Back in the Day: Winter Season Week Twenty-Four: 'We could only see tomorrow...'

Back in the Day: Winter Season Week Twenty-Four: 'We could only see tomorrow...'

This week, the BA time machine sets down in August of 1989 (around the time of the author’s birthday)...

• Australia’s air transport system is thrown into chaos after the 1645 members of the Australian Federation of Air Pilots resign en masse. The airlines claim that the dispute centres on the union’s demand for a 29.75 per cent pay increase, but the pilots union denies this. Prime Minister Bob Hawke frames this dispute as crucial to his future, otherwise ‘You could write finis to the Australian economy.’ As several international airlines (but not QANTAS) struggle to clear up the massive backlog of passengers, RAAF Hercules aircraft are called in. The head of AFAP, Captain Brian McCarthy, makes clear that they are ready for a long battle. The dispute will affect a number of NBL and WNBL teams (see below).

• There is also industrial turmoil in Victoria, with union leaders and the Government of Premier John Cain finally coming to a tentative agreement on changes to the state workers compensation scheme. In response, the power unions agree to lift power shortages that had been in operation during the crisis. This would also affect the NBL season (see below).

• The putrefaction of the National Party government in Queensland continues, with Premier Mike Ahern fighting off a challenge from Police Minister Russell Cooper. Outside Parliament, former Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen indicates that he is a supporter of Cooper.

• A 750,000 link ‘human chain’ is created across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as the three Baltic nations demand their independence from the Soviet Union.

• The Voyager 2 spacecraft passes by the planet Neptune and its largest moon, Triton. Having now explored the furthest reaches of our solar system, the craft now passes onto an interstellar mission to see what’s out there. A mixture of champagne and tears flow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where the probe was designed and built.

• In the sport of baseball Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan pitches the 5000th strikeout of his career, while in New York the game’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose, is banned from the sport for life after an investigation reveals that he illegally bet on the sport, including games in which he took part. MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti holds a press conference, saying that “The banishment for life of Pete Rose... is the sad end of a sorry episode. One of the game’s greatest players has engaged in a variety of acts which have stained the game and he must live with the consequences of those acts.”

• Notable deaths included author Irving Stone (at the age of 86) and noted American political columnist Joseph Alsop (at the age of 78).

•‘Right Here Waiting’, ‘Swing the Mood’ and ‘You Got It (The Right Stuff)’ topped the music charts.

The pilot’s strike adversely affected the world of Australian basketball with frantic efforts at making alternative arrangements. The Boomers team selected to play in the Oceania qualifying series for the following year’s World Championships had to travel to camp in Canberra by hire car, private plane and even in one case a RAAF aircraft (our beloved CEO, Larry Sengstock). Some NBL teams went to extraordinary lengths to make their games: Adelaide hired an 18 seat aircraft to fly to Hobart, which required re-fuelling at Mount Gambier, Portland and King Island before arriving with four hours to spare before game time. The worst-affected team was the Perth Wildcats, who had to fly via Auckland, New Zealand before returning to Sydney (a total of eight hours and 50 minutes flying time, not including a four-hour layover in Auckland). For the Wildcats, this flight was undertaken under the most oppressive emotional conditions imaginable.

Early on the morning of August 21st, 1989, Wildcats player Scott Fenton and his bride-to-be, Breakers player Tina Christie, were traveling back to their home in the suburbs of Perth after an evening out. Fenton’s father Keith, a long-serving official of the sport in NSW, was traveling with them in the rear seat of the car. From the opposite direction, another car sped through a red light and slammed into their vehicle. Scott and Tina were both killed instantly, while Keith was taken to hospital with two broken legs and numerous internal injuries.

The Australian basketball family was driven into deep mourning by the sudden tragedy. Both Fenton and Christie were regarded as players with a wealth of potential and people of great quality. It was reported that they had been planning to get married in October following the end of the NBL season. As all NBL and WNBL clubs immediately agreed to hold a minute’s silence before the weekend’s games, NBL General Manager Bill Palmer spoke for many when he said: “In sport we often feel that we are operating inside some protective bubble that separates us from the harsh realities of the world. The health and vigour of our sport creates the impression of invulnerability but calamitous events such as this burst the veneer of that bubble. As human beings we are all equally pregnable and the road toll is not just a statistic as are the 140 NBL games young Scott Fenton played. Basketball is but one facet of a multi-hued life spectrum but death is the terminus that we all have in common and that it can happen in the prime of these young people’s lives can but deepen the shock and outrage.”

Friday 25th August 1989

NBL Game One: Perth Wildcats @Sydney Kings
Final score: Kings 111-Wildcats 108
To give added poignancy to Fenton’s death, his teammates would have to travel to his birth-place for their next game. Fenton had himself played for several seasons with the Sydney Supersonics after starting his basketball career with the mighty Lugarno Rockets.

