“I remember my local park in Adelaide had a broken wooden backboard with a little hoop screwed in on top,” says Ingles, who’s in town ahead of this month’s FIBA World Cup. Not that the shoddiness of the court would have stopped him playing. “As a kid you’re obviously going to run around and play wherever,” he says. “But this just gives you a bit more motivation.”
Retracing humble beginnings seems appropriate given Ingles’ grit-and-grind style of play. A basketball vagabond who’s been an unassuming role player in the NBL, Spain and Israel, before finding his niche with the Utah Jazz, Ingles has only averaged above 15 points a game in a season twice in his 13-year career. Yet, with his three-point proficiency, defensive intensity and team-first focus, he’s become one of the most dependable and valuable players in the NBA.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned, especially in the NBA, is that there’s one or two players on every team that are scorers or the main guy,” he says. “Everyone else is a role player around those players. So, you get a role and you’ve got to be a star in your role, whatever it is. If your role is to fill the water bottles, then you do that to the highest level you can. I’ve really bought into my role on the team.” More of a water boy than MVP candidate? Don’t worry, most of us are. In a cobbled together career built on hard graft and dogged perseverance, Ingles offers an example of what’s possible when you accept your limitations then exceed everyone’s expectations.
COP IT SWEET
A running joke among hoops fans is that Ingles doesn’t look like an NBA player. He hears it from opposing supporters on the road every night – one particular description that’s gained traction is that he looks like somebody’s maths or science teacher. With his Barney Rubble visage and gangly frame he certainly doesn’t look like a player who regularly shuts down some of the most dynamic athletes on the planet. Ingles chooses to laugh at the barbs. What else can you do?
“I get it from the crowd every game, I get it on social media all the time,” he says. “If you take it the wrong way or overthink it, it can be dangerous. So, you just let it fly. It’s fun.”
Before you start feeling sorry for him, keep in mind that when it comes to trash-talking, Ingles is more than capable of holding his own. During the Jazz’s play-off win against the Oklahoma City Thunder last year, he famously shut down superstar Paul George. He also let George hear all about it. Typically, the media immediately switched their narrative. Suddenly ‘Average Joe’ was a smack-talking bad boy. Again, Ingles had to laugh.
“I don’t do what I do on the court for any reason but to try and help my team win,” he says. “Everyone goes back to the Paul George thing in that series. Obviously, he’s a hell of a player but I don’t care who he is or what he’s done. I’m trying to win for my team.”
Ingles sees his verbal sparring as an extension of his knock-about loquaciousness. “I’ve always been a talker,” he says. “I can hold a conversation with anyone. So I’ll talk to my teammates. I’ll talk to opposing teams. I talk to Patty Mills when I play against him.”
That Ingles now has a rep of any note is a mark of how far he’s come and the respect he now accords around the league. He signed a four-year, $AUD68 million-dollar contract with the Jazz in 2017, making him Australia’s second highestearning athlete after Daniel Ricciardo, (Ben Simmons will leapfrog both of them when his new contract kicks in next year). That stability and the backing of his coach, Quint Snyder, has allowed him to transcend his role as a ‘3 and D’ wing (three-point marksman and defensive specialist), to become a team leader.
“I got there at 27 and I had all these young guys who probably had no idea who I was,” Ingles says. “That leaves you trying to talk through experiences and just try to help the young guys, whether that’s on the court, off the court, at practice or in the film room. You just try to help in any way you can.”
any way you can.” The other factor that’s propelled Ingles to new heights in recent years is his family. Ingles and his wife, Renae, a former Australian netball champion, have three-year-old twins. Having kids, he says, has given him perspective. The fact that son Jacob was diagnosed with autism has only added to the family’s challenges. All of which meant that for the first time, basketball wasn’t the most important thing in Ingles’ life.
“I always loved what I did,” he says. “But when you throw kids into it, it really locked in my focus. I knew I could leave the house for a couple of hours and leave it all out there because I was going home to my family and my kids.” A busy family life has also stopped him ‘taking work home’.
“I used to finish a game and go home to Renae and I’d be like, ‘Let’s watch the game together’. And she’d be like, ‘Why the hell do I have to watch the game? I just watched the game’. And I would dissect everything I did wrong. For any athlete, if you don’t have something else you can become a bit obsessive with it. Small things can become so big when they really don’t need to be.”
PATH TO THE PODIUM
You may have heard the Boomers talk up their medal chances before previous World Cups and Olympics. This time you should probably hear them out. With the likes of Ingles, Ben Simmons, Aaron Baynes, Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova, Patty Mills and Dante Exum all now seasoned pros, the team that takes the court in Tokyo next year promises to be our strongest ever. As one of the team’s elder statesmen, Ingles believes the influx of young talent, such as Simmons and Exum, combined with the veteran savvy of Mills, Bogut and himself, mean this time the talk of ‘ring bling’ isn’t hollow.
“Our goal is to bring home the first ever medal for men’s basketball,” says Ingles matterof- factly. “And that goal is a gold medal. We’ve got genuine belief.”
It doesn’t hurt that the players have a bond that extends beyond the court, helping subvert egos to create a strong team-first ethos.
“There’s a few of us that have been together since Beijing so there’s a genuine friendship there,” Ingles says. “We want to play, not only for Australia, but for each other. It’s kind of the same as everyday life. If you like your workmates, you’re going to enjoy coming to work and you’re going to do your best.” He pauses as he watches a couple of kids battling it out on court. “We’ve all got that same motivation,” he says. “To inspire these kids.”