AARON Ralph needs no reminding of the playoff heartbreak he’s suffered during his SBL career that is showing no signs of slowing down despite approaching 400 games and he’s still not afraid to dream of that ultimate prize while remaining focused on the job at hand.
Ralph and the Geraldton Buccaneers now turn their focus to a quarter-final deciding Game 3 this Sunday from noon against the Warwick Senators with both teams having so far won on the opposition’s home floor to get to this point as they fight for the right to take on Lakeside.
It has been quite the remarkable career that Ralph has put together with the now 30-year-old growing up in Geraldton, making his SBL debut with the Buccs as a 17-year-old back in 2006.
He has been a mainstay ever since and across his 394 games, he now sits second all-time in three-pointers made in SBL history, making 892 of them to only be behind Ryan Neill who dropped 1097 of them for both the Cockburn Cougars and Perth Redbacks.
Ralph is also top-20 now in all-time scoring and sits third in that category for the Buccs to be only behind Greg Brown (8261) and Dan Hunt (6471) with his 4611 career points.
His other numbers are outstanding as well and across his career to date he’s amassed 2072 rebounds, 311 steals, 236 blocked shots, 408 assists, 465 free-throws made and 1630 field goals made – all right up there near the top of each category in the history of the Buccaneers.
Anyone who knows Ralph and has watched him play knows he’s not a player to be judged by the numbers. He could very well be the most competitive person to ever step onto an SBL court and he might very well have talked more than anybody while out there as well.
But that’s remarkable competitiveness and passion that has made him such a big-time player for Buccs and the number of those 892 three-pointers that were hit in clutch moments would be immeasurable.
That has continued as he approaches 400 games too and he even hit the dagger three to clinch Game 1 of the quarter finals at Warwick Stadium against the Senators last Saturday night.
But now all his attention is on helping the Buccs win Game 3 on Sunday afternoon as he attempts to get one step closer to that championship dream that so far has only meant heartbreak with his career full of teams reaching the playoffs, looking title threats and losing at some point in the finals.
Given Ralph’s whole career now has seen him be part of Geraldton teams good enough to compete for a title but have come up short either in the first or second rounds while there was the one Grand Final thrown in there against the East Perth Eagles in 2014.
But while he’s still playing, the motivation to try to break through and bring a second championship to Geraldton on top of triumph in 2000 will drive Ralph on.
It would mean everything for what he’s been through and especially to share it with Mat Wundenberg, and while he can dream of it, he knows the only way it will remain possible is if they focus on the job at hand.
“Words can’t really describe how much it means to us, especially me and Maty for having been there so long,” Ralph said.
“We just have to put our all into it and play as hard as we can, and hopefully the results take care of themselves if we do that. But we know that if we play 100 per cent on each possession I’m sure we’ll be fine.
“You always have to dream but there’s that old cliché that you take it one game at a time and we can’t think any other way.
“We’ve done that for the last couple of years and it hasn’t sort of helped, but that is what we play for and that’s what we come on road trips for, and it’s what we sacrifice so much for. You have to dream a little bit about that, but you can’t let it occupy your mind too much. Hopefully it comes true for us though.”
It feels like Ralph should be older than 30 given how much basketball he’s played with the Buccs, but the fact that he started as a 17-year-old clouds that there’s no reason at all he doesn’t have years left, and hundreds more games left in him, should his body hold up and his desire remain there.
His game remains at a high level right now no matter what role he’s asked to play and ultimately, it’s that competitiveness that infiltrates every part of his life that will keep him going strong.
“I just keep playing and don’t think too much about it. It’s the style I’ve always played and I’ll continue to play the same way,” he said.
“I just don’t know any other way aside from coming out and playing hard. I’ve been pretty blessed that I haven’t had too many serious injuries and I just want to keep playing and playing until my body says it’s enough I guess.
“I’ve been competitive since I was a kid and as long as I can remember. I never want to lose anything even if it’s on the bus trip playing a game of cards, I never want to lose a game of cards.
“It’s something that my parents bred into me as a young fella and I might look like I go over the top every now and then, but I’m just trying my hardest to get the win for the team. I don’t care what I have to do or how much I score or anything, as long as I’m helping the team win.”
Hitting big shots has become one of Ralph’s trademarks too. He’s never seen a shot he doesn’t like and when he’s hit the second most threes in SBL history and shot over his career at 36 per cent, then he has the green light to jack them up.
