Back in the Day: Watch on the Vistula

Back in the Day: Watch on the Vistula

This week, the BA time machine has been caught by the swirling winds and brought down in March of 1981

- Tensions and fears surrounding the political situation in Poland are heightened as Warsaw Pact forces stage a large and elaborate series of war games on the borders surrounding that troubled country. While the leaders of the officially illegal Solidarity trade union appeal for calm from their supporters, thoughts immediately turn to the possibility that Poland could suffer the same fate as Hungary and Czechoslovakia had in the past: an invasion by the Soviet Red Army and the slaughter of innocent civilians.

- NSW Premier Neville Wran introduces the Crimes (Sexual Assault) Amendment Bill 1981, which seeks to encourage the victims of rape and other types of sexual assault to report their experiences and toughen penalties on the people who commit such acts. The change that attracts the most attention is the nullification of a rule that husbands could not be convicted of raping their wives.

- British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher faces down a backbench revolt as the Budget bills are passed by the House of Commons. Thatcher’s majority slumps to as few as 14 as Tory MP’s protest at the Government’s determination to continue a ‘hard’ monetary policy. Chris Brocklebank-Fowler, the Member for North West Norfolk, is moved to leave the Conservatives and join the newly formed Social Democratic Party.

- Further to a story mentioned in last week’s column, Jean Harris is sentenced to a minimum 15 years in jail for the murder of Dr. Herman Tarnower. At the sentencing hearing Harris continues to hold to her story that the fatal wound was caused during a violent struggle.

- After almost 18 years at liberty, Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs is kidnapped by a three-man team of ex-SAS commandos off the streets of Rio de Janeiro. After several days Biggs is turned over to authorities in Barbados and the British Government immediately begins proceedings to have Biggs extradited home.

- The end of an era in British television as Tom Baker finishes a seven-year stint as the title character in the long-running series Doctor Who. With 6.1 million people in Britain tuning in, Baker utters his final line: “It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for...”

- A great week too for Australians making it big on the world stage: Formula One World Champion Alan Jones begins his title defence in style with victory in the Long Beach Grand Prix. Meanwhile across the Atlantic Judy Davis receives two BAFTA’s for her break-out performance in My Brilliant Career.

- Keep on Loving You, Jealous Guy and Antmusic sat atop the music charts.

The major news in the world of basketball was the setting of the 'Final Four' in the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship. To be held at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, on one side of the draw there was an all-ACC matchup as Dean Smith’s Tarheels from the University of North Carolina would face Terry Holland and his Cavaliers from the University of Virginia. It was Virginia’s first trip to the Final Four while for North Carolina it is their eighth and the fifth under Dean Smith.

On the other side of the draw Dale Brown’s LSU Tigers (who had reached the Final Four for the first time since 1953) against Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers from the University of Indiana. Knight’s team was led by future Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas while Brown’s gun player was All-American and SEC Player of the Year Durand 'Rudy' Macklin. Another member of that team was Boomer Andy Campbell, continuing the-then strong links between Australian basketball and Baton Rouge.

In 1981, the NBL remained a 12 team competition, the only change being that West Torrens was now Forestville. St. Kilda was still the league’s powerhouse but as we will see there were a couple of teams nipping at their heels...

Saturday 20 March, 1981: NBL Round 6
Game One: Illawarra Hawks @West Adelaide Bearcats
Final score: Bearcats 104-Hawks 66
Having gone 0-2 on a road-trip the previous week, the Bearcats returned to Apollo Stadium of a mind to deliver some rough justice. Newly arrived import Al Green was reported to be “in a mean mood”. Their opponents were ripe for the plucking: they had lost their last four matches and were in a funk.
By half-time of this contest it was all over bar the post-game drinks. Green exploded, finishing the game with 36 points. His captain-coach Ken Richardson added 19. Future Coburg legend Bennie Lewis led the Hawks with 20 points while NBL point scoring leader Michael Jones quietly stacked up 19. Illawarra not only lost the game but their leader, as Gordie McLeod went down with a badly injured ankle. McLeod’s season was in doubt, as were his team’s hopes of making the finals.

Game Two: Bankstown Bruins @Canberra Cannons
Final score: Bruins 89-Cannons 88
For the second time that season, the Bruins and Cannons fought it out to a nail-biting finish. The first encounter, played at the newly opened National Indoor Sports Centre (soon to be The Palace, later A.I.S Arena) was won by the home team after Dave Nelson hit a buzzer-beating tip-in. This time, the result went in the opposite direction. For Bankstown, Paul Meade was the leading scorer with 28 points with Kelvin Henderson adding 20. For Canberra, Herb McEachin matched Meade’s total while Nelson added 26. The upset defeat saw Canberra drop to the back of the pack in the race for the top four.

Game Three: Nunawading Spectres @Coburg Giants
Final score: Spectres 66-Giants 64
A six-point spurt by Gary Fox in the final minutes staved off what would have been an unexpected result. Coburg, trapped in the NBL cellar, led 56-50 with 6:30 remaining when Ray Borner fouled out of the game. Borner’s departure disrupted the Giants enough for Nunawading to sneak home. Now the Spectres would travel to the north of Tasmania for a heavyweight battle with the high-flying Tigers.

Game Four: St. Kilda Pumas @Newcastle Falcons
Final score: Falcons 85-Pumas 83
This was the game of the round and possibly of the year. “Falconmania” was running loose in the Hunter as Coach Bob Turner built a strong squad that included names like Cal Stamp, Dave Ankeney, Ian Robilliard, Carl Whitfield, Owen Wells and Larry Davidson. St. Kilda at the time were the most powerful club side in the country, having won back-to-back NBL titles as well as three Australian Club Championships (the precursor to the NBL) between 1974 and 1979. Brian Kerle’s team was chockfull of talent and included names like Sengstock, Breheny, Barnett, Morseu, Blicavs and 1980 NBL MVP Rocky Smith.

