EVEN writing the words that Mark Worthington is coaching the South West Slammers in the SBL in 2020 means it’s huge for basketball down south and WA overall, but the all-time Australian basketball great wants to build things the right way.
The career that Worthington has put together all over the world the last 19 years since leaving Bunbury is simply remarkable.
In the NBL alone, he played 335 games at the Sydney Kings, South Dragons, Melbourne Tigers, Gold Coast Blaze, Melbourne United and Cairns Taipans while winning a championship in 2009 and being named to the All-NBL First Team on four occasions.
There’s far more to the Worthington story than that though. He had a decorated college career at Denver’s Metro State University and also won a German championship with Brose Baskets and was a regular Australian Boomer throughout his career, including going to the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
That’s quite the remarkable career for Worthington who started it all winning an SBL championship with the Slammers back in 1999 before retiring at the end of the semi-final series with the Taipans against the Perth Wildcats in 2017.
Since then he’s begun his coaching journey firstly at the Cairns Dolphins in the QBL and then at college level at Loyola Marymount University in California before life brought him back to Bunbury, and he took over as coach of the Slammers.
It’s no small job either with the Slammers coming off a one-win season in 2019 but Worthington is excited to be back home and by the challenge at hand.
“It’s good being back here. Everyone throws names at me and forgets I haven’t lived in WA for 19 years. A lot’s changed but a lot stays the same as well,” Worthington said.
“I think the one thing that I’ve preached to the group is that it’s not necessarily who we play against, it’s about how we look at the games and react. I’m excited about the potential that we have here and for the SBL to become NBL1 and be part of a bigger competition.
“Basketball in general is just at a great time of our lives where it’s booming with the guys having success in the NBA, the Boomers being on the fringe of a medal and the NBL with the record numbers.
“There’s just so much to like about basketball and it’s a privilege to be involved in basketball at this point of our lives.”
Given he has his own links to the Slammers and so does the rest of his family, it’s a club that means a lot to Worthington and as a result he takes the position as head coach of the club seriously.
He wants the modern day players to understand the Slammers history too as he tries to start a whole new era.
“If you look at when we were successful we had a really nice local core that had played together a lot, but I’ve been bringing some ex-players in to talk about the history of the Slammers,” he said.
“Everyone talks about all the good years they had together, but the Edwards brothers, Lee Smith, Wade Bennett and those guys, they also went through years where they didn’t win.
“But it was through that experience of getting extra court time they wouldn’t expect and add in some of those quality imports, they rose and grew as a group.
“Realistically we had to grow as a group again and we want our local guys to get court time, to play and show what they’ve got knowing that this year we’ll have our ups and downs.
“But it’s how we manage ourselves during the down part and the up part that will determine where we go as a group moving into the future.”
This Slammers team coached by Worthington is going to clearly be full of young and emerging talent from the south west, but he was in that same boat himself 21 years ago so he’s looking for the likes of Brody England and Lucas Goff to fully embrace the chances they receive.
“Those younger guys will have more opportunities and they are starting to know their roles pretty well,” Worthington said.
“I felt sorry for Goffy because he had to play out of position all weekend because we were so small, but if we add those two guys who are a little bit older than the rest of the group with a bit more experience, and put on the expectations, then it’s up to them to capitalise on that to move forward.
“They are going to have their opportunity this year, what they do with it is up to them and with that being said, if they don’t step up there’ll be a bunch of younger kids hungry for success as well who will want to take their spot.”
The Slammers took part in the SBL’s Regional Blitz last weekend where they came up short in each of their five matches, but Worthington took heart from plenty of what he saw especially considering the degree to which they were undermanned.
“I took a lot of positives out of it. We walked into this weekend saying it wasn’t about wins and losses for us with judging how we went as a group. Obviously we’re not even close to our full squad here this weekend but I thought our guys fought really hard,” he said.
“We were undermanned, undersized and guys were playing out of position, but our guys found ways to get back into games and to be competitive against some pretty good teams. For me I took a lot out of this weekend. Considering all of that, I’m really happy about how the weekend went.”
Jay Washington is the one import so far announced and having arrived for the Slammers, but arriving the day before last week’s Blitz didn’t really give him a chance to show what he’s fully capable of.
Worthington, though, is buoyant over what the experienced point guard will bring to the Slammers.
“Jay, our point guard, only rocked up the night before we got here so he doesn’t know names and is trying to get through plays and all of that,” Worthington said.
“With such a young group, we needed to have someone experienced. I went through a lot of film to try and find the right guy. I didn’t necessarily need a scorer, I needed someone who could organise us and from this weekend I think he’ll be pretty hard on himself with how he critiques it.
“He’s a bit of a perfectionist but with that being said, he came in the day before and I thought he did a really good job given the time he’s had with us. He’ll be a lot better the longer we go in this thing.”
Mitch Keller was a player to come into the Slammers group when they were desperate for some extra bodies in 2019 and showed enough as an inside force that he can be a significant contributor at SBL level.
The Slammers are also on the verge of announcing their second import to join Keller up front and combine those two with an experienced point guard in Washington along with the exciting young talent, and Worthington is optimistic of a vastly improved line-up.
“We’ve got Mitch Keller to come in who is a big part for us in the centre and then we’ve got our second import to announce and bring in as well in the bigs department,” Worthington said.
“From there, we’ve had guys dealing with niggling injuries and we’ve had a number of young kids who weren’t here for the Blitz because they were in the state team. We’ve started pretty much at rock bottom and the progress for the first two months has been pretty unreal.
“The one thing we walk away with is that this group likes playing for one another, and gets around each other. Hopefully that continues to grow as we go through this.”