Saying goodbye to lord of the ring CJ Bruton
Let's not remember him like this. Let's wish away this forgettable, frustrating final season and savour him in his pomp which, let's face it, was not that very long ago. C J Bruton deserves that much as he lines up his final long-range shot with the New Zealand Breakers.
There have been longer-serving Breakers (Paul Henare, Mika Vukona and Dillon Boucher have all exceeded his 178 appearances to date), more explosive scorers (Kirk Penney) and more dynamic players (Cedric Jackson and Tom Abercrombie) but it's hard to come up with someone who has meant as much to this champion club as the remarkable Calvin Thomas Bruton Jnr, born in Wichita, Kansas, raised in Australia and, for the last six years, resident in Auckland, New Zealand.
When the Breakers landed the signature of Bruton prior to the 2008-09 season, he was lauded as the "missing piece". The club's brains trust believed he would transform them from pretenders to contenders. He came pledging to be part of "something special" in New Zealand and to win not just championships but the hearts and minds of Kiwis. He was as good as his word.
It took a couple of seasons to polish the product that emerged once Bruton (and his good pal Boucher) joined the good ship Breakers, but, by 2010-11, the North Shore-based club was full steam ahead as the dominant force in the Australian NBL. The Breakers went 22-6 that year (for the first of three straight minor premierships) and cruised past the Cairns Taipans in a three-game grand final.
The next season they went 21-7 and outduelled bitter rivals the Perth Wildcats in a finals for the ages that went to a decider at a sold-out Vector Arena and was sealed by a couple of late dagger triples by Bruton, the series MVP.
Then, last season, the threepeat was achieved in consummate fashion: 24-4 followed by their first post-season sweep. Bruton, after a mediocre regular season by his standards, once again lifted on the brightest stage to play Mr Big Shot off the bench.
He could have bowed out on that note, at the age of 37, as Boucher did, accolades ringing in his ears as the championship confetti rained down. It would have been a perfect exit for a guy with six titles to his name.
But not for him. The son of a gun (NBL Hall of Famer Cal Bruton is his father) wanted to box on and be there for the tricky transition he knew would play out after the departure of Boucher, league MVP Jackson and coach Andrej Lemanis.
Has it been a season too far? Appearances suggest so. Hobbled by age's icy grip, Bruton's struggles have mirrored the team's. As the Breakers head into Friday's finale against the Cairns Taipans at Vector with an 11-16 record, Bruton's numbers (5.9ppg, 2.1apg, 38 per cent FG, 33 per cent 3PT) tell the sad tale of a legend in decline.
But there are no regrets and, even though he admits to frustrations around the way the club has handled this transitional year, he says he'll bow out with his head held high.
"It's going to be special. I'll have to fight back the tears. To see the game change from North Shore to Vector has been huge. To see so many more followers come out and to see more and more want to chat about the game and about life, that's the heartwarming part."
Still, it's been a rough final season. Bruton concedes he and his coaches never really figured out his role and it's shown on court.
"I got lost in the mix and when I did get a shot, it felt like I was never in rhythm. I felt like my love for the game this year was tested to the max - the most it's ever been. I'm not the sixth man any more . . . I might be eighth or ninth but, in terms of how this team is ticking, the club keeps you around to lead in those areas.
"I didn't do my job well enough. Where we are says that. I went through a period where I was quiet. I told them it's not my job to keep running my mouth when you refuse to open yours . . . it's everyone. There were times when the coaches needed to say something and, a lot of time, the players needed to speak up. It couldn't be all on me. I told the team ‘I'm leaving - I need to see that you guys are growing'."
Bruton is not bitter. Far from it. But his words should be heeded when the fall from grace in 2013-14 is evaluated. After the personnel changes - remember, Alex Pledger has hardly played this season either - and the league's decision to come down hard on physical defending, the Breakers simply never found the answers sought - and now need a miracle to sneak into the playoffs.
"There was a lot more anger in this group than the whole time I've been here," Bruton says.
"It's about chemistry. Our chemistry in those titles was solid, we stuck to our rules and the heart of the team was undeniable. This year it was indecisive from the get-go. I didn't know what you were going to do and you didn't know what I was going to do. That chemistry just hasn't been there."
The little sharpshooter has also accepted his mortality.
"I love competing. I know I can still get to the rim. I know I can get my shot off and can still run the team. But, at my age, you need to be put in the right situation and this situation changed. I never really accepted it either and when I did we'd taken too many losses."
Bruton will, of course, be fondly remembered as the smiling gunner who would knock down long-range daggers and raise his hands in that trademark three-point salute. He played with personality, and, as Pledger puts it, "with a swag".
The fans loved him. And he them. The faithful lapped up his act on the court and his charm off it. Bruton, it turned out, was more than happy to reciprocate the adulation.
It's not unknown for him to turn up at the birthday party of a club member, gift in one arm, son Rico in the other. And, if he finds out about a sick kid who's a Breaker fan, you just try to keep him away from the youngster's bedside.
"I don't think he gets enough credit in terms of the positive effect he has on people," says assistant coach and long-time Bruton "roomie" Paul Henare.
"He's amazing and does stuff off the radar as well. I honestly think the winning is secondary to the qualities he brings as a person."
Breakers boss Richard Clarke agrees. He knows exactly what it meant to the club member when Bruton turned up at his son's birthday party and also what a kick a sick kid gets when the gregarious hoopster turns up at hospital swinging a Breakers singlet.
"He embraced our values and our approach and pushed other guys who weren't of that mindset and that's meant it's become part of our culture," Clarke says.
"He's the day-to-day embodiment of everything we're about."
Bruton, of course, learnt it all from his father.
"The game has given me so much and the reason you're able to do it for a living is because of the support you get from your community. If you don't give it back then you're only hurting how this game was given to you."
You ask what he sees when he looks into those packed stands at Breakers games.
"I see everyone's lives, everyone's families, how committed they are and how much they appreciate what C J Bruton and his family have done. It's truly special."
He was a reluctant Breaker at first. He vowed never to play for them after they'd tried to land the licence of the Canberra club with whom he was featuring at the time. But he moved on - eventually crossing the Tasman and delivering on those pledges to create "something special" in his new homeland.
"I've enjoyed every moment, good times and bad and I've had fun every day doing what I love."
C J BRUTON'S ANBL CAREER
ANBL Appearances 515 / 10th all time Points 7663 / 18th all time Assists 1853 / 11th all time Rebounds 1528 Steals 672
BREAKERS Appearances 178 / 4th all time Third most wins in a Breakers singlet: 120 from 178 appearances Points 2038 / 2nd all time Assists 463 / 3rd all time Steals 170 / 3rd all time Most points in a single game: 32 v Melbourne Tigers (8/10/09)