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Rillie prepares for Perth fans to turn up the heat – Code

The Perth Wildcats had their incredible 35-year playoff streak ended in April. New coach John Rillie knows taking the team back to the top is the only thing on the agenda, writes DIGBY BEACHAM.
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John Rillie has assumed his position in the hot seat… and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
In fact, you suspect he wouldn’t be alarmed if you turned up the heat. Rillie looks ready, converses like he is ready and the results thus far, albeit abbreviated during a pre-season and NBL Blitz, indicate he is most definitely ready.
As the new Perth Wildcats coach, the 50-year-old has been entrusted with one of the most important sporting positions in WA. Every decision, both during the week and on game day, along with every comment he utters will be scrutinised to an inch of its existence.
In fairness to Rillie, the intense focus is not because he is a former NBL great who torched the Wildcats on more than one occasion during his stellar playing career. Rather, WA basketball fans have become accustomed to success. Their beloved Wildcats’ 35-year playoff streak ended in April this year. As it went by the wayside, so too did Scott Morrison’s time as coach, the Canadian and new ownership parting company soon after the Annus horribilis.
The coaching baton was not long after handed to Rillie and unlike his predecessor, who had to endure a difficult time as Australia battled the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and draconian restrictions and border backflips imposed by WA Premier Mark McGowan, it has been a smooth bedding down period.
“I’ve had some time to digest it, but it’s all going well,” Rillie saysahead of Perth’s home opener against the Brisbane Bullets on Sunday afternoon.
“It was pretty helter skelter to start with, but I have settled in and we are now right into the cut and thrust and ready to go. I need to be prepared.
“We will get judged when things count. I’m happy. One of the attractive things about the Perth Wildcats is it’s a franchise that has an expectation and I want to be involved in that situation. That suits me in what I am trying to achieve.
“Unfortunately the playoff streak is no more, that is done. We can’t do anything about that. In saying that, the roster we have assembled is sound, very sound in fact. I am really happy with the buy-in and the basketball IQ that we possess. That’s incredibly important.”
What hasn’t been lost on the Wildcats organisation and the players is that in Rillie, they have a coach who is driven. A true leader who demands high standards, unflinching effort and believes in perseverance. He practices what he preaches.
Rillie applied for the Wildcats position when five-time championship mentor Trevor Gleeson took up an opportunity to join the coaching staff at the Toronto Raptors. Morrison got the nod ahead of him.
He didn’t sulk, rather continued on his coaching path as an assistant at UC Santa Barbara. And clearly he didn’t hold a grudge. When the role opened up after Morrison’s resignation, Rillie was only too happy to be involved in the process once more.
“I was in the mix last year and obviously came up short,” Rillie says with his slight American twang as a result of spending more than a decade coaching in the USA.
“When the process started this year, for me, it felt different. I felt as if I went in a little bit more prepared. Having been familiar with the people I was sitting in the room with helped and I just felt like I was in a better position to present.
“Ten months on from going through my true head-coaching interview process, in my job in Santa Barbara, you’re approaching things a little differently. I felt I was able to get myself a little more organised because if you do want the top job you need to lead.
“To be comfortable in your own philosophy, your messaging is important. The ownership group from SEN, a couple of key Wildcats people interviewed me and I felt they could see the difference. I honestly think this time around I wanted the job, not hoped I would get the job. It sounds subtle, but there’s a distinct difference. The first time was educational and I probably didn’t come across like I desperately wanted the job.
“The second time around I did. I made sure I understood they knew that. I think in basketball, and that’s the only thing I really know, you have to be comfortable and confident in how you believe things should be approached defensively, offensively, your staff, your personnel, the playing style, the players, type of people that work well with you … all bases need to be covered.”
It wasn’t a case of out of sight, out of mind for Rillie. He remained very much cognisant of basketball Down Under given his passion for the game and his position on Boomers coach Brian Goorjian’s staff.
“Over the last couple of years, the NBL has done a great job in making the games accessible in the US live via YouTube,” he says.
