Axel Dench Hoopin' Down Under

Axel talks about Gonzaga, fellow Aussie Zags Paul Rogers and John Rillie, the NBA and much more in this Q&A interview.

ZH: Coach Rice wants to know if you still shoot as well as did while you were at Gonzaga. Well, do you?

AD: Well Coach Rice was always a believer that big men should be able to expand their horizons to the area outside the paint, (or so I'd like to convince myself) and the answer is yes, I can still knock down the long range bomb. In my rookie season I was second in the league in 3Pt% at 47% and this year I led the league at 51%.

ZH: In America, kids have AAU ball at an early age, plus junior high and senior high school. What type of basketball system is there in Australia, and how did you start?

AD: While basketball might not be seen as the sport with same notoriety as it is in America, seeing we have Aussie Rules and Cricket, I would have to say that there are probably more opportunities to get into basketball out here that in the States. In Australia we have the local teams in your suburb, which then feed into the representative teams which conglomerate suburbs together. These teams then lead to the minor league clubs which will hopefully lead you to an oppurtunity to play professionally over here. The bonus is that you can play for all of these clubs at the same time, depending on your age group. To make it simpler, it is possible to get a game with a different club every night of the week if you so choose.

How I started was that some friends of mine in grade school were in a local youth club that had a team that played once a week. After playing with them for two years I got invited to play in the regional rep club at the same time. I then played in the minor leagues for a season or two at around the high school age group when I had to make the choice to go pro or come to college and I made the move to Spokane.

ZH: Tell us the "Gonzaga recruits Axel Dench" story. How on earth did the Zags find you Down Under, and why Gonzaga and not another school? What other schools were interested in you?

AD: At about the time when I was a year or so out of High School, and having to make one of those life decisions as to where I was heading, Gonzaga kind of dropped in my lap. I was being coached by Brian Goorjian, son of former LMU coach Ed Goorjian, and I had to make a choice as to whether I was going to be able to make it at the pro level at that point or improve my game, get an education and come back a more well-rounded player. When I look at it now I can't believe I hesitated at what I should do. I then asked Brian to look around at colleges via his contacts, and see if there was a fit anywhere that suited me. Gonzaga was on the market for a big guy after one of their former players lost academic eligibility so in mid june, relatively late in the recruiting scenario, they came to me. I took offers from Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Boston College, as well as St Mary's and Eastern WA, but after looking at GU's academic reputation, its style of ball and talking to John Rillie and other coaches, I felt it was the right place for me.

ZH: What was your most memorable experience at Gonzaga, basketball or non-basketball, besides the come-from-behind win where you banked in a trey in The Kennel?

AD: Well that was up there as a basketball highlight, but for a 'most memorable' type of experience it's hard to single one out or do justice to it all without saying that my entire 4 years as a Zag was the greatest thing I've ever done in my life. My life as a basketballer, not to trivialise it in any way but, will always be seen, in at least my eyes, as a means to experience as much as I can while doing what I love. Through basketball I've seen the four corners of the globe, met people I never would have otherwise, and introduced me to the teammates that I would call my brothers and family, in person for four short years and, hopefully, the rest of my life. When I look back on the person I was when I first left for the great beyond, and then look at what I have become not only in basketball terms but as a person, I can only thank GU as a whole for helping me achieve this rite of passage. That might sound a little corny but this is really the first time I've reflected on it at any length.

ZH: Are you more comfortable playing out on the wing or do you like to bang inside, or both, and why?

AD: One thing that my outside range allows me to do is venture out further that my counterparts which frees up the post and key areas for the guards to drive or other posts to work their game. In the past two years I've played more on the wing because my team here has an outstanding post player who has needed me to drag his defensive players post help away from the basket. This in turn has led to him either dominating his player or a lot of kickouts to me on the wing for open shots if my man drifts in. My inside game is where improvements have to be made because I've gotten away from it a little bit, but at the same time I don't want to lose what's set me apart from every other 'bigs' in our league. At the moment I feel more comfortable on the wing but to be able to do both successfully would mean that opponents couldn't quite get a handle on what type of player I am, which means they'd have to keep guessing.

ZH: Tell us what fellow Aussie Zags Paul Rogers and John Rillie are up to these days. Do you stay in touch and do you have a humorous story to tell about one or both of them?

AD: John Rillie just recently lost the Grand Final series but was in the running for MVP of the league and Paul Rogers just made the All-Star Five, so the GU boys are keeping their end up. I don't have much contact with John but I actually spoke to Paul today and he's in the middle of contract negotiations and about to head in for ankle surgery in a week or so. The most amusing story to come about from Paul is from his time touring in America for the Goodwill Games in New York. The team goes to some electronic gadget store and most guys buy the camera's or the games or other handy things... but not Paul. He buys a pair of those things that everyman needs in those important times in their lives when you just can't survive without them. Night Vision Goggles. He then proceeds to wake his roommate up at night by sitting on the edge of his bed, saying the snoring team members name and greeting the confusedly waking person by flashing a infrared light in his face and saying, "I see you..."

