Pre-Season Week Five: Showdown at the Burswood Corral.
This week, the BA time machine has stopped off in the spring of 1987. We have now reached the pointy end of the season and the pressure is immense. There are similar pressures building elsewhere...
-Fiji enters a full-blown constitutional crisis, with military strongman Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka releasing a decree announcing that his nation is now a republic, ending over a century of links with the British Crown. Condemnation rolls down upon Rabuka from all over the globe. Fiji’s continued involvement within the British Commonwealth rises to the top of the agenda of the next Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM), due to be held in Vancouver, Canada the following week.
-The nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the United States Supreme Court founders on the rock of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which by a vote of 9-5 decides not to recommend consent of Bork’s nomination to the full Senate. Following the vote, Bork declares that he will not withdraw his nomination and demands an up and down vote by the full Senate.
-Outside the committee rooms of the Congress, up to half a million people march through the streets of Washington D.C. as part of the second National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. As part of the demonstration, the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is unveiled for the first time on the National Mall.
-Federal Minister for the Environment Senator Graham Richardson visits the north Queensland town of Ravenshoe, which faces severe job losses as a result of the nomination of the Daintree Rainforest for World Heritage listing. As Richardson begins to speak, a bugle sounds The Last Post and on cue the 1200 people in attendance stand up and silently leave the meeting.
-Traders on Wall Street are described as being “increasingly nervous” after the Dow Jones index falls by almost 3.5%. In response Australia’s All Ordinaries index drops 30.6 points. The prediction of many financiers is that the market is “overheated and set for a shakeout.”
-Australia’s Cricket World Cup campaign gets off to a dramatic start with a one-run victory over India in Madras. The match is decided when Australia is awarded two extra runs (a Dean Jones six was originally signalled as a four) during the interval between innings.
-Notable deaths of the week include former Greek President Konstantinos Tsatsos (at the age of 88) and playwright, Congresswoman, publishing tycoon’s wife and former U.S. Ambassador to Italy Clare Boothe Luce (at the age of 84).
-“Here I Go Again”, “Pump Up the Volume” and “La Bamba” were atop the world’s popular music charts.
In the NBL, it was the week leading up to the Grand Final. The three-game series would see the Brisbane Bullets face off against the Perth Wildcats. The series was a promoter’s dream: East Coast versus West, solid fundamentals versus “run and gun and have some fun”, future Hall of Fame members on both sides on the floor and two coaches who couldn’t stand each other. All of these elements provided great copy for the scribes and great images for the television cameras that were just starting to show an interest in the sport of basketball.
Firstly, how did the two teams get here? For Brisbane, it was simply business as usual. The Bullets finished in second position following the regular season (a game behind minor premiers Adelaide) and progressed straight through to the Second Semi-Final, where they would face the Illawarra Hawks. Brisbane pulled off a major upset by winning the first game in the unfriendly confines of the Snakepit by the score of 109-87. The Hawks had not lost a game at home all season, but Leroy Loggins’ 38 points put the Bullets in the box seat to reach their fourth consecutive Grand Final. Game Two, played at a packed Brisbane Entertainment Centre, saw Illawarra, led by the three “Killer B’s”, (Bateman, Bickett and Borner) produce their own miracle, delivering to the Bullets their first loss at Boondall for the year. Down 66-56 at three-quarter time, David Lindstrom’s charges played like men possessed and produced a 12-2 run that levelled the score at 68-68. In a nail-biting finish, Gordie McLeod missed the front end of a 1 and 1 that would have given the Hawks the lead. Brisbane brought it back down the floor and got it to Loggins , who put up a long shot that missed. Larry Sengstock got the rebound and put up the put-back. Illawarra’s Ray Borner illegally blocked the shot and the referees ruled goal-tending, giving the Bullets a 77-75 lead. With less than ten seconds remaining, the Hawks attempted to inbound the ball but the pass went astray. With 4.8 seconds remaining, Illawarra called a time-out.
In the huddle, Brisbane coach Brian Kerle’s advice was succinct: “No fouls...Don’t even go for the shooter, let them have the shot.” The Hawks needed to move the ball 94 feet and hope for a miracle. Borner inbounded the ball to McLeod who sprinted down the floor. Defended by rookie sensation Darren Perry, McLeod went to the top of the three-point line and fired. The shot... hit nothing but net! Lindstrom and his bench stormed the floor, surrounding McLeod. Kerle’s shoulders sagged in disbelief as the Hawks left in triumph, winning 78-77. After the high drama of Game Two, Game Three was a fizzer with the Bullets rarely troubled in running out comfortable winners, 100-82.
On the opposing side of the draw was the Cinderella story of the 1987 season, the Perth Wildcats. After finishing third last in 1986, Perth had risen to fourth place following the regular season. Led by captain Mike Ellis and coached by Cal Bruton, the Wildcats played a speed-oriented style that drew comparison with the NBA’s LA Lakers and “Showtime”. The combination of their high octane approach with Bruton's promotional flair produced a disease existing only in Western Australia and known simply as "Wildcatmania". With the West Coast Eagles only having joined the VFL competition that year, the field was wide open for a Perth-based team to attract major media and corporate support throughout the state of Western Australia. It was a far cry from the early days, when it was almost impossible to draw a half-full house to the Wildcats’ spiritual home at Perry Lakes Stadium. The real tragedy was that one of the founding fathers of the team, Gordon Ellis, was not there to see it. Ellis, who fathered four sons who represented their state in basketball and the Wildcats’ coach in 1983, died the week before the season began after a massive heart attack. In his honour, the team dedicated their season’s efforts to his memory and wore black ribbons on their uniforms. His son Mike, who had only missed one of 153 games going back to 1982, said that these gestures made him “want to win this thing even more.”
