'One day, you're gonna be the Batman': Nathan Sobey now the leading man

There's a steeliness to the voice of Nathan Sobey as he stares intently at me across the restaurant table. On this afternoon, the Adelaide 36ers are about to play the Sydney Kings at Qudos Bank Arena, but the 36ers' leading man has carved out some time for a chat. In a black tee, eyes affixed with an earnestness and unwavering attention, he's locked into the moment.

The conversation lingers for a time on screens, and running the pick-and-roll. Specifically, how opponents - rightfully petrified of Sobey's explosive athleticism - duck under on-balls, in an effort to stop him from getting to the paint. At that precise moment, his defender is faced with uncomfortable choices: form a human wall to protect the rim, but cede an open jumper? Or play him tight, opening up a driving lane.

Teams in the past favoured the latter option, content to green-light a shot from deep.

"I've developed my jump shot a lot," warns Sobey. "If you go under on the screen [now], I'm not hesitant to shoot."

The siren call of Sobey has always promised a concoction of boundless athleticism with haughty aggression. And Sobey, the athlete, is as about intense as they come.

Speak to basketball folk about the Adelaide 36ers guard and they all cite an uncanny will to succeed. Sobey's driven. There's almost a mythical appreciation of the work ethic, the single-minded commitment to be great. The routine after-practice work to improve his game, increment by increment. The will to test the limits of his abilities.

"There's always something you can work on," he tells ESPN.

"Anyone will tell you, he's a workaholic," says Sydney Kings guard Jerome Randle, who developed a strong bond with Sobey during his time with the 36ers. "He's a gym rat. He's gonna come in and put in the work."

And to a degree, that's the extent of the public persona of Sobey. It's all strictly basketball. Who is Nathan Sobey, really?

He doesn't invite, nor pine for, celebrity. He doesn't care if you like him. He doesn't care if people don't really know him.

"I mean," Sobey says, "a lot of people don't know me at all."

He intentionally places emphasis on those last two words, as if the will of his tone will shut a figurative door.

You're left to reconcile the notion that the meanest, most fearsome guard in the league is not a rock star. Nor does he care to be. In an industry in which self-promotion is rife, his relative reclusiveness stands out.

So, you don't crave even a little of the spotlight?

"Absolutely not," he deadpans.

Instead, he keeps a purposefully tight circle, one where membership is attained through sustained loyalty.

"It's just who I am," he explains. "Once you're in, you're in. I don't know why it's like that."

For Sobey, there's no blurred lines between his sport, and his life, despite the former taking over the latter. "It's just all part of how I've adapted to life outside of basketball," he says. "I try to have that separation from basketball."

He is happy to open the door just a little to tell his story. Strictly basketball, of course.

That story begins in a country town along the Victorian coastline. Warrnambool was a seafaring town, but it is now most certainly a basketball town. It's where Sobey's love of the game blossomed within the familiar embrace of family and friends, the genesis of the impenetrable circle.

There's a story where Sobey's mum, Kerrie, had to pen a letter to persuade the local association to allow her five-year old to play in the under-10s competition, such was his determination to prove himself. There's another yarn, where Sobey, now an NBL player, returned to his hometown to deliver a Big V championship to his beloved Seahawks in front of said family and friends, fulfilling a promise.

"Winning a championship with some of my best mates back home, that's one of the best achievements that I've had," he gushes. "People say, 'oh, the league is trash or whatever.' But it wasn't really about that."

Family marks the core of his circle. His parents, Peter and Kerrie, still attend 36ers home games, tackling the 6-hour drive from Warrnambool.

He was never a standout junior. He was landscaping until his local coach at the time, Tim Gainey, asked him if he was interested in traversing to America for a shot at college hoops. He jumped at the opportunity, initially at Cochise College, before transferring to Wyoming.

"We were slow," he says of the Wyoming's system under Larry Shyatt. "We used the whole shot clock. I was just itching at my feet to get out and play like I do now with Joey [Wright]."

After college, he returned to Australia, where his next stop introduced him to an arguably even more methodical playing style, at the Cairns Taipans under Aaron Fearne.

Like a caged animal, he sought freedom. He needed minutes. He craved to run.

That's when he signed with Adelaide, hoping to take advantage of Joey Wright's reputation as a player's coach and developer of talent. That first year at the 36ers, he doubled his playing time from his Taipans stint, at 10 minutes per game. Yet his production was modest - 4 points per game - and at 26 years of age by the end of the season, few saw the drastic evolution about to unfold.

"I wasn't ready yet," he admits now. "I wasn't ready to play consistent minutes."

