Talented, divisive, driven: Andrew Bogut is back and ready to play

After earning an estimated $115 million in America's National Basketball Association, Andrew Bogut will front up for the Sydney Kings.

After earning an estimated $115 million in America’s National Basketball Association, Andrew Bogut will front up for the Sydney Kings.Credit:Tim Bauer

The Sydney Kings practice session begins at 9am sharp, and coach Andrew Gaze calls the shots. “Heels to arse!” he cries. “Sumos to the baseline!” he barks. “Now karaokes to the centre line!” (Whatever that means.)

It’s about six weeks before the October 11 start of the National Basketball League’s 2018/19 season, and the players dutifully obey – performing every calf-raise and leg-swing, high skip and crab-walk, defensive slide and double-hand dribble. Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney’s Olympic Park fills with the deafening peal of high-top sneakers on wood, but it’s not enough to drown out Gaze, who urges his men to “drive deep”, “push here” and “flatten there” – imploring them to “look in” and “strangle out”, pause, pick and penetrate.

The team seems unified in action, too. They’re gelling. That’s good. The Kings’ roster has a few new players to integrate this season, but none so experienced or talented, divisive or driven, praised or maligned as the recruit Gaze is goading right now. “Come on, Bogey!” he bellows. “Get those bloody knees up!”

Andrew Bogut, 33, is an undeniable presence. Standing 213 centimetres, he is simply, stunningly monstrous. On defence – in that area under the backboard they call “the paint” – Bogut rises to block shots and basically shuts out the light, like a human eclipse. On offence, he receives the ball then runs, dribbles, leaps and dunks – going from crouched to upright to elongated and airborne in three quick steps. Viewed in profile, as Bogut rises, the play looks like an athletic version of that illustration of evolution, The March of Progress. His infamous fiery side emerges, too, in an argument over an errant knee. Did he foul someone? Was he fouled? Is the defence or offence calling the infractions, or the coaches? Gaze and Bogut are face to face, pointing jabby fingers, until the big man ends it with a spittle-flecked roar: “Well, just call the f…ing fouls!”

Later, teammate Daniel Kickert will wave off that dispute as something he welcomes from Bogut. “It can be a great thing, pissing someone off, bringing out all the feelings,” Kickert says. “Confrontation gets a bad reputation.”

Kickert might be talking about the fracas, but he could just as easily be chatting about the life Bogut leads, which is (and always has been) punctuated by opinion and outburst. Bogut is perhaps the most outspoken athlete in Australia, and he is now home after 13 years playing in America’s elite National Basketball Association, earning an estimated $115 million in total and amassing 374,000 followers on Twitter, who adore his forthright and eclectic missives.

In just one recent fortnight, Bogut found time to mock the ABC, question the venue for the AFL grand final, and defend a cartoon many saw as racist. He says he has no time for the far right (“idiot white dudes with tiki torches”), but he reserves far more of his ire for the far left. He views political correctness, for instance, as a major issue, but cultural appropriation as a non-issue. Long-term stances include his veiled contempt for concepts like “triggering” or “safe spaces”. And don’t get him started on snowflakes. Or virtue signalling. Or outrage.

Consequently, many of the headlines he draws are blunt declaratory statements: “Andrew Bogut denies being a white supremacist”. Or “Andrew Bogut goes full alt-right, finally”. Or “Andrew Bogut is now a King, but he’s not a leader”. Sometimes his very name is twisted into an insult: Andrew Bigot. This is, however, a reductive view. Ask Bogut for his view on a handful of pivotal wedge issues, as I did, and you might be surprised by his answers. He seems eager to debate, occasionally changes his mind, and interacts with his haters. His tone is playful, too, even when dismissive. (“You a bust” writes one. “You a bad at grammar,” he replies.)

Now that he’s back in Australia, representing both the Kings and the NBL, the question arises whether he’ll become as predictably bland as most local athletes, or if Brand Bogut will remain defiant. The answer probably lies within two further questions: from where does this need to argue and rail actually spring? And if Bogey is a bomb waiting to go off, what exactly lit the fuse?

