“Well, I hate Melbourne United, so I’m in the right spot. It’s a prerequisite of coming to the Phoenix, right?” the local legend, who spent a season as an assistant under Vickerman at United, laughs.
“No, it’s super exciting, I love competing against people who I respect and that’s what it’s going to be against Melbourne.”
Kelly’s career might have gone in a different direction, were it not for Vickerman’s backing when he arrived at United in 2017.
Since, Vickerman has become one of the most respected coaches in Australia and, as he closes in on 300 games this season, he’s become an elder statesman in the NBL mentor ranks.
“I’m really enjoying it, I’ve got a really good coaching staff, really trying to empower them and I’m excited about the season,” Vickerman said.
Former United guard Pete Hooley, who spent two seasons under Vickerman from 2017-19 said the 52-year-old’s legacy of mentoring a production line of coaches was a mark of the very best.
Kelly, since leaving United in 2018, was the NBL’s coach of the Year in Cairns and an assistant with the Australian national team. Mitchell was SEM’s head coach for four years, Ross McMains went on to be an NBA assistant in Boston and both Justin Schueller and Darryl McDonald left at the end of last season to take the reins in Brisbane.
The pair still speaks regularly but that will be on hold this week ahead of Thursday night’s NBL season opener at John Cain Arena in front of a sold out crowd.
“I think the atmosphere’s going to be electric, my energy will be through the roof so I’ll be crossing my arms to keep my hands from going everywhere,” Kelly said.
“We had an eye on them the whole tournament and what’s going on with their new imports and they’re getting healthier with (Mitch) Creeky coming back — he gave us 30 in the pre-season — and we look forward to an absolute Throwdown battle in front of a sold out crowd,” Vickerman said.
It’s going to be a tough ask for the Phoenix. United has a loaded roster, is largely injury-free, save for the long-term absence of Jo Lual-Acuil Jr and has looked the team to beat in pre-season — although star import recruit Ian Clark won’t play as he deals with a hamstring issue.
SEM will suit up a depleted outfit, missing key bigs Alan Williams and Gorjok Gak, as well as star point guard Gary Browne, who was scratched on Wednesday with a reoccurrence of a hip injury.
In better news for the ‘visitors’ from The Heartland, Tassie recruit Matt Kenyon is set to make his debut after suffering multiple ailments throughout the pre-season that have kept him off the practice floor and big import Tyler Cook, off an MVP campaign at the NBL Blitz, looks a ready-made replacement for Williams.
Sold out over a week ago, the NBL’s decision to tip off its new season in the middle of AFL grand final week looks a stroke of genius.
More than 10,000 fans will pack John Cain Arena for the highly-anticipated clash — and the Phoenix are also eyeing their biggest home debut ever on Sunday, with upwards of 7,000 predicted for their play-in rematch with Perth.
“It’s a big weekend of sport and we are tracking for a bumper crowd Sunday,” Phoenix boss Tommy Greer said.
“It’s looking like our biggest home opener to date and is a great way to cap off the school holiday period for families.
“Fantastic ticket sales, given the AFL grand final is the day before, and shows that Phoenix fans are embracing hoops in the Heartland.”
Supporters who head to John Cain Arena for that game will get a first look at boom teenage French Next Star Alex Sarr in his first steps towards becoming a potential top-five NBA draft pick.
For United, its huge off-season is fast making the club a juggernaut, with just 800 tickets available ahead of Sunday week’s round 2 meeting with Tasmania — it’ll sellout sometime in the next few days and United boss Nick Truelson says the huge interest is an example of the growth in the sport.
“We are thrilled to be tipping off the new NBL season against our arch rivals in a Throwdown and a sold out JCA,” Truelson said.
“There is no doubt it is one of the biggest and most-hyped NBL openers in a long, long time.”
Melbourne United v South East Melbourne Phoenix, Thursday, September 28, 7.30pm AEST, watch on Kayo Sports, ESPN.
Originally published as NBL24: Results, scores and reports from round 1 of the new season