GROWING up in country Victoria, Birchip-born Aaron Bruce was on the back foot from the beginning in his dream to make it to the NBA.
“Everyone likes to think they are a child prodigy, but coming from country Victoria playing basketball you have to do a hell of a lot more to get eyes on you,” he said.
Despite that, Bruce wasn’t deterred and from an early age he was working alongside his father Steve and Horsham basketball legend Owen Hughan to further his development.
“Owen Hughan and my dad Steve shaped my experience at the basktetball stadium,” Bruce said.
“I always tell people Owen has forgotten more about basketball than I know. Owen and dad saw the fire burn in me from an early age.
“Then people like Dennis Wiley and also Melissa Sinfield; she was that first wave before me who branched out from regional to state and national representation.
“My earliest memories were with my dad being involved with Owen in the early stages of the Horsham Hornets. Dad was assistant coach and just helped out with everything with the team. At seven years old I thought it was awesome to go on road trips with the guys.
“I tagged along and would shoot whenever I could, drank lots of Gatorade and would carry on with the older guys. That was my introduction into basketball.”
Bruce quickly started to take his junior basketball career very seriously.
“I kept a track of injuries and how I felt and was doing that from when I was nine,” he said.
“I enjoyed doing all of that and it was important for me too look back at things and have reference points of how I was going. Dad and I used to keep a diary of different basketball drills and write down how I went, and we had a catalogue of about 100 ball handling drills.”
Bruce grew up at the basketball stadium alongside brothers Shaun and Cam. Shaun would also go onto become a professional basketballer, while Cam has forged a successful basketball career in Horsham.
“It was a little boy’s dream, I had two best friends who were smaller than me. We had and still do have a great relationship,” he said.
Bruce came through the ranks of junior basketball playing for Eltham in Melbourne’s north-east. He was in the same age group as future number one NBA draft pick Andrew Bogut.
“I was playing against Andrew in under-14s when I was at Eltham and he was at Dandenong,” Bruce said.
After joining the Australian Institute of Sport in 2002, Bruce played for Australia in the under-19 world championships in 2003 in Greece.
Bruce and Bogut would play alongside each other in what became a telling game for Bruce’s American basketball career. Australia went on to win the tournament, beating America in the final.
“The number one game I had in that tournament was against America,” Bruce said.
“I was coming up against J.J. Reddick and we became friends in college. He was one of my favourite players and going up against him I had about 25 points and Andrew had 32, and we beat the USA by about 20, which hadn’t been done by any Australian teams.
“That was the first time I noticed having eyes on me. After that game scout coaches from UCLA, Arizona and North Western all gave me their cards and wanted to talk to me about recruiting me to go to college. That was when I realised I could do this.”
Bruce joined Baylor University in Texas in 2004 where he studied psychology and became a dangerous young guard.
After his first season at college during the 2004-05 season, he finished as the highest scoring freshman in the nation and broke the record at the time for the highest scoring average by a freshman.
“On a day to day level at Baylor University we were treated and cared for as a player better than any other club I’ve played for,” Bruce said.
“The resources and facilities were first class. Baylor has a really rich athletic history, so it was a good school to be at. After my first year I held a few scoring records and some Big-12 records. The next year Kevin Durant smashed all the records I had made.”
At Baylor Bruce played in what was at the time the longest game in the National Collegiate Athletic Association history.
“We won the longest game in NCAA division one basketball history – we went to five over-times,” he said.
“A month later Syracuse broke that record and went to six over-times, and that record hadn’t been touched for years.
“I was absolutely exhausted after the game. I told my coach after the fourth over-time we were going to cramp up. They weighed us prior and then after the game and I had the equivalent of four litres of water put back into me.
Despite the change in lifestyle, Bruce said he enjoyed his time playing college basketball.
“There’s no hiding the fact you love that kind of attention when you work really hard to try and do that,” he said.
“It was never too overwhelming for me. I knew I wasn’t going there to experience the same thing, you’d be naive to think you’re going to go to Texas and think it’s going to be really close to where I grew up.”
During his time at college, Bruce was often touted as a future NBA draft pick but would never realise his dream of making it to the best basketball competition in the world.
“I was named in all of the mock NBA drafts on the internet and after my first year at college they were talking about me getting drafted at number 14,” he said.
“I think the longer you’re at college basketball the smaller your chances of getting drafted are. There’s no shortage of talented basketball players in America. The attraction for me though was that after four years you have a degree and you don’t have to pay any debt back and you might get a career in basketball after it all.
“I wasn’t expecting that much attention and pressure and it was crazy for me. I thought I had it all worked out but I guess I was naive. It was definitely a dream to play in the NBA and I did a lot of NBA workouts and played in the summer league.
“I spent three months training at the Seattle Supersonics. My first introduction into NBA training was trying to pick up Russell Westbrook. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out how that went.”
While at college, Bruce continued to represent Australia in both junior and senior levels. He captained Australia in 2005 and took part in the world championships in Argentina.
Bruce went on to play for the Australian Boomers at the 2006 world championships where Australia finished tied for ninth.
Bruce went undrafted in 2008 and returned to Australia where he signed for the Adelaide 36ers in the National Basketball League.
“I had some offers from Europe and the dollar figure from somewhere in Europe to what I could get in Adelaide was pretty similar and being in Australia I was obviously close to my family,” he said.
“After my first year in the NBL I won the NBL Rookie of the Year.
“Then the league went into receivership and Adelaide failed to honour the second year of my contract. I went back to America and finished my degree. That stage was a very hard part of my life. I had a pretty hard fight with depression.
“I decided to come back to Australia to get back home and around people I was familiar with, a good environment for me to get healthy. People heard I was feeling good again and Marty Clarke, who was my coach at the AIS, was coaching Adelaide and invited me to come train.”
Bruce filled in with the 36ers at the end of the 2010-11 season before joining the Sydney Kings for the 2012-13 season.
“It was a good ride at Sydney – I was co-captain in my first year and then vice-captain in my second year. I still live in Sydney so something must have gone alright,” he said.
Bruce then retired from basketball in 2013 and faced a new challenge to reintegrate with society.
“The most important part of my journey was the transition as an elite athlete dealing with mental health challenges to not being in sport,” he said.
“It was super hard going from that to reintegrating with society. Sport was my identity. You always want to be the best you can possibly be. I had to swallow my pride and realise I was back at the bottom of the pile. My corporate experience was zero compared to everyone else.”
Bruce has now built another successful career, this time involved with talent acquisition.
He said throughout his basketball career he learnt an important lesson which he has taken with him.
“The reality is you’re a small part of a big machine and whether you’re playing basketball for Australia or a university and you have to enjoy it,” he said.
“We are never going to be a Lebron James or a Kobe Bryant, but what we can do is reach the people that we grow up around and give them good energy. Whether you have a farm at Dimboola or are trying to play basketball in the NBL, you go through ups and downs.
“That was something I learnt to do at Horsham playing basketball with my brothers – to represent where you come from well and have the people in the area be proud of you, that’s why you do it.”