There was also a young boy, preparing for his sixth birthday, who was given the news by his father that he had snaffled two prized tickets to the game (which had sold out within an hour of going on sale). It would be the first game he would ever see and he would be hooked. The game itself turned out to be a ripper. The Wildcats, led by their back-court dynamos Cal Bruton and Mike Ellis, led for much of the contest and held an 88-79 lead at three-quarter time. Then Kings coach Bob Turner brought on defensive stopper Ian Robilliard and the intensity was raised another notch. In a barnstorming finish that had the standing room only crowd in ecstasy, Steve Carfino hit an impossible lay-up with under a minute to play to put Sydney up for good. The win sent the crowd home happy and confirmed the Kings’ position in the top six.

NBL Game Two: Illawarra Hawks @ North Melbourne Giants
Final score: Giants 134-Hawks 116
The Giants came out looking for revenge following their loss at the Snakepit on May 26th (one of the most bizarre finishes in NBL history, footage of which is available on the Wollongong Hawks history website at The “Twin Towers” of Scott Fisher and Tim Dillon dominated inside, scoring 34 and 26 points respectively for the home team. Former Hawk David Graham bombed away from outside, hitting six three-pointers on his way to 32 points.

NBL Game Three: Eastside Melbourne Spectres @ Geelong Supercats
Match postponed due to Victorian power cuts: re-scheduled for September 6th, 1989.

Saturday 26th August 1989

NBL Game Four: Canberra Cannons @Brisbane Bullets
Final score: Cannons 105-Bullets 103
Cannons coach Steve Breheny was quite succinct when asked about this game: “We got out of jail.” In a tough grinding encounter that saw 29 lead changes, it was Canberra’s defence that won out. The Bullets scored only one field goal in the first 7:30 of the final quarter and were then shut out of the contest. It was still a meritorious effort by Brisbane, considering that the team had been rocked by the sacking of import Winston Crite in the build-up to the game.
Milestone Alert: Cannons and Australian captain Phil Smyth plays his 200th NBL game.

NBL Game Five: Eastside Melbourne Spectres @ Melbourne Tigers
Final score: Tigers 112-Spectres 95
There were a number of storylines in this game: the Tigers qualified for the play-offs for the first time and Eastside were knocked out of the finals race (thereby setting the final six in stone). The biggest story, however, was the citing and later suspension of Melbourne forward David Simmons by the NBL Tribunal on a charge of punching Spectres forward Shane Froling. Simmons was suspended for the remaining three games of the Tigers’ season: this would prove to be a crucial blow to their championship fortunes.

NBL Game Six: Adelaide 36ers @ Hobart Tassie Devils
Final score: Devils 107-36ers 100 (OT)
After their marathon trip to the Apple Isle, the 36ers had to be forgiven for getting off to a sluggish start. By half-time, the Devils had taken a 16 point lead and Tom Maher’s sixth win as an NBL coach looked in the bag. In the third quarter, the game swung Adelaide’s way. Al Green and Darryl Pearce started hitting shots from all over the place and Peter Ali came off the bench and shut down the dangerous Wayne McDaniel. The 36ers blew a chance to win it in regulation and then tired in the overtime. Luke Gribble was “inspirational” for the home side, with the game sealed by a thunderous Joe Hurst slam dunk.

NBL Game Seven: Perth Wildcats @ Newcastle Falcons
Final score: Wildcats 100-Falcons 96
The lowly Falcons stayed with their opponents and led 78-74 into the final term. A series of bad shots thrown up by Michael Johnson and Shawn Dennis gifted the game away to the Wildcats, who snuck away to a courageous win. Cal Bruton was again the dominant force for Perth, finishing with 29 points. Wildcats coach Alan Black was content with the win, saying “We showed a lot of character tonight.’ The Wildcats then drove back to Sydney, hopped on a flight to Christchurch and then returned to Perth in time for a public memorial service for Fenton and Christie held at the Perth Superdrome (now Challenge Stadium).

Sunday 27th August 1989

NBL Game Eight: Illawarra Hawks @ Westside Melbourne Saints
Final score: Saints 128-Hawks 108.
The Hawks go down to their second straight loss of the weekend. It wasn’t all bad news for Illawarra: the NBL released attendance figures to round 18 showing that there had been a 28% increase on 1988 figures, with almost a million people attending League matches. There had also been a 61 per cent increase in the NBL’s ratings on television. These are the kinds of figures that we are hoping for in 2010/11!

There were three WNBL games played that weekend:
Sydney Bruins 65-Melbourne Lady Tigers 62
West Adelaide Bearcats 91-Melbourne Cougars 76
Melbourne Cougars 66-Noarlunga Tigers 56

Three other games:
Hobart TIS Islanders vs Bulleen Boomers, Brisbane Bullets vs. Melbourne Lady Tigers and North Adelaide Rockets vs. Perth Breakers, were all postponed as a result of the domestic pilots strike (see above).

What made the cancellation of the Hobart/Bulleen encounter more disappointing is that it was scheduled to be the first WNBL game ever to be televised in its entirety (by the League’s then new broadcasting partner, the ABC).