STEPHEN Black has coached Willetton Tigers teams to the brink of a Grand Final already in the SBL but never has he been prouder of his group than right now with everything they’ve already had thrown at them in 2019.
On the back of his outstanding playing career where he was one of the best NBL point guards over the course of his dual championship-winning 298-game career, it’s no surprise that Black has moved into coaching.
He replaced his dad Alan midway through the 2016 season and has done a tremendous job since taking the Tigers to the semi finals that year before losing in three games in a terrific series to the Joondalup Wolves.
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They were then the dominant regular season team in 2017 going on to win the regular season championship but they couldn’t quite reach the Grand Final, losing in the semi finals to the eventual champion Perth Redbacks.
The Tigers then did a good job to again reach the playoffs in 2018, finishing the regular season in seventh spot, before bowing out at the hands of the Wolfpack once more.
So Black has already proven over the past three years he has the ability as a coach to put his team around the mark to be a championship contender, but in 2019 he has certainly had more challenges thrown his way than ever before.
Already Willetton has had to make an import change with Marcanvis Hymon replaced by Chris Galbreath, with the latter making a tremendous impact to be instrumental in the Tigers getting on a roll.
Willetton was also without captain Andrew Black for the first seven games of the season while only Damien Scott, Mo Barrow and Lakeside recruit Michael Garbellini have played every game so far.
Willetton started the season losing nine of their opening 13 matches but things started to turn a month ago with a two-point win over East Perth. They then upset both Warwick Senators and Rockingham Flames.
Then following a narrow defeat at home to Geraldton, the Tigers have backed up their good form even in the absence of Galbreath beating the Cougars and Redbacks to break into the top eight at 9-10 ahead of this Saturday night’s road trip to Geraldton.
Following last Friday night’s win over the Redbacks at Belmont Oasis which needed Scott Elder to play through injury and youngsters Dylan Hampson and Connor Mincherton to play pivotal roles they’re perhaps not ready for, Black couldn’t hold back how proud he was.
“The talk in the changerooms is that we’ve just put our destiny in our own hands. The key to that is that there’s still a lot more to do but at least we’ve put it in our own hands and if we can keep working and playing like we have been, we’ll be a chance,” Black said.
“I’m just so proud of this win. This was the culmination of all the resilience that they’ve shown for the last six weeks. To be able to put it together undermanned with everyone chipping and in particular the younger guys, I’m just so proud of what they’re doing.”
It’s fair to say Black has had more thrown at him in this half a season of coaching already than in the previous three years, but he’s clearly risen to the challenge to have the Tigers as one of the form teams of the competition despite still being undermanned and undersized.
He has been up for every challenge that has come his way so far in 2019 and while certainly has been tough, he’d also describe it as rewarding.
“You should learn every year that you are coaching, if you stop learning that’s when you should be concerned. You should learn how to deal with those situations if you get in them again hopefully have reflected on what you did, and whether it worked or didn’t,” he said.
“I think this year that it has been rewarding because when you are really struggling you look at everything you are doing, you review it all and you question what you should or shouldn’t be doing.
“You try to work out what the best way to crack this group is because each one is completely different.
“You need to be able to connect with what works for them and I feel comfortable that we’ve reached a point where we’re connecting with each other and are putting ourselves in good positions.
“That’s going to be a continual process. We need to keep getting better and find those buttons to push. But I would say that it has been a tough but rewarding year so far.”
It was no coincidence that the spark to Willetton turning its season around was helped with the arrival of Galbreath to provide some size, quality and experience to the frontcourt.
While the Tigers lost their first two games with him in the line-up to Perth and Joondalup, they then went on a three-game winning streak and Black couldn’t have been happier with what he brought to the group.
But then he suffered a broken bone in his foot in the win over the Cougars and is a question mark over being able to return this season. However, Black will persevere and hope that he can still make it back and obviously the longer the Tigers’ season goes, the better the chance of that is.
“Chris not only from a talent perspective, but more from his force of personality has really been infectious for us since he arrived. He’s had an impact on and off the court and he has really helped our structure a little bit,” Black said.
“But by the same token, he was able to kickstart that passion and talk and enthusiasm which the other guys have been able to pick up and run with it. It’s now really evident in parts of our game even when he’s not there.
“We can’t get away with being this small all the time and we have some guys who are obviously coming back, and hopefully Chris is one of those guys who can eventually get back for us.
“As far as I’m concerned, we just hope that we can keep putting out performances like that to do everything we can to put ourselves in a position so he can make it back potentially and be there for us later in the season.
“If we keep playing that hard and play together like we have been, then we can match it with most of the teams in the league.”
The Tigers also sorely missed captain Andrew Black for the opening seven games of the season and his leadership, guidance and direction he provides to a young group that is quiet has been massive upon his return.
Even new Tigers arrivals this year in Hussey and Barrow aren’t really vocal leaders and while Scott’s leadership is evident, he’s not exactly a loud character as well.
So Black is delighted to have his captain and brother back out there to lead from the front.
“He’s our captain for a reason and he’s our most vocal player in a team of guys who are very quiet. His ability to bring the communication out of others and to be a vocal leader, and also with the poise that he has as a player is important,” he said.
“Over the last couple of years he’s really shown himself to be a quality SBL player and someone who is able to just take that breath, absorb what’s happening and make a good decision. We missed him greatly at the start of the year and it’s been fun to have him back out there.”
While it has been a challenging year in terms of SBL season at Willetton so far in 2019, Black will certainly remember it more for his marriage to Deanna Smith, now Black, back over the Easter long weekend.
The coaching couple even got to enjoy a rare weekend together last week with the Perry Lakes Hawks having the bye and Willetton having Saturday night off following the win over the Redbacks on Friday.
“Married life is going great. The weekend was a rare one during the season where we had it to ourselves after our game on the Friday night so we were very excited about that,” Black said.
“That’s a rarity in our house. And to go into that with a win, I would have been awful company if we had lost but now she’s actually going to hopefully see a semi nice side of me.”