23/04/2024

Kevin Lisch as assistant coach at the Sydney Kings [Image: Sydney Kings]

The Sydney Kings won their first National Basketball League Championship since 2005 after sweeping the 2021-22 Grand Final series 3-0 over the Tasmania JackJumpers. Kings’ assistant coach, Kevin Lisch, sat down with The Inner Sanctum to discuss how the 2021/22 NBL Championship-winning season unfolded.

Kevin Lisch was no stranger to the wait for a Championship and the misfortunes of the Kings.

He played for Sydney for four seasons, including the 2019/20 season, where its charge in the Grand Final series was forfeited after three matches due to COVID-19. Sydney was eventually named runners-up to the Perth Wildcats in the incomplete series.

The former Sydney Kings captain and two-time NBL Most Valuable Player retired from playing at the end of that season due to injury, as he jumped into the coaching ranks.

The American-born Australian international was ready to win that Championship for the Kings which had been long overdue.

Heading into the 2021/22 season, the Kings had optimism, with returning NBL21 Most Improved Player runner-up Jordan Hunter set to line up among a host of new signings. Among those was the new coach, Chase Buford, who looked to bring more intensity to the Kings’ play.

The Kings also signed Biwali Bayles, Wani Swaka Lo Buluk, R.J. Hunter, Jaylen Adams, Matur Maker and Makur Maker before the season, as well as Ian Clark in February 2022.

The Kings suffered a tough start to the season, winning just three of their opening nine matches, as well as losing Jordan Hunter to a season-ending knee injury.

Hunter had just come back from a finger fracture he suffered in pre-season before his season ended prematurely.

Jaylen Adams also suffered an injury and only played one game early in the season, compounding the issues for the Kings.

Jaylen Adams playing against the Illawarra Hawks in the 2021-22 NBL season. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

“Trying to look back on it now, it’s all a bit of a blur, to be honest,” Kevin Lisch told The Inner Sanctum.

“[We came off] a loss to Brisbane and everyone’s thinking ‘alright, you know, things better change or else we’re gonna have to start preparing for next season’.”

The Kings sat precariously in fifth after nine matches, and a 96-87 loss away to the Brisbane Bullets in game nine became a turning point in their season.

In three of the first six losses they suffered last season, the Kings were leading heading into the fourth quarter before surrendering those leads to lose.

“We obviously didn’t shy away from the fact that was happening, but it’s kind of a double-edged sword,” Lisch explained.

“The more you try and bring it up and force it, the more it can heighten the anxieties. But the more you don’t address the issues, you never learn from it.

“So I think our guys did a good job of relaxing, maybe changing a few things. Then you get that first win when you’re leading [heading into] that fourth quarter and I think it kind of alleviates a little of the stress.”

Lisch spoke of the impact of head coach, Chase Buford, at that time.

“Chase did a great job of continuing to have the guys believe in him and buy into him and his system,” Lisch said.

He also acknowledged it takes a whole team to turn around a season.

“We have some really quality players, both on and off the court, whose character brought us through the tough times and whose talent on court also helped.

“It was a combination of Chase [Buford] and the players that really made our team, their character, [to] say no, we’re not gonna let this thing go off the rails.

“We’re gonna keep just going along here.”

Sydney Kings coach Chase Buford instructing his players. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Shaun Bruce and Xavier Cooks were named co-captains before the season started, although Lisch said there are many leaders within the dressing room.

“We have leaders, plural,” Lisch explained.

“That was the beauty of our team – you had some guys who might have been quiet, some guys were a little louder, imports who see things from different perspectives.

“I think getting Ian Clark in mid-season was a huge boost for us, obviously on the court but off the court, as well.

“Xavier [Cooks], [Shaun] Bruce… a culmination of a lot of guys coming together and just believing.”

Ian Clark sitting in the Sydney Kings dressing room. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Lisch had a moment where he looked at the players after that defeat to the Brisbane Bullets, thinking that the Kings had a lot left to give.

“That’s the thing about a season… whether it was that moment or not, I don’t know, but no one stood up and said a speech because at the end of the day,” he said.

“Those sound good but they don’t necessarily win you games.

“I think they just did a good job of showing up the next game. Half the battle is showing up and giving it your all, and our guys did that.”

