NOT only is Mark Worthington now the head coach at the South West Slammers, but more basketball royalty will be part of their coaching staff in 2020 in the form of three-time SBL Grand Final MVP and four-time championship winner James Fitch.
There was great excitement around the Slammers entering what would have been the 2020 SBL season after the announcement that Worthington was the new head coach. And rightfully so after his remarkable playing career that included 335 games in the NBL and a championship on top of representing Australia at two Olympic Games.
But if that wasn’t enough for the young Slammers team to be excited about in terms of their coaching, Fitch is now among those to join the coaching staff and he would have been there for the SBL campaign, and still will be for the replacement West Coast Classic.
The Fitch story is a remarkable one. Having grown up in Laurel, Mississippi and then attending Idaho University, he came to Bunbury on a whim to join the Slammers in 1990, and remarkably 30 years later he is still here married, a father of two and with his own construction business.
Along the way, the man who was affectionately known as ‘The Black Flash’ put together one of the most remarkable SBL careers of all-time made up of 315 games with the Slammers which included championships in 1995, 1996, 1998 and 1999 – and Grand Final MVP’s in three of those triumphs.
He has remained in Bunbury since and is now excited to be part of the coaching staff along with Worthington.
“Wortho has been doing a really good and I am actually one of his assistants with the Slammers,” Fitch discussed on an episode of SBL Shootaround.
“Myself and Aaron Edwards and a couple more guys are assistants with him, and I like what I’m seeing already with what Wortho is bringing to the team. He’s bringing a lot of enthusiasm and confidence, and showing how basketball has changed and a new way of playing and I truly like it.”
Never could have Fitch ever imagined when he first came to play with the Slammers in 1990. Initially he didn’t even want to leave the United States and was happy to move into college coaching.
How different his life could have been, but now 30 years later he remains in Bunbury with his family a more than content man.
“I do construction work and a lot of people ask me how the hell I stayed in Bunbury, and I tell people that the thing for me was that obviously I never grew up here, and I came here,” he said.
“When I first got here it was like a small town and the people were so friendly and welcoming, and having those calibre of players helped but it wasn’t just about basketball.
“It was about making good friendships as well and that really sold on me and I met my wife a couple of months after being here, and having her here made it even more comfortable. It became so good where it was comfortable and I just stayed.”
Fitch has grown so fond of Bunbury that he warns anyone who comes to town to not get too comfortable, or like himself, Sam Fotu, Michael Lay and Clive Weeden, you’ll end up wanting to call it home forever.
“My life in Bunbury is very good. I have a lot of very good friends, my wife’s side of the family is here and she and my two daughters are here so to me, Bunbury is everything,” Fitch said.
“You look at guys at Sam Fotu, Michael Lay and Clive Weeden, and I say to them when they come down here to not get caught in the Bunbury curse. I say that happens when you are laying on the beach with your kids because once you do that, and if you stay here much longer you’ll never leave.
“Next thing you know, those guys settle here for life just like I have and you get caught in the curse. I keep telling them the Bunbury curse will get you. No matter what you do, you get down here and start enjoying too much and it’s a lifestyle you’ll never want to give up. If you have to come down here, don’t stay too long.”
As for his early days growing up back home in Laurel, Mississippi, Fitch developed as a basketball player by playing against bigger, older and better opponents which he has no doubt helped him down the track.
“Growing up in Mississippi you are just a little country boy doing something you truly enjoy, and for me we’d play basketball at the place we called the school house and we would never play against guys our own age,” he said.
“They were always five or six years older than us and I tell people that when you can actually go out there and play decent against those older guys, and you get that experience and are comfortable amongst those guys, then when they recognise you can play your confidence goes through the roof.
“For a young fella like myself, that’s what happened and then when I started to play against guys my own age I was able to dominate a little bit and with that, grew confidence and it just kept on going.”
Then after Fitch’s career at the University of Idaho, he didn’t think he’d continue playing basketball and was ready to settle into a career coaching at the collegiate level.
But his cousin Kenny Payne, now lead assistant coach at the University of Kentucky, suggested for Fitch to try playing professionally overseas just to see what he thought of.
