What does a retired journo do? Writes a book of course

Writes a book of course. A first-time author tells how he got started.

First-time author Graeme Willingham is pretty handy on the keyboard, having worked all his life as a travelling journo, PR communicator and all-round good guy who’s quick with a quip.

The first time I met Graeme was at a travel writers’ lunch where, over a few glasses of red, we struck up a conversation about the book he was working on at the time: the story of the triumphs, failures and funny times had by a local Melbourne basketball team. That was just over three years ago. His book, Not Bad Thanks, has just been published to rave reviews. We asked him to tell us a bit about the story behind three ‘senior’ local basketball stars who are the protagonists of his novel, and what inspired him to write his first tome. This is what he told us.

•••

The combination of writing and the topic of basketball emerged in 1965 in hometown Camperdown, in Victoria’s south-west, just an hour north of the Twelve Apostles. I was a skinny 17-year-old doing matric. During one winter Monday morning, I used two spare periods in Miss Jeffers’ library at my high school to write my first report for the local newspaper, The Chronicle, about the under-18 football match I had played two days prior.

It was just a joke, I thought. I used the byline ‘Jock’ – as in jockstrap. To my surprise, the editor published it, which, as you can imagine, was pretty funny to a bunch of 17-year-olds.

My writing focus was not only on the best players, as is the norm in sports reporting, but on everyone in the team – including injured or sick teammates – and I ended up doing this every week. An injured player who cut up the oranges was duly acknowledged and, somehow, I’d weave them into the yarn – with their own nicknames. How funny was it to have your nickname published in the local rag every week?

In the same year, basketball was introduced to the school by a fresh-faced teacher and skilled basketballer, Hazey. So I joined in, even though I didn’t really have the required skills.

The Chronicle liked my style of storytelling and secretly lobbied my parents and teachers to recruit me as a cadet journalist the next year, which eventually happened. I continued to report on the games of footy I played in (including, proudly, the 1968 Hampden League premiership), and I also covered basketball games I played with my now-adult A-grade team, Yellowbellies, which was, thankfully, captained by Hazey.

I have played basketball continuously for just over 50 years … apart from a three-year sojourn in London in the mid-1970s. While there, I responded to an advertisement in TIME OUT magazine to try out for a club in central London. I failed to qualify because I couldn’t dribble with my non-preferred hand around a network of traffic cones.

After the cadetship, and prior to my stint as news editor for a weekly business magazine in London, I worked on The Ballarat Courier, The Sun News-Pictorial and The Age (Insight). I returned to Melbourne in 1978 and soon moved into the world of public relations, and have now operated my own consultancy for 30 years.

The stint in London was the catalyst for forming the Not Bad Thanks Basketball Club (NBT) in 1980. It was designed, primarily, to keep the Aussie mates living in London together, all of whom have since returned to Melbourne.

The club has been an amazing success. It just keeps going. It has its own inertia, but it’s lasted because ‘rules’ were laid down at the outset: players must have a sense of humour; return to the pub after the game for at least one hour and be prepared to go out for a meal; to play in a squad of 10 players to cover work commitment absenteeism; to engage in elaborate awards dinners; to ‘give it heaps’ on the court; to learn the NBT anthem, and to totally commit Thursday nights to NBT.

Ostensibly, the rules generated a binding camaraderie, the hallmark of sports clubs and, in fact, any club.

My 1965 ‘one-in, all-in’ edict for writing sports reports has never left me. When my two sons played with Fitzroy Junior Football Club, I invented a newsletter, Roar, in which I mentioned every player, every week. I was the secret editor. When Not Bad Thanks started, I continued the process: occasional newsletters reporting on the club’s wild, weird and wonderful antics, complemented by unique NBT nicknames. 

The newsletter – The NBT Bulletin – meant I had a ready, albeit bulging, archive of anecdotes and facts and figures to draw on for a book. And ready-made, very colourful characters with which to drive the narrative.

As a journo, I always thought I would write a book; that’s what we do, or think we’ll do! There’s a book in everyone, isn’t there? A book about my basketball club loomed as the most likely topic I would pursue. My PR clients always told me: “Why don’t you write a book about it?” every time I regaled them with another story about NBT’s crazy antics. 

The ‘green light’ was switched on when I retired four years ago. There was no rush in my mind. I dawdled my way through the process, but I was still at my keyboard – my bread-and-butter since 1966.

The book became the medium for a seamless transition into retirement. On two occasions, I deferred manuscript sign-off while waiting out a season that had the potential for another ‘premiership story’. Eventually, my wife Jenny was feeling the intrusive effects of the drag. “You need to finish it!”

She was right. I am pleased, though, with its content and format. More so, I’m proud to see my work on bookshelves and to have received positive reviews from the likes of Gerard Whateley at SEN 1116 (“It’s fabulous!”), and earlier by the father of Australian basketball, Lindsay Gaze. He welcomed the work as the only book of its kind on Australian grassroots basketball. In the foreword, he wrote a huge compliment: “I’d like to play on this team!”

As a former PR guy, I’ve been comfortable, too, in ‘shopping’ the book around the media circuit (three interviews on radio so far and review copies with many journalists and producers). I’ve churned out my own press releases, spoken at launch events and signed copies in stores. All part of the marketing. Will it become a drag? How much life is there in a book like this? What happens after the dads’ Christmas gift market goes on holidays?

Four deaths are covered in chapter ‘Tragedy’. Some chapters deal with premierships, most of which were won in highly unlikely – and entertaining – circumstances. Another delves into the meaning of art, and the art of NBT. Even in the Tragedy chapter, the natural instinctive humour of the players maintains the comical edge in the book.

In my search, I also stumbled on matters that added other dimensions to this club’s uniqueness, such as several players drinking beer from one of Makybe Diva’s Melbourne Cups, a ‘game’ against The Harlem Globetrotters, an NBT player who meets Magic Johnson in a New York department store, and media reports of the club’s link with Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs.

In all, 28 chapters were required to paint the combative, creative and theatrical life of Not Bad Thanks.

This book may inspire some YourLifeChoices members to take up the game, or return to it, or to keep going. Three seniors (Lord Albert, Instigator and myself) are still playing in this open-age team, albeit for just a few minutes each week. Our participation on and off the court is embraced by teammates more than half our age. One player is 25. Clearly, this is not a Men’s Shed where men of a certain age congregate to do good things, but it does offer a healthy and invigorating multi-generational connection with self and community. Our ‘Shed’ is The NBT Clubrooms, also known as The Emerald Hotel in South Melbourne.

The book might also encourage followers to write the story of their own club. I hope so. It was a very rewarding experience for me, and one I can highly recommend for others.

Not Bad Thanks by Graeme Willingham is available at all good bookstores or from www.notbadthanks.com

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