Joel Wagner | 350 SBL Games
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Joel Wagner | 350 SBL Games

HE certainly doesn’t go searching for the spotlight but by quietly going about his business, Joel Wagner has become one of the greatest SBL stalwarts and now as he reaches 350 games with the Perth Redbacks he is on the verge of being the all-time assists leader.

It has been a remarkable journey for Wagner with the Redbacks and he wouldn’t have wanted to do it anywhere else.

He made his SBL debut in 2004 and had already spent a few years playing WABL for the Redbacks by that point, and he has remained a key part of the team in the league ever since.

Along the way, Wagner has now amassed 349 games in the SBL to be about to become the second Redbacks player to ever reach 350 matches when he leads his team into battle against the Lakeside Lightning this Friday night at Belmont Oasis.

Over the course of those 349 games, Wagner has now dished out 2723 assists and is 51 away from surpassing Troy Clarke to become the league’s all-time leader in that category which would be a remarkable accomplishment for someone so selfless, humble and unobtrusive.

All things going well, within the next month or so Wagner should become the league’s all-time assists leader, but he’s just grateful for the players he’s had to pass to over the journey.

“I feel very lucky for the players I’ve had the chance to pass the ball to over my career,” Wagner said.

“Back when I was very quick as a young fella I had a guy like Ryan Neill to pass too and I would still say he is the best shooter that I’ve seen in this competition, and the best guy at creating space for his own shot. Then there was Jarrad Prior as well who I played side by side with for a long time.

“I feel very lucky to have had guys like that receiving and sharing the basketball with. Throughout the years I’ve played with great imports too and people who were great receivers as well, there’s too many to name. I just feel really lucky with the good teams I’ve played on over the years.”

Along the way he was captain of the 2017 championship winning team, he won the league’s Most Improved Player award in 2007, and has twice been named the All-Star Starting Five point guard.

But Wagner couldn’t think of life without playing with the Redbacks and he couldn’t be prouder to now reach the 350-game milestone.

“I guess 350 games is a lot to play and I feel pretty lucky to have been chosen to play in the senior side 350 times,” Wagner said.

“It’s not something that you think about too much throughout the journey, but some people grow up wanting to play SBL basketball and at a high level but don’t get the opportunity to do it.

“So I’m pretty grateful that I’ve been able to play that many games and to do it at one club is pretty awesome, especially given that when I first played in 2004 I had guys like Matty Earp and Jamie Baker in front of me.

“They were the guys I really looked up to and they did similar things. It’s crazy to think I’ve played 350 games now and I still feel pretty good believe it or not.”

Wagner grew up wanting to play for the Redbacks and if ever got the chance to go as far as the NBL that would be a bonus.

But pulling on the Redbacks singlet was what he aimed for from even before he reached double-figures in age and now the fact that he has had such a decorated career at the one club is something he is so proud to be able to hang his hat on.

“I’m extremely proud to be a one club player. I remember looking up to guys like Jamie Baker and Matty Earp as a young guy, and even some of the imports I remember coming down to watch us play in WABL games,” he said.

“I remember those days and I’ve played all my domestic basketball with the club as well, and one thing we’ve done well is that we have embraced our history.

“I’ve always loved that part of it and at every WABL breakfast the life members are there to talk about the 55-year history of the club and that’s really important to pay respects to that history which made the club what it is today. I’m really proud to still represent the Redbacks.”

Having started his junior career aged nine and then representing the Redbacks from the under-12s in WABL, Wagner has always bled red for the club. He did get his opportunity to debut earlier than expected aged just 15, but it’s something he’ll never forget.

“I still remember my debut pretty well actually. It was against Willetton and I didn’t know if I was actually going to be playing or not until halfway through the warmup because we had someone coming back on a plane and I was the back up, back up, back up point guard,” he said.

“I ended up playing and got chucked into the game and I remember on my first play I found Jamie Baker for a backdoor cut for my first assist, and I was so pumped with that and to get out there to have an impact straightaway.