Andrew Bogut, right, tries to block a shot by Klay Thompson of the US during a game at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Andrew Bogut, right, tries to block a shot by Klay Thompson of the US during a game at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.Credit:Charlie Neibergall

When Andrew Bogut was 11, he cracked his head on a picket fence and sliced his scalp open. His reminders of this event are the crippling migraines he has suffered since – roughly one a month for 22 years. The debilitating syndrome can bring him to collapse in a sobbing heap, or cause him to punch a hole in an apartment wall. When a migraine comes on, he loses his peripheral vision first, his world growing shadowy on the fringes. Sciatica comes next, the pain starting in his back before creeping out to his extremities. “My whole arm will go numb, my lips, my teeth. There’s this pounding in my head, throbbing. I can’t see properly,” he says, sitting down to lunch at a cafe in Concord in Sydney’s west, near his new home. “After that I start throwing up, and then I can usually get to bed. I shut down for five hours. Maybe more.”

His education was difficult. He got off to a bad start at a small Catholic high school in Dandenong, a hard-scrabble suburb east of Melbourne, when he retaliated to provocation and was suspended for a minor scuffle. Bogut’s first growth spurt, at 12, shot him well above his peers, and his gangly frame drew immediate unwanted attention. His willingness to talk back drew more. “I was heavily picked on. Heavily bullied. I must have heard ‘lanky c…’ every single day of high school,” he says. “There were times when I was 13 and I had no one to talk to about it. I don’t know if dealing with it alone helped me or hindered me, but here I am.”

Fights found him, so he quickly developed a sense for which schoolyard corners were risky and which were safe, the corridors to avoid, the exits to use. His former English teacher, Pat Parkinson, says the bullying made him confrontational. “I liked Andrew, but he wasn’t an easy customer. He was an angry fellow, I suppose.” If there was any mischief in the area – letterboxes chopped down or car doors keyed – she says Bogut would invariably be called. “Andrew tended to be a prime suspect. And I can understand how he could think he was being picked on, because the suspicions weren’t always founded.”

Eventually, he was asked to leave the school, shortly before year 11 graduation. Bogut was mucking around in assembly, kicking the chair of a friend, and a teacher told him off. Bogut talked back, and it proved to be the last straw. His expulsion was softened, though, by the timing. He was only a few months away from joining the Australian Institute of Sport, given a basketball scholarship at the end of a tough junior career.

Bogut always loved the game. He was that boy who harassed friends to come over and play, but as he grew, they couldn’t compete and so they stopped coming. In adolescence he spent hours alone, tossing balls at the ring bolted to the side of his mechanic father’s carburetor shop. Bogut is the second child (he has an older sister, Michelle) of fiercely proud Croatian migrants who came to Australia in the 1970s from what was then Yugoslavia. He says his upbringing also explains his volatility. “It’s just the way Balkans are. We’re up-and-down, passionate people. It’s in my blood. We can get into a fight, punch each other in the face, and an hour later we’re hugging each other and eating and drinking together. That’s our craziness.”

On court, however, the teenager’s intensity alienated others. When he lost, he found it hard to hide his disgust. He would call out ball hogs on his own team. He looked up into the stands and sensed his mum and dad being ostracised by other teammates’ parents, although the competitive fire was his more than theirs. As his truculence built up and spilled over, coaches told him he had a bad attitude, that he would never make it, and Bogut would go home and cry. He had problems at the Dandenong Rangers, the Waverley Falcons and the Sandringham Sabres. “Ordinarily, when a kid ends up in the NBA, they go back to their junior club and have their picture on the wall. I don’t have that connection at all.”

It came to a head when he was left out of the starting squad for the Victorian under-15s. Bogut was not just crushed, but livid. He wrote down the name of every player who made the team, and made a point of destroying them on court when they next met. When, at age 16, he was left out of the under-18s state team, his parents, Miso and Anika, hired a private coach, Yugoslav player Sinisa Markovic, to give their son lessons before and after school. It proved a turning point. For four hours a day, every day but Sunday, for seven months, Bogut shot hoops left-handed, skipped with ankle weights and dribbled the ball while wearing plastic blinders (to keep him from peering down at his feet). More than any skill, however, he needed confidence. “Some kids need a kick in the backside, others need a tap on the bum,” Markovic says. “Andrew needed some light, positive talk. You don’t want to kill that inner kid.”