He credits Wright as a major influence upon his career, a stylistically synchronous match for a transcendent athlete. Yet another was an early adopter - one who saw glimpses of what Sobey could become.

Jerome Randle lit up the league in the 2015/16 season, the same year that Sobey struggled to impose himself upon the rotation. During that offseason, they struck a bond after Randle recognised a similar thirst for work. For Randle, Sobey had an innate hunger to get better. And he was not afraid to put in the work.

"We. Worked. All. The time. Me and Sobey were in the gym all the time," says Randle.

They would meet before practice to work on moves. After practice, they would linger for extra shooting. Days off? Same thing.

Even off the court, the pair was inseparable, cementing a connection over games of Call of Duty on the Playstation. They would join forces to beat out the online competition.

"Just some bonding, man," says Randle with a chuckle. "My wife and his wife [partner, at the time], say, what do you call it? A bromance. They call it a bromance because we play a lot."

"They get a little bit salty about it," Sobey says with a grin. "We're always talking and playing the Playstation. They had some fun over it."

The subsequent season 36ers star Mitch Creek sustained a foot injury early in the campaign, leaving a gaping hole in the rotation. The 36ers, already tipped to finish with the wooden spoon, elevated Sobey. It was the opportunity he needed.

Adelaide embarked upon a fairytale campaign, running away with the league's top record, and confounding opponents who not only had to deal with the slivery genius of Randle - who would eventually capture the league's Most Valuable Player Award - but also a 6'3" doppelganger with spring-loaded legs.

Sobey studied Randle during their practices, liberally borrowing the moves and shot selection of the Chicago native.

"Oh, we worked on moves like crazy," says Sobey. "I was always trying to copy him."

It was a one-two punch: Randle was the Batman. Sobey was Robin. Sobey walked away with the Most Improved Player Award that season.

"One day, you're gonna be the Batman," Randle recalls telling Sobey. "So you've got to figure out a way to take control of the game at the right moments."

Fast-forward two years and Sobey is now in the midst of a career year as the head of the snake in the 36ers' go-go style. He's averaging 16 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and a steal per game. Earlier this season, he recorded a triple double against the Taipans.

As the 36ers' point guard, he's learning to strike a balance between following his instinctive urge to attack, and pulling it back, setting up the offence within the seething cauldron of an NBL game.

"It has been a bit of a learning curve," admits Sobey, "especially coming from the two [guard], you're used to just really trying to attack a lot more than pulling it back. In certain areas, you've got to get other people involved, and make sure we're running the offence and controlling the tempo of the game."

"So once you switch over to that one spot [point guard], you have a lot of other things you have to worry about," adds Randle, now with the Kings. "People's characteristics on and off the floor. You've got so much as a point guard that you've got to figure out. 'How am I going to make this guy happy? Is this guy getting enough touches?' And still be able to go out there and get your numbers as well. So, I think that's something he's going to have to figure out. If I know Sobey, he's watching a lot of film of guys, trying to figure out how to be the best point guard, two guard he could possibly be."

Sobey is now firmly the Batman. And like the famed caped crusader, he's content to shy away from the public eye. In many ways, Sobey the basketball player is his only known identity.

It's easy to fall into the trap of characterising him based on what you see. He plays with such belligerent force. You see the pent-up fury. You can feel his intensity through the television screen. We have never seen a different side to him.

"He never smiles, or whatever," Sobey says of the characterisation he has heard, "but if you get around me, and you know who I am, I'm one of the first guys to laugh at one of your jokes."

Yet once he steps onto the court, he transforms into a raging inferno - one who just wants to win.

"I guess I've always had a chip on my shoulder," admits Sobey.

"Interesting, isn't it?" says Luc Longley, the Boomers' assistant coach who has witnessed the emergence of Sobey from afar, and his progression within the national program. "He obviously has an intensity to him but then you see guys that are quite quiet off the court light up and become animated and fierce on the court. I always enjoy that 'Hulkian' transformation."

Randle chuckles at the idea that one's character can be parsed from what you see on the hardwood - the idea that we, as viewers, create narratives based on the snippets that we witness of an athlete through a screen.

We see the scuffles that opponents seem happy to trigger, lighting the fuse within Sobey that is already shortened once he crosses the white line.

"Look at Russell Westbrook," he says. "You figure out who Russell Westbrook is off the court. He might be one of the nicest dudes, like he's really cool. But on the court, he's a different cat."

Randle's analogy hits home; with the exodus of larger-than-life personalities in Mitch Creek, Josh Childress and Shannon Shorter in the offseason, Sobey has had to become the Russell Westbrook-ian face for this upstart squad. It is, in fact, the sheer singlemindedness and relentless drive of Sobey that defines who he is.

