Back in the Day: Making it Great in ’88

Back in the Day: Making it Great in ’88

This week we hop into the BA Delorean and hit the 1988 button, where the NBL and WNBL seasons were just getting under way. There are some famous and familiar names in this yarn

The first ‘Back in the Day’ Special Report of 2011 sees the BA time machine landing in the midst of Australia’s Bicentennial celebrations. As you break out the champers and put on the latest Stock-Aitken-Waterman confection on your CD player, here is what was happening in the rest of the world...

-The Federal Labor Government of Prime Minister Bob Hawke is sailing through some very stormy waters. Having just lost a by-election in Adelaide, the voters of South Australia are to be given another chance to deliver a kicking following the shock resignation of Immigration Minister Mick Young after several weeks of media interest on the handling of donations to the ALP.

-There is also trouble brewing for the ALP in New South Wales, with the Government of Premier Barrie Unsworth sleepwalking towards oblivion after 12 years in power. Unsworth has particularly enraged rural voters by backing strong gun-control laws that would in their view impose draconian restrictions to their rights to own firearms. The Premier shows almost foolhardy political courage in, forgive the pun, sticking to his guns despite the clear evidence in public opinion polls that his chances of retaining power are extremely slim.

-Mikhail Gorbachev announces that the Soviet Union will begin the process of pulling all its troops by May 15 with the evacuation to be completed by the end of 1989. The United States indicates that it is pleased by the course of events while the rebels who have been fighting a decade-long war against the Red Army say that they won’t believe it until the last tank crosses the border.

-There is a major step forward in the Fitzgerald Inquiry into corrupt behaviour involving the Queensland Police Force with Scotland Yard arresting former officer Jack Herbert and his wife in London. Testimony to the Inquiry indicated that Herbert was the main distributor of bribes (or “bagman) to certain high-ranking officers in the Force, in a system known as “The Joke”.

-After over a year of shadow boxing, the first real test of the candidates looking to replace Ronald Reagan as President of the United States of America takes place in the state of Iowa. On the Democratic field of play, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt’s two years of crisscrossing the state produce a notable victory. The real surprise is the result of the Republican caucuses, where Vice President and presumptive nominee George Bush finishes a poor third behind Kansas Senator Bob Dole and the Reverend Pat Robertson, with his “invisible army” of supporters. The circus now shifts to New Hampshire where Vice President Bush needs a major victory to keep his campaign in gear.

-The world’s greatest winter athletes travel to Calgary in Canada for the Winter Olympics. Australia sends a team of 18 athletes who will compete in six sports.

-Bobby Allison becomes the first man over the age of 50 to win the Daytona 500 after a nail-biting duel with his son Davey in the final laps. It is Allison’s third visit to Daytona’s Victory Lane in his glittering career.

-Notable deaths during the week included the former General Manager of the Australian Broadcasting Commission Sir Charles Moses (at the age of 88), the illustrator of the American children’s classic Goodnight Moon Clement G. Hand (at the age of 80) and the composer of such Broadway classics as My Fair Lady and Camelot Frederick Loewe (at the age of 86).

-‘Could’ve Been’, ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ and ‘(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life’ sat atop the music charts.

The NBL’s tenth season opened with the League and the media engaging in some mutual back-slapping over the explosive growth of interest in basketball. One of the more interesting stats published in the lead-up was the difference in League attendance: in 1979 there were 180,000 paying spectators while in the 1987 regular season 860,000 people attended League matches. When the NBL’s founding father Dr. John Raschke was asked how he felt about the status of his League, he said “I feel fantastic about what has happened in the past 10 years. It’s bloody wonderful.”

For the first time, the NBL had a major commercial network as its national television broadcaster, with the Seven Network adding the NBL to its portfolio which included the VFL, tennis and golf. The pre-season Australian Basketball Classic had been won by the Newcastle Falcons, led by their new coach Ken Cole.

The pre-season polls had the Brisbane Bullets (defending champions) Perth Wildcats (beaten grand finalists in 1987) and Adelaide 36ers (three-time minor premiers) as the favourites to win it all in ’88. Newcastle’s pre season form (having lost only one of nine games) was seen as a possible chance along with the Canberra Cannons under their new mentor Jerry Lee.

The main interest in the pre-season had been around the Sydney Kings. The result of a marriage of desperation between the Sydney Supersonics and the West Sydney Westars (both teams were in major difficulties financially), the Kings had assembled a quality line-up that, it was believed, would challenge for a play-off spot. 

To add further tumult to an already tumultuous off-season for the new team, Sydney had been engaged in a legal wrangle with the Hobart Devils over the clearance of superstar Steve Carfino. After the case was argued in the Federal Court (with the Devils represented by former Federal Minister Michael Hodgman QC), a confidential cash settlement was reached with the Kings also agreeing to pay costs.

