Interview: Rupert Sapwell

One of my favourite players of the 90's title teams was "super-sub" Rupert Sapwell. "Sap" could mix it up inside with the big boys and then step out and hit the big 3, never more famously than his game winner against Wollongong here in the '99 semis. That shot epitomised all that is good about sport. Several seconds earlier he airballed one from the same spot but David Stiff got the rebound, kicked it out to him again and Sapwell adjusted his shot and sunk the basket that sent Adelaide to the GF. Rupert was good enough to answer some questions for me below, hope you enjoy it.

1) What are you doing with yourself nowadays Rupert?
I’m the director of Sport at Trinity College in Gawler.  It’s Australia’s largest school, with more than 3600 students over five schools.  For the basketball people, it’s where Central Districts  hold their home games – STARplex is owned by the College.  It has outstanding facilities, excellent and committed staff and energetic leadership.  It’s a great place to work.  I also teach year 10 English – what would you like to know about Shakespeare’s  The Merchant of Venice?
From a basketball perspective, I work with the students there, and I also coach my son in his U14 team, and try to surf down at Goolwa when I can.

2) You played 2 years of NBL before going to the US to play college ball at Cal Lutheran. What was that experience like?
The two years of NBL were largely an exercise in ‘Oh my God – I’m not as good as I think I am’.  I was 16/17/18 years old, and still completing High School.  We trained at night in those days, so it was doable.  I rarely played, and was largely an afterthought in Brian Goorjian’s grand plan.  Half the time I wasn’t suiting up, and I remember one evening Brian forgot to tell me I was i the team.  I got to the game in street clothes and Goorj told me  I was playing.  Mum rushed home to get my uniform, but couldn’t find my shorts.  I told Brian, but he told me to suit up anyway – I wasn’t likely to see any court time.  Sure enough, we end up blowing out Shane Heal’s Geelong Supercats and Brian calls my name.  I just looked at him, frozen – I had no shorts.  Shane Froling had just fouled out, so he told ‘Dutch’ to give me his shorts, so the players formed at huddle while Froling disrobed in front of 3500 people, gave me his shorts and put some track suit pants on.  When it was my turn to disrobe, the players thought it would be funny to play a prank on the rookie and simultaneously parted to give the crowd a full view.  Thanks fellas!
As for the College experience, well, NCAA rules have changed a lot since then, so I was able to attend college without losing eligibility.  Brian teed up for me to go to California Lutheran University, coached by ex-36ERS coach Mike Dunlap.  I was pretty keen to go to Pepperdine – a sprawling campus on Malibu Beach.  On the recruiting trip there I was driven around campus by Emilio Estevez and a couple of gorgeous blondes – I can’t remember what the basketball was like . . .  But Cal Lutheran it was – 45 minutes north of Los Angeles.
Anyway, College was great for me.  There weren’t too many players that were doing it, so I was a bit of a trailblazer in that respect.  Living away from home was a struggle at times.  The first year was pretty rough – injuries and lack of playing time, but it made me grow up really fast.  Coach Dunlap cut me no slack and rode me pretty hard, but it instilled a work ethic and a mental toughness that stayed with me throughout my NBL career.  The second and third years were better for me personally.  I played a lot and made the all-conference teams.  The team won the conference championship all three years I was there and we went to the NCAA sweet 16 twice.
More so than the basketball, however, it was the friendships and the experience.  I met my wife Cyndi there, and still count my teammates on that team among my closest friends.  Also, importantly, I was able to attain a College degree while still playing a high level of basketball.  I’m still quite sickened by the lack of future planning by most of the basketballers today.  They’re setting themselves up for a big fall when they retire because they’ve got no experience and no education.

