“Call time out,” yelled the precocious 10-year-old kid, as he ran past his coach on the sidelines of the court.
The Sale Sonics were playing in an under 12s tournament at Traralgon, where the rules stipulated that, contrary to basketball convention, the clock would keep running even if time-out was called.
The kid knew the rules and how they could be exploited. “He’d gone and read the tournament rules,” said his then coach, Jo Crawford-Wynd.
Even at 10, this boy from Sale combined strategic awareness with an intense desire to get his team over the line.
“He knew how to win,” said Crawford-Wynd, remembering a trip that she took with a 13-year-old Scott Pendlebury, his parents and grandparents, from Sale to Port Macquarie on the NSW coast for a national tournament.
Scott was representing the Victorian Country basketball team. During the long drive in a mini bus, Crawford-Wynd and the young basketballer spent much of the time devising set plays. “I would draw a defence and he would draw an offence to beat it,” said Crawford-Wynd, who still lives two doors from Pendlebury’s parents, Lisa and Bruce in Sale.
The boy Pendlebury had what Crawford-Wynd described as “an uncanny ability to read people” in a sporting context, to anticipate their moves. “If you ever play rock, paper, scissors with him, good luck,” she said.
This heightened awareness – of opponents, the situation and the possibilities for re-shaping the play – would stay with Scott Pendlebury when he transitioned from basketball point guard, who represented Victoria and Australia, to footballer with a unique talent for playing in slow motion.
His next coach at the Sale Sonics, David “Wally” Mowbray, likened Pendlebury’s high sporting IQ to that of ice hockey’s nonpareil great, Wayne Gretzky. “He (Gretsky) knew where the puck was going to be. Scott was always like that in basketball and he’s like that in football.”
Mowbray, who coached the Collingwood captain in the under 16s and under 18s at Sale and in Victorian and Australian basketball teams, said that Pendlebury – elite in decision-making, skills and strategic understanding – had learned to modify the way he delivered messages to teen team mates, who found he “could be grating at times.
“But,” Mowbray added, “that’s evolved. He’s got that better balance now.” This was consistent what happened at Collingwood, where Pendlebury, initially abrupt, learned to temper his communication.
Confirming the views of Collingwood insiders, Mowbray reckons Pendlebury’s next move will be coaching within AFL. “He’s indicated to me that it’s a pathway for him and I think he’ll be very good at it,” said Mowbray.
Pendlebury’s coaching interest has been evident this year in his mentoring of young team mates, including the strife-prone Jordan De Goey and vastly-improved Josh Daicos, whose father Peter sits alongside Nathan Buckley and Pendlebury as Collingwood’s foremost players of the past 40 years.
However you rank that trio, Pendlebury has outlasted Daicos and Buckley for longevity. At 32, he remains one of the competition’s very best and arguably still the Pies’ most influential player. All going well, he will surpass Tony Shaw as Collingwood’s games record holder in six more matches.
Two years ago, watching a Collingwood-Richmond game at a function, my friend Caroline Wilson and I were surprised when a couple of Magpie icons of the ’70s and ’80s gave negative reviews of Pendlebury as captain and player.
While the criticism was general rather than detailed, Pendlebury seemed to have been judged – wrongly – for not displaying the kind of forceful, Alpha male traits that define leaders in the AFL jungle.
He doesn’t fit the warrior archetype of crashing through packs like Joel Selwood and Michael Voss, doesn’t bellow instructions; his leadership, as with his subtle game, is muted and measured, although he’s long demanded high standards.
And, as an artful player with uncanny play-reading, skills and a cerebral game, he’s not typically Collingwood either. Dane Swan typified Collingwood, as did Tony Shaw and Ben Johnson; earthy, urchin characters from the pages of Oliver Twist, players who, even if they had the Artful Dodger’s cunning, weren’t smooth operators.
He’s an understated figure at an overstated club. He may be marked hard, too, because he makes the game look as easy as walking.
In 2020, there’a a new appreciation of Pendlebury, whose station in the game is ascending. A six-time All-Australian, he’s a chance for a seventh jumper, must be the clubhouse leader for Collingwood’s best and fairest (he’s won five, six would equal Buckley). Crucially, he’s become a rock for Buckley, a stabilising influence amid injury, overlapping scandals and COVID chaos. Together, their leadership has grown.
Conversations about the best AFL players often bypass Pendlebury, whose ball use is vastly superior to more athletic beasts Patrick Dangerfield and Nathan Fyfe and the indomitable Patrick Cripps and who has achieved a consistency that Marcus Bontempelli – Pendlebury’s stylish heir – hasn’t quite attained.
He’s finished top three in the club best and fairest 10 times and plays nary a poor game. When he was below par in the 2018 finals, it was obvious – and later confirmed – that he’d been injured (back).
Scott Burns, who captained and later (midfield) coached Pendlebury before crossing to Hawthorn as assistant coach, has a close-up read on comparisons with Buckley. Burns noted that Kevin Rose, the 1958 premiership player and ex-Pies president, felt that there was little between Buckley and Rose’s late brother Bob, a post-war champion, as the best seen in black and white.
“If I had to make a choice, I’d nearly go with Pendles,” said Burns, adding that these comparisons were “splitting hairs”. Burns said Pendlebury’s defensive work, off-the-ball, was “as good as anyone in the competition as well.”
Burns observed that Pendlebury had the rare talent to make adjustments, in response to the opposition, during games. “He can pick what’s going on and change and modify things out on the ground.”
This high cognition and responsiveness to the situation stood out when he was playing basketball for the Sale Sonics. “He’s not a computer but he has a capacity to absorb a lot of information and synthesise it,” said Mowbray.
“He knows what’s going on.”
Scott Pendlebury’s awareness is what separates him, what has made his twilight into brilliant sunshine. In his 15th season, there’s no sign he’s ready to call a time out.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.