While the race for the title was wide open, there was little doubt as to who would win the wooden spoon. The Geelong Supercats (the new moniker had been taken on to avoid confusion with the VFL Cats) had had a wretched preparation to the season. There was infighting within the club, leading to the acrimonious departure of several key players. Then Coach Bill Runchey was fired after the Supercats went 0-6 in the pre-season. Runchey was replaced by Pete Mathiesen who at the time was Sydney’s Director of Coaching (and was reportedly going to be the Westars coach in 1988 before the merger).

With all that in mind as well as the Nunawading Spectres aiming towards their third straight WNBL title, let’s get to the action...

NBL Round One, WNBL Round Two
Friday 12 February, 1988

NBL Game One: North Melbourne Giants @Illawarra Hawks
Final score: Giants 98-Hawks 97

The Giants came into this contest with questions surrounding the usefulness of new import Tim Dillon (there would be no such questioning by the end of the season). Illawarra went into the match as favourites having not lost a regular-season game at 'The Snakepit' in over a year.  The Snakepit had also undergone a redevelopment which, in the words of The Illawarra Mercury allowed fans to be “comfortably seated on all four sides of the court”.

The Giants jumped out to a 29-16 quarter-time lead and never relinquished it despite the home team cutting the margin to one point on two separate occasions. Scott Fisher led North Melbourne with 27 points while Dillon added 16. For Illawarra, Jim Bateman led all scorers with 38 points while Chuck Harmison in the first of his 234 games for the Hawks scored 14 points.

NBL Game Two: Geelong Supercats @Sydney Kings
Final score: Kings 110-Supercats 106
The national TV cameras were drawn to the State Sports Centre for the opening of a new era in basketball in Sydney. Kings coach Claude Williams sent out a weakened line-up missing both of the Dalton brothers (Brad was recovering from knee surgery while Mark was suffering from a virus). Wearing their new home uniform (white with purple and gold trim) Sydney jumped out to an early 19-9 lead and was still in control at 32-26 at quarter-time. In the second quarter Geelong showed great heart and shut down the Kings running game to take a 58-56 lead at the half.
The third and fourth quarters were much tighter affairs with both teams having to rely on their ‘individual talent’ to make things happen. Eventually the Kings got a couple of key stops and were able to take out the victory. Sam Foggin was unstoppable in the low post for the Supercats, heading all scorers with 34 points. His direct opponent, Sydney’s Marc Ridlen, put 33 points on the board. Williams was succinct in his summation: “Too close for comfort.” A historical sidebar: Ian Davies scored the Kings’ first points, fittingly with a three-point shot.

NBL Game Three: Melbourne Tigers @Hobart Devils
Final score: Devils 98-Tigers 94
The Devils, now flush with Sydney’s cash, began their efforts to improve on their 1987 performance (finishing a game outside the top six) with a heart-stopping victory at Kingsborough Stadium. Down 19 early in the third and 13 with nine minutes remaining to play, Hobart’s comeback was led by Peter Blight who scored 15 of his 19 points in the final term including the game winner. Andrew Gaze and James Bullock each scored 29 points to lead the Tigers; when Gaze fouled out with a minute to go, Melbourne’s chance was lost.

WNBL Game One: Bulleen Melbourne Boomers @Noarlunga Tigers
Final score: Tigers 70-Boomers 57
In the first game of the traditional three-day three-game trip to Adelaide, Bulleen fell behind 16-6 early and were not able to recover the lost ground. It was a creditable effort from the Boomers who had finished with a 3/17 record in 1987 and had received the wooden spoon.

WNBL Game Two: Coburg Cougars @Bankstown Bruins
Final score: Bruins 70-Cougars 55
In the curtain-raiser to the Kings/Supercats match-up the Bruins, who had finished eighth in 1987, knocked off the defending Australian Club Champions and defeated WNBL Grand Finalist.

Saturday 13 February, 1988
NBL Game Four: Adelaide 36ers @Perth Wildcats
Final score: Wildcats 101-36ers 98
In a re-match of their classic semi-final matchup of the previous year, the Wildcats held off a furious 36ers charge to get their season off on the right track. It was low-key Perth guard Trevor Torrance who stood up in the clutch: he hit two key free-throws and tipped in a missed lay-up by Cal Bruton to provide the margin of victory. Adelaide’s Mike McKay had a chance to force overtime with an open three-pointer with five seconds remaining; James Crawford flew across the court and sent the shot into the fifth row with 5000 fans roaring their approval.

