In Part 2 of NiuBBall.com’s interview with DongGuan New Century head coach, Brian Goorjian, we discuss philosophies on player development, the progression of basketball in Australia and the direction of Chinese basketball among other topics.
If you missed it, click here to read Part 1.
NiuBBall: You guys have been described as following a Manchester United-type model for player development. Can you describe your overall system and philosophy for developing players and how you go about executing that?
Brian Goorjian: Well I think everything starts with the ownership and the philosophy of the owner. Again, in my time in Australia, my reputation and my background goes to [player development]. It’s a long story, but the guru of Australian basketball was Lindsay Gaze and the greatest player was Andrew Gaze, and they were like the Guangdong Southern Tigers in our town. They won championships, they had the best talent. And we had to come up with some kind of avenue to promote our team and win. And we elected to go through with a youth movement, and through that – long story short — we had great success. A similar situation happened when I went with the national team in Australia. Everybody retired after Sydney [in 2000], we brought in a young group to go to Greece and they put me in that coaching position to groom that group.
The boss [in DongGuan] has done a similar situation here. He’s had a vision, he wants to set up a system and a program that puts facilities and people in place to recruit the best young kids and be responsible for their development. A kind of chain from within, a process that produces Chinese National Team players and championships. He’s put a facility in place, he’s put 12 or 15 coaches, strength coaches, assistant coaches, junior skill development coaches, and then he has people throughout China that he communicates with to recruit what we feel are the best young kids in the country. And then he brings them here. He starts them with the third team, then they go to the second team and they work their way through. We have programs and coaches in place that we feel are second-to-none and facilities, food and diet that are second-to-none to get these top kids to the promised land.
This thing has only started. This isn’t something that’s been in place for the last 15 years. The group that I have now is the first group that’s going to emerge. That started three or four years ago, that’s Li Muhao, that’s — I call him Justin — Zhao Jie, that’s Sun Tonglin, Gu Quan, He Zhongmian, that’s Luo Hanshen… now, there’s a group of players underneath that who played on the under-17 team that just finished second in the tournament to Liaoning that has four National players. It’s a stronger group than the group that I have now. So this next group coming through – and it happens quick, these kids are three years away – they’re going to come in and three or four of them are going to tie-in with the three or four that we already got and it’s going to keep moving like that. Then those will spit out and other ones will come through.
This next part of the action is something that’s going to be seen three years from now with Liu Bo, Yu Dehao… these kids are going to come through. Those kids started here younger and they’ve had better coaching because there’s been junior Chinese coaches and junior Western coaches all together. That wasn’t set up initially for Li Muhao and Sun Tonglin. Players were brought in, but the change wasn’t built yet. So these kids have had coaching, and they’re going to come to me or whoever is the coach, and they’re going to be more polished than the group that I’m getting.
Now when you ask what are we doing or what am I doing… Well, we take a month off –at the end of the season you go home for a month. Then you come back and all of those kids move to the training sites and we train from 9-am-12pm and 4pm-6pm five or six days-a-week. Then you’re looking maybe as many as 45 pre-season games leading into the regular season. And a big part of the philosophy is to get the players stronger, to get the players better skilled and to get the players competition in the off-season. We feel like if each one of our players can get better individually, we will be a better team. I know the league’s changing and things are changing, but I know we’re doing things to make sure that these kids are developing all the way through.
So let’s say, as an example, if a kid doesn’t play or if he’s playing 10 minutes a game, we make sure those kids are lifting and training and working out every afternoon while the season is going along, where a lot of these guys I know that we get to come and train, the season will come along and they do nothing but travel and eat and sit on the bench and clap. We have coaches – and I’m not saying that other teams aren’t doing that now, I’m just talking about us – we’re making sure all the way through. We’re getting these guys and moving them forward skill-wise, strength-wise and even if they’re not going to play a lot of minutes during the season, we’re making sure they’re getting their games during pre-season.
We did it in Australia, but I didn’t have what I have now. I didn’t have the facilities, I didn’t have the full-time commitment from the players like we have here, and I didn’t have the staff. Compared to what I was doing before, this is more sophisticated.
NiuBBall: You talked about Li Muhao regressing a little bit when he went outside your off-season program a couple years ago, and you also said that Yu Shulong, because of a lack of playing time, isn’t the same player he was three years ago. In your opinion, what do those two experiences say about the overall system in China for developing players?
BG: Well, this isn’t about opinion. I try to take opinion out of it. I look at that word and I don’t think people what to hear your opinion, players don’t want to hear your opinion. You want facts.
If I have a player and I send him away for four months, we weigh him. We have physical testing. How much they do on the squat, what they get on a conditioning test, how they do on a four minute shooting drill, what they weigh, what their body fat is… so if you have 10 things that are measurable that our players have to get done to play in our system, and they’re at a certain stage and you send them wherever you want to send them – the Los Angeles Lakers, or somewhere in the United States, somewhere in China – wherever you want to send them, when they come back they either got better or they got worse or they stayed the same.
