To say the Hugh Greenwood story was unconventional would be a gross understatement. At 23, he decided that he wanted to switch from a promising basketball career to play AFL. He debuted for the Crows against the Lions earlier this year, and sat down with AFLPlayers.com.au to discuss his transition and more.
Have you watched much Summer League over the last couple of weeks?
I actually have. It’s probably the most basketball I’ve watched since coming back to footy.
Obviously the early draftees are the ones that we watch closely, but have any other players caught your eye specifically?
Due to all of the hype from his old man I’ve watched a lot of Lonzo Ball. My mates are all at UCLA like my old coach so I saw him play earlier in the year and I thought he was good, but I didn’t think he was that good. Tatum from Boston is really good, too. Big Saucy Jacobs runs a fantasy basketball league that he got me hooked into. It’s a keeper league so this year’s draft means we’ll be drafting this year’s rookies so I need to keep an eye on how they’re performing.
Things must be quite surreal given that two years ago you were trying out for the Utah Jazz?
It was funny actually, those Facebook memories come up all the time and the morning of the Melbourne game just gone I had a new one appear. I saw that it had been two years since I played my last game of basketball for Australia in South Korea and it was pretty surreal that I was waking up in Darwin about to play against Melbourne who my pop played 99 games for and won three flags. Moments like that put it all in perspective. It’s crazy what can happen in such a short amount of time, but I’m thankful to be here.
Due to your pop’s history with the Dees, is that who you grew up supporting?
No, he couldn’t quite convert me fully. I was five or six when I started Auskick and our club were the Lauderdale Cats so for whatever reason as a young kid I latched onto the Cats and was a Geelong fan growing up. Once again, it’ll be another big game on Friday night against that mob.
What about your NBA team? Was there a team you took a liking to?
I liked the Nuggets and my favourite player growing up was Kenyon Martin. When the Aussies started taking over in the NBA I began to take a liking to the Spurs while Patty Mills and Aron Baynes were there. Now, I follow Utah a little bit closer with Dante and Joey but the Nuggets would still be my team, for sure!
Kenyon Martin! Not many kids in Australia grow up with him being their favourite player…
Mate, he was a beast! Usually people idolise players that are similar to how they play. Not me, though… he was stupidly athletic!
Of the many Australians plying their trade over there, who were you closest with?
I was fortunate enough to play with a lot of them, but when I made the call to change to footy I sort of dropped out of contact with them for a while. But in recent times I’ve picked up conversations with them again. Matthew Dellavedova was someone that I went to the AIS with and I latched onto him and tried to do everything that he used to do when I was there, Joe Ingles used to give me all of his old shoes when I used to go to Boomers camps because he had plenty of them. He used to give me his Kobes so I used to train and play in those. They were all really good to me and it’s awesome to see them doing what they’re doing now.
Joe just got paid, that’s for sure… do you want to talk a little bit about him? He has a pretty interesting personality…
He’s a character, that’s for sure! He’s been the exact same person as long as I’ve known him and you see the stuff he posts out on Twitter — he’s not afraid to crack a few jokes here and there. I met his wife Renae years and years ago when they were dating and they have the kids now and they’re married. He’s a diehard Hawks fan but he’s a South Australian so I’m not really sure how that works out…
Going back to that Facebook memory and your transition, are you surprised at how quickly you adapted back into playing footy?
Yeah, I guess I am. It took me a long time to get my feet in the SANFL, it wasn’t until the back end of the year that I started to play capable footy and that was the point where I realised that I could actually do it. I was going through the year and things weren’t quite working out the way I wanted them to, but towards the end of the year I started to play the type of footy that I wanted to play. Since coming into the AFL, the boys have given me advice and told me to just play well in the reserves and stick to my role and that’s basically all I’ve been doing. I haven’t been trying to kick five and have 30, I’ve been going out and playing a role and fortunately it has worked for me.
At the back end of last year when you started to hit your straps, how close did you come to a senior call up?
I don’t really know how close I came. We had a very good side last year like we do this year, but my best three or four games were during the SANFL finals so to debut in the AFL finals as a Category B rookie probably wasn’t going to happen, but I used that momentum from the back end of last year into this year and it has paid off.
