20 March 2016, Melbourne, Australia
As we’ve heard today, my father was many things. Musician, athlete, mentor, raconteur. But above all he was an educator. Not just in the classroom. But throughout his daily life.
So in that spirit, today I want to share with you Lessons From my Father.
Lesson 1: These are the teams worthy of your support: Geelong, Boston Celtics, Liverpool.
In my childhood, two of those three had glorious histories of grand achievement. The other was known for, well, having a good time. Many was the time as a child I pondered whether I could change clubs, to leave behind the taint of Geelong. Thank God, or rather the Son of God, I didn’t.
But when I stood back, there was a thread running through those clubs, that explained why they attracted his passion. All stood for something beyond a blind drive to succeed at all costs.
Liverpool was known for their stylish, team-oriented play, and their most famous manager gave us the immortal line “Some people think football is a matter of life and death … it is much more important than that.”
Boston delivered extraordinary success from an unrelenting drive to play the perfect game. The team also defied the often racist undertones of their city to be racially progressiveness. Bill followed the Celtics because he saw Bill Russell — one of the top 3 basketball players of all time — play at the 1956 Olympics. When Russell was appointed coach, he was NBA’s the first black head coach.
And Geelong, well, until 2007, it was known for playing beautiful, free flowing football that never quite resulted in a flag. Being a Geelong supporter in the 80s and 90s certainly built character.
Sport for Bill was something so much more than just a result on a scoreboard. It was a way to teach young people about life. How to be part of a team. How to sacrifice. How to improve yourself.
He loved two sports over all others: soccer, and most of all basketball.
Bill often said that if you wanted to develop a sport to produce good soldiers, you would have invented American Football.
But if you wanted to develop artists and musicians, you would have created basketball, a game that relies on five people playing the game in perfect harmony; five whizzing parts blending together to become a greater whole, while leaving room for improvisation and individual choice.
One of the basketball coaches Bill respected most was Phil Jackson who described it: “Basketball is an improvisational game, similar to jazz. If someone drops a note, someone else must step into the vacuum and drive the beat that sustains the team.”
Bill found music in most things, and he loved the tempo of a beautifully choreographed offence. He loved music so much, and passed that passion down to me, even if we share little of the same taste, no matter how often I subjected him to the Beatles, and unfortunately for me, none of the talent.
Lesson 2: If in doubt, be generous (Note: this doesn’t apply to referees).
When I reached a drinking age, he gave me two sterling pieces of advice: If invited to party, when you turn up you should have to use your feet to knock (as your hands will be encumbered with drink).
And when you start a new job, do go for beers on a Friday night, and when you do, always make sure you buy the first round. It ingratiates you to your new colleagues, and means you can leave when you want.
Bill was generous with his time, his knowledge and his wealth. When he was coaching me in the early days of my basketball career, we’d pick up so many kids on the way, there would be guys sitting in the boot of our hatchback.
His time away from work, was just time he could donate to other people.
One story that stands out, was when my cousin was living in a precarious situation in back blocks around Byron Bay with her young son, her father was talking to my dad about what to do. Without a moment’s hesitation, Bill said they should go and ensure she was safe. The next day, they drove up, and spent days helping her with the difficult decision to leave and come back.
There was no grandstanding or hectoring in that act. It was just doing what needed to be done.
Lesson 3: I’m going to paraphrase David Halberstam here: A professional is someone who does their job on the days they don’t feel like doing it.
I can’t remember him ever having a day off sick, let alone chuck a sickie.
Whether for work, basketball or anything else people were relying on him for.
For Bill, work was how you overcame the advantages others might have, whether wealth, privilege, athletic prowess.
The embodiment, in his telling, of this was a team he coached in the early 70s.
He never tired of talking about the Coburg Devils. How he took them from the Coburg Tech playground to Australian champions. He especially liked that when he picked the Victorian team, he took his whole Coburg team, admitting only one player from the powerhouse Melbourne Tigers team into their squad.
They were his masterpiece, his Mona Lisa. Kids uniting in a singular focus, beating teams bigger and more talented than them.