And like I was saying, I don’t know what took place, but when Li Muhao came back [to DongGuan], he tested poorly and he was in a bad way. Now I don’t know if he was sick while he was over there, or if he sat on the bench the whole time and he didn’t play, I don’t know what happened. But when you leave at 94 kilos and you come back at 90 kilos, you make 45 threes inside of four minutes, now you can’t get 45 threes off in four minutes… I mean, I don’t know. When Luo Hanchen came back from where he was, he was four kilos heavy. If you’re traveling and playing, and you’re playing 15 minutes a game and that’s the program, it would be very hard for me to hand your player back like you had him when you were training five hours a day, or four hours a day, five times a week.
Again, they go away and you train nine hours in a day? In my philosophy, we don’t do that. We train for a certain amount of time and we have a huge emphasis on recovery and rehab. So if you take take this much out of the tank on the first day, and this much out on the second day, then the next day it’s going to be recovery and rehab and maybe some video and some pool and some freshening up. On the weekend, if we go Saturday, then Sunday is free so they don’t get burned out.
Again, this is a philosophy that we have to suit the testing over the course of time we have. I know to get the [test] scores and to get the players where I want them to be, I know how to work the week for our system and how we do. The guys that we’ve had working in this, like right now we’ve got Sun Tonglin with us for the whole pre-season. We’re real happy with where he’s at. For what we do and for the development of our players in our system, I feel like we do the best job for that.
But also, and I have done the same in Australia, we must support and help the development of the National Team and hopefully our club is developing National Team players. In turn, in my career I’ve never had a guy go away to the National Team for four or five months at a time. That’s a first for me here.
NiuBBall: There was talk this summer about Guo Ailun leaving China to play in Greece. That move was ultimately blocked and possibly put off for another year. Are you in favor of allowing young Chinese players to go abroad to develop with other clubs?
BG: My thing is – and this was always the same in Australia – you hope that you can move this game here [in China] and this competition can take care of the best Chinese players. You want the best Chinese players playing in China. That’s what the CBA is about, and that’s what the CBA should promote. The CBA should be linked in with the Olympic team. There is going to be the odd-player, like an Yi Jianlian, like a Yao Ming, where going outside the country is not only good for the player, but also good for Chinese basketball. Yao Ming has done an unbelievable service to the game around the world and in China. He’s the one I think that’s made the whole thing go. He lifted the game here while he was in America.
The player that you’re talking about [Guo], I go case-for-case on it. For me, that kid belongs playing here in China, linking into our national program and becoming the face for Chinese basketball. Sitting on the bench being a bit-player on a European team, to me, I’d say no. I want him here. The CBA wants kids like that playing in this.
Now if we’re talking about Yi, I’d say by all means. But I’m hoping that his league will provide the development and provide the link to the national team where Guo would be giving Chinese basketball the best service and vice-versa. I’d hate to see eight or nine of these guys who are being groomed and developed for the National Team to go outside of China. That’s the whole reason why the CBA is here and the whole reason why people are working so hard to make the CBA what it is. They’re trying to bring the best imports outside the NBA to this country, the best coaching outside the NBA to this country, exactly to solve the issue of how to provide for a kid like Guo. So to have all those things happening and to have those kids leave would be a disservice.
NiuBBall: Australian basketball has made a lot of progress in recent years whereas 20 years ago or 15 years ago, Australia wasn’t exactly known as a hotbed for basketball talent. Now, the national team is coming off of a very successful trip to the Olympics, there’s guys playing in the NBA, in Europe, in the NCAA… What happened within that time period to allow that progression? Do you see any similarities between Australia and China, and would it be possible for the same type of development to happen in this country?
BG: I think in Australia, it started as a fourth or fifth-tier sport. And then it hit a popularity boom in the late 80s and that lasted for about 10 years. What happened during that period is we got top athletes attracted to the sport. We were getting third and fourth-tier athletes, then we started getting top-tier athletes. We got more money for coaches, more money for players, more notoriety, it was an attractive deal and the game took a huge leap. And then the fact that it’s English-speaking, the kids can easily qualify to play in the United States. Now it’s become an international sport, so you can play it overseas. The money that’s gone into the game has caused it to take a huge leap.
Here, I see a very similar situation happening. But to be truthful, it’s happening quicker. I just think since Yao Ming at the [2008 Beijing Olympics], this thing is moving at hyper-speed. From where our club three years ago, which was maybe 10 or 12 junior players running and doing lay-ups under a stick to what is going on now – I mean, the development of the Chinese coaches, the Chinese coaches in this league in the CBA and even some of the ones who have gotten fired, are very knowledgeable and hard working.
