NIK Lackovic just can’t come up with enough superlatives to sum up his admiration for captain Joel Wagner ahead of his 300th SBL game but it’s a player like him that makes him so desperate to want to coach the Perth Redbacks to a drought breaking championship.
Wagner will captain the Redbacks against East Perth at Morley Sport and Recreation Centre in his 300th SBL game on Saturday with his team gearing up for another playoff run in an attempt to win the club’s first championship since 1997.
The 29-year-old has now been a standout point guard who takes great care of the ball, runs his team’s offence and is a great distributor with the ability to score when required and defend strongly making him a standout performer.
But it’s his leadership and dedication to the club, his team and his own game that makes Lackovic have such strong admiration for the man he saw first play with the Redbacks at SBL level as a 16-year-old.
Now he celebrates his 300th game on Saturday night in the final round of the 2017 regular season and Lackovic can’t hide just how much he thinks of the man who was a natural leader from the moment he first pulled on a Redbacks uniform.
He had a stint at the Perth Wildcats along the way taking part in the 2010 championship and he also more than held his own with the Sydney Kings showing he was more than able to play at NBL level, but it’s in the SBL with the Redbacks that he will leave quite a legacy.
There’s no sign of him slowing either with Lackovic especially pleased with how he led the Redbacks back into the top four a fortnight ago with the big wins over the Willetton Tigers and Geraldton Buccaneers.
While a coach has the job to motivate his players, Lackovic has no trouble admitting it’s a player like Wagner who motivates him.
“I don’t know where to start with Joel, he’s just a tremendous human being and I love him. He comes ready to practice and I know his body hurts at certain times, but he is selfless and sets the standard in work rate,” Lackovic said.
“He bleeds for this club and there’s no one more that I would love to try and have some serious success for than him. It’s guys like him who motivates me each and every day to drive to practice, prepare well and come to training to make sure that we give ourselves the best opportunity to succeed.
“He deserves all the success that he gets because he is a true example of what a clubman is and should be. The guys all love him, he competes hard and I thought his leadership especially in those wins over Willetton and Geraldton was exceptional, and as good as I’ve ever seen.”
Few people are better placed than Lackovic to know where Wagner sits in terms of all-time great point guards, players and leaders with the Redbacks.
Lackovic himself is a championship-winning guard from 1997 and has now been a long-term coach overseeing Wagner’s career, and he has no doubt what he has now done for 299 games will stack up against anyone in the history of the Redbacks.
“We’ve had some exceptional imports who have come out here and played in short stints and there have been some talented players who have come and had success over a year or two, but Joel has stuck through thick and thin to be what this club has been about,” he said.
“He’s taken on so many different roles, he has sacrificed at so many different times and his work rate is as good as I’ve ever seen on anyone. In terms of consistency of effort and work rate, I rate him as the best that this club has had.
“Over the course of 300 games, he has been the benchmark of being a selfless point guard running the ship and playing hard. The guy just loves to play defence as well and he always competes and put his body on the line.
“You can’t put those things on the stats sheet and he sets the standard of what we do at practice and then on the floor on game night. He is a special player and I remember giving him his first game as a 16-year-old so I’m so proud of him. He has turned into an unbelievable father and person for us as a club.”
Lackovic and Wagner are two people over the history of the Redbacks who are among those with the strongest ties and legacy to the club. While Lackovic got to taste championship glory in 1997 and now is attempting to achieve the rare feat of winning a title as a coach as well.
As much as that would give him a degree of personal satisfaction, it’s the pride he would take in seeing the club get the reward for their continued hard work over the past 20 years that he would put above any individual glory.
And for players like Wagner, Michael Vigor and Ben Smith who have worked tirelessly over long and decorated careers for the chance to call themselves SBL championship winners with the Redbacks is what Lackovic would take the most satisfaction from.
“It’s the ultimate goal of making sure that it’s the reward at the end of the tunnel when you’ve done enough work to deserve it. It means you have sacrificed, you have put in commitment and that you’ve prepared well enough,” Lackovic said.
“There are so many teams who deserve the opportunity to win this thing and we sat down last week to discuss this six-week block to close out the season and then to re-establish our values for the playoffs to try and get us to that point. For me I would love just for the club to be able to taste that success.
“It’s been 20 years since the last time we did that and I remember that night pretty vividly because I was part of it as a player out on the floor. To allow guys like Joel and Mike, in particular, and Ben Smith would be really special to me.
“Then for the club itself and some of the people who have committed to building this thing over the last four or five years that I’ve been here, it would be great and a dream come true to be honest.
“I could know that I’ve left the players, the club and the place in a good spot to know we’ve given ourselves an opportunity to win it. But there’s a lot that needs to happen and go right between now and then before we can think about that. For now all we are worried about is East Perth this week and then one round at a time.”
Photo by Belinda Pike (Croc Photography)