The stripling teen had just gone through his second growth spurt, and was now sprouting towards the 200-centimetre mark. It made him a formidable player but agonisingly self-conscious. He hunched over and drew his limbs to his body – anything to avoid attention. Markovic saw this and made Bogut begin their practices by yelling, “I am a great basketballer!” or “I am the best!” again and again, louder and louder, until the teenager was screaming. “It got me comfortable in my own skin,” Bogut says. “You start building yourself up, getting bigger and bigger, better and better, and you feel like you can walk the walk.”

His hands became clamps from which the ball could not be prised. He was big and skilled now, and nasty. By the time he got to the Australian Institute of Sport in year 12, the goal he listed on his athletic profile was “to prove a lot of people wrong”. Kickert, who was at the AIS when Bogut arrived, remembers a kid who behaved exactly like one who had been spurned. “He rubbed some people the wrong way, but not me,” Kickert says. “We used to get into one another in practice, but that makes sense. It’s meant to be cutthroat – iron sharpens iron.”

Bogut dominated in Australia’s junior team and immediately fielded million-dollar offers from clubs in Russia, Greece, Spain and Italy. But his eyes were on the NBA. He entered the US college system, specifically the University of Utah, to study business and train under infamous disciplinarian Rick Majerus, a coach with a reputation for “bringing on bigs”. Majerus tried to break him early and often, swearing at Bogut every day during drills: Go back to Australia, you pussy! You don’t belong here. Go back to your f…ing kangaroos! “Then he’d walk off court and go, ‘Hey, how are you Andrew? How’s your family?’ after berating me for three hours,” says Bogut, shaking his head. “He just had that switch.”

Bogut recently retweeted an article about toxic masculinity in the University of Maryland’s athletic program – specifically trainers pushing students to exhaustion and humiliation. He saw his own reflection. As a freshman, for instance, Bogut couldn’t bulk up, no matter how much junk food he ate. Then one day, after missing his target by two kilograms, he was forced to sit in the gym swallowing protein shakes until he made weight. “That shit still happens,” he says. “They’re the extremes we need to get out of sport.”

After two years though, he emerged as a bona fide “prospect”. Scouts began to drool. “Bogut is an impossible match-up,” said one US college coach at the time. “He’s the best big-man passer I’ve ever seen.”

Andrew Bogut, right, playing for the Golden State Warriors in an NBA game in California in 2014.

Andrew Bogut, right, playing for the Golden State Warriors in an NBA game in California in 2014.Credit:AP

On June 28, 2005, at Madison Square Garden, Andrew Bogut became the No. 1 draft pick, and soon after he was playing centre for the Milwaukee Bucks, only the sixth Australian to play in the NBA after Andrew Gaze, Shane Heal, Chris Anstey, Luc Longley and Mark Bradtke. His contract was worth $18.6 million over three years, and many millions more followed in a career spent mostly with the Bucks and in California with the Golden State Warriors (where he won an NBA Championship), along with shorter stints at the Dallas Mavericks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers.

His career was dogged by injury, though, and that explains in part the shift home to Australia. Slurping a bowl of lamb soup (followed by a plate of smashed avo on sourdough), Bogut points to the 28-game NBL season as infinitely preferable to the 82-game marathon in the NBA. His body is beaten up, after all, with a long history of what he calls “car-accident injuries” on court, including fractured ankles, broken legs and torn ligaments – never a routine hamstring strain or tight calf.

The worst was in 2010. You can watch it online. Bogut dunks and holds the ring, then is faintly nudged by another player, forcing him backwards to the floor, where he crashes and writhes in agony. Ultimately he suffered a shattered hand, snapped index finger, sprained wrist and badly dislocated elbow. It changed the trajectory of his career. “I lost all touch, and it took years to get it back. I used to be a really efficient scorer, but that tapered off into other roles – being more defensive, rebounding.”