Speaking of the Category B rookie selections, a lot of those guys don’t make it for whatever reason… being one yourself but in much different circumstances, did the thought ever cross your mind that perhaps the switch wasn’t going to eventuate and you weren’t going to make it? Outsiders may have thought it was a footy/basketball gimmick, but you were serious about it…
I had a big reality check when I rocked up to the first day of pre-season and I came dead last in the 2km time trial. That was the wake-up call for me. In the first half of 2016 I was really finding my feet but didn’t have an identity as a footy player and our team was very strong — there were guys playing much better footy that what I was in the SANFL that couldn’t even crack a game — so the first period of time was up and down. That’s the way footy is, and not just for me, everyone goes through it. But it wasn’t until SANFL finals time that I proved to myself that I could do it, and then I cracked in during the off-season and went over to the States and trained really hard over there with Cam Ellis-Yolmen and put everything into this season.
When you were over there, did you take part in some basketball-related activities?
Yeah. I went back to my old school (the University of New Mexico) which elevation wise, is really high. We did some elevation training every day and we used all the facilities there like the gym, the ovals, but I didn’t get too many shots up! It was nice to catch up with familiar faces over there, but we spent the majority of it working hard. I came back feeling much better for it.
Did you have to explain to many people over there the sport you were now playing?
They thought it was rugby, they thought it was soccer, they have no idea what Aussie Rules is. For whatever reason, it hasn’t made its way over there yet, but once you show people they think you’re crazy because they’re used to seeing footballers wearing pads and helmets, but we go out there with nothing on and get smacked.
When you came back to Australia a few years back and had thoughts of forging a domestic basketball career, you signed a three-year deal with the Perth Wildcats… but you only lasted a few months with them because you decided that you wanted to go down the footy path. What happened there?
I had a call to make when I was in the States. I had NBA workouts lined up so I was going to go down the Summer League path myself, but I also had national team offers and obligations and generally it’s one or the other so I decided that I’d try and make the Olympic team and go down that path. I did that and went to the World University Games in South Korea and then was hoping to get an invite to the national team camp on the back of that, but it didn’t eventuate. I’d put all of my eggs in the national team basket and I didn’t get selected for that and probably wasn’t going to make the 2016 Rio Olympics so I figured there wasn’t any point any more given the Olympic and NBA doors were closing so the footy opportunity presented itself and I thought it was another opportunity to play at the highest level in a chosen sport. It wasn’t going to be basketball for me, but maybe I could make it in footy and that’s what I did. It wasn’t an easy decision at the time and I probably let a few people down but I had to do what was best for me.
What was the conversation like with Matt Neilsen and Nick Marvin?
It wasn’t easy. Matt Neilsen was a four-time Olympian and captain of the Boomers, and was someone I developed a close relationship with through my time at the Boomers. He was the one who recruited me and he became the assistant coach that year and I wanted to play for him and that’s why I signed, so telling him was the hardest thing because he wasn’t just my coach, he was a mate. The conversation with Nick wasn’t easy, either. If I had my time again I would have done a few things differently, I would have communicated stuff a little bit better. My visit to Adelaide kind of leaked out and that got back to Perth so I had to make the call quicker than I wanted to. Despite how tough it all was telling them, they were really good about it and they’ve gone on to win back-to-back championships now so it worked out for both parties pretty well.
When you left, were they worried that the footy thing wouldn’t work out and you’d be back trying to play basketball again? Were there chats around making sure you didn’t sign with other NBL teams?
They made it very clear that I wasn’t going to play basketball for as long as I’d committed to the Wildcats for, so even if it didn’t work out after a year, I wasn’t going to be able to play anywhere for the remaining length of my contract with Perth, which overall was a three-year deal. I wasn’t able to play basketball anywhere and at any level for a couple of years. I’m not sure if that made them feel better but I knew that I was going to stick to footy and have a real crack at it once I put my mind to it.
When you started playing in the SANFL, a lot of people knew who you were, and I’m not saying you would have had a target on your back, but did you receive any good sledges?
Oh yeah! Well, I had long hair at the time so that didn’t help either so a lot of it was about that, and then every time I took a set shot guys would say, ‘You should have stuck to basketball!’ Even the fans in the crowd would yell the same thing.
Any particular players who gave you some funny sledges! We need names…
Aaron Joseph is another Tassie mate of mine and he plays for Glenelg so he got into me. But I’m still learning the names of a lot of the AFL guys — I’m only new, I’ve only been here a couple of years!
When you got to your debut against Brisbane earlier in the year, did you think just prior that you were getting close, or were you completely surprised?
