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Going Places: When draft young gun Christian Petracca said yes to footy and no to an NBA dream

Going Places: Christian Petracca Get to know the man most likely to go pick one in November's NAB AFL Draft
He got home one day after a basketball game and told his dad Tony he had made a decision. 'That was my last basketball game.'

PART 1

Thursday, January 23, 2014 - CHRISTIAN Petracca wants to have a full pre-season. He wants to build his endurance, push into the midfield, and improve his goalkicking. A strong half-forward, he has identified the AFL players he thinks he could be like – Port Adelaide's Ollie Wines the main example – and wants to be Eastern Ranges captain this year.

Petracca spent last week at Hawthorn as part of the AIS-AFL Academy program, arriving every day by 7.30am and leaving around 4pm. He took part in all of the Hawks' drills and match simulation. He boxed with Ben McEvoy in the gym, took on Luke Hodge on the field and had lunch with Jordan Lewis.

The life of an AFL player is exactly what he wants. But it hasn't always been that way.

A jam jar lid for a puck

The 18-year-old used to dream of another draft. As a kid he would jump out of his pram and run on to the basketball court, where his brothers Robert (seven years older) and Julian (five years his senior) played when a time-out was called. When he was five and obsessed with The Mighty Ducks movie, he decided he wanted to play ice hockey. His mum Elvira went to a local sports store, bought a $15 stick and when they got home, the ambitious and confident kid improvised using a lid from a jam jar as the puck.

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TWITTER TAKEOVER
Got a question for Christian Petracca? On Thursday, October 23 at 10.30am AEDT, Petracca takes over Twitter. Tweet your questions to @AFLDraft with the hashtag #AskPetracca
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As he grew older, Petracca skateboarded and rollerbladed, and rode his bike. One time, he fell over his handlebars and one of the bars pierced through his hamstring, slicing a hole in the muscle. He was rushed to hospital but transferred to another, where doctors found the bar was two centimetres from cutting a major artery.

He would recover to play football and was very good at it, making the Victorian under-12 team, considered the first real step in the code's talent pathway. Petracca was good at most sports, including cricket and soccer. He also did well in tennis, but while his first serve was powerful and quick, his second was a meek lob, lacking finesse.

A rising star on the basketball court and a Mighty Ducks obsessive. Pictures: supplied


He was best at basketball, and was crazy about it. Allen Iverson, the champion American player, was his hero and he watched game after game on television. Petracca rose through junior ranks, often training five times a week and playing twice. He was really good, winning selection in representative teams all the way through.

Petracca was a point-guard, and the best of his age in Victoria. He got used to players rushing at him but still he executed under pressure, and was a master playmaker with the ball. Sometimes, when the crowd was yelling at him, he would smile and wave at them with one hand while he dribbled the ball past opponents with the other.

Highlights of his basketball are plentiful, like the time he hit three consecutive three-pointers to help his under-16 team win a game. Or the time he hit a buzzer-beater for a one-point win.

Skip to 1.35 on this YouTube clip and you can watch Petracca in a slam-dunk competition at school (he doesn't start well).



Only two weeks ago, when the AIS-AFL Academy was training at Essendon's new facility, Petracca was in his Speedos shooting hoops before he took an ice bath. Whenever he and his brothers played 'Around the world' (aiming for the ring from various angles and distances) in the backyard, the loser would end up shoved in the bushes. As the youngest, he knew he would get a shove even if he won, so he would throw his final shot with one foot in the air and then bolt off.

Recruiters get a taste

Footy was still part of his life. He played for three clubs in Melbourne's north-eastern suburbs, starting at Park Orchards, moving to Warrandyte and most recently at Beverley Hills. The Eastern Ranges' then-manager Anthony Parkin first saw Petracca play as an under-14. "I hope he's in our region," Parkin walked away thinking.

