Central grad making coaching mark in Finland

Greg Gibson, a 1987 Central High School graduate, was named the new head coach of Kataja Basket, a professional basketball team in Finland, in June. Courtesy photo by Tytti Nuoramo

Greg Gibson considers himself “very blessed and very lucky” to be where he is at this point in his life.

A 1987 graduate of Central High School and a standout basketball player at the University of South Carolina Aiken, Gibson found his calling as a professional basketball coach about 12 years ago in Finland, the country where the Woodstock native ended his 10-year professional playing career in the early 2000’s.

Eventually landing in the small Finnish town of Loimaa to take over as the head coach of the Loimaa Bisons in 2010, Gibson found instant success. By the end of his third season as the Bisons’ head coach, Gibson had led Loimaa to a promotion to the top division of the Korisliiga – Finland’s top professional basketball league – and two league championships, a feat that netted Loimaa a spot in the Eurocup competition during the 2013-14 season and inclusion in the Russian-based VTB United League beginning last year.

And yet, not lost on Gibson is where his journey began – on the court at Central playing for former Falcons head coach Jerry Walters.

“Through it all the one thing that I never forget – and I can honestly say this – is the roots of back home in Woodstock and just growing up and being so lucky to be in a system where, for example, coach Walters and all the coaches not only taught you basketball but taught you the game of life,” Gibson said during an interview via video chat from Finland. “They prepared me. There’s a lot of things that I take from coach Walters, from (former Central assistant coach Roger) Wilkins, from (former Central assistant coach Mickey) Clinedinst and I still use today, as well as my college coaches and my coaches from overseas.”

Greg Gibson, a 1987 Central High School graduate, is doused by members of the Loimaa Bisons after he coached the team to a Korisliiga championship in 2013. Photo courtesy of Tytti Nuoramo

Upon graduating from USC Aiken in 1992, Gibson decided he wanted to play a year of professional basketball in Australia before getting into teaching. His international playing career ended up lasting 10 seasons, seven of which were spent in Australia before stops in Asia and Finland.

Gibson’s first coaching job was back home in the United States, at The Newman School in Boston, where he spent one year before he received a phone call. That call came from the general manager of his former Finnish-league team in Kauhajoki, who asked him to return to Finland not as a player, but as the team’s new head coach.

“I thought about it and said why not,” Gibson recalled. “I knew I wanted to be in coaching and it was a step, a higher level, and that’s how I ended up getting back to Finland 12 years ago.”

Gibson spent six seasons in Kauhajoki experiencing mixed success while the team bounced between the national division of the Korisliiga and the league’s second-tier division (the winner of the second division each year is promoted to the top division of Korisliiga – composed of Finland’s top 11 teams – while the last-place team in the top division drops to the second tier, Gibson said) before being offered the job at Loimaa.

His first year in Loimaa, Gibson led the Bisons to the second-division championship, awarding the club a spot in the Korisliiga’s top division for the 2011-12 season. The Bisons then won the 2012 Korisliiga championship while Gibson became the first non-European to earn the coach of the year honor in the league’s 73-year history.

Loimaa capped what Gibson called an “absolutely” surprising string of success with a second straight Korisliiga title in 2013.

“That’s something from a coaching standpoint that I’m really, really proud of because it’s only happened a handful of times in all of Europe, where a team moves up to the top league and wins the championship,” said Gibson, who guided the Bisons to third-place and second-place Korisliiga finishes over the last two seasons, respectively. “From there it’s really kind of just set the tone for what we’ve been able to do around a board (and) a general manager that’s very aggressive even for a small town, a small budget in trying to compete with the big boys.”

The exposure gained from winning back-to-back Korisliiga titles earned Loimaa inclusion into the VTB United League, which Gibson said is widely considered the third-toughest professional basketball league in the world behind the NBA and the Euroleague. The Bisons now compete simultaneously in the Korisliiga and the VTB, playing a total of 66 regular-season games between the two leagues.

In their first year in the VTB last season, the Bisons went 9-21, though Gibson said Loimaa still had a chance to make the playoffs with a quarter of the season remaining before being decimated by injuries. Regardless, Gibson said Loimaa’s nine wins were impressive due to the differences in player budgets between top and bottom teams in the VTB. Half of the 16 VTB League teams have a player budget over $20 million, Gibson said, while the Bisons – who play in a town of 18,000 people – have a player budget of just $1.3 million.

Gibson said Loimaa’s ability to compete with the larger organizations boils down to the club’s philosophy of “one family,” a concept he said he learned at a young age playing high school sports in Woodstock.

“The point is when we select our team every year, we will take a less talented player for a guy who is more willing to be more of a team player and buy into what we’re trying to do,” Gibson said. “It’s just a philosophy that everybody has bought into and believes and it’s something that I really believe in, that you can’t compete at this level with the budgets that we pay players because we’re not as good individually, so we’ve gotta be better collectively as a group.

“And again that’s kind of the roots, you know, like coming from a small town in Woodstock and Toms Brook and Strasburg, where you do things,” he added. “Friday night football, it’s a family thing. When you go to games the teams are, I think, more family (than) a team. You’re more of a team and I think that’s something that really stuck with me.”

Loimaa has struggled early in the VTB this season (the Bisons were 1-6 after their first seven games) although the Bisons did pick up a big win on Oct. 25 with a victory over Lokomotiv Kuban, which includes former Virginia Tech standout Malcolm Delaney and former Washington Wizards first-round pick Chris Singleton. Lokomotiv also competes in the Euroleague in addition to the VTB.

“A lot of people have said (it was) the biggest win in Finnish sports history from a club, from a standpoint of a club-level team knocking off a top-10 Euro League team,” Gibson said.

Despite the early struggles in the VTB, Gibson said the Bisons’ roster is deeper than it was a season ago, and he’s confident “little ol’ Loimaa” can continue to thrive in its underdog role this season, which ends in April.

Regardless of how the Bisons’ 2015-16 season ends up, Gibson is enjoying the journey.

“I’m just a normal guy from Woodstock, Virginia that’s been very blessed to be in the situation that I’m in now and just trying to get better every day,” Gibson said.

“I’m enjoying what I’m doing. I love it,” he added. “Maybe one day I’d like to test the waters of a bigger-market team in Europe. Maybe that will come. Maybe something back in America, who knows. I’ve got my family here, my kids, we love it here so everything’s good.”

Gibson said he’d enjoy getting back in touch with old friends in the United States, and he can be reached by email at greg@bisons.fi.

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com