Written for nbl.com.au by Chris Pike
Mike Kelly wants his Cairns Taipans team to be known as fighters and competitors, and that’s the traits possessed by every player he’s signed so far and that’s exactly what he’ll be looking for in the imports as well.
It has been quite the journey for Kelly to go from an import for Griffith Demons in the NSW State League in 1990 to now be an NBL head coach for the Snakes heading into the 2018/19 campaign.
Along the way, he played in the NBL for nearly a decade including winning a championship with the South East Melbourne Magic in 1996 and going on to play at the Victoria Titans, Townsville Crocodiles and Wollongong Hawks upon retiring in 2005.
It was then time for the Southern Californian-native to begin his coaching career which started in the NBL as an assistant in Wollongong before taking up roles at Vanguard University and Utah Valley University.
It was then back to Townsville as an assistant coach under Shawn Dennis before joining Melbourne United with that time culminating in him being part of the 2018 championship.
It was clear that he was a head coach in waiting in the NBL and all that he needed was an opportunity. Once Cairns parted way with Aaron Fearne, Kelly thought it would be a perfect and was delighted to be given the nod for the next two seasons.
His first job as coach was to establish what he wanted his team to be known for. When that became clear that the first non-negotiables would be a team-first competitor who has a never-say die attitude and willing to leave no stone unturned, he turned his attention to signing players to fit that bill.
The Snakes had only Nate Jawai and Kuany Kuany under contract when Kelly was appointed and after learning Cam Gliddon, Mitch McCarron and Jarrad Weeks had moved on, his focus first was on re-signing veteran Alex Loughton.
He had one of the best seasons of his career in 2017/18 despite being now aged 35 and Kelly was delighted to have secured his signature.
Then to be able to sign Perth Wildcats trio Lucas Walker, Jarrod Kenny and Dexter Kernich-Drew, all with a point to prove, was something Kelly couldn’t be happier with considering the versatility Walker provides, the leadership and point guard role Kenny can fill and Kernich-Drew’s flat out scoring touch.
Getting Rob Loe from the New Zealand Breakers was another significant coup for Kelly and the Snakes considering his ability as a big to be equally effective as an inside and out scoring presence.
“The first thing that I would like for our club to be known for with me as a coach is fighting and competing all the time. They’ve done it in the past and we are going to continue to do that as we start the new deal here,” Kelly said.
“I like that about every player that we’ve signed so far. It started with getting Alex Loughton back here. We only had Kuany and Nate Jawai and that was it. So Alex Loughton was the first priority and a huge target for us.
“He sets the tone and he has got a little personality, but he also just plays really hard. He had a fantastic year last year so for myself and the club, I thought it was really important to get him back. Then the other guys that we’ve been able to sign have all these great qualities about them.
“It’s not just basketball qualities either. These guys play hard and I see them all being unselfish players and they seem to play for the team first, before they play for themselves. I think instead of us having to instil those qualities in those guys, they already have them and that’s going to help our group that way.”
Having patiently bided his time for a head coaching opportunity while enjoying his assistant roles in the NBL at both Townsville and Melbourne, Kelly couldn’t have been more thrilled to get the nod to coach in Cairns and return to Far North Queensland.
“It was a feeling of excitement when I was appointed. I was fresh off finishing our season at Melbourne United and that had been my whole focus for the last eight months and the two years behind that as well,” he said.
“But when there was actually an opportunity and I found out I got the job with Cairns, it was just unbelievable excitement about the opportunity to come up here and start something.”
Even without factoring in any import signings, the frontcourt at the Snakes looks exciting for 2018/19 with Jawai, Loughton, Loe and Walker all providing something different, and plenty of depth in their own right.
“I like the versatility of some of our big guys too. Rob can step out and shoot it, Waxy does a lot of different things all over the floor, Alex Loughton is able to step out and shoot that thing, and do it well,” Kelly said.
“Those guys do give us some toughness and versatility to be able to space the floor. We’ll be able to run a bunch of different combinations with those guys so it is exciting. We just have to figure out the best way to use it now.”
Now with seven signatures locked away for his first season in charge, Kelly will look to add another local who fits the bill in regards to the rest of the players he has signed.
And really he doesn’t want anything too different from his imports either – with character and their ability to make their team better always taking priority over their ability to put up pure numbers.
“The first thing is finding the same kind of people that we have been recruiting already, those same sort of guys who have some toughness about them and who are versatile and team guys first,” he said.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t go for a flat out scorer, but it will be a guy who will know what his job is and fit in with the framework of the team. We are really looking for some of the same qualities that we did with our locals and trying to add some scoring punch in there as well.”
While Kelly and his family are moving to Cairns for the first time, it’s not too far from Townsville where they had such a great time both during his playing career and then his assistant coaching days.
Coming back to Far North Queensland is something they are more than happy to be doing especially because it coincided with his first crack as a head coach in the NBL.
“It’s beautiful up here and our time in Townsville was special, and the people there were great. I think Queensland has a real genuine feel to it and I like that with the people. We had special memories in Queensland from our time in Townsville and we’re going to make some new ones in Cairns,” he said.
“It’s always a struggle when you are packing boxes and changing addresses, and cancelling your electricity and everything and starting up new, so there’s a little bit of that going on at the moment. But they are really excited also kind of for the new adventure and the chance for me to be a head coach.
“It’s something that they haven’t seen before and they know what it’s like to be part of a coaches’ family, so everything we do we do it together. The excitement is there with them now too as much as it is with me.”
Kelly’s first playing venture overseas took him to Taiwan before his first venture to Australia to play in Griffith. Then after stints at the North East Melbourne Arrows and Nunawading Spectres, once he got a taste of the NBL it was always going to be his second home.
Kelly and wife Annette have since become Australian citizens with their children all born in the country and while he will never forget his Southern Californian roots, he definitely considers himself Australian now too.
“When I first came over I really just wanted to keep playing basketball and this was an opportunity to do that. That was in 1990 so that was a while ago now. Just having an opportunity was what it was about first and then I just enjoyed so many things about Australia,” Kelly said.
“But the people are probably the thing that stood out more than anything. After I’d been here for a few years and anyone mentioned getting residency, I’d always said no because I considered myself American and didn’t feel right about getting another passport.
“But after I had been here six years and someone mentioned that, I realised how much I loved this place and would love to stay here a while. So I went down that road and ended up having all my kids born here and my wife has citizenship as well.
“It’s the people more than anything and I like that when you get here, people give you a chance. If you grab that chance, they love you and embrace you. I guess if they like you, Australian people show that and if they don’t like you, they definitely show that too.
“I’ve always liked how straightforward things are here in Australia and the people are always genuine. I’ve found that whether we were in Wollongong, Townsville and Melbourne, every situation has been good for us.”