After that defeat to the Bullets in Round 9, they proceeded to win 15 of their next 16 matches, including 13 in a row – the second-best winning streak in Kings history.

The Kings had a process they followed to help them during that run.

“I guess [there was] maybe an unspoken mentality, but I think the whole season it was getting back to being dogs out there, being ruthless, to continue to execute and just focus on your own individual as well as team development and getting better every day at that,” Lisch said.

“I think the results kind of spoke for themselves, then.”

Lisch explained his role throughout the season to help the Kings eventually win the Championship.

“Each of us assistant coaches especially have our own guys we kind of really look after, whether it’s helping them with film or stuff they need on or off the court, I really enjoy that aspect,” he said.

Asked if anything he said specifically that helped change the course of the season, Lisch replied humbly.

“Anything specifically that I said, did it help the team like that? No, probably not,” Lisch said.

“I like to think I just try to show up every day and get better and help them get better. If that helped them, great, if it didn’t hurt them, great, too. Each of us has our own little role.”

Not only was this mentality important to the Kings’ season, but also the closeness of the group.

“We had a really tight camaraderie, as far as we just had some great human beings on our team that in the locker room guys liked hanging out with,” Lisch said.

“They like being around each other and it’s easier to compete and have each other’s backs when you like each other.

“Especially when you’re not winning games to start out with because that really becomes a true test of who you are.”

Sydney Kings wear their Indigenous jerseys for the NBL Indigenous Round. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

The group was close, which helped them turn their season around. However, their closeness also affected them in other ways, such as in the case of Jordan Hunter’s season-ending injury.

Lisch went into detail about Hunter, his impact on the team and what the Championship means to him.

“I think we were all pretty devastated in the fact that he had hurt his hand and then I think it was his first full practice back, he hurt his foot,” Lisch said.

“Jordi [Hunter] is a big part of our team, he’s a guy you like having around every day, you like having on the road.

“When [the injury happened], you not only feel bad for the rest of the team but for Jordi as well, who’s worked his rear-end off to get where he was and to be in that position.”

Lisch explained how the Kings reacted to the news of Jordan Hunter’s injury.

“It was tough,” Lisch said.

“You feel bad for a guy like that, you see the work he puts in, who spent his first year behind [Andrew] Bogut, so you know he’s not gonna get playing time that first year.

“Then he really works his way the year after that, and you think ‘okay, this is the time’; and then he gets hurt.”

He also explained Hunter’s attitude once he had received the news and how the team moved forward without him last season.

“I think it only makes you stronger, as well, if you look at it the right way,” Lisch explained.

“I think that’s what it’s done to Jordi, and I’m excited to see him getting back. I think he knows what he’s made of now going through all that stuff.

“The mood was tough but I think we did a good job of not dwelling on it too much, acknowledging the difficulty, but you know, it’s time to get better, still.”

When asked how Hunter dealt with the injury and the rehab process, Lisch was full of praise for the now-25-year-old.

“I think the thing about Jordi is whether he’s having his worst day or his best day, he’s always fun and quirky and just great to be around,” Lisch smiled.

“I think that’s why we missed him on the road so much as well when he didn’t travel with us. That’s just a credit to how he is as a person.

“I think we missed a lot of that, but he dealt with it in his own ways.

“I know he went through some really tough times, some frustrations, but I think the way he went about it, he didn’t let it affect the other guys, which is pretty commendable.”

Lisch spoke of Jordan Hunter’s mentality in dealing with the injury and the rehab throughout the season, as well as his effect on the team.

“I thought he handled it in just an amazing way,” Lisch said.

“You look back at our games, even during the finals, and he’s sitting on the bench and if you watched our bench, he’s in there chatting our coaches’ ears off or standing up and clapping.

“Jordi was an integral part, whether he played or not.”

Jordan Hunter (left) with Jaylen Adams (right) celebrating at Qudos Bank Arena. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

When asked if Hunter was a motivator throughout the season, Lisch again had praise for the centre.

“I wouldn’t say it was like ‘oh, let’s win it for Jordi’ every game, but he certainly was another reason why,” Lisch explained.

“He was a core character in our team, whether he was on the court or not, that helped build our team into what it is. He was certainly a motivator in that.”

Hunter was involved with a Championship-winning team uniquely, despite not playing last season.