Lesson 4: At times there is the right thing to do and the wrong thing to do. You know which is which. Choose the right one.
I probably see more grey than my dad did. There was a lot of black and white in his world.
Bill could never understand people who played politics for their own ends. He couldn’t stand coaches who played their most talented but selfish players at the expense of the hard working team oriented ones. And he really didn’t get the right hand side of the political spectrum.
There was a time that the politics of his workplace made him physically sick for many months.
He could have been a civil engineer, which would have been far more rewarding financially, but gave that up to teach because he felt had a calling. He believed we were here to make the world a better place. And you did that through your actions every moment of the day.
That made him an exacting basketball coach. Especially if you were his son in the team.
It might be also why he loved kids so much. Their world was a bit simpler. And a bit more full of joy than the world the bureaucrats were creating in schools and sporting clubs.
He was a man who — when not between the lines of a basketball court — was full of twinkling eyes and mirthful grins. A regular fixture of my childhood was the Goons on Radio National and the Marx Brothers on the TV.
But when it came to important matters — justice, education, respect for others — there was only the right thing to do, and the wrong thing. And if you wanted Bill’s respect and friendship, you better choose the right one.
Lesson 5: High expectations don’t help anything.
This attitude could result in zen like lessons. For example when I was a kid, I remember once bursting into tears because I’d asked for money for a vending machine and instead of a Solo, I got a Coke (which I claimed not to like at the time). Bill was as annoyed as he ever was with me then, because instead of focussing on the beautiful drink I did haven, I was worried about what I didn’t have. Just like the Buddist’s glass, that holds water so well even though it is already broken.
It could go to extreme lengths. Having been cursed with supporting the Cats, and suffering through 4 grand final losses, I remember being at the 2007 Grand Final, and I called him at three quarter time when we were 13 goals up and saying “we’re going to finally win one!”, and his immediate response was “There’s still a quarter to play!”
For a coach, the result is never certain until the final whistle …
Lesson 6: You don’t full court press to get a steal in the back court. You do it to make the other team play at your pace.
That’s one for the hoops nuffies in the room. But it spoke to his greater philosophy: Don’t do things for the immediate return. Do them because they give you the best chance of long term success. Trust in the process.
Whether creating Diamond Creek, or planning the beautiful mudbrick house he and my mum built, or starting a basketball team, Bill knew the small things were the most important things to focus on. Get them wrong, and it all falls apart.
Again, a quote from Phil Jackson nails Bill’s philosophy:
“Like life, basketball is messy and unpredictable. It has its way with you, no matter how hard you try to control it. The trick is to experience each moment with a clear mind and open heart. When you do that, the game–and life–will take care of itself.” How true
And finally, Lesson 7: When choosing to love, love with all you heart.
Sue Circosta, who spoke so beautifully earlier, once said she could tell of me that I was someone who had never doubted they were loved.
Bill and I were close throughout my childhood, him patiently sending down endless overs in the nets or feeding the ball back to me as worked around the key.
But it wasn’t until I met Ali, and then later when Clementine and Teddy came along that I realised his greatest gift to me: being prepared to give yourself over wholly to the loves in your life.
My mum was the world to my dad. He was always remarking how amazing she was, how tough, how smart, how determined.
He loved that she opened his mind to a whole new world of ideas, people and laughter.
And nothing could weaken that love.
Even when dementia had wrapped its tentacles around his mind that he no longer recognised me or other members of our family, his face would light up when Delia entered the room.
The last dying ember of his personality, before the disease took complete control, was his love for her. How amazing they both got to experience that.
Since Bill’s death, so many people have remarked to on how often I spoke about my father, and the obvious pride and affection I had for him.
At times it has felt that everything in my life is borne directly from him. This body. My love of sport, which has been the focus of my work for many years now. The love of the Marx Brothers, Mel Brooke, Asterisk and so many other touchstones.
For some, such a strong connection to their father might be crushing. But to me it’s always been my pride, my inspiration, my True North.
I’m just so glad his legacy will live on through all the people here today. Thank you all for coming.
And thank you, Bill. Love you.
There are other tributes to Bill on Finn's site.