COURTNEY Belger has enjoyed his time in Perth and at the Kalamunda Eastern Suns so much he’d like to continue to be part of the club’s rise and could see himself and wife Ali Schwagmeyer living out their lives in Australia.
Belger joined Schwagmeyer in Perth for the start of the 2016 SBL season as she began her stint with the Lakeside Lightning on the way to winning the MVP award last year after previously playing under Craig Mansfield as well at the Eastern Suns.
But Belger didn’t have a home in the SBL and didn’t know if he would find one, but following the departure last year at Kalamunda of Italian import Jacopo Marsili, coach Michael Clarke got on the phone to offer Belger that spot.
He jumped at the opportunity and the rest, as they say, is history.
Belger played the last 14 games impressively of last season with the Eastern Suns before going back to Germany to play with FC Schalke and then both club and player were more than happy for him to return to Kalamunda in 2017.
Belger has returned an even better player and a strong leader at the Suns this season feeling right at home with the club, coach and teammates. He is delivering 20.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists a game as one of best all-round players in the SBL.
Given where the Suns were coming from at the start of 2016 with a new coach and vastly new and young playing group, Belger is impressed with their development to have won six games in 2016 and now already six in 2017 with five remaining.
Even though he had a late start due to his German season, the work the Suns were putting in had him excited about what would lie ahead and he’s enjoying seeing the group developing.
“I’m very impressed for the simple fact that it’s really not a lot of just talking, coach has given all the young guys an opportunity to play and they are showing what they can do,” Belger said.
“Everyone on the team has been given a chance and I know they started the pre-season very early. I was in Germany but I knew the work they started even before Christmas so everybody has come back a little stronger and better this year, and with more basketball smarts. It’s been a real blessing to be part of.”
It has been a rollercoaster season still for the Suns who lost their opening five games, won the next three and then lost eight straight.
But the five games since have been tremendous with wins over the Perth Redbacks, Goldfields Giants and South West Slammers, and competitive losses to the Rockingham Flames and Joondalup City Wolves.
Belger feels the Eastern Suns are building something to carry into 2017. But at the same time he knows they need to continue the momentum the last five games including Friday night against the Willetton Tigers at Willetton Basketball Stadium.
“These last five games are really important for us. We just want to make sure that we improve and we did set the goal of winning more games again this year so we want to play for that even if we don’t get to the playoffs,” he said.
“I would hate for us to get to six wins and feel like we have done enough and let it all go to waste. We want to keep moving up. If we put in a bad showing again this week it puts us back to where we were. It’s important for us to keep going the path we’ve been going the last two weeks.
“Last year we were still finding ourselves and I was a new piece halfway through. But this year even though we had some rough instances early, I felt like we were building we just couldn’t get over the hump. Now that we’ve had a couple of wins in-a-row it feels like we are starting to hit our stride.
“Once we got me, Rob and even James altogether we were kind of starting all over again. We did have another rough patch after that, but now I feel like we are building a culture where we can finish strong. Hopefully that gives us momentum to carry us forward into the next season.”
The two wins the past two weeks on the road to the Giants and Slammers, in particular, have shown how far the Suns have come and what they are capable of.
Particularly against Goldfields in Kambalda, Belger had just nine points that night so he was pleased to see so many of his teammates standing up including Ryan Blanchett with a career-high 29 points.
“Those two wins in particular were really big for us. A lot of people try to face guard me and think if they take me out of the game we’ll lose. I played terribly in that Giants game but all the guys really stepped up and we had the lead all night,” Belger said.
“It’s not about just one player on this team, anyone can step up on any night because we are a collective unit at the moment. Then the Bunbury win was a big one, we really gutted it out.
“They scared us early with a bug run, but we weathered the storm and kept doing what we do, and broke them down. We knew they were coming off a back-to-back and their legs might get tired in the fourth, and that’s when we hit our stride and made a run.”
Belger has no question that now being in a second season with the Suns and in the SBL is helping him have the impact that he is.
