Ben Ayre will be looking to help the Sandringham Sabres win it all this NBL1 South season. (Image: NBL; Design: Madeline Irwin)

Returning to his hometown to begin his campaign with the Sandringham Sabres, Ben Ayre opens up about what has made him the player he is today.

The Victorian local is back in his home state, following the announcement that he would be joining the Sandringham Sabres for the NBL1 South 2023 season. Just days after the announcement, Ayre took to the court and had a significant impact on the team straight away. A dominant performance from Ayre was vital and saw the Sabres earn their first win of the season.

With the NBL1 South Conference well underway, Ayre spoke with The Inner Sanctum following the Sabres’ maiden win of the season against the Casey Cavaliers.

“I think first for us [our focus] is just to win the whole chip, win the whole thing. Then win the championship, and then go experience the post-season stuff with the national tournament. Maybe play some teams from around the country. I think that would be really cool,” Ayre shared.

“But I think for us as a team at Sandy [Sandringham], it’s just a step-by-step thing, day-by-day. [To] create a good environment where guys actually want to come and play and hopefully that leads to the end goal which is winning the championship.”

Having previously helped the Nunawading Spectres clinch their first NBL1 title back in 2019, Ayre will be looking to do the same with the Sabres this time around.

With a handful of NBL1 campaigns under his belt, including with the Spectres and the Cairns Marlins to name a few, Ayre emphasised the importance of the competition. He shared that the league is a “good stepping stone” to make it to the NBL.

Ayre suggested that the competition can help players improve on their weaknesses given the “physicality of the league”, going on to further explain that NBL1 can help prepare athletes to make the leap to the elite level of the sport.

“It’s a really high standard. You’ve got a good mixture of NBL players, and imports that come over from America. Then quite a decent amount of local players that play,” he said.

“I think everyone just plays hard which makes the level of basketball really good, really competitive and really intense. I think it’s just a really good mixture of all the different players and talents that make it a really competitive league overall.”

As Ayre began to talk about his decision to sign with Sandringham, he admitted that it’s been “the perfect situation” for him. He had full praise for both the team and the coaches there that he had worked with during his junior days, which ultimately led to his decision to sign with the Sabres.

Ayre’s signing with the Sabres could not have come at a better time, after coming off an electrifying NBL23 season with the Cairns Taipans. The 184cm guard’s campaign with the Taipans was capped off with him earning the Coaches’ Award at Cairns’ club awards earlier in March.

Ayre was full of gratitude as the topic of the Taipans’ recent NBL campaign arose. Despite the Sydney Kings ending Cairns’ championship hopes this season, he shared that the experience was rewarding for him.

“I just think that was probably one of the best groups I’ve been around in terms of guys getting along on and off the court, respecting each other’s time and space. I think that was a big factor in the success that we had on the court and it just breaks a lot of barriers in terms of communication, so you can have those tough conversations with the guys,” he explained.

“If you have a better relationship with [players] off the court, those hard conversations on the court tend to be a lot easier to be had and that actually ends up fixing a lot of the issues you have as a team, which results in more success.

“I think that was the biggest thing I’ll take from [the experience] personally that year and [will] look to create that in teams I play on in the future, whether that’s in Australia or overseas or in the NBL1 or NBL level. I really want to create that good environment and locker room environment and hope that I can have similar success.”

However, mystery surrounded the basketballers’ professional future with the Taipans as they declined Ayre’s second-year team option. The news caused a few raised eyebrows among those in the NBL fanbase.

Ayre recently signed with the South East Melbourne Phoenix on a two-year deal, but before that, whilst things remained up in the air amidst the ongoing NBL Free Agency period, Ayre’s focus had been on refining his craft.

Before signing on with the Sabres, Ayre admitted that things were going “good” as he kept himself busy by “working out” and “keep[ing] himself healthy”. He acknowledged that he used his time to reflect on his recent NBL season, as well as “giving [him]self time” to get his body right.

“I’m back playing and feel good. Just getting back into a rhythm,” he said.

Ben Ayre in action on the court. (Image: NBL Official Website).

The 27-year-old has had a whirlwind journey to the NBL. He started off in the collegiate system with Skagit Valley in Washington before going on to have a stint as a development player with the Adelaide 36ers, where he only managed almost two minutes of court time.

It was a chance opportunity to play with the Taipans that eventually saw Ayre start to find his feet, eventually seeing him go on and become one of the league’s shining stars.

For Ayre, when looking back from his humble beginning in the league to now, he describes his growth as “slow”.

“I think maybe from the outside it looked like a quick success, like a lot of short-term for me as an individual. Obviously, going from my debut to earning a roster spot and then breaking into a rotation – it all happened within 12 months. So that’s a pretty quick turnaround,” he explained.

“But leading up to that it’s been a slow, slow build for me in terms of my own individual growth. I think even up until today it’s a step-by-step thing. I just take every day as it comes, day by day and just work on the small things I can.