NBL Game Five: North Melbourne Giants @Canberra Cannons
Final score: Cannons 120-Giants 109
In another classic rivalry game, an eight point burst by Phil Smyth in 64 second late in the third quarter allowed the Cannons to surge home to victory. Smyth led the Cannons with 31 points while North’s “Twin Towers” of Dillon and Fisher scored 36 and 31 points respectively. This put the lie to a comment by The Canberra Times beat man Gary Scholes in his pre-season preview that the Giants “lack height and versatility.” It proved to be a great wedding present for former Giants and now Cannons centre Willie Simmons and his Mauritian fiancé Lualda, who were married in Melbourne the following day.
Milestone Alert: Phil Smyth plays his 150th NBL game.

NBL Game Six: Eastside Melbourne Spectres @Newcastle Falcons
Final score: Falcons 127-Spectres 107
“His shooting was awesome.” So spoke Ken Cole after Newcastle’s Michael Johnson tore the Spectres defence to shreds with five three-pointers in four minutes of the second quarter that had the rafters at Broadmeadow Stadium shaking all over. Johnson’s bid for a slot on the 1988 Boomers squad received a huge boost as he finished the game with 33 points in the stand-out performance. Dean Uthoff struggled manfully for the visitors, finishing with 25 points and 14 rebounds. Another historical note: this was Brian Goorjian’s first game as an NBL head coach.

NBL Game Seven: Geelong Supercats @Brisbane Bullets
Final score: Bullets 149-Supercats 85
The defending champions pulled a surprise before the match with Brian Kerle opting to start 17 year old Shane Heal (a product of Nunawading) at point guard ahead of Ron Radliff. It was reported at the time that Heal may have been the youngest player to start an NBL game. He would finish the game with 14 points and five assists. His teammates shot a red-hot 58% from the field with Emery Atkinson producing a career-high 30 points and 14 rebounds on 12/16 from the field. Leroy Loggins had a brilliant all-round game with 29 points, six rebounds, 11 assists and four steals in only three quarters. Kerle could only shake his head in wonderment: “What can I say; I don’t think they are really that bad.” It was the first of what would be many crushing defeats for the Supercats that year.
Milestone Alert: At the time this was the biggest team score and the largest margin of victory in Bullets history. Ron Radliff equalled his own club record with eight three-pointers.

NBL Game Eight: Melbourne Tigers @Westside Melbourne Saints
Final score: Saints 106-Tigers 102
The Tigers again let another big lead slip with Westside coming back from 19 points down midway through the second quarter. Andrew Gaze re-captured something of his 1987 form with 40 points, despite having two cracked ribs! Bruce Bolden was mighty in the paint for the Saints with 31 points and 15 rebounds. Westside finished the game with a field goal percentage of 62 per cent compared to Melbourne’s 48 per cent.

WNBL Game Three: Nunawading Spectres @Canberra Capitals
Final score: Spectres 88-Capitals 69
WNBL Game Four: Bulleen Melbourne Boomers @West Adelaide Bearcats
Final score: Bearcats 71-Boomers 66
WNBL Game Five: Coburg Cougars @Brisbane Bullets
Final score: Bullets 65-Cougars 64

Sunday 14 February, 1988
WNBL Game Six: Nunawading Spectres @A.I.S Pumas
Final score: Spectres 82-Pumas 51
WNBL Game Seven: Bulleen Melbourne Boomers @North Adelaide Rockets
Final score: Rockets 53-Boomers 43

NBL Ladder
Top Six:                             Bottom Seven:
Brisbane (1-0)                      Perth (1-0)
Newcastle (1-0)                   North Melbourne (1-1)
Canberra (1-0)                     Illawarra (0-1)
Hobart (1-0)                        Adelaide (0-1)
Westside Melbourne (1-0)       Eastside Melbourne (0-1)
Sydney (1-0)                       Melbourne (0-2)
                                         Geelong (0-2)

WNBL Ladder
Top Four:                           Bottom Eight:
Nunawading (3-0)                 Noarlunga (1-0)
Bankstown (2-0)                   West Adelaide (1-0)
Brisbane (2-0)                      Canberra (0-1)
North Adelaide (1-0)              A.I.S (0-1)
                                         Coburg (0-2)
                                         Hobart (0-2)
                                         Bulleen Melbourne (0-4)
                                         Perth (0-0)
Back in the Day also raises a glass (not hard in the recent brain-frying heat) to BA’s own Lorraine Landon, who received an OAM in the recent Australia Day Honours List. An honour well earned for a job well done!
Next week, Back in the Day will return to normal service as we visit 2005. While there, we will hear no horns in the Garden, there will be no Grand Hunts and a unique voice in American letters will be blown away by it all. That’s next week in Back in the Day.

This is another in a regular series of articles that will take note 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 and put in the subject line ‘Back in the Day.’