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From Rivals to Brothers: How Baldwin, Goorjian formed a bond despite NZ-AUS rivalry

It felt like the good old times for Tab Baldwin and Brian Goorjian when Ateneo de Manila University and Bay Area faced off in a tune-up game at Moro Lorenzo Gym in Quezon City two Saturdays ago.

It was the first time the two good friends saw each other after a decade.

“Just kind of how I remembered, very, very, very tough,” Goorjian said about Baldwin. “His teams always play tough, always play hard, and he is always so engaged in the game. It’s not like you’re only competing against his team, but also you’re competing against him, energy and strategy-wise. I’ve always enjoyed the competition.

“We go back when he was coaching New Zealand and I was coaching Australia back like a decade ago. Nothing’s changed. He’s done a great job here and I knew it was going to be a good game for our team and what was not good at, he exposed. It’s a good lesson for our team.”

Ditto for Baldwin, who definitely missed seeing Goorjian bark at the refs at every opportune time.

“You never know in this coaching world but it’s always good to run into friends and rivals in the coaching world,” said Baldwin, who did not expect to meet Goorjian again in Manila of all places.

“I’ve always been a coach’s coach. I love coaches. Even if me and Brian used to be ferocious rivals in Australia and New Zealand and it doesn’t get any more ferocious than that. You can see how animated he can get and he was pretty calm today. It was just good to see him bulldogging the refs and getting upset with his players and he said the same thing to me. It’s fun,” quipped the American-Kiwi head coach.

“I consider some of my best friends in the world my old coaching rivals. Nenad Vucinic was one of my coaching rivals in New Zealand. You know, respect is spawned from fierce competition. You just build respect for people who love the game and coach the game hard, and love their players. Those are my type of guys and Brian is one of them.”

But Baldwin and Goorjian were not as good as friends they are now back in the 2000s. In fact, they were heated rivals, almost getting eaten up by the rivalry between the Tall Blacks and the Boomers.

The Seeds of a Rivalry

Tall-Blacks-vs-Boomers-Baldwin-vs-Goorjian From Rivals to Brothers: How Baldwin, Goorjian formed a bond despite NZ-AUS rivalry ADMU Basketball EASL News PBA  - philippine sports newsBack in the mid-1990s, Baldwin was tapped by New Zealand-National Basketball League club Auckland Stars.

Over in Australia, Goorjian was signed by the South East Melbourne Magic after a one-year stay with Eastside Spectres.

And by chance, Auckland had a series of tune-ups with South East Melbourne. That’s when Baldwin got a close look at Goorjian’s system.

“In the nineties, I knew of Brian and I took my Auckland team to Melbourne and they beat the snot out of us.

“That was the first time I had any interaction with him. I remember that game, their defensive intensity, they never relaxed and the speed of their offense, I thought that was a great model,” recalled Baldwin.

Baldwin made sure to save Goorjian’s number on his phone.

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“I remember after I got to know him but before we became national coaches, I had questions about zone offenses. I called him up one day in the office and told him I want to pick your brain about zone offenses,” he continued.

“He started talking and I thought he was talking in another language. His level of sophistication was so much greater than mine. I thought, ‘Gosh, I’m gonna learn a lot from him if I stay close to him.'”

Baldwin went on to become a five-time NZ-NBL champion coach and four-time Coach of the Year. At the same time, Goorjian won two NBL-Australia crowns and was hailed Coach of the Year thrice during that decade.

Being the best in their respective countries, the two were given the responsibility of handling their national teams’ programs.

Yes, Baldwin, who was born in Jacksonville, Florida, and Goorjian, who was born and raised in Glendale, California, were leading nations far away from their motherland.

It was the start of a rivalry.

Giving Misery

During the 2001 FIBA Oceania Championship, Baldwin steered the Tall Blacks to another finals appearance. Of course, on the other side of the court was the Boomers, who were then handled by Phil Smyth.

Coming into the contest, New Zealand had only won once against Australia when they took the 1999 edition of the tournament.

This time around, a seat in the 2002 World Championships was at stake.

With Baldwin leading the way, the Tall Blacks defeated the Boomers in the best-of-three series, capped by a masterful 89-78 win in the decider to punch New Zealand’s ticket to the world stage.

It resulted in Smyth’s sacking and the hiring of Goorjian for the Boomers.

“The reason I got the job was for the first time in history, New Zealand beat Australia. From that point, I was appointed the national coach. What people don’t realize is that Tab’s team went on to Indianapolis and finished fourth in the world,” shared Goorjian.

“He took New Zealand to heights they’ve never been before or since.”

Goorjian would have Baldwin’s number in FIBA competitions in the next two Oceania Championships.

The Boomers also defeated the Tall Blacks in the battle for ninth place in the 2004 Athens Olympics, 98-80.

“From that point, I’ve competed with him leading to the Athens Olympics. We’ve had qualifying series and the Games. We’ve always had that competition,” Goorjian looked back on with a smile.

“I knew about Nenad [Vucinic] here, Mark Dickel here, him here, they are all people I’ve been associated with. But I’ve always admired him.”

During those games, Baldwin and Goorjian would earn each other’s respect — the seeds of their friendship.

“One time, we were playing a series in New Zealand, a best-of-three. When we were heading on the road, we got on the plane, and lo-and-behold, we were sitting next to each other with a game on the same night. We talked basketball for two hours straight. Never talked about the rivalry and just talked about basketball unguarded. I have such fondness for someone who has that level of basketball,” added Baldwin.