“You know it’s always rewarding for anyone to actually have success when you are focusing on your growth every day. It’s a good reward and a reminder that you’re doing the right thing and you’re on the right track.

“[I’m] just trying to continue that growth step-by-step. I don’t think anything happens overnight. [It’s] day-by-day for me. That’s how it has been and that’s how my growth has been my whole life and that’s where my success has come from I think.”

It was a surprising answer from the basketballer who amassed a number of highlights during his tenure with Cairns. This includes the record of becoming just the third player to register 20 points and 10 assists during the 2021-22 season. The Wildcats’ Bryce Cotton and the Andrew Gaze MVP of that season Jaylen Adams were the only other players to record the feat in NBL22.

But Ayre’s meteoric rise in the NBL could have had a different trajectory had things turned out differently.

The basketballer revealed that at the time of the Coronavirus pandemic, there were times he questioned the dedication he had for the sport.

“There’s so many times where it’s like ‘man, is this worth it?’. Like ‘am I just doing this just to do this?’. Just so much doubt I think in terms of [whether] will this ever work out. If I were to tell my younger self anything, it’s just trust in your work and just continue to go down the path that you think is right,” Ayre confessed.

“If all the work I look back on now that I did, I’m working out on outdoor courts. The NBL and professional basketball just seemed such a far-fetched thing at that moment. There were times when I wasn’t sure if it was worth it to continue training as hard as I was, and dedicating my life to basketball.

“I think I would just keep telling my younger self that you know that work is not wasted, it’s not going to waste and that eventually it’s going to work out one way or another and just to keep pushing through.”

Ayre is aware of the misconception that fans may have about him. He concedes that his persona on the court can rattle others at times. One such incident which caused commentary online (and made headlines) this NBL season was when he was seen exchanging heated words with Sydney Kings duo Shaun Bruce and Angus Glover.

But behind the steady ferocity that often cuts through television screens during games, Ayre shared that it’s a completely different story off the court.

“I would probably say that I think my persona on a basketball court would come across as I would say arrogant. I don’t know how to put it nicely but I get some sh*t to me where I could be a bit aggressive and this and that,” he said.

“But really off the court, I’m super laidback, pretty chill. I just kind of go about my business. I have a pretty tight circle of friends and family that I like to keep to. I think you would ask them [they would say] I’m a pretty chill guy. The complete polar opposite of what I am on the court.

“I think that would surprise some people. Maybe I come across [as] a bit intense. They might think I’d be the same off the court, but [it’s] quite the opposite.”

Over the course of his time, Ayre has learned to block out the noise and keep focused on his passion for basketball. When he isn’t refining his basketball skills on the court, he’s finding ways to excel on the court by taking care of his body and himself.

Although his main focus is on basketball, he added he has a fascination with the UFC. He said that he watches it most Sundays. Ayre takes an interest in those athletes, in particular American fighter Sean O’Malley, as he tries to implement their techniques into his own daily routines and workouts.

Ayre shared that it’s “super interesting” how the likes of O’Malley “go about their business”.

“I’ve seen his growth as a fighter [Sean O’Malley], now he’s quite famous. I used to follow him a bit when he didn’t have quite as big of a following. He’s a similar age to me as well, so it’s kinda cool to see his career and where he’s going. He motivates me a lot and I get a lot of inspiration from his career,”

The self-confessed “basketball junkie” credits former Taipans teammate Tahjere McCall for the player he is today. Since beginning his journey in Cairns, Ayre has developed a close connection with McCall which as he explained is continuing through into the NBL offseason.

“He’s [Tahjere McCall] given me a lot of advice over the time and just built a lot of confidence within me. He’s been massive for my career and just kinda looking at me eye-to-eye, not talking down to me ever or anything,” Ayre said.

“[McCall has] put me in the same boat as him as a basketball player and really made me feel like I could be a successful pro player. [He] put that belief in me that I am this good of a player.

“Tahj overall has been huge for me in the advice that he gives me daily. Even now when I’m not around him in the offseason we still talk and he’s just constantly instilling that belief in me still. He’s been massive for me.”

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Ayre is just happy to get the opportunity to play the sport he loves. He is also wanting to spend as much time as he can with his family now that he’s back in Melbourne, in particular, his two nieces.

“For me right now, it’s just I try not to look too far ahead. I’m really trying to be in the moment,” Ayre admitted.

Aside from wanting to win the title with the Sandringham Sabres, and helping to create a playing environment where “everyone is enjoying their basketball”, Ayre also revealed a personal goal that he’s working to achieve.

“I have a goal in terms of a player that I’d like to be. Also, a person I’d like to be. [I want] to try and keep working every day at the one per cent of things that will allow me to become that person and become that player that I’m striving to be,” he said.

“My goals are just really day-by-day things at the moment, so I’m just making sure I’m disciplined in my workouts. When I do have a workout when I’m feeling bad or when I’m having a bad day, that work gets done. Just being really disciplined with my recovery and just taking care of those small things I think that are going to lead to future success down the road.

“Just try to be the best player that I could possibly be.”

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