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A sit-down with Mid West Hall of Famer Ben Pepper in celebration of 50 years of the Mid West Sport Awards

Headshot of Jake Santa Maria
Jake Santa MariaGeraldton Guardian
Ben Pepper is one of 10 Mid West Sports Federation Hall of Famers.
Camera IconBen Pepper is one of 10 Mid West Sports Federation Hall of Famers. Credit: Tom Davis

Ben Pepper’s introduction to basketball was based on a pretty simple premise.

“Well I was told I was spectacularly tall,” he said.

“The funny thing is I actually hadn’t thought much about basketball. I played a lot of golf, cricket and tennis in my younger days and then I got really, really tall and my friend said I should try basketball.

“I was pretty old when I started around the age of 15 and I got into watching the NBA and Michael Jordan and the next thing you know it just went berserk.

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“It clicked with me, I fell in love with it and I got on the SBL pathway with the Buccaneers who helped me a lot and my parents, too, and I just enjoyed it and made my way up the ranks.”

‘Berserk’ is perhaps the only way to describe Pepper’s rise in the basketball ranks, from not picking up a basketball until the age of 15 he was drafted to the Boston Celtics just five years later at the age of 20.

“That’s sort of my claim to fame being drafted to the Celtics in 97,” he said.

“They drafted me on potential and looking back on it there is sort of a few regrets that I didn’t chase that a little bit harder.

“I was pretty comfortable in Australia playing, playing professionally as well and enjoying that, and I sort of I look back now I think could have chased it a little bit harder.”

While he wasn’t picked for the Celtics, Pepper is still philosophical about the experience and said despite a tinge of regret it is still a good experience.

“You got to remember this is I’m like 20 years of age, I’d started like 15 in the Boston Celtics had drafted me it was crazy,” he said.

“I thought it was all a dream at one point, or was this really happening?

“So it was all a bit crazy, but it was very, very, very hectic time.”

While not quite making the jump to the NBA Pepper had a long and successful career in the NBL during its difficult formative years playing across seven different teams.

“I didn’t really want to keep moving around teams but it was sort of forced as the league was in a transient upheaval in the late 90s and it seems like teams were going down left right and centre,” he said.

“I remember playing for the North Melbourne Giants we had just finished our season and the coach Brett Brown called me the next day and said ‘Ben we’re not going to be around tomorrow we’re merging with Southeast Melbourne Magic,’ who was coached by Brian Goorjian at the time.

“I was lucky enough to make the cut in the 10-man squad from the two teams and we became the Victoria Titans who are now defunct as well!”

Pepper became one of the most dominant centres in the competition but never won a title, narrowly missing out in 1999 and 2000 losing to the Adelaide 36ers and Perth Wildcats in the grand finals.

“We had a hell of a squad in the 1999 season we had guys like Tony Ronaldson, Jason Smith, Brett Wheeler, Darryl McDonald these guys could seriously play,” he said.

“But so did Adelaide, and it was such a hard-fought series. They beat us in game one then we beat them in Adelaide and we were up three or four points in the decider with about five minutes to go and I thought we might win it.

“But I think it was Brett Maher, who is one of Australia’s best shooting guards of all time, who did a number on us and then the next year the Perth Wildcats just obliterated us.”

Despite being one of the most dominant players Pepper rarely got a call-up to the Boomers but was a part of the 1997 FIBA under-21 World Championship-winning team which he said is the highlight of his career.

“It was amazing it was really cool and in Melbourne as well,” he said.

“We didn’t start very well we’d lost a few games and sort of got to the point where we really needed to win everything to progress which we managed to do then we beat the USA who had a heap of NBA guys in the quarter-finals then Argentina and Puerto Rico.

“That experience was the best and to win something like that in Australia is probably the highlight looking back at it.”

Pepper eventually retired from professional basketball in 2008 after more than a decade at the elite level and it was a transition which Pepper found difficult.

“It was horrific to be honest,” he said.

“I went from having 10,000 fans cheering me to working at my family’s car dealership and it’s hard and you can see why athletes really struggle with the change.

“It makes you just realise how good those times were really, but such is life that you don’t realise that in the moment but it’s something you have to deal with and move on.”

While the ending to his playing career was a tough adjustment, Pepper still loves the game.

“I came back and played here for the Buccaneers for three or four years before I was really washed up and too old,” he said.

“Now I coach my daughter’s team and I just enjoy doing stuff like that with some of the kids’ teams but nothing too serious.

“I still love basketball, love watching it, still love the NBA. The NBA is amazing now and it’s just such a good brand of basketball I absolutely still love it.”

Pepper is one of just 10 current Hall of Famers in the Mid West Sports Federation which he said he is honoured by.

“I can’t believe it really when you think some of the names on there it just makes me appreciate a lot of people because I wasn’t that kid that would just go get it and do it and was cocky. I had to be pushed a lot the whole way.

“I had a lot of people helped me along the way like a lot of people so I was very lucky really.

“It is a select group and it’s something that you when you’re all done that you’ll look back on and be quite proud of.”

Nominations for this year’s sports awards are now open and can be made via the Mid West Sports Federation’s website.

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