That’s when the chance in Bunbury popped up and ultimately the rest is history.
“I actually wasn’t looking to go out of the country, but my cousin Kenny Payne actually said that his agent looked at some of my games when I was at Idaho and he believed he could get me a contract,” Fitch said.
“I said I didn’t really want to go out of the country and just wanted to finish school, and jump into coaching college basketball but his agent still put together a video on me and then I had offers from Australia and Argentina.
“I thought I wouldn’t mind going to Argentina except English wasn’t their first language so that’s when I thought about Australia and it felt like it might be OK for me. I said I’d give it a try so I came down here and I guess you guys know now that the rest is stuck on history.”
Fitch had no idea what he was getting himself into either in a lifestyle or basketball sense when he did sign to come and play with the Slammers. But he had one familiar local face in the form of Ricky Grace, but he certainly had no idea he was joining a struggling team and was expected to be a saviour.
“When I first came, I actually knew Ricky Grace from over in the States and on my first trip from Sydney the Wildcats were actually on the plane,” he said.
“Me and Ricky got to talking to each other and he got to telling me about basketball in Australia and Perth, and what it was like and he said I must be here to play in the state league.
“Then when I got to Perth, I didn’t know what the standard of play would be like and the only thing I knew was that I came down to Bunbury and we had a seven-footer named Gib Hinz so the team must be pretty good.
“But what I failed to realise was that they only won their first game when I got here and had lost the nine before that. So I thought what had I gotten myself into, but we then won our next 10 games.”
As the 1990s rolled on, Fitch was part of the most remarkable of periods for the Slammers and he was the centre piece of it all.
Over his first 82 games, he was putting up 36.3 points and that remained at 31.7 over his opening 192 matches, and settled at 27.9 for his 315-game career to go with 10.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 3.2 steals while shooting 52.6 per cent from the field. 38.7 per cent from deep and 70.5 per cent at the charity stripe.
It was the breakthrough championship win in 1995 that really set things off for the Slammers and as it turned out, they were somewhat unlucky not to have won five straight titles – only missing out in 1997.
“In my first couple of years I played with like Jeff Harris, Gavin Harris, Dan Willis, Darren Richardson, Gib Hinz and those guys but Alan Black came in as coach for 1991 and 1992,” Fitch said.
“We played in the Grand Final that first season and lost to the Swan City Mustangs and then Cockburn in 1992, and from that I thought it was time to regroup because I’m just not used to going into Grand Finals and losing. That just wasn’t something I was used to.
“So after that most of those guys had left, but then we had Jason and Damian Chalk come in, we had Wade Bennett step in, we had Aaron and Luke Edwards, we had Leroy Smith and our team started to get stronger with a lot of youth.
“I thought that with this youth we’ve got, all I had to do was make these guys stronger and get the confidence and we could see how we’d play. In 1994, we did pretty good I thought but in 1995 we came out and had a decent season finishing seventh to get into the finals.
“Then we played to our strength and before you knew it, we ended up winning the whole thing that year and I loved every minute of that because I wasn’t used to losing Grand Finals. I just made sure from that point that if we won one, let’s be greedy and go for two and we got that.
“I’ll never forget in 1997, we were playing Geraldton in Game 2 of the semi finals and Riccardo Boyd got hurt, and we lost and I was so disappointed because that was our chance to get a three-peat, and as it turned out we could have won five straight because we’d go on to win the next two years as well in 1998 and 1999.”
As for his thoughts on the game today and he would go if he was still in his prime, well quite simply Fitch believes he would break the SBL’s scoring record of 82 points set by Paul ‘Snoopy’ Graham.
“Honestly, if I was playing in the game today the way that I’m watching some of these kids, you know that record of 82? I’d get that easily,” Fitch said.
“I say that because I love contact and being able to get hit and still finish but I don’t see a lot of guys doing that today. Even some of the guys that I’m watching, I don’t see a lot of the same playing hard back from my day.
“I want to see guys get down and get down on that floor, I want to see them diving for the loose ball and it can be frustrating sometimes to watch what I’m watching these days. I would damn sure go for that record if I got the chance.”