Bendigo Stadium, Sunday, January 10 can't come quick enough for Melbourne United star Chris Goulding.
After the longest break from basketball in his professional career, the sweet-shooting Goulding is itching to return to competitive basketball against crosstown rival the South East Melbourne Phoenix in their NBL season-opener in Bendigo.
"You missed that feeling of winning and what comes with it,'' Goulding said.
"That feeling in the locker room after a win and just that competitiveness. A lot of us have been starved of that for a long time now.
"We've probably been going too hard on board games during lockdown. We're really looking forward to getting back into a competitive season.
"We're a team, we're an organisation that wants success. We tasted it a few years ago when we won the championship and since then we've been close, but close isn't good enough for this group.
"We really want to win this year."
At this stage, United's campaign for the 2021 title starts with two home games at Bendigo Stadium on January 10 and January 15, with a third home game in Bendigo on February 7.
Having played SEABL, NBL and international games in Bendigo since he was 16, Goulding is well-aware of the support the sport gets in Bendigo and he's hoping that translates to a parochial Melbourne United crowd for the three big NBL matches.
"I'm really excited about these games,'' he said.
"Bendigo Stadium is probably the next biggest stadium outside of Melbourne. It's a brand new stadium, the facilities are fantastic and we know that the Bendigo community loves basketball.
"Playing three home games in Bendigo is a great opportunity for us to give back to our regional fans.
"We'd love to see the community turn out in droves and support us. We need that home crowd advantage, particularly early in the season. We're pumped and we can't wait to play games in Bendigo."
Goulding scored a team-high 17 points to lead Melbourne United to an impressive pre-season match win over the Cairns Taipans on Thursday night.
United has a new-look squad in 2021, with a number of additional exciting Australian talent, including Boomers' big man Jock Landale and former Duke University forward Jack White.
United has also signed former NBL play Scotty Hopson, who is yet to join the team.
"In the early stages it was difficult because we'd signed our team and then with the COVID situation we couldn't train and we were doing a lot of sessions on the internet,'' Goulding said.
"Once we could get back on the training court and play some practice games... it's been good.
"We're not nearly near where we need to be, but we have a lot of new young, enthusiastic guys that want to learn and pick up the system.
"We have a good vibe going at the moment and that translated into a good win last night. We'll see how we go next game."
Goulding said his extended break from basketball because of the COVID-19 pandemic had positive and negative aspects.
"It's been annoying, but it's also been refreshing,'' he said.
"As I hit around that 30-year-old mark I needed to work on my body and that break gave me the time to knuckle in and get my body right for another NBL season and, hopefully, many, many more.
"I wouldn't say it was a blessing in disguise, because if I had the chance to do it all over again I'd say 'no'. Too much crisis and many people around the world have been affected by this.
"You have to make the most out of these situations and one positive I could take is that I had more time to work on my body."
A spike in COVID-19 cases in Sydney and Melbourne recently means NBL clubs have to be ready to move on short notice.
Goulding said team chemistry and how club's handle the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 restrictions will play a major role in the on-court fortunes of each team.
"We've spoken about it already, particularly with a few cases bobbing up in Melbourne and the cluster in New South Wales and the implications that has,'' Goulding said.
"We don't know where we're going to be in two or three days time. We're without our families, but we're sticking together and we're making sure we have all the relevant information to make decisions about what we do.
"If we can handle that really well as a club then I think it will put us in good stead to play some good basketball.
"We want to win another championship for Victoria. We've seen it in the AFL (Richmond), the NRL (Melbourne Storm), the netball (Melbourne Vixens) and the WNBL (Southside Flyers) - we want to be another Victorian team that does that."
Tickets for the Melbourne United versus South East Melbourne Phoenix game are on sale through ticketek.com.au
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