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5 of Joe Ingles’ Aussie mates reflect on the Utah Jazz forward’s career, from ‘skinny fat guy’ to bronze-medal legend

Friends, teammates, and coaches from Australia provide an eclectic oral history on the lesser-known early days of the brash basketballer.

Australia's Joe Ingles (7) celebrates with teammate Patrick Mills (5) during a preliminary men's basketball game against Great Britain at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

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Utah Jazz fans already revere Joe Ingles for his brash persona, his 3-point prowess, his excellent court vision, his Hall of Fame-level trash talking, his withering, sarcastic wit delivered in that lovable Aussie drawl.

Thing is, as a guy who didn’t join the NBA until he was already 27 years old, they really only know a fraction of his story.

Fortunately, five of the men who know him best in this world — friends, teammates and coaches from his nascent days in his native Australia — were willing to dish some dirt … which they promptly used to lovingly bury him.

The tales date back to his not-quite-humble beginnings as a basketball prodigy newly signed on with the South Dragons of the NBL. Stories were told of his growing pains as both a trash talker and a deep shooter, of his resemblance to a certain insect and his infamous dad bod, of some long-overdue fines and his inherent cheapness, of his missing tooth and — maybe most annoyingly to him — his big heart.

It’s the most jinglin’ oral history ever told.

Making an impression

Adam Gibson, Boomers and South Dragons teammate: We first met [at the Australian Institute of Sport], where we were both on scholarship. … Just a tall, lanky, skinny kid with a massive mop of hair. It looked like a broom, like a mop you sweep the floor with, because he had this massive mullet.

Jarryd Roughead, Aussie rules footballer and best friend: I remember playing against him in a couple of different tournaments. You come up against this … basically, you describe him as this tall, thin bloke that doesn’t look anything like a basketballer, really.

Shane Heal, South Dragons teammate and coach, Boomers assistant: I think he comes across as he’s that cocky, but when he was younger, he sort of used it to disguise a little bit of lack of confidence, really. But you could always just see what he was going to do. He was a great kid, he listened.

Mark Worthington, Boomers and South Dragons teammate: The same Joe that you see on the court now, that was him as a young guy stepping into the Australian National Basketball League. The first time I played against Joe, I actually wanted to punt his head off his shoulders. But the more that I was around him, the more that I liked him as a kid.

Matt Nielsen, ex-Boomers teammate and now-assistant coach: I actually remember the phone call of the first time he spoke to me because it was everything that Joe is now. ... I was like, “I don’t know if I hate the kid or love the kid.” He was cocky, he was funny, he brought swag in the conversation. All of that, all in one.

Worthington: I think he’s one of those guys — and I’m not sure what it’s like in the NBA — but you love Joe on your team and you hate Joe if he’s not on your team, because he looks like he shouldn’t be able to do the things that he does, and then he lets you know that he can do it and some more.

Australia's Patrick Mills (5) celebrates with teammates Mark Worthington and Joe Ingles (7) after scoring a last-second basket in the team's win over Russia in a preliminary men's basketball game at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 6, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Gibson: I’ve known players that you want to fight them when you play ‘em. I don’t think Joe’s quite in that area. But Joe is [sarcastic] 24/7. Every time I say something to him in a normal conversation, he finds a way to tweak it, to be a d---head. He’s always had that. … You’re at dinner and you say something, and he’ll make a joke about it — he always has a smartass comment. So even being a great mate, I’m like, “Mate, just shut up.”

Heal: He was just probably a goofier, more naive version of what you see today, because he was always chirpy, had an opinion, he had so much life about him. I loved him because he was so cheeky but he was passionate about playing basketball.

Worthington: Anyone that knows Joe knows that he’s very witty, he’s very dry with his humor.

Heal: But he was a bit raw [early on] — he didn’t have great comebacks back then. But he sort of always just chirped back. You could tell that he liked the banter. … On the bus and things like that, he always wanted to have fun and talk a bit of s---. I think his game has grown in that department since I knew him as a young player, that’s for sure.

Worthington: Joe was and still is one of the best s--- talkers you’ll ever come across on a basketball court. He’s able to manipulate players on the other team with how quick and witty that he actually is.

Nielsen: I think that’s one of his strengths. Because a lot of times, guys will talk and they get distracted, that kind of thing; Joe’s not down that path. [He’s one] you practically prefer to be a bit yappy — it gets him up and about, and it’s when he’s at his best.

Roughead: He is one that — and I’m pretty sure you agree — not much seems to faze him. You don’t seem to get inside his head, he doesn’t get frustrated often. He’s very comfortable in his own skin and doesn’t really care about what others think.