His game was forced to evolve – or perhaps devolve. Once known for his intuitive passing and sprightly feet, he was later lauded for elbows and pushes. That became his role at the Warriors – a smart but defensive grunt worker, setting screens and giving the incandescent Steph Curry space to shoot freely. He was very good at that role, too, described by one opposing coach as “260 pounds of mean”. The Los Angeles Times once asked all two dozen NBA coaches to name their five dirtiest players in the game, and Bogut finished third (earning “the brawn’s medal”).

Andrew Bogut training with his new team, the Sydney Kings.

Andrew Bogut training with his new team, the Sydney Kings.Credit:AAP

At the Kings, Bogut will be able to return to something resembling the game of his youth. Gaze says the team wants to follow a style of play championed by the Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers and the San Antonio Spurs, where “the pass is king”. They want to fling the ball around to loosen up defences. “And Bogey is as good as it gets, the way he sees the floor, moves the ball,” says Gaze. “He understands the difference between a good shot and a great shot.”

Family was a key driver in the move, too. Bogut briefly considered signing with another NBA team in January; then his grandfather died. He came back for the funeral, stayed a while and enjoyed the rhythms of home. He had a toddler already, and his wife, Jess, was pregnant with another. They met as teenagers. She sold him a pair of jeans from behind the counter of Gasp clothing store at their local mall, Chadstone Shopping Centre. They married two years ago and want to settle in one place. “I was just kind of over going backwards and forwards,” he says. “I thought it was time to return to normality.”

He also wanted to help the NBL, whose fortunes have been alarmingly volatile over the past two decades, but now seem out of the wash and into clear water. Bogut saw a stable league, perhaps the most talented in the world after the NBA. He also saw the countless millions being poured into its restoration by league owner Larry Kestelman, a Melburnian entrepreneur and developer worth $784 million, who bought a controlling stake in the NBL three years ago. With a dozen Australians now playing in the NBA, and major world tournaments looming for national men’s team the Boomers, Bogut saw an opportunity. “Three years ago, if I’d been in this position, I probably wouldn’t have come home. I didn’t have any confidence in the NBL then. It was bush league at that point,” he says. “But Larry has brought it back.”

For a Victorian boy, signing with the Sydney Kings was an interesting move, especially given his hometown team, Melbourne United, were champions last season. The Kings are coached by the legendary Gaze, but finished second from bottom. That lowly standing gives Bogut a chance to build something from scratch, to be the face of their resurgence. He was also able to engineer a contract with Sydney that will give him a 10 per cent ownership stake in the team (in perpetuity), and when he retires he’ll have the right to buy an additional 25 per cent from a conglomerate of owners. He took immense pride in negotiating his own deal. In fact, it was a “bucket list” goal before his career ended – to sit at the table and iron out the particulars himself.

He’s frugal. Early in his career, Bogut splashed some cash on a couple of fancy watches and a few suits from Louis Vuitton, but that was all. He once called out the profligate stars around him, pouring public scorn on their appetite for fast cars and “bling bling”. His criticism of an ostentatious NBA culture was seen by some as a direct criticism of black culture, prompting the sports website Deadspin to dub him “The Honky Messiah” (or the “pro athlete version of a shitty hot taker”). Bogut says that was never his intention, and he argued as much at the time. Today it’s a memory that barely prompts him to shrug.

His goal now is to see the money he’s made grow independently. He recently completed a personal finance and wealth management course via Open Universities Australia, so he can better track his holdings – what’s making him money, saving him money, or helping him diversify. He has equity in various Silicon Valley startups. He has cars, too – but no low-riding Lamborghinis with rims or Bentleys with gold grilles. Having grown up around engines, his version of an extravagance was to buy rare editions of the various Holden Commodores made famous by racing driver Peter Brock. “The VC, VH, VK, VL, a few HSVs.” He has a mix of residential and commercial property in Melbourne and California. And now Sydney. He came here by himself in July, and spent 10 days baby-proofing the five-bedroom renovated Victorian house he bought for his family. “Fences, baby gates, baby cutlery, baby food, all that stuff you forget you need. I made about a thousand trips to Bunnings and Kmart.” (Today, after our lunch, he pops into the chemist to buy an air purifier for the nursery.)

