Teaming with physio is a slam dunk

 

After an illustrious career in elite-level basketball playing and coaching in the National Basketball League, Cal Bruton took his skills on the road to the Australian outback, running basketball clinics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in remote parts of the country. Now he’s looking for support from those he credits with extending his playing career—physiotherapists. Melissa Mitchell reports.

Cal Bruton grew up in the steamy asphalt and concrete jungle of Queens, New York City. But when Cal first began travelling to outback Australia to run basketball clinics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, he was surprised to see some kids turn up to play barefoot on concrete in conditions he described as being so scorching hot he could ‘feel the rubber on my sneakers burning through my feet’.

It’s now been 10 years since Cal’s good friend Mark Manado met him at Broome Airport, bundled him into a 4WD and drove him across some of the most remote and spectacular terrain in the Kimberley to run his first clinic for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth in Kununurra, Western Australia. Among Cal’s equipment on that journey was a portable rubber basketball mat, purchased by National Basketball League legend, the late Sir Reginald Biddings, that could be pieced together like Lego to form a softer playing surface than that of the hot concrete and asphalt playing courts in the Kimberley. 

‘So Mark and I set this mat up near the beach so that the kids could run in the water and cool off and come back and shoot some hoops. And that really worked for the kids, only in Broome obviously, we couldn’t carry this court around everywhere,’ Cal says. ‘But we have played on all different asphalt concrete jungles. I’m from that type environment in New York City, so I understand how unforgiving the concrete is.’

What Cal also understands is the challenges the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in these environments face, and not just on the court. After moving to Australia in 1979 to play for the National Basketball League team the Brisbane Bullets, then moving to Western Australia to coach the Perth Wildcats for eight years, Cal became aware of the huge following that basketball had among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. 

Cal would travel to the Kimberley and the Pilbara, north of his then hometown of Perth, to put on clinics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth as a way to engage them in the sport. Cal made connections with important figures in education and media circles to help partially fund the clinics. They’d pay for airfares and contribute to some capital expenditure but he bore most of the cost of the clinics himself. He’d also set about meeting with many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations to facilitate the running of the clinics in Western Australia and the Northern Territory. 

‘I believe my clinics are a smart way to teach kids about healthy lifestyles, teamwork, sport, education and employment, but more importantly, for me, being there and try to teach the kids how to play the right way. Because you don’t just roll the balls out and play—in order for the kids to get into pathways and representative teams, you have to have sound fundamentals. 

‘I call my clinics Bruton Basketball Fundamentals and we help the kids understand that they have to execute the fundamentals of the game—I have an acronym that I call “swag”. I tell them that “you’ve got to have swag in your bag and keep it moving,’ Cal says. ‘It’s a skillset, a work ethic, an aptitude for learning as well as having a great attitude toward it, and setting goals.’

Cal has collaborated with AFL SportsReady Education and Employment to deliver a sport development traineeship program. As Bruton Basketball continued to grow, he would host clinics in remote and regional Australia, or wherever he could, after moving to Canberra in 1999 to coach the Canberra Cannons. In 2016, he joined the AFL SportsReady team as an ambassador and was appointed field officer and business development officer for the ACT. He continues working with non-profit organisations developing youth pathways using basketball as an engagement tool.

Athletes still at the top of their game in their 40s are a rare find. Rarer still are those who have survived the physical challenges of elite-level sport without incurring some type of debilitating injury. For Cal, who played point guard before transitioning to coaching roles, what followed at the end of his professional playing career was two knee operations, including an anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. But he credits physiotherapy and the injury prevention techniques he learned from the profession with extending his playing life well into his early 40s.

‘Physios are my best friends. As I got older in my career I was challenged much more, and being the shortest guy on court, it was very important that my lower extremities were in great shape—as well as the rest of my body of course. 

‘My experiences dictated that I physically took a lot of hits and knocks, and as I got older, the recovery was tough, so I was seeing a physio just about every day,’ Cal says. ‘I believe that without physiotherapy you can’t really graduate to the next level. You have to look after your body, you have to know how your body works, you have to be able to treat injuries in the right way with professional help and the more you know about it, the better chance you have of having a good career.’

Cal says that next to his health, of equal importance to him was to be able to continue to play basketball with his five sons as they grew up—something he still enjoys to this day. 

One of his sons, Calvin Thomas ‘CJ’ Bruton Jr, has followed in his father’s footsteps and played with multiple NBL teams, presently holding assistant coaching and basketball operations manager positions with the Brisbane Bullets. Keeping up with his energetic boys—and keeping pace with the growing number of clinics he now holds in metropolitan cities as well as those in the Outback—has motivated Cal to focus on maintaining his health and fitness and encouraging others to do the same regardless of their age.  

As such, Cal now hopes to bring awareness of the benefits of physiotherapy to the youth through his clinics—and he is keen to hear from physiotherapists interested in volunteering to attend one of his clinics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in rural and remote parts of Australia. While also enabling the volunteers to educate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth about the physiotherapy profession and its benefits, those who can spare a few days to join Cal would meet some truly amazing people through undertaking great work in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. 

‘I come with all sorts of first-aid kits. That’s all part and parcel of my working with vulnerable people and you just got to be in a position where you can assist those kids if something came up,’ Cal says. ‘However, it would be absolutely wonderful to have a physiotherapist come along if we’re in their part of town and help out with the awareness side of things.

‘It would be a wonderful addition to my program [to have a physiotherapist come along] and add a wealth of experience to the kids to understand how important it is to look after their bodies the right way. You don’t want the kids to get hurt and then have to go to physio—you want to prevent injury and therefore they understand it better. And then when it happens, at least they are aware of how they have to treat it, you know.’

While Cal mostly hold clinics in metropolitan cities during the school holidays and over the Christmas break, the northern Australia adventures are generally undertaken during the school terms. Volunteers would help bring together the disciplines of sport and physiotherapy and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in a profoundly unique way, enriching the lives of all of those involved, Cal says. And they would get to experience it all in some of Australia’s most spectacular settings.

‘Recently we just come from Alice Springs walking the Larapinta Trail, 25 kilometres of the 223 kilometre trek through central Australia from Alice Springs, to raise money for Charity Bounce programs that we deliver in Alice Springs. It was huge. I walked in sneakers and everybody else had hiking boots. If you know me, I wouldn’t have a clue—I’m from New York City. But here I am, I’m camping out overnight, I’m looking up at these stars, I’m covered up so I don’t get too cold. It was an unbelievable experience,’ Cal says.

Physiotherapists keen to volunteer to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth at one of Cal’s clinics in the new year can learn more about the clinics at brutonbasketball.com, and can contact Cal at cal.bruton@aflsportsready.com.au.

 

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