By Colin MacGillivray
WHILE Victoria’s latest COVID-19 lockdown has brought the Big V basketball season to another halt, Wallan Panthers star USA import Sharif Black is continuing to give the community plenty of reasons to smile.
To call Black’s first season in the teal and black of the Panthers a resounding success would be an understatement.
In 15 games he has become an overwhelming MVP favourite in men’s division two, averaging 35.8 points per game – an astounding 10.6 points more than the next highest scorer.
The dynamic guard is also third in the league for three-pointers made, second in assists per game and, despite his 185-centimetre stature, second in rebounding with 10.7 a contest.
Behind Black’s stellar play the Panthers have compiled a 10-5 record, good enough for fourth place in the division and firmly in the finals mix.
But it is Black’s work off the court, just as much as his feats on it, that excited Wallan Basketball officials.
He has embraced the town since arriving in March 2020, waiting through a season that was lost to the pandemic before making his long-awaited debut this year.
Black now coaches the Panthers’ under 18 representative team and has launched his own training academy, All Instinct Basketball, to provide guidance to up-and-coming players in the Wallan region.
“The Wallan community have been so welcoming to me for the past couple of years. They took care of me during COVID,” Black said.
“Once I experienced the way of life Australians live here, I fell in love and now I don’t want to go back.
“Wallan is a growing community. I think we’re the only club in Mitchell Shire that’s in the Big V competition, so it’s a good area to [set up an academy].
“I thought it was a good time to start a basketball academy for kids who wanted to take their game to the next level. Whether that’s playing domestic or rep or going to college overseas, I just wanted to create something to help kids achieve what they want to in basketball.”
Black said he had a passion for fostering the basketball talent of junior players. It is something he said he missed during his own childhood.
“I love helping the kids not only with basketball but with life,” he said.
“It’s a really big thing for me because when I was growing up I didn’t have much guidance in basketball. I just went with whatever was happening. I never had any trainers or anything growing up.
“It’s good for these kids to have access to that in their own communities as well as having it coming from a person who has played high-level basketball and is still playing at a high level.”
Wallan Basketball president Gary O’Brien said Black had embraced the Wallan community and it had embraced him in turn.
“We’ve always put a focus on our differentiation as a club being a family environment,” O’Brien said.
“It’s not that we’re not competitive, but we favour the enjoyment of the sport over everyone being adversarial and ultra-competitive.
“We’ve really held onto that the more we’ve grown. We get a lot of compliments from people from other clubs that they really notice the difference.
“For us, that also extends out to our imports. He’s not a hired gun.
“We haven’t brought him here for a year in the hope that he’ll win us a championship, we’ve brought him here to become part of our program and we hope that he stays with us long-term and that we provide something that is attractive for him to be around so that he can build a life here.”
Black said his decision to come to Wallan – based on advice from former college basketball team-mate and current Panthers forward Leigh Saffin – had changed his life.
He said nearly gave up on his playing career after a short stint playing for Portuguese club Electrico FC.
“I was going home from Portugal and I was actually done playing basketball – I was going to try to be a graduate assistant coach at an NCAA school and finish my degree and go into more of a coaching role,” Black said.
“Leigh hit me up out of nowhere about two or three months after I got back from Portugal and I was pretty out of shape and hadn’t really done anything as far as getting ready for another season.
“He just hit me up and asked if I wanted to come. At that point in my life I felt like I didn’t really have anything to lose.
“I was working and making pretty good money, but I wasn’t really enjoying it, so I thought about it for two or three days and just said what the heck.”
Once committed to the Panthers, Black said he threw everything he had into training.
He said it felt good for his hard work to be validated with a series of strong on-court performances.
“It’s honestly amazing because a year and a half ago I quit basketball. I never thought I’d even be in this situation and be here doing what I’m doing,” he said.
“When I did make that commitment to come back and play I worked my tail off. I was working out every day and getting right back into the groove of it.
“It was pretty tough at first. Not playing a game in a couple of years, you have to get used to the rhythm of the game, but if you’re a hooper it doesn’t take you too long to get back into it.”
Now, Black said his and the team’s main focus was a title.
“We definitely have the talent to win a championship, and that was our goal at the beginning of the season,” he said.
“Putting the pieces together is what’s important for us in the last stretch of the season. We have a bunch of talent, it’s just about how we work together as a team, not only offensively but defensively.
“I think we can compete with any team in the league. We took [ladder leader] RMIT to overtime and beat Altona who are second on the ladder.
“We need to come in with a chip on our shoulder that we’re here to compete and win this game, and not just expect to walk in and win.”
But regardless of how the current lockdowns affect the season or whether on-court results go the way of the Panthers, Black said he was happy to be right where he was.
“A year and a half ago if you’d told me I’d be doing this right now I wouldn’t have believed you,” he said.
“I love it here. I have no intentions of going back to America to live. When I got here the difference in pace was a really good thing for me.
“This is way more relaxed and most of the people I have come across here have been very friendly.
“I’d just like to express my gratitude to the community, because without that support and without that extra push they’ve given me, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
For more information on the All Instinct Basketball Academy, people can visit www.facebook.com/allinstinct.