Despite his home in a new city, and all this skin in a new game, Bogut has no intention of curating his comments. He signed with the Kings six months ago and has already proved a reliable dial-a-quote for journalists – promoting “trash-talking” on court, lashing Melbourne United for an “unprofessional” attempt to sign him (involving a disputed handshake agreement) and, most recently, criticising the league over umpiring issues (for which he is set to receive a formal reprimand).

He doesn’t hide his deeper beliefs, either. He is an unabashed fan, for instance, of controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Bogut is big on “personal responsibility”, and has taken time out to hear the firebrand professor speak at a theatre in Los Angeles. The two share similar concerns about the mandated use of preferred personal pronouns for transgender people. It aggrieves Bogut that such views see him labelled as an arch conservative. “You voice an opinion that’s not left, and suddenly you’re alt-right?” he asks, eyes wide. “If you trot out that kind of argument, you’re going to push more and more people to the right.”

His most notable gaffe came during the 2016 US presidential election cycle, after he gave oxygen to a debunked conspiracy theory in which Democratic Party members were allegedly running a child-sex ring out of a Washington DC pizza restaurant. Bogut, after reading what came to be known as one of the very first “fake news” hoax items, tweeted his thoughts: If only 1% of this #pizzagate scandal is true, all people involved deserve life in prison (or worse) #sick.

“I knew this would come up,” he says, snapping a piece of streaky bacon in half. “I saw some tweets, should have researched it a little more, totally admit that. I didn’t realise it was a political smear against Hillary Clinton. People started jumping on it. I got smashed for a month. Death threats, all kinds of shit. To this day I still get tweets about it.”

That came hot on the heels of a war of words with Australian women’s basketball star Liz Cambage, who had attended a #blacklivesmatter rally in Melbourne. “Protesting against police brutality in Melbourne is like protesting for less jumbo jets to be on highways,” tweeted Bogut. Predictably, it became a long-running and spiteful back-and-forth, played out not just between them online but in news stories and press conferences. What possessed him?

“What do you mean?” he asks.

Well, when someone makes a public statement of support for a movement like Black Lives Matter, wouldn’t it be smarter to just not wade in?

“Why?” he counters. “Because it’s a touchy subject and I’m just supposed to shut up? Nah. I just don’t believe Melbourne has a police-brutality problem, and to compare that to what’s going on in America is outrageous. I think anyone in their right mind would agree with that. Are we in a landscape where that can’t be said?

“I’ve faced racism. I grew up as a wog. My first language was Croatian, so I had broken English as a kid. I wasn’t profiled, but hang out with your mates wearing three-stripe Adidas trackie pants at a shopping centre and you get asked to move along pretty quickly,” he says. “And I’m not sitting here hoping Cambage fails. I want her to win. She’s an Australian great – she can be up there with the best we’ve had.”

His views tend to skew right, but if there’s anything guaranteed to raise his hackles, it’s being lumped into any ideological camp. “ ‘Are you a Republican or a Democrat? Are you Liberal or Labor?’” he asks, rolling his eyes. “I always say I’m neither – I’m common sense.” He does web videos with political commentators lamenting the rise of “social-justice warriors”; the radio in his car is tuned to talkback station 2GB; and he joins Rita Panahi for long chats on Sky News. “I’ve been on The Project, too. And ABC News,” he says in response. “It’s a case-by-case thing with me.”

Okay, so how does he feel about reproductive rights? “I’m not anti-abortion, and I’m not pro-abortion – there are cases for and against. If there’s rape involved, that’s a no-brainer for me.” What if someone merely fell pregnant by accident? “That’s where I have a real inner battle. I don’t think a kid should be brought into the world if they’re not wanted, so I lean more to the abortion side.” Let’s keep going. Gay marriage? “If two girls want to get married and they’re happy, by all means, go for it. It’s not going to affect me. Two guys want to elope to Hamilton Island? Have at it.”

Climate change – does it exist and do we need to act? “I think it’s cyclical, I honestly do. I think we’ve polluted the earth, there’s no doubt about that. But take the plastic bags ban – that seems like a blatant attempt by supermarkets to save money and pretend they’re serious.” But surely it’s a step in the right direction? Maybe plastic packaging will go next? “That should have been the first step. Look, if you’re dropping rubbish in the street, or pouring poison into rivers, I have a huge problem with that. Do I think the world is going to end if we don’t change immediately? No, I’m not one of those guys.”

