Duncan Greive talks to Tall Blacks guard Corey Webster, in New Orleans attending training camp with the Pelicans, about his journey from NBL exile to being on the verge of playing in the NBA.
A few years ago Corey Webster was a cautionary tale, the perfect example of a talented kid who lacked the application to make use of his physical gifts. He’d come into the NBL as a scorer, an undersized guard who with creativity, slick shooting and a relentlessly attacking style.
Then he tested positive for synthetic cannabis. Such a low rent violation. His contract was torn up. There were murmurings that he ran with an indifferent crowd, that he didn’t entirely buy into the Breakers family. But it was what he did next which showed the kind of person he was and would be.
He approached the Blackwells, the Breakers owners, a pair of devout Christians who also own Albany Pak n Save, one of the country’s most lucrative supermarkets. Webster wanted a job, any job. He wanted to redeem himself. Redemption lay in restocking those shelves, through the night.
He went and trained in China, and the following year I watched him light up the court in an open Breakers training, then address a crowd of reporters as it was announced he’d completed his exile, and was rejoining the club.
Now he’s in New Orleans, on a hot but not humid day, staying at Hilton in the city’s downtown. A few hours ago he finished a scrimmage, still sweating in his gym clothes, and signed a contract with the Pelicans, an NBA team with the league’s most exciting young player – Anthony Davis – and a new coach whose up-tempo style is well-suited to a guy like Webster.
His contract is multi-year, but non-guaranteed – it’s merely a pre-requisite for attending training camp with the team. So while the NBA is now tantalisingly close, it remains distant too. Still, he’s one of 17 players attending camp – 15 make the final roster – and has gone from international obscurity to the cusp of something only three New Zealanders have ever achieved: playing regular season minutes in the greatest basketball league in the world.
I spoke with him in his hotel room recently, as he basked in the afterglow of signing his contract, and found him both elated and entirely aware of what remained in front of him. “It doesn’t mean anything yet.”
How did this happen? It didn’t feel like it was on the cards a couple of months ago.
Yeah, it came up pretty quickly. I just got a call from my agent and he said the Pelicans were interested in bringing me over for workouts. Just to take a closer look at me and see whether or not they wanted to invite me to training camp. So I came over and did the workouts and yeah they decided they wanted to keep me on.
If you were going to land anywhere the Pelicans must be one of the half-dozen most exciting rosters in the league, particularly in terms of the youth. Were you pleased that you landed there? And not with the Knicks or the 76ers or something?
To be honest I wouldn’t care where I was. Anywhere in the NBA. It’s a dream of mine to play for the NBA. So, just grateful for the opportunity to be here.
Obviously it’s any basketball player’s dream but there must have been points in your career when you thought that door was probably closed.
Um, yeah not really, I’m one to never give up on my dreams. And obviously playing international basketball you get to play against NBA players. And I’ve always been able to still contribute on the court and take action there playing against players. I’ve had that confidence about myself that I could play with anyone in any league. So, never gave up on the dream and just kept working hard and trying to show the opportunity that I’m getting, with the Tall Blacks and with the Breakers that I can play consistently and play at a higher level.
Were you conscious going into that Australia series that they had a number of NBA players on that court of some prominence? Going into those matches with the likes of Matthew Dellavedova and Patty Mills, were you thinking if I can go toe-to-toe with these guys there will be people watching – that’s likely to get you places?
Yeah for sure. You never know who’s watching. It’s just the reality of pro sports. Scouts and General Managers and people like that are always watching all around the world these days. I saw that as a good opportunity to prove that I could play those guys that are established in the NBA. I think having a good series against them helped a lot.
Are you in camp right now? How many of the current roster are around? Describe what you’re going through on a day to day basis.
No, I’m not in camp yet. Camp doesn’t start for another week. Pretty much the whole team is here and we’re just working out. Coming in everyday and getting some workouts in, and working out in the gym. Getting individual skills up. A bit of three-on-three and two-on-two. Just building and conditioning and just getting our skills up, so when camp starts, everyone’s ready to go.
So have you played with or against Anthony Davis yet?
Yeah he’s here, he’s working out. Everyone’s pretty much here.
What’s his skill set like to watch, from that perspective?
Um, it’s pretty amazing. You know, you watch it a bit on TV and you’ve seen it before so you know what’s coming. But, to see it in person it’s pretty amazing. Incredible athlete who can do it all on the court. It’s just amazing to be in this atmosphere and to be playing with these guys. I’m sure it can only make me better as a player.
Have you been working with Alvin Gentry? It seems like his style, very fast paced, quite a lot of freedom for players and creativity, fits quite well with your own. Are you conscious of that?
Yeah I think it would. He likes to play that up tempo style. And push the ball and run the lanes and play a little bit free. So I think that suits my style of game. And to run the lane and spot open corners and knock down the open shot, be creative on the ball. I think that’ll help out a lot when competing for a roster spot.
The NBA has evolved quite drastically over the last few years to be smaller and faster and very much placing a premium on three-point shooting. Were you aware that is felt like it was coming toward your game? And did that make you redouble your efforts to become a three-and-D type player?
I watched a lot of NBA players at home and tried to take things from their games that I think that I can do as well and work on that. Then obviously in the last couple of years I’ve been able to work with Ross McMains who’s been on the Tall Blacks. He’s been in the NBA environment for a while now and he’s been on Sacramento teams, and a couple of D-League teams, so he gives me a lot of information on things I need to work on.
I’m looking for that combo-type style. I think there are a lot of players like that around the world, in Europe and so on, which like that that play that kind of combo role. So the way the game’s changing, I think it does benefit me a little bit. And I’ll just keep working on my skills and stealing things from NBA players and working on them.
The Breakers environment is very well regarded by players that come into it. How has that helped you prepare for the NBA environment?
Yeah I think that’s one thing the Breakers do very well, they’re a very professional club. And they take things seriously over there. About being a professional on and off the court. And I think that has helped out a lot. All the guys have got such great relationships around me also. It’s really like a family environment. I think that’s the main thing that has helped, being in an environment that’s professional, coming into an environment like this, you sort of know what to expect.
I remember a few years ago when you had the contract torn up and I thought the way that you responded to that by going to work in Albany at the Blackwell’s Pack n Save and just working your arse off, indicated so much about your character. It must be amazing to look at from where you are now over the last few year. Coming back from that must give you a lot of pride?
Yeah it does, obviously it’s helped shape the person I am now, gave me a new perspective on things and made me realise that I can’t take any of the things I have for granted. Sort of getting a new mentality, I work harder and chase those dreams even more. But to be honest I don’t really think about it I just look and stay in now and focus on what I’m doing right now. Getting better every day. But yeah, it’s played a part in who I am – but I focus on what I’m doing right now.
Do you have a sense yet of what your chance of making the roster is? And if you were to get cut do your agents feel there’s pathways into other teams?
I wouldn’t have a clue, what my chances are right now because obviously we’re just working out every day. I’ll start to get a feeling for it when we start to get into training camp. And, worst case scenario, if I do get cut then my agents will be working to try to get into other teams in the NBA.
You’ve always seemed like a very confident player on the court. Have you been able to maintain that even going into this insane environment? Being aware of the stakes, of what you’re going through?
For sure I’ve always had that level of confidence about me, no matter who I’m playing against. I think you have to have it coming into an environment like this. ‘Cause if you come in without confidence, that’s when they’re going to make a fool of yourself and you’ll be out of here real quick.