Bruton 'the difference' for Breakers in title win
New Zealand sport has a new Steve Price. His name is CJ Bruton and he's now as honorary a Kiwi as you get.
Bruton, like Price in his time at the Warriors, is a veteran Australian professional who plies his trade for a New Zealand team in an Aussie sporting league. And like Price he has become a folk hero at his club where he's rightly lauded for his ability to come up big at the business end of the season.
Price's reputation was earned for the consistency of his performance, the hardness of his graft and for the unabashed manner in which he set the standards at the footy club.
Bruton is a different sort of athlete - more pick-axe than sledgehammer - but no less effective and no less important for his team.
Bruton is the 36-year-old combo guard for the New Zealand Breakers and he's fresh off helping them to their second straight Australian NBL title, crowned in magnificent fashion on Tuesday night at Vector Arena.
Like Price, Bruton is a classy operator who has crossed the Tasman and given his heart and soul to his new club at a stage in his career when he could be forgiven for slowing up a little, and perhaps dialling back on his magic.
Instead, Bruton has just played possibly the most impressive grand finals series of his career en route to his fifth NBL crown.
Halfway through this year when he was struggling with sore knees and a wayward shot, some even started to question whether we might be witnessing his last lap of the track. The end of a special career.
Now, here he is, newly crowned MVP of the finals, where he was, in the words of Wildcats coach Rob Beveridge, the "difference" between two fine sides..
"I reckon he's playing you guys," Beveridge told the media after Tuesday night's decider. "Five championships he's won, the guy is going to be a hall of famer. Andrej and his medical staff did a great job this year of getting him through the season. He's a big-time player and he steps up and has a tremendous series."
Consider Bruton's playoff campaign. In the semifinal series against the Crocs he got off to a slow start with just seven points in a game one defeat. Then he had 18 points in the must-win visit to The Swamp and 20 in the closeout clash back at Vector.
He was even better against the Wildcats, going for 20 points in the opener, another 20 in Perth and then a sweet 16 in the decider on Tuesday.
But the numbers tell only part of the story. His ability to sense the moment and step up and hit the dagger three-ball was as uncanny as it as consistent. Whenever the game was on the line, Bruton wanted the ball in his hands. And inevitably he had the answer.
"My first memory is always going to be CJ through that series," said Breakers assistant coach Dean Vickerman after an epic grand final. "For a guy who does what he does through the regular season, once it comes winning time and championship time he just took it to a totally different level."
"He picks his moment better than anyone," adds Breakers swingman Tom Abercrombie. "He's just such a fantastic team-mate. It's been an absolute privilege to get to play with him and learn from him day-in, day-out, seeing the way he goes about things and his attitude to the game."
Or, in the words of head coach Andrej Lemanis who had no hesitation in re-signing him for another two years: "How much CJ gives the group can't be measured only by what he does on court. He does so much around the group in building team culture, team environment, and team confidence.
"He finds his way to help everybody, and he sacrifices for the good of the group, sacrifices his own game and is happy to let his team-mates shine. He understands what makes teams work."
Some other things you should know about Bruton: he is as proud as anyone about what has been achieved by the Breakers over the last couple of years; he considers himself an Australian (he was actually born in the US) but a proud Kiwi at heart now; he is the most popular of players with sponsors, kids, mums, dads and the media; the court announcer needs only utter the first initial of his name for the entire crowd at home games to take up the chant.
But the two most important things you should know about Bruton are he's a winner and he's a grinner. He makes good things happen on the court, and he has fun doing it.
He is a special individual who is a huge part of a special club.
As Lemanis mentioned the other night: "I'm happy to have him here as long as I'm coach."
As New Zealand embraces these Breakers and their all-conquering feats, we should take a moment to treasure the little Aussie with the killer jump shot. He's one of us now. And we should honour him as such.