally raise the first trophy for United… being a Victorian myself gave it that little bit extra to win it at home.”

The intensity and elite standard of the NBL Grand Final Series ignited the general public’s interest in basketball. It was a series that sparked attention and brought a lot of fans into the mix for watching United take home the trophy.

“This was the first time I’d ever been all the way through a five-game series,” Vickerman said. “To go through the back-and-forth and play a team like Adelaide, where the style was so fast and the way we were playing was a little faster, we were both into the defence but had high scores as well so it was an attractive style.

“There was drama to the series and allowed people from outside of the basketball fraternity as well to enjoy it – all in all it was just a fantastic series and a fantastic season.”

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