How does a guy from the west side of Belleville earn a spot on the Australian men’s basketball team about to compete at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil?
Let Kevin Lisch explain his own incredible journey, one that has taken him from his driveway basketball court in Belleville to Blessed Sacrament grade school and later Althoff High School.
That journey spanned the globe as he finished his college career and degree at Saint Louis University before playing professionally in Australia, Puerto Rico, France and Spain before heading back to Australia again.
The 30-year-old Lisch gained his Australian citizenship March 24, but says he would have done that regardless of a chance to play in the Olympics.
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“It’s been a fun journey,” said Lisch, a two-time Australian National Basketball League MVP who made the final cut for the Australia Boomers’ 12-man Olympic team. “It definitely is just an unbelievable experience ... marrying an Australian and having an Australian family and now myself being Australian and being able to represent your country.”
Looking for other Olympic basketball players from the metro-east? Lisch, a 6-foot-2, 187-pound guard, is the first.
He’s also the first Olympic basketball player from Saint Louis U. since Pete McCaffrey (1964) and Dick Bouschka (1956). Lisch’s 1,687 points at SLU from 2005-09 make him the sixth-highest scorer in school history.
He’s also on the Billikens’ All-Century Team and he is in the SLU Hall of Fame.
It definitely is just an unbelievable experience ... marrying an Australian and having an Australian family and now myself being Australian and being able to represent your country.
The closest basketball Olympian in Illinois is former Benton High and Illinois State standout, NBA player and coach Doug Collins in 1972. Former Springfield Lanphier and University of Arizona star and current Golden State Warriors player Andre Igoudala was on the 2012 Team USA squad.
“It was pretty amazing,” Lisch said of being told he had made the Olympic team. “Going into the selection camp, I didn’t necessarily know what to expect. To have that meeting and to be told you’re going to the Olympics is a pretty surreal feeling. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”
Lisch realizes he is a product of all those who have helped him, taught him, coached him, pushed him or simply knew him along the way. The former all-state and All-Atlantic 10 Conference guard is as competitive as they come, but never has been about ego or self-promotion.
“You’re representing your family back home, all the hard work, my mom and and dad bringing us up, my brothers and sisters and all that,” said Lisch, whose two sisters (Stephanie and Theresa) and younger brother (Daniel) all played college basketball in a family raised by Rusty and Cathy Lisch. “You’re representing the beautiful country of Australia and at the same time you’re representing the blessings your family gave you growing up.
“Even if I wouldn’t have made the team, those things would still stand as things I’m representing. Obviously it’s the Olympics and it’s a little bigger platform, so to speak.”
It certainly is.
A platform that includes the world’s greatest athletes converging on Rio de Janeiro, Brazil for a summer celebration of athletics that takes place every four years.
“It’s pretty new territory for myself, but I’m really looking forward to it. That’s for sure,” said Lisch, who won his second NBL Most Valuable Player award last season while playing for his former team, the Illawarra Hawks.
Lisch recently signed a new three-year contract to play in his home city with the Sydney Kings. He averaged 19.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists for Illawarra last season and was named the NBL’s top defensive player.
“To be honest, before I even had the Olympics in my mind, my wife’s Australian and my kids are Australian, so it was a personal family decision being able to live here,” Lisch said. “Obviously with the Olympics coming up that was a by-product of it — and a huge bonus to it. I was happy to get (my citizenship) regardless of sports. Obviously in sports there’s some bonuses that allow me to represent Australia, but I was just initially just excited to get my citizenship.”
Living in the Land Down Under
This is Lisch’s eighth year in Australia and he enjoys the country’s diverse population, culture and landscape, not to mention its beaches.
“I did go over to Europe and played there for two seasons, but I always came back to Australia as well,” Lisch said. “The experiences and the introduction to different cultures have just been really wonderful. I never imagined the twists and turns the journey can take having a wife and two kids overseas.”
Lisch’s wife, Rachel, played college basketball in the U.S. but grew up in Australia and later played pro basketball there. The couple — who were introduced by Lisch’s former pro coach Rob Beveridge — have a son, 2 1/2-year-old Benjamin, and a 1-year-old daughter, Sofia.
You’re representing your family back home, all the hard work, my mom and and dad bringing us up, my brothers and sisters and all that. You’re representing the beautiful country of Australia and at the same time you’re representing the blessings your family gave you growing up.
“I’ve been fortunate with the opportunities here,” Lisch said. “The culture here is wonderful and similar in a lot of ways to growing up in the Midwest. It’s a good, down-home, tough people. Since moving away from home, it’s been home for me.”
Lisch was among 18 invited players for the Australian basketball selection camp, but he insists there was no guarantee he would be picked for the squad. Especially since the squad includes several current and/or former NBA players like 7-footer Andrew Bogut, Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills.
“There’s a lot of factors that go into making the team and this was really my first year as an Aussie, so how I could fit into the team made a big factor in the decision,” Lisch said. “I have played with a few of them and against a number of others. I knew everyone there, so to be able to meet everyone and get to know them on a personal level was definitely a highlight for me.”
In the Boomers’ first exhibition game Monday, Lisch started and played 31 minutes, 53 seconds in a 92-83 victory over the Pac-12 All-Stars. He scored nine points with three rebounds and team-leading five assists.
Following several more exhibition games, Australia’s Olympic opener is set for Aug. 6 against France with the Boomers looking for their first basketball medal. They finished fourth in 1988, 1996 and 2000.
The pool play schedule includes Serbia (Aug. 8), Team USA (Aug, 10), China (Aug. 12) and Venezuela (Aug. 14).
Is Lisch eager or excited to face a Team USA that includes NBA stars Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Kyrie Irving?
“More than that, I’m looking forward to playing in the Olympics, period,” Lisch said. “I don’t care what team it is, France, Serbia, China, Venezuela ... all those teams in our group. It’s the Olympics so any team that comes in front of us I’m just so excited about. It’s not like I have that (Team USA) game circled any more than others that are there.”
That being said, Lisch grew up watching Michael Jordan and the early Dream Team domination at the Olympics.
“They were just a dominant force,” he said. “The landscape’s changed a lot since then, but growing up in that time in the ’90s with Michael Jordan and all those great players we were pretty fixated on the NBA.”
The future is now
Lisch has excelled throughout his career in Australia. He helped lead Perth to the NBL championship as a rookie and was named MVP of the 2011 Finals , later winning league MVP award in 2011-12 and last season.
Does Lisch have any aspirations of playing in the NBA?
“Obviously you always want to play the highest level and I’m no different as a competitor,” he said. “At the same time I’ve really enjoyed playing at the various places I’ve played in my career. The (NBA) would be great, but I’m extremely happy with where I am now and I don’t worry about the future. Those things will take care of themselves.”
Lisch never thinks much further ahead than his next game or next challenge. While living in Belleville he had no idea he would one day be playing professional basketball in Australia or anywhere else.
“The Olympics never even crossed my mind,” Lisch said. “I probably didn’t think of playing Division I basketball at Saint Louis U. until I got to high school. I’ve never been a person who really thinks too far ahead, it’s a way of getting distracted a bit and there’s enough things to worry about.
“When it comes to sports I’ve always been a bit short-sighted. Whatever comes today we’ll tackle that and the rest will take care of itself.”