“I think it means a lot [to Hunter]. I really hope it does, because he played a big role in that,” Lisch explained.

“Honestly, he was like another coach sometimes on the bench there and you couldn’t get the guy to shut up sometimes.

“It was great because a guy like that, who’s just so engaged, even though he knows he’s not gonna play, but still feels like a big part of the team, I think it’s a testament to Jordi.

“It’s a testament to his teammates who made him feel that way, as well. I think you have a special group of guys like that and I think that helps you win a Championship, too.”

Lisch explained the support Hunter received from the team during the season.

“Everyone at this team is well supported when you get injured. I’m a personal testament to that.”

Lisch had suffered a left-ankle fracture during the 2019/20 season, which ruled him out for two months. Upon his return, he missed another six rounds due to ankle soreness.

That ankle injury had exacerbated a pre-existing ankle condition, which led to surgery and, ultimately, his retirement in June 2020.

“They could’ve thrown me to a scrap heap, but I’m still here hanging around and I think Jordi is another testament to that,” Lisch explained.

“Despite him being injured, he still had to do his weights. He still had to do whatever kinds of individual workouts.

“So even though he knew he wasn’t gonna play, he knew he had a plan, too… I think was his attitude throughout the whole season.

“You go through ups and downs, but he had a professional attitude and that’s the best thing you can say about someone.”

Sydney Kings’ staff assisting players. (PHOTO: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

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Following the 13-game winning run, the Kings lost to the Adelaide 36ers 82-90, before a win the following game away at the Cairns Taipans, 87-77.

This set up a final match blockbuster at home to the Illawarra Hawks, where the winning team would finish second and have the home advantage heading into the NBL Finals.

The Kings lost 84-87 and finished the regular season in third, which meant Illawarra had hosting advantages for the three-game semi-final series.

Jaylen Adams was named the Andrew Gaze NBL Most Valuable Player for his performances throughout the regular season, as he averaged 20.1 points with a field goal percentage of 43 per cent, as well as 6.14 assists per game.

Jaylen Adams with the 2021-22 Andrew Gaze NBL Most Valuable Player award. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Despite Illawarra hosting Game One of the Semi-Final series, the Kings came away with a 79-89 victory.

This meant they faced the Hawks at home in Game Two to secure their spot in the Grand Final series.

They won the second game 99-87, meaning they won that best-of-three series 2-0 to book a spot in the NBL Grand Final series against the Tasmania JackJumpers.

The JackJumpers, in their first season in the NBL, were the fairytale side who had made the Grand Final.

They finished the regular season in fourth, knocking the Perth Wildcats out of the finals for the first time in 35 seasons, as they finished fifth.

Tasmania then faced first-place Melbourne United in its Semi-Final series, winning 2-1.

The Sydney Kings were the side who had come back from a slow start to the season to finish third and make the Grand Final series for the second-consecutive season.

Lisch gave his thoughts on the JackJumpers’ first season.

“I knew they were kind of the fairytale, but to their credit, they had some great talent, as well, some great coaching,” Lisch said.

“[It was] pretty amazing for an expansion team to be in that situation. But I wouldn’t call them a fairytale – they worked their butts off and they had some talent.”

Lisch spoke of the buildup to that five-game Grand Final series and how his side approached it.

“We just looked at it – let’s just continue what we’ve been doing,” Lisch said.

“Tasmania presented some different challenges than some other teams would’ve, as well. We didn’t buy into that [fairytale] headline too much.”

Jarell Martin playing against the Tasmania JackJumpers. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

With the Grand Final series being just that, a series rather than a one-off game, Lisch spoke of the mentality of the players in approaching that.

“It was definitely [looking at] each game individually, and then with the broader picture of the series,” Lisch said.

The Kings came away with a 95-78 win at home in Game One, where MVP Jaylen Adams left the court injured and missed the rest of the series.

Despite this, the Kings came away with a 86-90 win away in Game Two and a 97-88 series-winning Game Three at home to win the NBL Championship; the Kings had swept the Grand Final series 3-0.

Xavier Cooks was named the Grand Final Most Valuable Player for his performances throughout the series, and was awarded the Larry Sengstock Medal.