“Brian has always exhibited that and he has such utmost respect for me.”

New Zealand Basketball moved on from Baldwin after the 2006 continental championship. Australia, meanwhile, replaced Goorjian for Brett Brown two years later.

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Still, the career of the two coaches would remain intertwined.

Helping a Rival in Need

Lebanon-Tab-Baldwin From Rivals to Brothers: How Baldwin, Goorjian formed a bond despite NZ-AUS rivalry ADMU Basketball EASL News PBA  - philippine sports news


After quick stints with Greece’s PAOK Thessaloniki and Romania’s U Mobitelco Cluj, Baldwin headed to Turkey to coach Kepez Belediyesi.

Kepez though struggled with its finances during the 2009 season, holding the salaries of Baldwin and the players for two months.

Baldwin wanted out but with nowhere else to go, he remained in Turkey.

Suddenly, he got a phone call from Goorjian, who was in China coaching Dongguan.

“I had been coaching my second stint in Turkey and it didn’t go well. The club didn’t pay the players and coaches and we were all getting out of there. Didn’t have another job and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Baldwin.

“He called me out of the blue and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m looking and I’m in the market right now.’ He said that he got approached by the Lebanese national team to be the coach and he’s not taking it because he is settling in China. He asked me if I was interested and I was. The next day, the Lebanese federation called me, flew me in, and the next thing you know, they hired me. That was all thanks to Brian,” he continued.

“That’s what friends do for one another and that’s what coaches who respect one another do for each other. Again, you don’t forget those things.”

Baldwin’s stint with Lebanon only lasted for a year.

A year later, Baldwin would find himself in China, coaching Fujian. There, he got to face Goorjian again, this time at the club level.

“We’ve always had that competition. He coached in Fujian and I was in Dongguan so we competed against each other in China,” said Goorjian.

The Good Old Times

Ateneo-vs-Bay-Area-Brian-Goorjian From Rivals to Brothers: How Baldwin, Goorjian formed a bond despite NZ-AUS rivalry ADMU Basketball EASL News PBA  - philippine sports newsAfter his stint in China, Baldwin found his way to the Philippines.

He has been in and out of Gilas Pilipinas over the past decade. And he has found a home in Ateneo, a school he has been coaching since 2016.

More than a decade since they last saw each other, Goorjian was just glad to see Baldwin in good hands in a foreign place — a place he will also call home for the next few months.

“He’s very helpful to me because he’s been here for the last nine years. He knows the competition and the challenges for me and my team. He’s very helpful for me to learn and also catching up with the guy who you haven’t seen for the last eleven years and you consider a friend. How he is living, his family and how is he,” shared Goorjian, who was able to find his way back to the Boomers last year.

“One thing I can see is the Philippines has been very good for him, good for his basketball, he is very happy, he’s looking great, and he is very respected over here.”

For Baldwin, he is just glad that Goorjian is now just a phone call away.

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“Brian and I would exchange messages occasionally. He is very hard to get a hold off and you have to go through his wife,” said a sheepish Baldwin.

For the next few months, however, it’s Goorjian who is going to pick Baldwin’s brain.

“We’ll definitely have a beer, have a good meal, and catch up. And then, I’ll be in touch with him as far as basketball goes. I want him to watch my team and help me make adjustments because he knows the competition,” said Goorjian.

“He knows the PBA much better than I do. I see him helping me and my team.”

From heated rivals to close friends, even Baldwin and Goorjian looked back on how their friendship blossomed and how they were not engulfed by the heated New Zealand-Australia rivalry with wonder.

Maybe, it’s because their journey is almost identical. Maybe, it’s because of how they were at each other’s throats come game time. Or maybe, it’s just because they shared the same passion for the game.

And if he had his way, Baldwin would want one more Tall Blacks versus Boomers game under his belt, just for the sake of getting a chance to beat the Australians.Ateneo-vs-Bay-Area-tune-up-Tab-Baldwin From Rivals to Brothers: How Baldwin, Goorjian formed a bond despite NZ-AUS rivalry ADMU Basketball EASL News PBA  - philippine sports news

“There’s nothing like that. I’ve coached in the Olympics, and the World Championships, you think that when you get to the pinnacle, you think you’ve experienced some of the best basketball you can imagine but you don’t experience the undercurrent of vitriol that exists in an Australia-New Zealand competition,” said Baldwin.

“Of course, that extends to the coaches, and Brian and I could have dropped the gloves and started swinging at one another even if we were close friends but it never got close to that. But, you knew the players and the coaches were in the battle of their lives because you can’t lose those games, especially for the Australians. They are the favorites and we were always the underdogs, trying to get just one more notch. Whenever we would do it, we knew the problems it would cause in Australia. So that was the best thing that could happen, cause them some strife and angst,” he added with fire in his eyes.

“I never wished a bad thing for Brian but I never wanted him to have a comfortable day as a Boomers coach. That is just the nature of the competition. I can’t relive that. If someone said tomorrow that I’d get a chance to coach the Tall Blacks against Australia, I would crawl over broken glass to do that. If someone said go coach the Boomers against New Zealand, the amount of curse words I would use to go away, and you can imagine the string of curse words… I would never ever, ever coach the Boomers against the Tall Blacks but yet I have the most profound respect for Australian basketball,” continued Baldwin.

“I have good friends in that organization but that blood doesn’t just run that way and never will.”

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