Worthington: The one that stands out to me is at the Olympics when we were playing Team USA, and him and Chris Paul were going at it. Joe was at the end of our bench during that campaign and didn’t get a whole lot of minutes, and he came on the court and I think he hit a 3 and Chris Paul started talking to him. And Chris obviously is very good at s--- talking as well, and I think he went along the lines of, “I’ve got enough money to buy your entire family.” And I think Joe’s response was, “I might not have as much money as you, but I’m pretty sure I could end your career if I wanted to.”

Nielsen: That’s the beauty of Joe, is he kind of plays at that, he feeds off that at times, but that’s just him and he’s very comfortable with it. And he can do it in a tournament in southern Italy or he could do it in a gym in Melbourne, but he can also do it against Paul George in NBA playoff games.

Growing on the court

Heal: I coached him and had a relationship with him. He was sort of my guy that I was responsible for. Trying to teach him about preparation, the mental preparation. … We went through a lot where he would miss shots in training when we’re doing our shooting drills, and he’d kick basketballs — I had to put fines in for anyone who kicked a basketball. He would lose it mentally. He couldn’t stay with it. As soon as things didn’t go right, he would go the other direction.

Roughead: Everyone said that his shot wasn’t the most conventional-looking shot that you see from any basketball player, let alone a left-hander.

Heal: It was amazing — when I first got him, he would jump shoot and he would land about a meter to his right on every shot. And that’s weird. He would never hold his follow-through, he’d always land to his right. And I’m like, “Mate, are you kidding? How are you going to be a shooter if you’ve got these bad traits?”

Nielsen: It is still funky — it’s just it’s a consistency [thing] for him and that shot. Are you gonna teach anyone to shoot like Joe? No, no way in hell. But the consistency in his shot, he’s had all-time season percentages and things like that. It is a funky shot, but I think it goes back to his personality, too. It’s his self-belief.

Heal: It was about teaching him about the process involved to be able to have a short memory, and lose the memory of missing those shots, and just taking the detail of what you need to change going forward, and getting into the specifics of shooting straight up and down, getting the right backspin on the ball, and holding your follow-through, and concentrate on the details. And it takes time.

(Photo courtesy of Adam Gibson) The South Dragons claimed the NBL championship in their third and final season of existence, in 2008-09. At bottom center are friends Adam Gibson and Joe Ingles.

Gibson: When you watch his games, some games he’ll go off and just come down and just let it fly and they go in, and then the next game he won’t shoot enough. So I think he’s got that unselfish part of him, which sometimes he needs to be more selfish. I think he’s shooting a lot more now, but I think he just wants to win, and I don’t think he cares if he doesn’t shoot the ball.

Nielsen: I think if you really look back, he was a pretty good shooter the whole way through. I’m not sure of the stats maybe, [but] I remember a lot of shooting drills he did on the national team that he could compete with Patty [Mills] very easily, which is not an easy task.

Worthington: He was just a menace on defense. And he would get into passing lanes and get deflections on all the little stuff that probably doesn’t show up on a stat sheet. He was just outstanding.

Heal: What blew me away was just his ability to be able to defend with his length. I remember bringing the ball down and trying to make a post-entry pass from the wing, and he was just so long and active with his arms that it was really difficult just to be able to make a basic play.

Worthington: I don’t think people understand, A) how tall Joe actually is, and 2) how long his arms are.

Roughead: You could put up a praying mantis next to him and you’d think they look the same. He’s a version of a praying mantis, I reckon. … You just put his head on a praying mantis, and there he is.

Worthington: Joe will say he had athleticism, but he never did. He’s got sneaky athleticism, let’s just put it that way. He probably can’t dunk it anymore because he’s old and slow. But back in the day, he liked to throw down a dunk in transition or get an alley-oop pass off our offense.

Gibson: He was a lot more athletic then — he could actually dunk back then, and could jump. I always used to call him “the skinny fat guy,” because he would be like an absolute stick, but his body was sloppy. He had a sloppy body — wouldn’t have abs. I don’t know if he really loved the gym too much.

Australia's Joe Ingles hangs on the rim on a slam dunk against China during a men's basketball game at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Worthington: Yeah, he would say that he’s athletic, but if we say that, then he’ll get a big head and then tell everyone else that he’s athletic, too. We don’t want to validate that.

Nielsen: He plays at such a speed that he can change things up and look at the options, because he’s not exactly whizzing past them at that time.

Heal: He wasn’t a big guy for the gym. He did the work, but it wasn’t where his passion was. And that was part of what I loved about him — he was a baller. He wanted to get out and hoop.

Worthington: On top of that, his playmaking ability on the ball, and being able to manipulate defenses by seeing over the defense and making the right pass. I mean, that’s essentially what Joe’s NBA career has been like.

Heal: With every game, he just gained confidence, you could just see it grow. He knew he was destined for big things.

Gibson: We would go out, we’d win, and just beat teams up, and then we would go out and party — it was a nice little routine we had going on.