“Although it was 3-0, they were some three really hard-fought games. It didn’t feel like 3-0,” Lisch explained.

“Jarell [Martin] was so motivated because he had to get back to the U.S. for the birth of his child.

“You’ve got Jaylen Adams hobbling around then not being able to play with his hamstring. So I think there were a lot of different dynamics going on, which made it interesting and intriguing all at the same time.”

Lisch reflected on how it felt to win the NBL Championship and what it means now.

“It was an amazing moment, I’ve never experienced it as a coach, obviously,” he reflected.

“But it’s not necessarily that moment. I think it’s looking back and reflecting on the journey because as a coach, it’s probably more of a – I don’t want to say relief – it was so enjoyable.

“But you’re probably also thinking ‘man, I don’t have to cut that game up’,” Lisch smiled.

“For us, just looking back on the journey and what we’ve gone through makes it pretty cool.”

Sydney Kings celebrate after a victory. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

The Kings created history with that series, being the first Kings side since 2005 to win the NBL Championship.

It marked the peak of their comeback after their NBL license was terminated in 2008 before they relaunched in 2010 after a two-year absence.

They struggled in the six years that followed, only making the finals once, in the 2012/13 season.

Australian basketball legend Andrew Gaze was named new coach ahead of the 2016/17 season, while Andrew Bogut signed for the Kings in the 2018-19 season.

The club made the finals that season but fell short in the Semi-Finals to Melbourne United, losing the series 2-0.

Will Weaver joined as the new head coach for the 2019/20 season, as the Kings won the Minor Premiership for the first time in over a decade and made the Grand Final series.

However, the Kings forfeited the series after three games to the Perth Wildcats due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The renaissance of the Kings had been building and led to last season, the 2021/22 NBL season.

Lisch knew all about the history, having been involved in part of it, himself, and said the enormity of what it meant to the franchise played a big part in the title win.

“We definitely had a good gauge of the Kings’ history, I think we had a good onboarding for the guys that came in to show ’em, this is our history, which was really neat,” Lisch said.

“But we were trying to do something with a group that had never been together, and create a little bit of our own [history].

“It was pretty amazing, but we were pretty focused on the present moment, for sure.”

Sydney Kings players band together during a game. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Lisch had explained what it meant to the group and the team, but it also meant a lot to him personally, too.

“I think it was just a moment of reflection looking back,” Lisch said.

“It was almost a new organisation, new owners and kind of seeing the evolution throughout and the new players coming in.

“Being able to see it from a different perspective and probably having a bit more appreciation for the coaches.

“You don’t always see those things when you’re a player, it was a neat experience.”

There were multiple key players for the Kings last season, which Lisch highlighted when asked who stood out to him last season.

“There are a number of people who stood out. Jaylen Adams, in a lot of ways with what he did on both sides of the court, I think was pretty amazing,” Lisch highlighted.

“It’s tough, you’ve got guys like Jarell [Martin], that was his second year with the team.

“I think we really rode the coattails of Xavier Cooks in a lot of ways, in what he was able to do in just using his basketball IQ and basketball smarts and talent to make some plays.

“DJ [Dejan Vasiljevic] coming back from the achilles injury, I could keep going on.

“There are so many different storylines, it was really fun to watch.”

Dejan Vasiljevic playing against the Brisbane Bullets in the 2021/22 NBL season. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst; Sydney Kings)

Asked if there was a player who isn’t talked about as much and who deserves more credit, Lisch was full of praise for his whole team.

“I don’t know if I can really single one guy out,” Lisch said.

However, Lisch had one player he wanted to mention.

“I know in that last series [against Tasmania] with Jaylen [Adams] out, Shaun Bruce was huge for us.

“He really led the team in so many ways, not only on the court but off the court. I think he did some really amazing things that I think opened a lot of everyone’s eyes, too.”

Shaun Bruce playing for the Sydney Kings in the 2021/22 NBL season. (Photo: Sam Tolhurst, Sydney Kings)

The Sydney Kings have endured some tough seasons in their wait and hunt for their fourth NBL Championship, but they have the title now to show for all their hard work.

The fans came on board and will be hoping for more success next season.

They will be looking to go again this upcoming NBL 2022/23 season, and make a push for the NBL Minor Premiership and NBL Championship once again, with new players, new belief and new hope.

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