Lord of the rings

Andrew Vlahov holding a basketball, leaning against a tree.
Three-time NBL champion and four-time Olympian Andrew Vlahov. Photo: Isabella Corbett.

“I’m in there, ya know?” Andrew Vlahov nonchalantly gestures to a copy of The West Australian tossed atop a table at Mary Street Bakery in City Beach. 

When asked why his answer is even more casual. With a wry smile, he says quietly: “Oh, I’m just being inducted into Basketball WA’s Hall of Fame tomorrow.”

The news hardly comes as a surprise, given Vlahov’s lucrative career on the court. He’s represented Australia at the Olympics four times, won three National Basketball League championships with the Perth Wildcats, received myriad awards and played against some of the greatest players in the world, such as Magic Johnson and Reggie Miller.

Andrew Vlahov competing against the Melbourne Tigers in the NBL.
Vlahov playing against the Melbourne Tigers in the NBL. Photo: supplied by Andrew Vlahov.

But the path to Vlahov’s success began before he was even born. His parents were track-and-field athletes. They both represented Australia in the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, his mother in long jump and his father in discus. “Growing up, I don’t think there was ever not going to be some sort of sporting pursuit,” Vlahov says fondly. 

Then there were his sisters — strong, athletic, powerful. The eldest was a junior heptathlete for Australia. The next, a state basketballer and netballer who played in the Women’s National Basketball League for 10 years. The youngest, another state basketballer. 

Vlahov was the second-youngest child. He recounts being “beaten up, teased, and humiliated” by his older sisters. Looking at him, it’s almost ironic — this 6’7” man, whose professional playing career was rooted in defence, was routinely kicked around by his siblings? “It was nothing stupid, nothing violent. But when you’re six years younger than the eldest and three years younger than the next, you cop your fair share,” he says.

He doesn’t speak sourly of his childhood scuffles, but they were enough to thicken his skin. “It gave me an incredibly good grounding of resilience to take anything from anyone.” 

When it came to sport, basketball wasn’t Vlahov’s first pick. He cut his teeth on soccer, footy and cricket, the latter the worst of the lot. “You were standing out in a field all day doing nothing,” he says quietly, a bemused expression on his face. “It was boring.” Basketball – fast, exciting, physical and high-scoring – was anything but.

Vlahov started taking basketball seriously at 15, spurred by a fortuitous game in Tasmania where he was representing Western Australia. “I scored 51 of our team’s 71 points while the former Boomers coach Adrian Hurley was working,” he says. “He came up to me in the locker room afterwards and said, ‘If you keep your head down, you’ll have the chance to play your first Olympics in four years.’ From then on, all I wanted to do was play for Australia.”

And he did — four times. Vlahov joined the Boomers at the 1988, 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games. Each year is a highlight, but it’s his first time donning green and gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics that is the most memorable. “As a young kid who dreamed of becoming an Olympian, it became real just as we were walking into the opening ceremony,” he recalls. “I had a moment. My dream came true. If you want something, you’ve got to work hard at it — but it can come true.”

Andrew Vlahov dribbling a basketball.
Vlahov is one of only six Wildcats players whose number — 21 — has been retired. Photo: supplied by Andrew Vlahov.

More than 30 years later, his daughter Abbey Vlahov concurs his determination hasn’t faded. “Dad is hungry with determination,” she says. “I think it’s something only elite athletes know about. He’s driven to succeed.”

This tenacity extends beyond the basketball court, with academic goals as lofty as sporting ones. Vlahov had a studious childhood and his parents — who, as well as being elite sportspeople, were also academics — ensured school had a higher priority than sport. “I wanted to be an engineer… I set a goal for myself in year 12 to get into engineering at the University of Western Australia,” Vlahov recalls. “I made the cut-off by .8 of a per cent. It was a good achievement for me.”  

A change in direction and an opportunity to pursue the American college experience — he completed several years of high school in Eugene, Oregon while his father worked at the University of Oregon — saw Vlahov study economics at Stanford University. His formidable performance on the college basketball circuit saw him tackle the game globally, once to head to Seoul, the next to compete in the 1990 FIBA World Championship in Argentina. Kerry Stokes — then owner of the Wildcats — noticed. 

“In 1990, I started to come of age. I was averaging 30 or more points a game in the local US league and the NBL was starting to watch,” Vlahov mumbles, bites of buttery, raspberry-jammy sourdough toast muffling his speech. “For about six weeks, I was visiting clubs. They flew me to Australia, schmoozed me and slapped contracts in front of me.” But he didn’t sign with anyone.

“Kerry flew the general manager to the States and after collecting Ricky Grace — a recruit from the University of Oklahoma — was told in no uncertain terms that he could not come back without my signature,” he says, gulping a hot, long black. “The bloke said to me, ‘I have to sit outside your house until you sign.’” 

“How did that feel?” Vlahov chortles: “It was weird.”

The bizarre origin story produced a fine mentorship. Vlahov says Stokes was “brilliant” to deal with. “He taught me a lot,” he says before briefly pausing. “He taught me about accepting nothing less than excellence.” He played his entire professional career for the Wildcats, topping 349 games — the fifth most of any player — as both a small forward and power forward. His resumé includes a lot of ‘mosts’: second-most rebounds (3068) and steals (635), third-most points scored (5665) and assists (1252) and fourth-most blocked shots (240). 

Perth Wildcats celebrating their 1995 Championship win.
Vlahov (21) and Grace (15) celebrating their 1995 NBL Championship win. Photo: DaHuzyBru CC4.

Vlahov’s roles in defence extended beyond the game. “Andrew was a great teammate,” Grace says with a hint of nostalgia. “He was my big brother on the court. I was a small, fast guy and the target of a lot of teams. Anybody that tried to get physical with me-” he halts. His sentimentality dissipates and laughter replaces the silence on the phone. “Boy, Andrew would make sure that didn’t happen anymore.” 

Grace and Vlahov joined the Boomers at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. They narrowly missed making it onto the podium, losing to Lithuania in the bronze medal match. It marked the third time the Boomers had finished fourth at the Olympic Games — preceded by Seoul 1988 and Atlanta 1996 — but it wouldn’t be the last. The Rio 2016 Olympics saw history repeat itself with an agonising one-point loss to Spain.

Nearly 20 million Australians tuned into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. On August 7, a frosty Saturday night in Perth, Western Australia, one family watched with bated breath — the Boomers were playing against Slovenia in their fifth bronze medal match. “We were all nervous,” Abbey recalls. “The house was tense.” Suddenly the mood shifts: tears, cheers and screams compete in the room. Vlahov springs from his chair and yells: “WAHOO! That calls for a gin and tonic!” The medal curse was dead, buried forever after a stunning 107-93 win.

When asked about the victory, Vlahov interrupts mid-question with a huge grin: “Awesome. That was just awesome,” he says proudly. “It felt rewarding, even though I wasn’t there. I had a lot of flashbacks to how close we got, which makes it hard to a degree… but you’re just so happy we got there as a nation.”

This optimism extends into his thoughts on the future of Australian basketball, which he affirms is bright. The Boomers’ recent win at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is just the beginning, and he’s already talking about the team bringing home gold in four years at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

It’s true — an elite sportsman’s appetite for success is never satisfied.

Categories: Profile, Sport