The crowd at Beasley Coliseum calls out, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oy, Oy, Oy!” for the Australian basketball players on the court, but one key to the Down Under connection sits on the sidelines.

Assistant WSU coach Ben Johnson played professionally and coached in Australia for six years, and has been instrumental in bringing standout players Aron Baynes and Brock Motum from there, as well as up-and-coming players Dexter Kernich-Drew and James Hunter.

Johnson, who has been at Washington State for nine seasons, says, “Through that time, I was able to build some good networks and contacts over there in Australia. And the Cougar fans have really embraced it. They know these guys are a long way from home, and they’ve made them part of this community. ”

WSU men's basketball crowd
Cougar basketball fans cheer on the Australian team members. (Robert Hubner)

After growing up in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Johnson played college basketball at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay alongside future WSU Coach Tony Bennett and under future Coach Dick Bennett. In 1993 Johnson crossed the Pacific to Cairns, in the northeastern state of Queensland, where he played and coached for three years. He then worked as an assistant coach for Wisconsin-Green Bay Coach Mike Heideman, currently head of WSU men’s basketball operations. In 2003 Johnson returned to Australia for three more seasons as a coach, when he was named the 2003 Australian Basketball Association Women’s Coach of the Year. He came back to the United States to join Dick Bennett’s staff at WSU in 2004.

Johnson’s time in Cairns—pronounced “Canz”—made an immediate impact on the Cougars, with Australian center Aron Baynes joining the team in 2005. Baynes, an outstanding player also from Cairns, was a favorite of many Cougar fans for his energy and passion.

“He’s a great success story, but he had the obvious warts that high school big men come over with. The speed of the game was an adjustment for him. But the one thing Aron had was a work ethic and a fierce determination, and that eventually turned him into a great player,” says Johnson, who remains in close contact with Baynes.

Baynes played on the Australian national team in the London Olympics last summer, and now plays professionally for Union Olimpija in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.

Johnson also helped recruit Motum, current WSU forward and a senior psychology major from Brisbane, who led the Cougars in scoring last year and was tapped as one of 50 preseason candidates for the 2012-13 John R. Wooden Award.

Motum started playing basketball when he was seven, but it wasn’t really a big sport in Australia. He didn’t see an NBA game until he was 16, instead idolizing Rugby League player Darren Lockyer with Motum’s hometown Brisbane Broncos. But basketball drew in Motum, and he played at the Australia Institute of Sport for a year and a half before heading to Pullman. It was not an easy change for the guy from subtropical Brisbane.

“At first it was not good,” says Motum. “It was cold—I’d never been this cold, and I’m from a town of two million people. It was a bit of an adjustment my first year.”

Sophomore guard Kernich-Drew, from Melbourne with a population of four million people, also says the move to the quiet college town on the Palouse took some getting used to. “Campus was great, and it was different because back home we don’t really have a college atmosphere like you do over here in America. There are no college sports,” he says.

Kernich-Drew says communication can be tricky sometimes, too. “Australia is very laid-back, we say pretty much what we want,” he says.

One of Johnson’s roles is helping the Australian players adjust to life far from home, but he says his Australian wife Nicky, a former professional basketball player whom he met in Cairns, does a lot for the team. “I think she’s been a godsend. We have the occasional meal and have some of the guys over, whether the Australians or others like DaVonté Lacy. She’s helped to bridge that gap,” says Johnson.

Their American teammates have connected with the Aussie players, too. Motum became good friends with the American Cougars, like Xavier Thames, Klay Thompson, and Charlie Enquist, whose parents “took in Brock in like he was their own,” says Johnson. “That’s part of being in the Coug family.”

The players’ families have appreciated the support as well, says Johnson. Motum, Kernich-Drew, and Hunter have all had parents and siblings visit the campus. When his parents visited last year, says Motum, they loved it. “Especially my dad. He’s from a small town of 15,000,” he says.

The sport of basketball is somewhat different in Australia as well; it’s more athletic and physical in the United States, notes junior college transfer forward Hunter. “There are a lot of tall guys here. There aren’t a lot of seven-footers in Australia,” says the Sydney native.

“The game is definitely faster, more physical, especially off the glass,” says Johnson. “You see globally in Europe and Australia, I think they shoot the ball better, and have more of a perimeter game. These guys have all had to adjust, Brock, Dexter, they’ve had to get physically stronger.”

All college basketball players face some transitions, says Johnson, with a work load on and off the court that’s quite a bit more intense than high school. For players from across the ocean, that adjustment can be heightened.

“They may have had a serious girlfriend, and now they’re 8,000 miles apart and trying to figure out how to have this college experience and have this girlfriend back home,” says Johnson. “Those are issues, and they’re real.”

Johnson says the rest of the WSU team got to experience some of the cultural differences when the Cougs took a tour to Australia this past August. “For our players to see where Brock, Dexter, and James grew up, and meet their families and friends was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We went to the zoo and held koalas, toured the Great Barrier Reef, and went to an Australian Rules football game when we were in Melbourne.”

The team also practiced at an indoor training facility open to the general public while they were there, which Johnson says helped expose both the Australians and possible future Cougars to the squad.

Basketball has grown in popularity Down Under, say Motum and Johnson, particularly with the success of NBA player and 2005 national college player of the year Andrew Bogut. Johnson says more NBA games are on TV and even the college game has more exposure.

“It’s become very competitive to recruit kids out of there,” he says. “A lot of people want to get in there and find the next Andrew Bogut or Patrick Mills type of player.

“We are anxious and hopeful to add the next great Australians to our program here at WSU. Because of the success of our former and current Australian players we hope that continues to open those doors,” he says.

On the web

WSU Men’s Basketball

Aron Baynes signs with NBA team San Antonio Spurs (My Story class notes, Jan. 24, 2013)