However, Petracca's basketball was going better than his footy. He made the Australian Institute of Sport's under-18 Australian squad in 2012, alongside Dante Exum (who would end up an early pick in June's NBA draft), and realised he would soon need to make a call on which sport to pursue. Both sports wanted him, and Parkin had picked Petracca to play in the Ranges' under-18 side as a 16-year-old.

A young Petracca meets a Magpie great at the Australian Institute of Sport. Picture: supplied

Benching the hoop dream

While Petracca continued to play basketball at state and local level, Parkin had opened up the Ranges' facilities. Twice a week Petracca would come down and use them for recovery, enjoying the environment. He quickly found he wanted to be around a footy club more than he wanted to be on a basketball court.

He got home one day after a basketball game soon after and told his dad Tony he had made a decision. "That was my last basketball game," Petracca told his father.

"In early 2012 we went to the AIS in Canberra for two camps but didn't like it. I felt there was no basketball pathway," Petracca recalls.

"I didn't really want to move overseas (to play, possibly at an American college). I wanted to stay home. I was only 16.

"I had to speak to a lot of people about it. My brothers, my parents, even the school psychologist, because I didn't want to let anyone down. I had a lot of pressure on me because I was in the Ranges squad and I was in the state team for basketball," he says.

"I felt if I quit one, the other would be really cut with me. I kept telling my basketball coach I couldn't make training because I had footy, trying to give him the hint. Eventually I told him."

The game of his life

Things happened quickly from there. Petracca had started with the Ranges' under-18s as a bottom-aged player in 2013, and after one game was elevated to Vic Metro's state squad. He played in the first game of Metro's carnival and was disappointed not to play more.

When he continued to play well for the Ranges, but wasn't picked in the AIS-AFL Academy squad of the best 30 juniors in Australia, his brother Julian told him to concentrate on having a good finals series in the TAC Cup. "If you do that," Julian told him, "there's no way they can't pick you".

Petracca evades future Brisbane Lion Darcy Gardiner in the 2013 TAC Cup. Picture: AFL Media


The Ranges lost their first final, but Petracca was solid. To cheer the coaches up, Tony, who was born in Italy, brought homemade salami to training the following week and cut it up for them to eat with biscuits. (It is common for Italians to share food as a way of expressing friendship and building bonds.) It was a ritual that would continue during the finals campaign.

The Ranges got through to the preliminary final, but were without injured forwards Tom Boyd (who would later that year be the No. 1 draft pick) and Mitch Honeychurch. Petracca had one Weet-Bix for breakfast and then threw it up in the rooms – he always vomits before big matches – but played the game of his life. Everything went right. He kicked five goals and five behinds, took nine contested marks, and was the dominant player on the ground, leading his club into the Grand Final, which it would win the next week.

Petracca's performance, which you can watch below, ranked among the most imposing TAC Cup showings of recent years. He knew recruiters were spread out everywhere in the Visy Park stands, and he wanted to rise to the occasion.

"In the first quarter sometimes you look up to the stands to see who's there, to give you a feel for the game and see how many people are watching. You realise you just have to do your best and play your game. It was awesome," Petracca says.

"I felt like I had to step up with 'Boydy' not being there at full-forward. I had to take control and ownership. You always try to be confident, and I felt like I was one of the best bottom-agers there."

"Recruiters won't forget his performances in the finals last year," one scout predicts.

Mission: endurance

But that doesn't mean Petracca hasn't started his draft year with plenty of goals. After being a late addition to the AIS-AFL Academy squad, he has had more interaction with recruiters, and is aware of what he needs to do to make sure he ends the year on an AFL list: get fitter.

He's already shown he can find the goals (he kicked 41 for the Ranges in 2013), can make things happen across half-forward and is capable of turning games. His size (186cm and 96kg) and skills make him unique; there is no player like him in this year's draft. Nor has there been many like him in previous intakes.

But he knows he must improve, and running is a focus. "Basketball requires a different type of running, more short sprints, and I felt in my (football) pre-season last year I wasn't as good as the other boys at it," Petracca says. "I need to do it."

NEXT: Tom Boyd gives 'The Terminator' a clip