ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Game after game, you hear it.
National sports writers, NBA scouts, opposing coaches, fans, everyone seems to be surprised by the improvement University of New Mexico senior power forward Cameron Bairstow has shown this season.
Many have even surmised the meteoric rise onto the national radar for the 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward from Australia is an overnight success of sorts.
But those around him are well aware this overnight success story has been 23 years in the making.
“I can remember him as a very, very young boy – a big boy when he was young – he always wanted to compete,” Penny Bairstow, Cameron’s mother, told the Journal. “It didn’t matter what it was, be it swimming or chess or cards, he always wanted to compete.”
From the time Cameron Bairstow, the third of seven Bairstow children, was six months old chasing a ball around the backyard for hours at a time on the family’s acre of land in Brisbane, Australia, he’s been driven.
By the age of 12, the calculated and determined child spent his savings to buy videotapes of NBA players and started studying them relentlessly – between school and asking his mother to take him to the local gym and drop him off for hours at a time.
“I can remember seeing him outside working on defensive slide drills and footwork,” recalled Penny, a school teacher who, like her veterinarian husband Ian, has coached basketball in Australia for years. “This is what he’s wanted to do and worked to do for a very long time.”
Cameron didn’t hit his real growth spurt until about age 17, which is why he wasn’t on the national radar in Australia earlier. But he did earn a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport at 18.
“After that tryout when we weren’t sure he’d make it, I remember him saying it’d be great to go, but if it doesn’t (work), there will be other ways (to pursue his basketball dream),” Penny said.
When he left AIS for college in the United States, Cameron had scholarship offers from only CSU Bakersfield and UNM.
Now, everyone seems to be noticing.
“I’m very proud, but even more so just very pleased for him,” Penny said. “If your children are enjoying what they’re doing, isn’t that what it’s about?”
The Bairstow parents have been in the United States for the past 25 days with all of their seven children, three of whom are playing college basketball. For the first time in seven years, the Bairstow Nine – brothers Kieran, 28, Cameron, 23, Jarred, 21, Daniel 16 and Sean 13 as well as sisters Melissa, 25, and Stephanie, 19 – were all under one roof for Christmas in Los Alamos as guests of Alan and Pat Kirk, parents of Cameron’s Lobo teammate Alex Kirk.
“It’s been wonderful seeing them all and knowing they are all doing so well,” Penny said.
Jarred plays at the University of Central Oklahoma. Stephanie plays for the Utah State Aggies, a first-year member of the same Mountain West Conference as the Lobos.
On Dec. 7, Cameron’s 23rd birthday, Ian and Penny saw their son play in person for the first time in his four seasons as a Lobo. Cameron celebrated by scoring 24 points, grabbing 13 rebounds, and getting in a quick weightlifting session while still in his uniform before talking with reporters about his performance.
“Not a surprise,” Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said that night after the game when told Bairstow was still upstairs lifting weights in his uniform. “Kids like him, there’s a reason. There’s a reason he is who he is. The guy’s got worker written all over him. He doesn’t need it tattooed on his forehead for you to know.”
Lobos coach Craig Neal, who has certainly played a role in the Aussie’s development over the past three seasons, said Cam is “by far, I’ve been here six years, … the strongest kid we’ve had in here. Cam’s just a product of really working on improving himself.”
Cameron Bairstow averaged 2.6 points and 1.8 rebounds as a freshman, 3.7/3.6 as a sophomore and 9.7/5.9 last season. Today, as the 9-3 Lobos prepare for their 18-game Mountain West Conference schedule, Bairstow leads the team in scoring with 20.1 points per game to go along with 7.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.4 blocks.
While his improvement has been steady to those who watched closely, it became impossible to ignore once he was permanently inserted into the Lobos starting lineup last Jan. 30 in a win over Wyoming. After that, he averaged 12.6 points and 7.4 rebounds, was named to the All-MWC Tournament team and carried over the success to the summer. He led Australia to its first medal in international play, a silver in the World University Games. He also earned a spot on the Australia Boomers National Team for World Championship qualifying.
“It’s correct to say he’s one of the most improved players in the country in the last 12 months,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “That’s accurate to say that, but anybody who knows Cam knows that from the day he got to the AIS, he’s been on a constant upward trajectory because of his work ethic and his willingness to work at it day after day after day.”
That work has propelled Bairstow not only into the Mountain West player of the year conversation, but into talk about his potential to get drafted into the NBA.
It’s something the coaches who have seen him work have bought into.
“I thought the first half he was unbelievable,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after Bairstow scored 24 points and grabbed six rebounds in a losing cause against a Jayhawks roster full of future NBA talent. “Right there in front of our bench, how aggressive he was. He’s making right hand hooks and left hand hooks. Those aren’t easy plays, especially when you’re scoring over length. I think he is really good.”
Added Cronin, who also watched the World University Games performance: “The guy is one of the best power forwards in the country. … He’s the real deal.”
But the Bairstows aren’t caught up in thinking about their son reaching his lifelong dream of playing professionally.
“I try not to get too excited too early about those sorts of things,” Penny said. “It’s really important to enjoy whatever happens, just enjoy the process with your children. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Actually, that’s what Cam has been doing for years, even if the rest of the country only started noticing it this season.