“Then I quickly came back to reality when one of their shooting guards starting to kick my butt at the other end of the floor. But it was crazy to be that young and out there with grown men and guys that had played in the NBL and been greats of the SBL.”

The undoubted highlight of Wagner’s career is captaining the Redbacks to the 2017 championship and while it lived up to everything he dreamed it would, it’s a bit of a blur to him now when he reflects.

“Obviously it meant the world to me in terms of basketball. What everyone wants to do is be the winners at the end of the season and we’d been close a few times with teams that we thought were real contenders, but it didn’t happen,” Wagner said.

“To have that pain in those years and then be top of the podium at the end of the season in 2017 was unbelievable. That was for the club and supporters as well. We’re not a club that has tons of money or our own stadium and those sort of things, so for us to be at the top at the end of the season was unbelievable.

“It certainly did live up to what you would hope but if I’m honest, looking back on it that all seems like a bit of a blur especially that Grand Final night. It seems a bit surreal still to think back at it and you look back on photos and you see things you can’t remember happening. I was so focused on the game that I feel like it actually took me a while to come down from it and start thinking straight again.”

Wagner is also an NBL championship winner when he was a development player back in 2010. That’s something he was proud to be part of as well and he’ll always treasure the opportunity provided to him by coach Rob Beveridge and then at the Sydney Kings the following season.

His NBL career might have not lasted as long as he hoped, but he still will always get to say he played in the league and showed that he could certainly play at the level particularly in that stint at the Kings.

“You still feel a part of it but the reality is I was a development player and I played a couple of minutes that whole season,” he said.

“As much as you are pushing guys at training and all that sort of stuff, it is a lot different than being the captain of a team in the SBL that wins a championship. It’s far different really, I don’t know how to explain it. At the end of the day, you still have the title as an NBL champion and there is a ring sitting at home in my trophy cabinet which is awesome.

“I’m proud that I got to represent WA and the Wildcats as a development player to start with. I was the right place at the right time with Rob Beveridge and to get the call up right at the start of the season the following year to go to Sydney was a dream come true.

“I was on a plane within 24 hours of getting the phone call and I played my first game that next week, and did really well and they signed me for the rest of the season. It was a bit of a whirlwind and it didn’t last as long as I was hoping, but I’m still very proud that I got to play at the highest level in this country.”

Wagner’s body is still sound and his mind is still willing, but finding the time required to still play basketball at the standard he has set for 15 years is a challenge with family, work and study all thrown in.

That’s why he doesn’t know how long he’ll keep playing for but he isn’t feeling any urgent pull to retire at the moment.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you how it’s going to pan out in the future. It’s definitely a season by season thing at the moment,” he said.

“The body still feels really good and I still love playing basketball, and playing basketball for the Perth Redbacks. I’ll just keep making each decision at the end of each year and the start of pre-season.”

Wagner would be lying if he said home life is easy with the challenges of making everything work with completing his teaching degree, his wife’s work, the children basketball and anything else life throws at them.

But he couldn’t be prouder to have Katie and their children to go through it all with and he’s looking forward to getting stuck into being a full-time primary school teacher to start building his career too.

“It has its challenges I’m not going to lie but you make it work. My family and I make it work the best we can and I guess it just means I don’t get the chance to go and shootaround as much as I used to,” Wagner said.

“I’m spending a lot of time at home looking after the kids while still studying at uni as well. It’s not about balance because there’s no such thing in our situation, but we just make it work as we go. I’m extremely proud to be a father now.

“It’s still surreal that people think I’m mature enough to be a father sometimes because I still feel pretty young at heart, but when you get home especially after a tough game you quickly come back to earth that basketball is just a game and your biggest job is to raise your kids and be there for your partner.

“And in terms of teaching, I’ve always enjoyed working with kids whether it’s coaching or running clinics or anything like that. Teaching is a profession I’ve chosen to go down the line of and I’m really looking forward to finishing my studies and getting into it fully.”

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