What about stopping the boats – Manus Island and Nauru? “Not good. Not good for anyone. You’ve got people who are trying to better their lives, and what happens over there is not human. But what’s the solution?” He talks about drowning at sea, and “the queue”, and open borders in Germany. Bogut likes to roll ideas around in his head, and online, often before his opinion is fully formed. He doesn’t mind that uncertainty, even if it sometimes gets him into trouble.

I wonder how those around him feel about his persistent presence in the news. After all, these days a bad gaffe can quickly spiral into a campaign orchestrated to force institutions and sponsors to drop you. Andrew Gaze isn’t concerned. The coach says Bogut knows where the line is, and anything that raises his profile also raises that of the Kings. “Someone sitting at home with a remote might go, ‘There’s that Andrew Bogut. I’ve heard of him, I might watch this game.’”

Andrew Bogut likes to engage in debate on social media.

Andrew Bogut likes to engage in debate on social media.Credit:Twitter

As a “seven-footer”, Bogut can probably play the game as long as his legs and back will allow him to get up and down the court, which could be three or more years. As for what comes after that, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald hoops writer Roy Ward suspects Bogut could end up working at an executive level with an organisation like the NBL, or Basketball Australia. “With his wealth, he could afford to pick and choose where he gets involved,” Ward says. “He doesn’t strike me as someone who will ever leave basketball cold turkey.”

NBL CEO Jeremy Loeliger sees commentary in his future. “Andrew has a fantastic basketball IQ and his insight would be interesting listening for sure,” says Loeliger. “We know he has very strong opinions on all kinds of matters, and while that could be polarising for a TV audience in some instances, it’s what seems to grab people’s attention in the TV world these days.”

For his part, Bogut observes the banter between AFL and NRL players on endless panel shows, where they say nothing meaningful, and wonders whether he couldn’t help basketball by bringing a bit of bombast to its coverage. “Even if it’s guys going back and forth, trading insults, that banter could be our niche,” Bogut says. “We could be the league that’s happy to create rivalries.”

Paul Kind says the same thing. Kind is the former head of commercial for the NRL, and current CEO of Total Sport & Entertainment, which owns half of the Kings. He points out that commanding attention – on the back page or the front – is crucial in a city with 21 professional sporting teams. “He’s unfiltered. And we don’t intend to direct him,” Kind says. “Sport in this country is quite sanitised. Athletes end up conditioned, and Andrew isn’t. I don’t think he cares what anyone thinks, and that’s good. Most of us care too much.”

Indeed, for a guy who’s meant to be surly, Bogut can be surprisingly personable. He smiles a lot, and takes no offence when challenged. The angry young teenager has grown into a chatty adult, albeit one some would argue is too loose with his lips. He likes a reaction, and the interaction that follows (and has even passingly referred to himself as a troll). It’s no surprise that his favourite emoji is tears of laughter, which he reserves for things he finds genuinely funny or genuinely stupid, whether it’s the voting system in the Brownlow Medal or the push to rename Father’s Day “Special Person’s Day”. “I just like engaging in debates. That’s what social media is for me,” he says. “I think we’re too sensitive. There are serious issues in the world, and we get sidetracked by dumb shit, policing language because we might hurt someone’s feelings.”

A few weeks later, sitting down inside Bendigo Stadium in regional Victoria, Andrew Bogut is as frank as ever. The NBL Blitz is underway. The round-robin tournament takes all eight teams into remote markets, acting as a promotional roadshow ahead of a new season. Most athletes interviewed in such professional pit stops would celebrate the facilities, thank the crowds, and gush over the calibre of the contest. Bogut summarises the game he played last night as perhaps only he can, or would.

“Typical sloppy pre-season game – I think only a thousand people came,” he says, not a care in the world for the PR handlers and communications directors sitting nearby. “It was crappy basketball, going through the motions. Honestly, I would have been pissed if I’d paid for a ticket.”

To read more from Good Weekend magazine, visit our page at The Sydney Morning Herald or The Age.

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