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Maher still "The Man"

“STOP complaining to the ref, Alice. If you’d boxed out in the first place you never would have gotten the foul.”

Straightforward. Honest. Indisputable.

As Tom Maher’s voice boomed across the silence in the moments after his Bulleen Boomers’ forward Alice Kunek was called for a foul under the basket at Adelaide’s distant Starplex, anyone who heard it instantly was privy to the no-nonsense approach that has earmarked his success.

No bullshit, that’s the Maher mantra.

Earlier this month in France, he coached China’s women through the FIBA Qualifiers and on to the Rio Games, making it six straight Olympics, leaving Hall of Famer Lindsay Gaze alone on five.

It is, as best described by Basketball Australia CEO Anthony Moore, “an extraordinary feat”.

Maher has been our most successful international coach, men’s or women’s. Again, just as it should be easy and acceptable to correctly declare Lauren Jackson as our greatest basketballer – without adding a gender disclaimer – it should be equally right to identify Maher as our greatest coach.

Those who baulk at that will point to his failed attempt to coach Hobart at the NBL – “he couldn’t coach men” – or the fact he didn’t stick in the WNBA as Washington Mystics head coach.

WNBL TITLE #9: Tom Maher coaching Bulleen (now Melbourne) in 2011 to his 9th title.

No bullshit, that’s the Maher mantra.

But being frank and forthright isn’t universally embraced. Certainly not by a lot of men, and coaching Hobart in the NBL meant massive upheavals and culture changes they clearly resisted.

And stewarding a franchise in the WNBA - where, again, egos rule and being told a blunt truth doesn’t always resonate sweetly for a spoilt and highly-paid athlete - also is not a great barometer of outstanding coaching.

Maher has been a seeker of the truth since he first came across the coaching caper.

As a young buck in Ray Tomlinson’s system, he was always seeking answers and not glib or presumptive ones.

AUSSIE NEMESIS: Zheng Haixia dwarfs Opals centre Rachael Sporn

If Tom asked how you ran your press, he didn’t want a wink and a polite “with hard work and effort” response but the nitty gritty, the technical detail, the why and wherefore.

He paid his way to the LA Olympics in 1984 to soak it up and learn. He sat with the best coaches and picked their brains until he had the answers he needed.

The WNBL tipped off in 1981 and his Nunawading Spectres entered in Year Two. By Year Three, 1983, he was a championship-winning coach. As he was again in 1984, 1986, 1987, 1988, yet still BA held him at arm’s length from the national head coaching job.

Maybe he was a little too brash for authority, a little intimidating, a little arrogant, a little too difficult to deal with for conservative folks happy to maintain the status quo.

Because, as you know, no bullshit is the Maher mantra.

BA finally relented after Australia, which played off for bronze at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, stumbled at the pre-Olympics and failed to qualify for Barcelona in 1992.

And it was still just “Australia” then because it was Maher, during his time as the national team’s head coach, who led the quest to find the team a nickname, unveiling the catchy “Opals” by which it now universally is identified.

At the 1994 FIBA World Championship – Oz94 – Maher debuted by steering Australia into the bronze medal playoff, matching the nation’s best ever result in his first time at bat.

China and its magnificent centre Zheng Haixia was Australia’s nemesis at the time but Maher had Australia seize every opportunity to play friendlies and matches against the Asian and world superpower.

Steadily, he demystified China until it went from Australia’s bogey team to Australia’s bunny.

DEMYSTIFIED: Rachael Sporn, Lucille Hamilton and MaryAnne Di Francesco with a mask of Zheng Haixia

At his first Olympics as coach, Atlanta in 1996, the Opals came home with bronze. At the 1998 FIBA Worlds, it was another bronze.

Then at Sydney 2000 and with inspirational captain and FIBA Hall of Fame-bound Michele Timms injured, the Opals still made it to the Gold Medal game, securing an unprecedented silver.

With two World Championship and two Olympics campaigns down, BA in its wisdom, deigned Maher was done and it was time for a new voice.

His successor, Jan Stirling, continued his culture and tradition of success, adding her own tweaks while Maher refused to accept his time as an international coach was up.

He took on New Zealand ahead of the 2004 Athens Olympics and the Tall Ferns finished eighth in Greece, their greatest international result.

Having taken China down as coach of the Opals, by the 2008 Beijing Olympics he was dragging it back up and into the medal rounds.

By 2012, he had done what few believed possible, making Great Britain competitive and a genuine opponent by the London Olympics.

Recalled by China to get it to Rio, the coach some whispered in 2010 was “yesterday’s man” proved yet again, straightforward and forthright has its own rewards.

Six consecutive Olympic Games as a head coach is incomparable.

Nine WNBL championships is incredible.

He is a WNBL Life Member and three-time Coach of the Year.

He is the No.1 coach Australia has produced.

No bullshit.

Jun 26

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