ZH: If there's a super hot prospect coming up through the ranks, and you know about him, do you have the green light to pick up the phone and call Mark Few?

AD: I've never been approached by Mark to do such a thing but during my time there spoke to an up and comer who was considering making the move over, just to give him my perspective on the possible options that faced him at the time. Since I've been back I've also spoken to other players at our National Institute of Sport who were considering the college option but I haven't seen any of their names on the players list at GU yet. I would have no hesitation in recommending the college or Gonzaga road as it gives you a much more well-rounded experience than staying at home where it's relatively safe and you don't have to leave your comfort zone.

ZH: Did you get a chance to see any Zag games after you graduated, and if so, what did you think, compared to the teams you were a part of?

AD: Unfortunately, I've only seen games progress over the internet scoreboard and this past season's championship game in San Diego was cut off on ESPN's roster and I only got to see the televised game beforehand. I did watch the highlight tape of the graduating class after me and it was weird to see a whole new bunch of faces wearing the red, white and blue but not know them personally or remember any of the events in person. An Us v's Them comparison would be hard because obviously the last two seasons have been outstanding in anyone's eyes after we left, but to be brutally honest I'd have to say it's a 50/50 thing. On our 2000 team we had some impressive individuals in Casey, Rich and Matt but it was the 'team' concept that got us through the tough situations and as far as we went. Since we left it hasn't been maybe such a close knit team but when you have individual performance's like Casey's, or Dan's, over an entire season and everybody can ride on their shoulders, then the team can be successful as well. It's tough to say seeing I wasn't there for the last two years but if you're a fan of the Zags then you've had a hell of a ride either way.

ZH: Last summer you played in the NBA's Summer League. Tell us about that, along with your game against Utah (Matt and Richie). Do you still hold out any hope for the NBA?

AD: The summer league situation is a pretty intense one that you had better be geared up for as well as mentally switched on, as you never know what might happen. A lot of players fresh out of college who are used to playing 35 minutes a game, now have to get used to being treated as a bench player as they are coming second fiddle to players that are already on a roster or were just drafted by the team they are with. My first year with Houston, out of seven games, I played in only four of them, with minutes ranging from 17 down to 6. You just have to bide your time and when given the chance, run with it and play your game that got you there in the first place. It was weird to play against Rich and Matt, seeing I'd never really done that even at college, and about the only thing that really stays in my memory was that I drilled Matt on a screen and then had the chance to knock down a three on him when he scrambled back to get a hand up but I missed. Otherwise I don't think I put on much of a show for the onlookers back in Spokane, but that happens. My opportunities to get into the league are still there but I'm currently rehabbing from two shoulder reconstructions on my left arm so it's on the back burner for the short term at least.

ZH: Pro ball in Australia. Give us an insight into it, the style, the crowds, the refs.

AD: To give you an insight to the style, it's somewhere between NBA and Euro basketball. We have the athletes to get up high and do the razzle dazzle type of stuff, but a lot of teams also like to slow it down and the do the fundamental 'run the offense' type play to work the clock and get the most out of the team. The crowds are very biased for the home team so when you go on the road it's like playing in The Kennel wherever you go which is good for the sport I think. The reffereeing...... the less said about it the better I think. We have trouble with the refs out here because they're not consistent or they have different sets of rules for certain players or teams, so I can't say I have a whole lot of respect for them at all.

ZH: Tell us about your family, Axel. Are you married or soon-to-be married? What about your parents? Any siblings?

AD: I'm in Wollongong at the moment which is an hours drive below Sydney and the rest of my family are in Melbourne. I have two sisters either side of my age and my younger one's a nurse while the older sister is an artist. Mum and dad are almost retired and are beginning to divide their time between home, the beach and the golf courses around Melbourne. At the moment I have a girlfriend whom I'm pretty much living with but there are no plans to marry in the near future. I'm only 26 so I still feel pretty young when it comes to stuff like that.

ZH: What do you see yourself doing 20 years from now? Will you ever return to Gonzaga?

AD: 20 years from now seems so far away that it's almost too much to think about or plan what I'll be doing at that point. At the moment I'm going back to school part time to get my MBA in marketing so hopefully after I stop playing in 10 years or so I can get a job in advertising. Or perhaps I'll be stubborn, like a lot of teammates I've had over the years, and have the attitude that I'll play forever, and say that in 2 decades from now you'll still see me on a court, knocking down a long bomb, playing below the rim (at least I'm honest about it) and loving every minute of it. The season here will be changing to July - December next year so depending on my travels I might be able to come back and check out a game or two in the new stadium. I think that when that happens I'll be able to look back on my basketball life at Gonzaga and fully realise that I was part of some amazing history at a school that everybody now knows of, that originally had a truly humble beginning.

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