Over 2000 fans squeezed their way into Broadmeadow Stadium with another 1000 or more turned away after the doors were closed almost an hour before tip-off. So desperate were people to get in that police were called to prevent supporters entering via fire exits. Their desperation was justified as the two titans produced one of the games of the year. Leading 44-39 at the half the Pumas stretched out the lead to 12 and with five minutes to go were in control, leading 79-69.

Turner then took a desperate gamble, telling his players to play a full-court press. The strategy worked and a 10-0 saw the scores level with little time left. Newcastle had edged ahead 83-81 when Stamp was sent to the foul line. Despite having three shots to make two (an old rule when a team gave up eight fouls in a half) Stamp missed the lot and St. Kilda pounced, tying the game at 83 with 13 seconds remaining. After Turner called time-out, the Falcons inbounded the ball and ran a play. With five seconds left Wells, sensing the moment for some magic had arrived, threw up what was reported to be a 10 m (33 feet in the old scale) jump shot. Owen’s prayers were answered as the ball banked in off the back board to give his team the win. In scenes reminiscent of many a college game in the U.S., the crowd stormed the floor, Larry Davidson was carried off in triumph and Wells ran to the other end and started hanging off the basket before being swallowed by the exuberant throng. As the fans refused to go home and the referees finally made it to their dressing room, Turner attempted to puncture the euphoria, saying that “We are playing at 70% of our capacity.”

Sunday 21 March, 1981
Game Five: Bankstown Bruins @Brisbane Bullets
Final score: Bullets 100-Bruins 72
This game went entirely to script as the Bullets ran over their lower-ranked opponents. Brisbane’s import duo of Leroy Loggins and Brian Banks dominated the match, scoring 30 and 23 points respectively.

Game Six: Illawarra Hawks @Forestville Eagles
Final score: Eagles 94-Hawks 88
A bad weekend for Illawarra just got worse as Forestville condemned them to their fifth straight defeat. With Gordie McLeod sitting in civvies while nursing his injured ankle, it was up to Michael Jones to lead the Hawks’ assault. After the Eagles led 49-40 at half-time, Jones exploded in the second half finishing the game with 43 points while shooting 17/34 from the field. Forestville’s own hot shot Reg Biddings scored 29 points while trying desperately to contain Jones’ onslaught, fouling out with two minutes remaining to play. Two-time Woollacott Medallist Mark Lampshire poured in 20 points of his own.

Milestone Alert: Michael Jones’ 43 points was a then-NBL record for most individual points in a game. It is still the equal eighth highest total by a Hawk in their history.

Game Seven: Nunawading Spectres @Launceston Casino City Tigers
Final score: Tigers 82-Spectres 81
This match is without any doubt one of the most controversial and confusing fixtures in the history of the NBL. At the end of regulation, the running score on the official scoresheet and the electronic scoreboard had Nunawading 82-81. A study of the player totals on the scoresheet then showed that the Tigers had won 82-81. By that time, the Spectres players were in the showers and celebrating a victory that placed them on top of the league ladder. After being called to the referees’ locker room to be informed that the apparent result had been reversed, Nunawading coach Barry Barnes was livid!

Barnes takes up the story: “There is no doubt we won the game. The video shows Rob Mayberry (Spectres import) making two free-throws and Jim Ericksen (Tigers player-coach) missing one of his two. The scoresheet credits Mayberry with only one successful free-throw and Ericksen with two”. The Spectres immediately fired in a protest to League headquarters with Barnes speaking confidently of its success: “They (Launceston) will fight the protest even though they know we really won.”  The Spectres’ protest was later dismissed. For the benefit of the historical record, Cliff Martin top-scored for the home side with 28 points while Bill Palmer led the visitors with 24 points while grabbing a swag of rebounds.
Game Eight: St. Kilda Pumas @City of Sydney Astronauts
Final score: Saints 99-Astronauts 85

Following the drama of their night in Newcastle, the Pumas resumed normal service in comfortably accounting for the Astronauts at Alexandria Stadium. Rocky Smith was the unanimous choice for MVP with 31 points in an accomplished display. Curt Forrester was the stand-out for the home side, finishing the game with 26 points.

NBL Ladder (If Launceston Won)

Top Four:                             Bottom Eight:
Newcastle (5 and 1)             Launceston (4 and 1)
Nunawading (5 and 2)          West Adelaide (4 and 3)
St. Kilda (5 and 2)                 Canberra (4 and 3)
Brisbane (4 and 1)                Forestville (3 and 4)
Bankstown (2 and 4)            Illawarra (2 and 6)
                                             City of Sydney (1 and 5)
                                             Coburg (0 and 7)

NBL Ladder (If Nunawading Won)
Top Four:                             Bottom Eight:
Nunawading (6 and 1)          West Adelaide (4 and 3)
Newcastle (5 and 1)             Canberra (4 and 3)
St. Kilda (5 and 2)                 Launceston (3 and 2)
Brisbane (4 and 1)                Forestville (3 and 4)
                                             Bankstown (2 and 4)         
                                             Illawarra (2 and 6)
                                             City of Sydney (1 and 5)
                                             Coburg (0 and 7)

Next week in Back in the Day: the first of a two-part Special Report on one of the most thrilling play-off series of all time, the 2004 NBL Grand Final.  
P.S. Congratulations to Turkey on its successful bid for the 2014 FIBA World Championship for Women. 

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.’