Ryan O’Keefe, who is our development midfield coach, is someone that I have worked really close with and he made me captain of the SANFL side coming into this season, so when he named me I thought that was a step in the right direction. Then I started playing some consistent footy and then I got elevated to the senior list a week before my debut and was the emergency, and then we lost to Melbourne and had lost to North the week before that so I came in that week and thought some changes might be made. I spent that whole week not sleeping and then Thursday afternoon at about 1pm I still hadn’t received a call from Pykey, so I thought maybe it wasn’t to be that week, but then around 2pm I got the call and found out I was playing. I had a feeling I was going to that week, but you don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself. I was just hopeful.
Who’d you tell first when you received the great news?
I was actually playing Xbox online with Charlie Cameron, Mitch McGovern and Rory Laird, so I had my headphones on and my microphone on from when we were playing, and Pykey called me through that so they found out as I was having a conversation with him through the microphone. I could hear them in the background just cacking themselves and carrying on while I’m trying to have a serious conversation with the coach. They found out right away, but then I called my best mate and my parents after that. It was pretty funny.
Which game were you playing?
We were playing Overwatch. We have an Overwatch chat, and we pretty much play every single day. They had started yelling at me because I stopped playing halfway through and they were getting mad at what was happening. Once they found out, they were alright about it.
Do you have any plans for this year? Do you set yourself targets?
I’ve had to re-evaluate now, because at the top of my goals board was to play AFL, now that it’s happened its sort of like, this is everything I’ve been working towards for the last two years, now what do I do? We’re No. 1 in the competition right now, we’re a very good side, so it’s about staying in there and being in the best 22. I take it game-by-game, but for me it’s about cementing myself in our best side so that I can have a real opportunity to do something special with this special group come September.
I know you’re taking it step-by-step, and I love all the cliché footy responses, but have you had the chance to even look ahead and dream about playing in a premiership, and what it would be like after everything you’ve done?
Yeah, it’d be pretty crazy! I know it’s very cliché, but you try not look beyond each game in front of you, but in the back of my mind it’s certainly there. I’ve played in a lot of big games around the world, but it would be the pinnacle of Australian sport to play an AFL Grand Final. But that’s not just the motivation for me, everyone at this footy club wants it, and we feel we have the team and are more than capable. All going well for the rest of the regular season, we’re looking forward to potentially having that opportunity.
You’re out of contract at the end of the year, aren’t you?
Yeah, I’m out of contract at the end of the season so another goal for me is getting another contract. I haven’t begun those negotiations yet but hopefully it will take care of itself. It’s one of those things that won’t faze me too much, and obviously Jake Lever and Mitch McGovern are going through some tough times with theirs, but for me it’ll take care of itself eventually.
When the conversations do eventuate, how involved will you be? Or do you leave it up to your manager?
I’ll certainly stay involved and stay engaged. I’m not a 21-year-old that has his whole career ahead of him, I’m 25, so I need to set myself up for the future. I’ll be communicating that with my manager, and I want to play somewhere where I’ll be in the best 22 each week, I don’t want to wait around any longer. Or wait for an injury to get a crack.
How are Jake and Mitch holding up? Some of the media speculation I’ve seen has bordered on the ridiculous!
They’re fine. Jake is playing awesome footy and Mitch has come back in the side and slotted in after an eight-week absence. They’re two guys that are fine, they’re very funny and laid back. Eventually it’ll take care of itself, I couldn’t tell you which way they’re leaning towards and I’m close with both of them, they keep their cards close to their chest.
Were you involved in that mock signing with Jake on the golf course?
Haha, no! But we do take the mickey out of him every time an article gets published! There was one about his partner not re-signing at a school — which I don’t think was even her, it was another Jess! But when that stuff happens it goes straight to the group message. It’s the same with Mitch, whenever stuff about him going to play with his brother is written we always put it in the group chat and they take it pretty light-heartedly.
I hadn’t heard the one about Jake’s partner…
Oh mate, someone found a newsletter that apparently was wishing Jess all the best with her next step in her career, so basically it meant that she hadn’t re-signed and they thought it was Jake’s partner but it wasn’t. We say that Jake is under the thumb anyway so it worked out pretty well!
That’s a good note to end on! Thanks for taking the time to have a chat, and best of luck for the rest of the season!
It’s been good chatting. Thank you.