Ralph Bucci turns 40 in October, but doesn’t plan on calling it a day just yet.
Durham Wildcats’ player-assistant plays an important role at the heart of his side and believes that as things stand, it is likely he will expand upon what has already been an illustrious career, spanning over 15 years. However, a wife and two children have changed his priorities and heavily influence the annual decision to prolong a time-consuming profession.
“I’m taking it year-by-year now,” he said. “Each summer, I assess where my body is and it is also now more of a family decision as well. I think I could play a few more years if I can continue to feel how I do now, but it’s also weighing up other options of family life.
“If I was still a single guy, I’d probably just play as long as I could,” he added in jest.
The New York native acknowledges that he no longer possesses the speed and athleticism of his youth, but the wily veteran uses all of his experience to stay productive at the top level. Bucci holds the ‘age is just a number’ mindset and uses his mental attributes to gain an advantage on the court.
“I try to keep myself in reasonable shape and be as professional as I can with the training during the season and off-season to keep myself prepared,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t have the same physical capabilities as I used to, so I think I kind of make up for that now that I’m a little smarter as a player in general. I know I’m not as quick as the other guys or as athletic so I just use my mind a little more to compensate for the things I’ve lost on the physical side.
“I’ve been lucky to stay injury free my whole career so that has certainly helped and it’s definitely the mental side that is helping me now. Being around the younger guys helps you stay younger at heart.
“The only thing I think is different is as you get on in years, you might get a little tired quicker than you used to because you might not be able to keep it up for the full 40 minutes.”
Despite that, Bucci is playing more than ever in his time with the Wildcats with his minutes per game average higher than any of his previous three seasons in the North-East. And Bucci is continually adapting his game to benefit the team. This season, the 6’4″ guard is currently averaging an impressive 10.1 rebounds (5th in the BBL) and putting up more attempts from 3-point range.
“When I was younger, I used to be more athletic, go to the basket a lot more and draw fouls at a better rate,” he recalled. “Now, I’m doing things to help the other guys, improve their games and make the guys around me better. At the start of my career, I would maybe shoot one or two 3-pointers a game, now that’s my biggest weapon. (My game) has changed a lot, but I’m still able to help the team with the way I play.”
Not only does Bucci play a valuable role on the court, he is also important off it. Additional responsibilities in serving as Lee Davie’s BBL assistant and taking charge of Durham’s BUCS side will only enhance the C.V and provide potential options in pursuit of a more permanent job as a Head Coach.
“It’s something I’m interested in,” he confirmed. “It’s not the easiest profession to get into, but I feel like I now have the experience which can lead to having opportunities. Being the Head Coach of the BUCS side has been great because it’s such a drastic jump from the playing side to coaching.”
The duties are proving to be very beneficial for Bucci and he admits a return to the US may stand him in better stead to land a new gig once the decision to call time on a long professional career finally beckons.
“If I want to go into coaching, then the US might offer more opportunities. There are situations I would like, but the number is quite limited in the UK compared to the US. They are both options at the moment.”
Bucci first took on his current Wildcats role in an unofficial capacity in his second season; helping out as Dave Elderkin’s right-hand man. When Davie took over at the beginning of last season, he reached out to Bucci to take the role officially with a first taster of being the main man on the sidelines coming in the form of taking the reigns of the University team.
The 39-year-old leads by example, putting in the hours of hard work, aspiring to make his team-mates, and protégés better. Hours upon hours are spent watching game-tape; scouting opponents and evaluating player performance which puts his own displays under the spotlight.
“It is a little tricky mixing coaching with playing because I see where we are all making mistakes, including myself, so that makes it hard to be critical as such,” he said. “I watch a lot of game-tape and when you’re watching the film back, you can’t hide from it, so you see all of the mistakes, but also where we can get better. In my role, I have to be more vocal, but my biggest goal is to help the guys get better and reach the goals they want to get to.”
The experience and knowledge has been accumulated playing in the upper echelons of European basketball with seven years spent in the top leagues in Greece, whilst also enjoying a spell in England’s Division One with the formerly known Teesside Mohawks. Bucci embarked on his pro career after finishing his time at the College of Saint Rose, in 1998.
“At the start of my career, I could never have imagined me having as long a career as this,” he said. “I don’t look back with any regrets because I have always been able to make the choices I’ve wanted and go to places I wanted and not every player can say that.
“I stayed in Greece for 7 years and played at the top level and with two teams in the second level that got promoted so I was always playing on teams that were competing at a high level. It was easy to see why the Greek league was considered to be in the top 2/3 leagues in Europe because it was so professional and extremely strong with very passionate fans.
“When I first came to England, my time with the Mohawks was great, and now to be able to finish with Durham in the BBL has worked out well. I’ve been very fortunate.”
The Wildcats gained entry into the BBL for the 2010-11 season after just one season in EBL Division 1, and Bucci has been there since the start. The progression has been gradual with a first season haul of just three wins growing into 14 last season, which was enough to sneak into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season.
“The first year was a struggle, but we knew it would be tough as it was a big adjustment for the club,” Bucci said. “We’ve improved each season and making the playoffs was a huge step for us.”
However, this season, Durham face an even tougher battle as they find themselves embroiled in another scrap for a coveted spot to make the post-season. The Wildcats have an 8-18 record as things stand, and sit in 10th – two wins behind the coveted top 8 places. And Bucci has called for the team to stick together through their tough patch.
“The thing we have to improve on is making sure we are focused for the full 40 minutes. We play well for 30 minutes then those other 10 minutes you don’t know what’s going to happen; we have stretches where we are very poor.
“We have been involved in a lot of close games this season, and if we can concentrate and stick together as a team then we might be able to start turning those into wins. It does become demoralising losing a lot of close games, and each game means a little more now so it’s important we keep fighting.”
Durham cannot afford the luxury of tinkering with their squad with relatively few changes made throughout the course of a season, in stark contrast to the likes of BBL rivals Cheshire Phoenix and Plymouth Raiders. Whilst Bucci likes the fact that players are given the faith, he also realises that the recruitment model can have its disadvantages.
“It is a little difficult,” he said. “Some of the teams keep a large portion of their core and they are basically a full year ahead of us as we start from scratch and have to find everyone their roles and establish some kind of chemistry.
“It’s not the easiest way to do things, so that may be a disadvantage of how we do things, but we try to make the best of it. Maybe in the future, we can start to lock players in for more than one year.”
Before pondering another season in the summer, the main goal for now is to make it to the post-season and Bucci knows that if his side are to do just that, they are going to need to pull off a few scalps in the run-in. Seven of the last 10 games pit Durham up against top-5 opposition with two games lined up against fellow play-off hopefuls, Plymouth.
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