His quirkier and softer sides

Gibson: Meeting him for the first time, he kind of brings people in. Like, if you have a new import, they feel comfortable straight away because he’s a d---head straight away, and it kind of breaks the ice.

Roughead: I remember when he left for … it was either Tel Aviv or somewhere else. Because he was staying at my house, he had to change his license to say that was his home fixed address. So I remember parking fines, speeding fines, everything was still getting sent to my house. And because he was overseas, it’s like, “Well, I’m going to have to pay for these, because if I don’t, the sheriff is going to come around and start collecting things from me, while you’re over on the other side of the world, not having a care in the world.”

Nielsen: We were [national team] roommates for like six or seven years, I believe. He was a bit of an old man in some of his roomie habits. He wanted to go to bed at like 9, 9:30; I was a little bit more of a night owl, so I think it used to frustrate him. But since I was the old dog, there was only so much he could do about it, so he just had to put up with it.

Worthington: Joe has a fake tooth. I’m not sure anyone actually knows this, but Joe has got a fake tooth — from one of our nights drinking. I was the one that gave it to him, because we might have had a few sherberts too many, and later on in the night, Joe thought it’d be funny, as I was drinking, to knock the beer into my face. I was drinking a bottle of beer, and I didn’t take too kindly to it, so as he went for a drink, I did the same thing … which chipped his tooth. And Joe looked at his tooth on the ground, picked it up and then kicked it. We’re at a bar at this stage. He kicked it and he said, “I’ll deal with that in the morning.” So that was how I knew Joe was a tough son of a b----, is his tooth broke in half and he just picked it up and kicked it.

Nielsen: He definitely was a bit of a lazy bugger. He just wanted to get to bed and didn’t want to go out, [just wanted to] get some shuteye, and I didn’t let him. And he still complains about it to this day.

Roughead: I’ve been to Salt Lake twice when they were moving into a house, and I ended up having to unpack all his clothes — and Renae’s clothes — in their walk-in room. Renae was back in Australia for two weeks or maybe even longer. I was lucky enough he let me stay for two or three nights, but he did make me work, too. So I had to unpack his closet. I had to be there for all the trades that were coming in to do the electricity, the heating, or the cooling. I was like, “Mate, I’m on holidays. And this is what you should be organizing before you even move into the house.”

Gibson: I don’t think he ever wears anything other than [Chuck Taylors], jeans, probably a gray T-shirt and a black hat — that’s his standard. So he’s either one of the tightest human beings and he just doesn’t like to spend money, or he has no fashion sense. ... He legit wears that [outfit] 24/7.

Roughead: As you know, he leaves [the house] wearing Jazz sweats and the Converse [shoes]. I still get asked to buy the same black hat — like, three lots of this one black hat that I have to send over to him pretty much every year, because he goes through two or three black hats every season.

Gibson: I think him and Renae just went to an event somewhere, I don’t know where that was, but he had to actually put some proper clothes on. I don’t know if he had a suit on, but it was pretty dressy. I’m pretty sure he still wore some kind of white sporting shoes. But yeah, I mean, he’s never been … I don’t know what the rules in NBA are now, but I’m assuming that when they had to wear nice clothes, he would have been dying at that.

(Photo courtesy of Jarryd Roughead) From left, Luke Hodge, Jarryd Roughead, Renae Ingles, and Joe Ingles pose on the Vivint Arena court in this undated photo. Roughead, an Australian rules football star, and Joe Ingles are friends going back to childhood.

Friends like family

Roughead: When you’re in his inner circle, it’s like you’re family. He’ll do anything he can to try and help you, or be there for you when when you need him.

Heal: My daughter was cut in the WNBA this year. She went with the eighth pick [in the 2021 draft], she’s only 19, she was there for three weeks, and they made changes to their roster. And the first message I got was [from] Joe, saying, “Hey, mate, I just saw what happened. You know, if Shyla needs to come here and stay with us [due to Australia’s COVID-19 lockdown], then let us know anything that we can do right now.” And that’s just the sort of guy Joey is. He was always going to lend a hand and make sure that my family was OK.

Roughead: In 2016, I was actually a little bit sick. I had a few melanoma tumors in my lungs. And Joe was actually at the hospital with me for a couple of treatments and whatnot. And he didn’t have to do that. But just being there supporting a friend with something that … I was pretty protective of my life. So to have friends that you can trust and just know that they were there for you, that’s something that he’s always been very, very, very, very good at.

Roughead: He was able to hook me up with Andrew Bogut when I was going through my treatment, and I was lucky enough to come across to the 2016 [NBA] Finals; got to see Games 5 and 7 in San Fran. To say I’ve seen a Game 7 — that was all just through him. And initially, it was going to be him and I coming across, but I think Renae put her foot down, so I had to take my little brother instead.