A first season anywhere is always a learning curve, but now in his second season with these teammates, with Clarke as coach and in the league, he feels more at home and he feels it’s helping him and the team greatly.
“It helps a lot knowing what to expect. This year me and Clarkey have a really good understanding because I know what he’s looking for and he knows what I like to do. He can talk to me like an adult because he knows I’m mature enough to take it,” he said.
“After that Giants game, he flat out told me in the locker room that the team needs better from me and that I need to do more. That was even after we won but that’s the respect level we have and the standard we set for each other.
“I also feel like I’m more of a leader this year having been here last season when I was quiet and didn’t know everybody. Now if I’m on somebody’s case, they know it’s not just the American yelling, it’s me actually caring about helping them get better and to get us on the same page.”
Belger is also enjoying the style that coach Clarke wants to play with and he feels it lets him show his talents to their full potential.
“It’s the first time for me personally where I’ve really just been able to play with the dribble-drive offence and that type of thing where I can put pressure on the rim,” he said.
“I’m used to having to play a more structured system which is OK, but this is much more fun getting to play up and down in the run and gun style. It gives you the chance to beat your man to create the offence and when coach asked me to come back this year, I said yes in a heartbeat because I love playing this way.”
Belger is happy as well to be sharing the playmaking and ball carrying duties with Rob Brandenberg since he arrived after his season in Israel and feels the pair complement one another tremendously.
“Rob’s a big-time playmaker and we can just put the ball in his hands for different stretches. He’s like a microwave where you know if he makes one, the next one’s going in and he can get going,” Belger said.
“He makes my life easier where if a lot of attention is on me, we can let him take over and then if they focus on him, I can have the ball so we work well together. I’ve had a lot of fun sharing the responsibilities and duties with him, and I like playing alongside another guard like that where we can play at a high tempo.”
As for the league itself, Belger is noticing that it’s a lot different than Germany in terms of game style but he enjoys the faster tempo and less structured offences that he gets to strut his stuff in at Kalamunda.
“The SBL is a pretty good league with a lot of strong imports and even good Australian people. It’s a very fast league with a lot of run and gun style, where in Germany it’s a little slower and the systems are a bit more structured and made for the bigger guys,” he said.
“The physicality can weigh on you over there but here I might be doing that a bit too much and seem to be getting called for too many offensive fouls and then not getting calls the other way, so I think that takes time to get used to. But it’s a well-respected league and I’m enjoying being part of it.”
Belger’s short-term plans are to return to Germany and while nothing has been locked away, he would be more than open to the prospect of a third season at the Eastern Suns.
“My wife is here and I would really like to come back for a third season if they will allow me to. I’d like to enjoy my summers here with her working out all the time and getting ready for the next season,” he said.
“I’m going back to Germany again with the same coach. He wants me to keep developing with him and he’s an old school coach so I decided to go back there and try to round out my game. He wants to allow me to grow and you need a coach who will allow you to grow your game.”
Being able to play in the same league, city and country as his wife is certainly an opportunity that Belger is enjoying.
It worked out before previously in Germany and the past two years in Perth have gone so well that the couple would like to settle here, get their permanent residency and even remain living here once their playing days are done.
“We had that once before in Germany and that was one of my better years. Now to do it here is amazing. Last year I didn’t have a team at the start, but I got blessed to play here. Now we can go to each other’s games and everything. It’s like a dream come true and an ideal situation,” Belger said.
“Ali would like to get her permanent residency here and once she gets hers, I would like for her to sponsor me and I might be able to do it as well. Then we will pretty much stay here and live our lives. This is a great place to live. I really enjoy the climate and the way people treat you and everything.
“Germany’s nice, but I wouldn’t want to be there in the winter time for too long, especially compared to the winter here. This is the kind of climate and atmosphere I want to be around. I will still go home to visit here and there, but I don’t feel like I need to go back there to live. I’ll go back and see my family for a month or two but that’s enough really.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)