"When you're competing," continues Randle, "competition takes you to a whole other mind-set, whole other level. You can't judge a man from how he is, and how he plays on the basketball court. Competitive nature is something that's totally different. I could be the nicest guy, but when I'm competing I can become a straight angry dude, because I want to win that bad. And I feel he's that. He wants to compete. He wants to go all-out. He's willing to run through a brick wall for his team."

"Jerome's exactly right," says Sobey. "It's that competitive edge. Once you step over the line, it's time to go."

Atop of the opposition scouting report: pick him up early in transition. Try and get under his skin.

"I use it as motivation," Sobey says. "They've obviously found something that I need to work on. I'll look at that straightaway and try to improve it."

"That's the thing," says Longley, "he is conscientious about his craft. He's identified that as something that people will target as a weakness."

Still, Nathan Sobey hardly projects signs of weakness.

In a sport far removed from brutality -- basketball after all is, theoretically, a non-contact sport -- Sobey oozes with aggressive intentions. Forever on his toes, muscles taut, coiled like a snake ready to burst into a fitful frenzy.

"What he is, is a special athlete," says Andrej Lemanis, the Boomers' head coach. "That's something in the international level that you look at and go, 'well, that's worth something.' It's intriguing. That's something that can be a difference-maker for us."

"He's a bit of a unicorn as far as his athleticism," adds Longley.

Despite being further down the rotation within the national program, Lemanis and Longley have found Sobey to be extremely coachable. They appreciate his worth ethic, his discipline, and his singular focus towards being the best version of himself with the tools he's been blessed with.

"He resembles some other successful players I've been around," says Lemanis. "Like Matthew Dellavedova."

During national team camp, Sobey would stay back after training for further sessions to improve areas of his game. Whilst players filed into the team bus, he remained on the court taking jumper after jumper. He approached the coaching staff, quizzing them on specific areas of the craft.

"Not once did he sulk, or bitch or moan about anything," says Lemanis. "There are lots of athletes who say they want to be the best that they can be. But at the end of the day, what are you actually prepared to sacrifice?"

How about cutting short your honeymoon?

Lemanis was finalising his squad for the July FIBA window last year when he was struck by the commitment of Sobey. Around the same time as the window, Sobey would be getting married to his partner, CC Rode. Nevertheless, he made himself available for the Boomers.

Lemanis was incredulous. He quizzed Sobey, "But you're getting married. Aren't you going on your honeymoon?!"

According to Lemanis, the 36er responded with, ""No, no, no. We're taking three days. I want to play for Australia."

Lemanis chuckles almost in disbelief. "I don't think there's a better example of how much it means to him or how committed he is to his sport than that!"

"I'm going to make myself available every single time for those sorts of opportunities," Sobey says, when I ask him about this story. "I'm all about ultimately doing whatever it takes to be the best that I can be. Whether that's good enough at the end or not? I'm going to be satisfied if I gave it my everything."

"He's just grown into being a mature, thoughtful basketballer," says Longley. "And when you couple that with athleticism, and resilience, and natural tenacity, you get a special product. And I think he is special."

Ironically, the story that best encapsulates Sobey is not a basketball story. Instead, it's about Carter, the Staffy, who doubles as Sobey's best friend. Carter went missing after the gardeners who mow the lawn at Sobey's residence left the gate ajar one day. According to Randle, Sobey would show up to 36ers training miserable and moping throughout the ordeal.

"The reason why I'm saying this is because once he cares and loves someone, he loves heart," explains Randle. "So no matter what it is, he loves heart. And if something was to happen, that would really, really bother him. Once he got that dog back, everything changed. His mood and everything was good."

Sobey searched everywhere, putting up flyers around the area, but no one called. Thankfully, he received a phone call a few weeks later from someone who tipped off where Carter might be.

"Next thing you know, I drove out there and got him back," says Sobey.

It's nearing his pre-game preparation now and our chat is coming to an end. The game against the Kings is a crucial fixture, and one in which he will come face-to-face with his basketball brother, Randle.

By now, I have a better sense of what Sobey is about. First and foremost, he's a family man. His circle is tight - and closed - with loyalty as the currency for entry.

He is driven, and his work ethic - his commitment to be great - is purely based on becoming the very best version of himself. He knows no other way.

"Good to talk about it," he says, as he rises from his seat and we exchange pleasantries.

As he leaves, he turns and grins. "I'll talk some trash to Jerome. Say he's not that good."