Gibson: Renae’s clearly the boss of that relationship. I don’t know if anyone’s said that before, but she runs that house and she’s run his life ever since they met — he was like a little puppy dog just running back to her.

Nielsen: It’s a real amazing thing watching the guy he’s become. He manages to still be the kid that I knew, but he’s matured into the dad, the husband, whatever, but also just a teammate and leader that he’s become. And again, he does it only in a way which Joe Ingles could do.

A bronze-gilded legacy Down Under

Roughead: The times when he gets home or whatnot, it feels like he just settles back into Australian life. But at the same time, you wouldn’t even know that he’s one of the richest Australian sports stars ever. So to see him, and see the way that he carries himself with his family and whatnot, it’s amazing how humble he really is.

Worthington: Look, he wasn’t short on confidence. … I think for anyone outside of Joe and probably his family to say that they knew that he would be at this point, I’d call bulls--- on that.

Nielsen: [His impact] is phenomenal and it will stand for forever, in my opinion. Because we have had really, really good basketball players, and we’ve been right on the cusp of where these boys were before, but nowhere near on a consistent level. And we have had big-time contributors in this, but I would be remiss not to put Patty and Joe above that. The moment that there was an evolution, they just kept growing and growing to making this a team and a mentality that we should beat anybody we play on the basketball court. And it’s not just words or competitive spirit — that’s a belief, and something that’s been absent many times.

Australia's Joe Ingles (7) and Patty Mills (5) react after beating Slovenia 107-93 during the men's bronze medal basketball game at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, Aug. 7, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Gibson: When I was a part of it, there might be big game, but he keeps the feeling around it all light and everyone’s kind of bubbly instead of stressing too much about the game. He’s still the same no matter what.

Heal: I sit back in Australia, and whilst we speak often and text often, I sort of sit back, just proud of how he’s developed and what he’s turned into more than anything else.

Nielsen: He’s a really good leader. To that point, watching him with the guys now, it’s a credit to him. … We’re in Vegas where we’re practicing, and Joe absolutely attacks guys in practice — physically, verbally, mentally. But then after practice, he’s grabbing them by the shoulder and putting his arm around them and chatting. He’s playing the long game and really pushing for these guys to take this team on to bigger and better things.

Heal: He inspires Australian kids, but probably more [so] Australian dads because of the way he plays and the way he looks.

Worthington: To be where he is now, I don’t think anyone could have picked Joe to have done what he’s done. I think Joe has done that off his own back, and hard work and dedication. He’s gone the long road, which, if you travel, leaving your home country, living in another country, playing for a number of years before making it to the NBA — and then once he got there, he just looked so comfortable being there.

Heal: He is just a typical Aussie sort of bloke, you know? And I think that’s why people relate to him so well, is that he’s not that athletic sort of guy, he’s a guy that wants to talk s---, he looks like he drinks beer, he’s got that beer-drinking body, talking s--- out there, playing against the best in the world, getting in people’s faces, making 3s. He hasn’t changed. That’s the good thing about Joe, that he hasn’t changed.

Roughead: I’ve got like a half an hour drive to work in the morning, so normally I’ll try and FaceTime him once or twice a week. … It was actually a good timeline when they were in Tokyo [for the 2020 Olympics] — they were only an hour behind us. So there’s a couple of days where I was FaceTiming, and I think they were one of the only teams left post that medal game, so the next day, he was having a few Sapporos pretty early, still wearing that medal. I think he actually pinched the game ball. So little things like that. He was trying to get the other boys up, because I think a lot of these younger boys weren’t as keen, [or] understood how much effort and time it got into winning that bronze. So a couple of these boys were laying in bed and he was pretty quick to try and get them up and going. But when you’re a leader of the team, you’re going to try and lead them on the celebrations as well.

Roughead: Winning that bronze medal … I don’t know if it would mean more than an NBA championship, but seeing how they’ve carried on winning a bronze, I would hate to see what they would do if they did win a gold or did win an NBA championship. I dare say he won’t be paying for a beer anywhere for a while.

Nielsen: We’re a proud basketball nation, and we’ll have a lot of talent, but for him and Patty to be the guys that took this to another level, it’s something that we’ve fought for 40 years on — that will be his legacy. It’s amazing. And I don’t know if you can get a better compliment in Australian basketball.

Worthington: His growth has been unbelievable throughout the years. You would definitely put him in the conversation as one of the highest-IQ players in the NBA and one of the more durable players in the NBA, which is just unbelievable for a guy that was considered this skinny, mouthy, loudmouth kid that came into the competition and tore it up from an early age.

Worthington: He’ll probably tell everyone he’s the white LeBron — just getting better with age. I could see him actually saying that.

— Tribune sports lead Aaron Falk contributed to this story.

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