3) You played under 2 of the league's greatest coaches in Phil Smyth and Brian Goorjian. What did you learn from each of those guys and what things in particular did you take into your coaching career?
I was very lucky with the coaches I had.  Brian Gooorjian, Mike Dunlap, Ian Stacker, Dave Claxton, Phil Smyth and Guy Molloy all had their strengths.  I was a conscientious player, and I always knew I wanted to coach at some stage, so I was taking mental notes all the way.  What I learned from Brian was a work ethic and energy.  When Brian coached me, he was very meticulous.  He wanted to make sure his teams were extremely well prepared physically, and the game plan sprung from a defensive focus.  We trained a lot, and he liked to make sure his stamp was on the team.  I played hard for him because I liked him.  He’s a very funny guy to be around and I was often in hysterics listening to his stories.  Ultimately, however, I don’t feel he trusted me on the court, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because I ended up losing confidence and proving to him that I wasn’t good enough.  He was so risk-aversive in his game plan, that I was petrified of making mistakes.
Phil was the opposite.  He was ultra-relaxed on the sideline, and his message to the group was one of enabling and providing trust.  The motion offence relied on players making their own reads, and he genuinely rolled the ball out and let the players scrimmage for much of the practice.  There was very little science, but lots of art.  Phil (and Steve Breheny) was smart enough to cultivate a culture of confidence and self-belief, and let the players’ natural competitive instincts take over.  As a consequence, my belief in my own ability grew, and the motion offence enabled me to find my niche.
For my own coaching, I’m influenced by Brian’s defensive focus and preparation, and Phil’s free-flowing offence.  Brian’s mental toughness and Phil’s confidence.  You have to have both.

4) 1996 was probably your breakout year. What changed for you in that season?
Most notably court time and opportunity.  I moved from Brian Goorjian’s South East Melbourne Magic to Ian Stacker’s Geelong Supercats.  I started at Geelong and played plenty of minutes.  I got to take important shots and be relied upon on a regular basis.  It showed me I could compete with the best in the NBL, which I needed.  I have always had a healthy dose of self-doubt, which I have relied upon to keep my work ethic up.
The season ended in a nightmare, however, when the Supercats folded after finishing second-last, and the team I left, the Magic, won the NBL title.  I was devastated on both counts.  After that I came to an important conclusion, I was more satisfied being a lesser player on a winning team, than a star on a losing team.  My psyche was wired for team success.

5) What were the circumstances that lead to you coming to Adelaide?
Not only did the Supercats fold, but Hobart and Gold Coast did as well.  I’ve never forgiven the NBL for letting that happen.  30 players without a contract and very few open roster positions – I was lucky to land one in Adelaide, thanks to my old College Coach and then 36ERS coach Mike Dunlap.  I was owed 2 years by the Supercats, and they basically told me to suck on it.  After some frantic wrangling, I ended up getting paid out enough to relocate to Adelaide and that was it.  There was no minimum wage in the NBL at the time, and the 36ERS knew they didn’t have to offer much, so I landed in Adelaide for an $8K contract in my first year, wife in tow, on the brink of quitting and getting a real job.

6) My favourite memory of you was the game winning three against the Hawks here in the '99 playoffs. Where does that rank for you?
Considering there’s not much to compare it to, pretty highly.  The end result was far more important, a ticket to the GF series and an eventual championship.  Equally important to me was the vote of confidence from my team mates and the coaching staff to take the last shot, and the kick-back from David Stiff so I could redeem myself after the first brick.
More important to me in the long run are the championships – they’re like a life-membership to an exclusive club – and the friendships – the people who I’d want in the club for it to be worth being a part of.

7) Deadliest shooter you played with?
Four guys spring to mind – in no order – Brett Maher, Kevin Brooks, Martin Cattalini and John Rillie.
Rillie was the best pure shooter.  Brett had the best pull-up.  Cattalini was the best in traffic, and Brooks was the best at creating his own shot.

8) Best defender you played with?
Darnell was the most frightening.  I’ve seen him totally psych-out opposition players to the point that they wouldn’t even try anything.  He wasn’t good at keeping in front of the ball handler, but he was so good at blocking the player from behind that it didn’t matter.  Darren Lucas from the Magic, however, was the best defender I’ve ever played with.  Sheer effort and aggression.  No-one has played harder before or since.  He was strong, quick and angry.  John Dorge honourable mention.

9) Funniest team mate?
I’ve shared so many laughs in locker rooms, that it’s hard to say.  Some of the years at the sixers were one continuous laugh, we laughed with and at everyone.  Who am I kidding . . . Paul Rees by a mile.  Just for being himself.


  1. Great interview, brings back many fond memories.

  2. Ian (Fos) ThorntonApril 18, 2012 at 10:41 AM

    It brings back great memories of when I toured the Mid-West USA with the 36ers and meeting Rupert and John Rillie for the first time. I suugested that Rupert go to my old club, Norwood, which he did. What a great job he did for them. Rupert is an honest and fantastic person and deserves all of the best life can afford him.


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