“I can’t say I watched every NBL game, but I did watch a high volume of games because timing worked out. Saturday night, the triple-header was being played. I would come home from one of my games and peel off, as long as I could stay awake, as much NBL action as possible.
“I had a pretty good pulse on the whole league and you watch it as a fan in that situation so you don’t necessarily watch from a coach’s perspective. Once this opportunity comes, you revisit the Perth Wildcats position and you have a more intimate feel of the league — I genuinely believe I’ve got a good handle on the NBL and talent pool of the league.
“What going to the US allowed me to do was disassociate myself with the NBL. There was a certain part of me that if I was to ever come back to the NBL, and this is only my opinion, but I just couldn’t come back into the gym where everybody thinks you’re just the player. It certainly gets brought up enough and I’ve been out of it now for 12 years. To try and do that immediately, you could have been coaching players you were teammates with and that makes it difficult as far as respect and accountability and that sort of stuff. Going to the US certainly from a coaching standpoint helped me out. I feel I have come back and have some fresh eyes.”
Perth people are proud of their sporting teams. Nearly as much as they revel in their separation from the rest of Australia. It is why so much of the state was flummoxed when the Wildcats missed the play-offs last season.
Their home and away win-loss record of 16-12 would have been acceptable to most, just not the Red Army, which felt it was watching a train crash in slow motion as the losses started to mount in the run to the post-season.
One of the greatest Wildcats of all time, Ricky Grace, made it known in a room full of sporting enthusiasts earlier this year. At a luncheon in a five-star hotel where the American-born, Perth-based star was a special guest alongside former Australian cricket coach Justin Langer, it was put to him that the monkey had been removed from the back of the Wildcats.
The streak was over and that was a good thing. The reset button had been pushed. Grace was having none of it. As a four-time championship winner and veteran of more than 480 games with the Wildcats, the remarkable sequence of finals appearances was a badge of honour to all past and present Cats, according to Grace. A sense of identity had been lost.
Rillie didn’t witness a locker room in mourning when he arrived for the first time at the club’s headquarters, Bendat Basketball Centre. It’s probably just as well. Whether it is his age or an extended stint in college ranks in the States where often a more dictatorship approach is employed by coaches, Rillie has a disposition that leans towards the firmer side. That’s not to say he hasn’t spent countless hours building relationships with his squad.
“If they need a cuddle consistently, then I am probably not the right guy,” Rillie says. ”What I would say is that the group from last year, and there have been a couple of changes to the roster, has a good edge about them. It’s interesting how you look at the playoff streak ending. The team was 16-12 and things that I try to highlight to people is if you were 16-12 two years ago, I think that would have got you second place.
“If you put that into a business model outside of basketball, you would still be a pretty successful business. The measuring stick is no doubt play-offs and championships, but then when you take the emotion away from it, they were still a pretty good team.
“During the interview process, the one thing that was asked is about the history of the club, the pride of winning championships and I feel like I have an understanding on what is required here. You are no under illusion here. If you can’t quite get to the top of the mountain, you still need to be pretty good. But is that going to be enough? I know I have been brought here to win.”
“I would hope that the players know I am invested in them as people, understand who they are, what makes them tick, their family and all that type of stuff. If so, they can then have that trust in me to be demanding of them on the floor. I have spent a lot of time talking, meeting, having coffees, texting to build that rapport. No matter what you are, if you feel like someone really understands you as a person, that’s when you can get the best out of them on the court.
“I‘m under no illusion that for you to be a great coach, you need great players. To come into a franchise that has, if not the best, one of the best in the competition in Bryce Cotton, you are ahead of the curve. For me, building a relationship and getting an understanding of what makes Bryce tick is critical.
“As he has questions about me as a coach, I want to make sure I am addressing all the areas that need to be addressed and am putting him in positions where he can be as successful as he wants. His competitive desire is elite. So many people in sport say they want to win. It’s the company line. Bryce is a competitor, flat out competitor.”
Those on hand to watch the Wildcats host the Bullets, failing that those watching the game on television, will see a “flat-out competitor” stalking the sideline. His name is John Rillie. He was born ready.
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