That feeling when you hit a big shot that goes a long way to winning a big game for your team is something hard to replicate for Ralph.
“You never get tired of that feeling when you knock down a big shot. It’s what we train for all week is for those moments and as a player, all you want is to step up in those big moments,” Ralph said.
“Winning games is great, but what everyone plays for is to be part of those tight games of basketball with a lot on the line. Sometimes the ball falls my way and I catch it, and I try to shoot it as I normally do and when I see it go down, it’s a pretty good feeling.”
Looking back on last Saturday night, it was a big road win in Game 1 for the Buccaneers against the Senators.
Despite the positivity that came from that, Ralph knew Game 2 back at Active West Stadium was always going to be tough and that’s how it panned out with the Senators prevailing to force the series to a Game 3 on Sunday.
“Winning that Game 1 was definitely but I think both teams played really well and to a high level. Neither team shot the ball extremely well but it just came down to X’s and O’s and a bit of a hustle down the end,” he said.
“It was massive to come down here and having finished higher and having to come away for that first game is tough but you have to deal with that as a country team. But we came down with the mentality of wanting to get the job done and we were pretty happy with the win.
“But we always knew that was only one game and we never thought it would be easy to go home and finish it off against a quality team.”
Given his whole career has ended up in the Buccs reaching the playoffs, Ralph knows fully well how to now navigate a regular season to be ready for the post-season action and this year is no different with the intensity rising significantly once the finals begin.
“Everything goes up a level in the playoffs and we do sort of have a veteran team now so we know that regular season is the regular season, and that when the playoffs come we have been there so many times and have had so many heartbreaks that we know what we have to bring now,” Ralph said.
“I’m sure we’ve ironed out all our creases now and know what we need to do, but it’s not as easy to go out and do it because you are playing such quality opposition.
“The intensity is always going to rise and that will only be raised now when we are back home because there’s the expectation of us being able to finish it off in front of our home fans. I’m sure we’ll match that expectation head on and come out playing the way we hope to.”
Looking back to 12 months ago when the Buccs were shocked by the Rockingham Flames in two games of the quarter finals after finishing on top of the table at the end of the regular season, Ralph has no doubt everyone involved learned some hard truths from that.
While there’s coaching changes since with Ray Evans stepping aside and Dayle Joseph now in charge, the fact that Ralph, Wundenberg, Colter Lasher, Liam Hunt, Marcus Alipate, are all back again means they don’t want to feel like that again.
“We’ve had coaching changes obviously but the personnel has basically stayed the same from last year and after the season we spoke and we knew where we went wrong, and what we did wrong in that series,” he said.
“It’s hurt a few of us guys for 12 months and we were dying to get back to this point and now we have to keep getting these wins, and building as much as we can.”
The chance to reward the home fans in Geraldton by closing out the series with the Senators to advance to the semi finals to take on the Lakeside Lightning is also something Ralph hopes can now happen come Sunday afternoon.
“Nothing compares to playing in front of your home crowd,” Ralph said.
“We always get good support when we play in Perth and we had a good crowd behind us last week but there’s nothing like playing at home. Hopefully we get home now and we can get it done to reward them for supporting us.”
No matter what happens with the Buccs, the fact that Ralph has shared everything with 433-game remarkable servant Wundenberg is something that he will treasure more than anything and their bond will now be a lifelong one well beyond their basketball careers.
“To play basketball with someone who is your best mate is pretty amazing. I always know where he’s going to be on the court and he knows where I’m going to be so we have that natural understanding given we have played over 800 games combined,” he said.
“We can have a go at each other and argue and fight like brothers at times, but we’re always best mates at the end of the day and I think that holds us in good stead as leaders of the club. Nothing can really put into words what it’s like to play with someone like him.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Ralph is enjoying every chance he gets right now to play alongside 18-year-old Alex Ducas before he embarks on his career at Saint Mary’s University.
“Alex is bound for bigger things obviously and we’re just pretty blessed to have him playing with us at the moment. He’s a great kid and I love him. He has a really good head on his shoulders, and that’s bred into him from his dad,” Ralph said.
“He’s such a good kid and it’s good fun to play alongside him. I had older guys helping me out when I was coming up and now it’s up to us to start doing the same for the next generation of younger fellas.”