Bryce Cotton didn't think his time with the Perth Wildcats would last very long.
"I thought I was gonna be here for six weeks and that was it," the reigning NBL MVP told ESPN.
That was back in 2017, and Cotton had two offers at the time: one in Russia, and another in Perth. The stint with the Wildcats was supposed to be short. The team was second-to-last on the NBL ladder when Cotton joined them at the midway point of their season, and a playoff berth was unlikely. The then-24-year-old figured he'd finish off the regular season, then be on his merry way.
The Wildcats would go on to win the NBL title, with Cotton named the Grand Final MVP.
"I thought it was going to be a pit stop," he said. "But I haven't left since I came, [so] I'm very glad I decided to come out here."
As Cotton's 2021 season came to a screeching halt this week - surgery from a hematoma in his quadriceps ruling him out of the remainder of the Wildcats' title defence - the effects were felt across the NBL. All of a sudden, the man widely regarded as the best player in the league won't be leading the way for the Wildcats, the most envied franchise in Australian basketball.
The door suddenly swung wide open for Melbourne United to waltz to a championship, and though the Wildcats are still able to instill fear in an opponent, the loss of Cotton can't be understated.
Cotton went through a few stages of emotions. First, it was a dispiriting feeling; then, one of reflection. At the end of it all, came hope.
"It was probably most difficult the first couple of days after the surgery, when you're just cooped up in the hospital," Cotton said.
"That's when all of your thoughts never leave you alone. Even though this is my first time ever having an injury where I'm basically sidelined for the remainder of a season, I am grateful that I was at least able to play 32 out of 36 regular season games, and I was able to help play a part in our team making playoffs again. So, I'm very excited with that. But, now it's just a matter of me testing my coaching skills and seeing what the guys can do heading into the playoffs."
Whatever happens in the upcoming finals series - set to tip off in Perth on Jun. 10 - the Wildcats can find solace in the fact that Cotton caught his injury in time to avoid permanent damage and, at 28, is only just entering his prime.
Cotton's loyalty to Perth also goes deeper than just the franchise's renowned culture, too. This past off-season, the combo guard opted out of his contract as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the start of the new season; not uncommon, as multiple top-tier players gauged the market during a volatile time in the world. Cotton was among the first to opt back in, though, signing a new three-year deal to remain with the Wildcats.
"I never really wanted to leave in the first place, but I just felt like, at that time, it was what was gonna be best for me," Cotton said.
"When my mind changed, the biggest thing that played a huge factor for me was just the family aspect, having a daughter. She's one-and-a-half now... having that security of knowing that this, in the long term, is gonna be what's best for me; staying in Perth. It's what's gonna be best for my family and my daughter.
"Just having her grow up where she has at least one side of her family here... just trying to create stability for her, and some sense of security for her, where she can still have a very normal life, especially during the uncertain times of COVID. She probably played the biggest part."
The only thing that could really pry Cotton away from Perth is if an NBA team comes calling, but even his thoughts about that dream have changed as he's matured.
For Cotton, 'NBA or bust' isn't a mantra he lives by. Cotton has a life in Perth; a family. It means his priorities have shifted. That, in turn, gave him a certain level of security as a professional. Even though a long stint in the NBA hasn't panned out at this point, Cotton already has a sense of fulfilment in his life and career.
"I think the fact that I've been in the NBA already gives me some peace of mind," Cotton said.
"Obviously, if an [NBA] team ever wanted me, of course I would go back, but I'm not looking over my shoulder as much as I used to. If they want me, fine; if not, I'm more than happy to be over here. I'm thriving, professionally just as much as I am with my family, so I can't complain with where I'm at.
"The biggest thing for me; it's great that I was able to find that shift, but it's because I got my questions answered. If I had never played in the NBA, and if I had never had some of the games I had in the NBA when I got the opportunity, I'd still be wondering: 'What if?'... 'why am I not here?'. Throughout those experiences, as well as playing Denver and Utah for the preseason when I was with Perth a couple of seasons back; having those games, it let me know [that] my talent isn't the issue. It's just a matter of: numbers games, and just the right timing.
"So, that's fine with me. I just always wanted to know: do I have the skill level to play in that type of league? That's enough for me, even if I never play again, I know I have the talent. That helps me focus completely on where I'm at."
Where he's at is Perth, and the scary part is that his career in the NBL's most successful team may only just be beginning. What was supposed to be a six-week cameo in Perth turned into three championships, two Grand Final MVPs, and a pair of regular season MVPs over the course of four seasons, and there's a good chance Cotton will be the 2021 season's Most Valuable Player, too.
"It would still mean something to me," Cotton said of potentially winning a third MVP trophy.
"At the end of the day, I take basketball very seriously. I always have, since I was a young kid. It's always cool to be recognised by your peers and the guys you compete against. If I were to get that award, it would definitely be a huge honour and it's not something I take lightly, especially with how competitive this league is now and the talented players we have.
"Even though it's not something I go out and play for, it definitely means a lot whenever I do receive the honour."