I can see it in the junior level as well, I think the Chinese coaches are trying to grasp knowledge, they’re watching tape and they’re taking it very seriously. They’re learning. And they’re also bringing Western coaches over, not only in the senior programs, but in the junior programs. And the quality of imports is moving to another level. The competition is getting better, the coaching is getting better, the kids attracted to the game are getting more and more… there’s so much more resources, there’s so much more money, there’s so many more people, I just see this place in 10 years time as honestly being the best place for basketball outside the United States.
NiuBBall: It’s always been something people generally like to say – both in the West, but probably even more so in China – the belief that Chinese players aren’t physically suited for high level international play, that they have trouble adapting when the physical intensity gets ramped up. I think it’s been an even bigger button in discussions since the London Olympics where most people feel the team got dominated physically. Do you buy into that? And is that something that the CBA can fix?
BG: I think it’s happening as we speak. I don’t think what happened in London was Coach [Bob Donewald Jr.’s] fault. It’s a product of what this is. And I think its how Chinese basketball has been viewed. You got Americans coming here averaging 33 points a game that came out of the EuroLeague where they were averaging 12 points. I get calls all the time, “What do you offensively? How do you score that much?” Well, the league’s not as physical. It doesn’t really play defense. It doesn’t take care of the ball and have the shot selection. It’s a looser, grab-the-basketball-type league. And I think in the last three years, it’s tightened up dramatically.
Chinese basketball is getting better. And I think all the coaches currently are emphasizing the points that you’re talking about. They’re trying to get the Chinese stronger, they’re trying to change their diet, and they’re trying to get them to compete harder and to get them to play more physical. I think the group that went to London were guys at the tail-end of the old system. I think in the new system, Chinese players are going to be stronger, are going to be tougher on the defensive end on the floor and will compete better. And again, I think the coaching has changed for the better in regards to that over the last three years.
A lot of the games when I first got here were like 145-125. And it wasn’t an overtime game! The games were different this year, a lot different. And I think that’s been the biggest change from this year to last year. I think the physicality is a weakness of the league, but it’s being addressed. I think we’re going to win that battle.
NiuBBall: You just mentioned how the National Team is in a transitional period, the old generation moving out and being replaced by the new one. Is the National Team job on your radar? Is that a position of interest if it were offered to you?
BG: Yes. It was like in Australia. I was coaching this and you’re totally focused on your team. The national program or things like that, it’s totally out of your control, so you can’t be goal orientated like that. You can’t set out to try and be the National Team head coach. What you can set out in doing is to try and do the best job for your club and whatever else comes your way.
I’ve always felt that the National Team, playing in the Olympics, is like the military. I live in China, this is my fourth year, I’m dedicated to our team. I’m dedicated and responsible for the development of Chinese basketball and the growing of the league and the development of the players. If they asked, and the [DongGuan] boss wanted it, it’s like the military: You do it, and you do it gladly. It was the same in Australia. That job was thrown into my lap and I did it for as long as they needed me. So if somebody came and said “Hey, we need you,” and it could be in any form, whether it was working on their defense, or coming in for two weeks to help their guards, or if it was to coach… whatever it was for the national program I’d say yes if it was supported by the owner.
NiuBBall: Name one thing you like about the league and one thing you wish you could change with a snap of your finger.
BG: One thing I really like about this, I love the regimentation and the support and having this be full-time. The thing in Australia, and I did 30 years of coaching there, was that there was always other things outside of just coaching the team that you and the players were involved in. Promoting the game, working other jobs… and when I say promoting the game I mean that there was all kinds of jobs that had to be done outside of playing. The players lived with their wives and their families, some of them worked, and the basketball was peppered into your day. The second part of that was that there was always pressure on the clubs to survive financially.
Here, you just feel like you’re a part of something that’s really solid. And it’s funny because I know they get criticism, but I just feel like the CBA is a really powerful organization backed by the government. The league has a nice TV package and you feel like it’s really strong and you feel part of something that’s really secure. The second thing is the full-time-ness of it, that the players live on the site and you have them 24/7. They’re with you the whole time. They’re at you’re call. That package is my favorite, that’s the thing I really enjoy about it.
The thing about snapping your fingers… it’s a really delicate one. Going back to my answer about the National Team job, if I was involved in the national program, I would do anything that I possibly could — both as a club team coach and as a national coach — to make Chinese basketball stronger. I guess if I could snap my fingers, I’d change how that all works. You have a nine month off-season and kids go away, under-17s or under-19s, and they’re gone for five or six months. I just think that whole thing, the kid’s commitment to the club, the kid’s commitment to the national program, how the national program links to the club… I’d like to have a snap of my fingers on that and get that in its proper space.
Again, I just think it leads into how you train and how to deal recovery. I would really like to get more balance on that.
NiuBBall: Coach Goorjian, we really appreciate your time. Good luck with the rest of the pre-season and we hope its a good season in DongGuan for you this year.