Following a tight victory over the Canberra Cannons in their Elimination Final, the Wildcats faced the Goliath of the NBL, the Adelaide 36ers, in the First Semi-Final. Game 1 was played in front of a sold out Challenge Stadium with the 36ers squeaking out a 99-98 victory. With the win, Adelaide felt reasonably confident of setting up a rubber match in their three-year duel against the Bullets. They also had the best home court advantage in the League: the Apollo Stadium and their 3000 or more rabid fans. There was just one problem: nobody had told Perth superstar James Crawford the end of the plot. “The Alabama Slammer” tore the 36ers to shreds, putting up 43 and 33 points respectively as Perth rocked the NBL by winning both games (101-99, 103-93) and booking a place in the club’s first Grand Final. A rapturous reception awaited the team when they returned to Perth Airport: 4000 people cheered, screamed and raised a hell of a racket.
The opening game, to be held in Perth, produced an unprecedented amount of hype and hoopla for the League. Tickets for Game One sold out in 75 mins, with police having to be called to the venue to break up several fights that had broken out amongst disappointed fans. Perth’s front office was overwhelmed by letters and phone calls of support, including a hand-written message from then WA Premier Brian Burke. Perth’s Lord Mayor, Mick Michael, promised a ticker-tape parade would be held in the team’s honour if they won the Grand Final. Over 200 people showed up to watch a Wildcats training session (such sessions were subsequently closed to the public). Numerous media organisations devoted column inches and program minutes to follow the team’s progress. The one group least impressed by the excitement were their opponents: as coach Kerle said on their arrival in the golden West, “They can do all the fast-talking they like, we’re only here for one thing-to win the title.” The rest of the nation was rather more interested in the other major storyline: the relationship between the two head coaches.
It was Australian basketball’s version of “The War to Settle the Score”. In 1985 and 1986, Cal Bruton and Brian Kerle had built a strong partnership that brought great success to the Bullets. They were also close personally: Kerle reportedly acted as an honorary godfather to Cal’s son Austin. At the end of 1986 the two men fell out, for reasons that have remained deliberately obscure. While Bruton shifted his run and gun show to the Wild West, Kerle retained his title as the Big Man of Australian basketball (he is still in the top five for coaching wins in NBL history). As Brisbane looked to “Bring it Back, Bullets”, their main man Leroy Loggins was limping after suffering a knee injury in Game Three of the Illawarra series. Loggins, who had played 191 e out of a possible 192 games since joining the League in 1981, remained unflustered and confident: “This is the money time of year. I’ll be there.”
The referees for Game One were Eddie Crouch and Bill Mildenhall. An interesting side-note: this was Bill Mildenhall’s first Grand Final game. The referees were also reportedly paid $37.50 per game. It is a safe bet that the amount is somewhat higher now!
Saturday 10th October 1987
NBL Grand Final Game One: Brisbane Bullets @Perth Wildcats
Final score: Bullets 80-Wildcats 79.
In front of 5500 fervent Wildcats fans, the two starting fives hit the floor to open the series:
Cal Bruton Darren Perry
Alan Black Ron Radliff
Kendal ‘Tiny’ Pinder Leroy Loggins
James Crawford Larry Sengstock
Dan Hickert John Dorge
From the opening minutes the pattern for the game was set. Perth, suffering from “an acute bout of nerves” , shot poorly and made numerous silly turnovers. Brisbane, on the other hand, was content to play a slow and low game. The Bullets led 45-40 at the half and started the third quarter strongly, jumping to a quick 11 point lead. Despite the shooting woes of Cal Bruton (who would finish with 8/22 from the field) the Wildcats were then able to drag themselves back into the contest and by three-quarter time the score was Brisbane 64-Perth 61.
The clash of the two frontlines was brutal: Pinder and Crawford were able to hold their own on the boards against the likes of Loggins, Sengstock, Dorge and Bullets 7th man Robert Sibley. Then two moments placed the Bullets on the back foot. First, Loggins re-injured his knee with 10:53 remaining in the final quarter in an attempt to avoid an advertising hoarding. Loggins would not return to the game and finished with 17 points. Then with eight minutes remaining, gusty easterly winds knocked out a high voltage pole in the Perth suburb of Gosnells. This led to a power surge which knocked out the lights at the Superdrome. The teams were taken off the floor and left in their dressing rooms for 17 minutes as power was restored.
It was at the resumption that Kerle pulled his masterstroke: he put on the man regarded as the best ‘sixth man’ in the League, Emery Atkinson, and gave him the green light. Atkinson responded by scoring 11 of his team high 22 points in the last quarter on 10/16 from the field while also grabbing nine rebounds. Atkinson’s heroics allowed his team to hold on for what Peter Blucher of The Courier-Mail described as “a convincing one-point win.” The sounding of the final siren saw jubilant scenes as the Bullets bench, led by Kerle and team manager Fred Van Dongen, ran onto the floor to celebrate one of the club's most famous victories. At the post-match press conference, Kerle bubbled over in his praise of his fellow Brisbane City Council employee: “He did a great job. He came of age.” Pinder was magnificent for the home side, scoring 27 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Despite the desolation within his team, Bruton retained his publicly poised outlook “We’ve done it once. Now we’ve got to go out and do it again.”
Next week ‘Back in the Day’ will be a Special Report to mark the opening of the new NBL and WNBL seasons. Its focus will be on the 1986 Adelaide 36ers, known to history as “The Invincibles”, as they battle against the Brisbane Bullets in the NBL Grand Final. That’s all due next week in ‘Back in the Day’.
This is another in a regular series of article that will take notw of the historic events of the modern era of Australian basketball (1979-today). If you have memories to share, or topics that should be discussed, send an email to Nicholas.Way@basketball.net.au and put in the subject line 'Back in the Day'.