Back in the Day: Now, Wheeler! — Part One, 2004 NBL GF

Back in the Day: Now, Wheeler! — Part One, 2004 NBL GF

The Basketball Australia time-traveller, Nicholas Way takes us on a journey back to the 2004, where we begin a two-part celebration of a fortnight during which the Emerald City got all caught up about our game...

• Hamas vows that there will be reprisals following the assassination of their founder and spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin by Israeli helicopter gun-ships on the Gaza Strip. Seven other people are also killed in the attack. A Hamas spokesman says that “Sharon (Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) has opened the gates of hell. And nothing will stop us from cutting off his head.”

• The independent commission investigating the terrorist atrocities in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 hears explosive evidence from the former head of counter-terrorism at the National Security Council. Richard Clarke, a thirty-year veteran and holder of numerous national security posts in the U.S. Government, testifies that prior to the attacks President George W. Bush and his senior national security officials showed a much greater interest in the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein than in any possible threat from terrorists. With surviving family members of the victims in the audience, Clarke asks for their forgiveness saying “Your government failed you. Those entrusted with protecting you failed you. And I failed you.”

• King Juan Carlos of Spain leads his nation in a day of mourning to remember the victims of the Madrid terrorist outrages a fortnight earlier. Leaders from across Europe including President Chirac of France, Chancellor Schröder of Germany and British Prime Minister Tony Blair join the congregation that attends the first state funeral for non-members of the royal family since the end of the Franco regime. Following the funeral, Blair sets off to what would become an infamous meeting with Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi.

• Despite the release of the latest Newspoll that has his party ahead 55–45 per cent on a two-party preferred basis Federal Labor leader Mark Latham faces increasing criticism from his own party on his obdurate stance that if elected Prime Minister, he will withdraw all Australian forces from Iraq by Christmas. The present incumbent in the job that Latham sought, John Howard, takes a leaf out of President Bush’s playbook describing it as a policy of “cut and run”.

• In another vicious twist in the tale of Melbourne’s gangland wars, Andrew “Benji” Veniamin, suspected of involvement in several murders, is himself gunned down in a Carlton restaurant while eating lunch. Veniamin is the eighth underworld figure to be murdered in the last year and the 22nd since the wars began in 1998. Within hours police arrest ‘Mick’ Gatto and charge him for Veniamin’s murder.

• What had been a wretched year for the NRL’s Canterbury Bulldogs becomes even worse after club champion and CEO Steve Mortimer resigns his post after only two years in the job. Mortimer is another victim from the continuing fall-out surrounding allegations of sexual assault against several Bulldogs players during a pre-season trip to Coffs Harbour on the north coast of NSW. To add further insult, the Bulldogs suffer a 35-0 drubbing at the hands of the Sydney Roosters in a game marred by crowd violence that saw two police officers injured and play suspended while bottles were cleared off the field.

• Craig Ruddy receives the Archibald Prize for portraiture for his stunning canvas two worlds featuring the actor David Gulpilil.

• Notable deaths during the week included the former Premier of Victoria Sir Rupert ‘Dick’ Hamer (at the age of 87), Jan Berry of the 60s pop group Jan and Dean (at the age of 62) and man of all the talents Sir Peter Ustinov (at the age of 82).

- “Yeah!”, “Toxic” and “F*#^ It (I Don’t Want You Back)” sat atop the music charts.

With the end of the season fast approaching, there was also plenty of basketball news on the wires:

*The Rollers qualified for the Paralympics in Athens by winning the Asia-Oceania Cup, held at Shellharbour on the south coast of New South Wales. Led by Troy Sachs and Brad Ness (both claimed as products of Bulli High School), the Rollers go through the tournament without losing a game, defeating Japan 63-51 in the final.

*The Final Four for the NCAA Men’s Tournament is set. On one bracket the University of Connecticut (2nd seed in the West) would take on Duke (1st seed in the South). On the other side Georgia Tech (3rd seed in the Midwest) would face Oklahoma State (2nd seed in the East). The finals would be held in the Alamodome in San Antonio. We’ll take a look at that next week.

*Finally the Adelaide Lightning holds their end-of-season awards dinner. In somewhat of a surprise, Laura Summerton wins the club’s MVP award by one vote over future Hall of Fame member Rachael Sporn. Coach Jan Stirling also announces that she will be stepping down from her post after a stellar 12 years at the helm, during which Adelaide never missed the play-offs, reached six Grand Finals and won four WNBL titles.

In a match-up that had then Commissioner Rick Burton licking his lips in anticipation, the Sydney Kings and West Sydney Razorbacks were the combatants in the 2004 NBL Grand Final. The Kings had won their second successive minor premiership, finishing with a record of 26-7 before having to battle their way to a 2-0 semi-final series win over the Brisbane Bullets.

West Sydney had finished equal third at the end of the regular season with a record of 21-12 before comfortably accounting for Cairns in the Fourth Elimination Final and completing a 2-0 sweep of Wollongong in their semi-final.

The Razors’ boiler had been stoked by John Rillie who had scored 45 points in their 110-95 victory over the Hawks in Game Two of their semi-final.

Gordie McLeod’s charges also achieved a rare landmark, becoming the first all-Australian team to reach the Grand Final since St. Kilda in 1979.

Alongside Rillie there was Sam MacKinnon who had finally recovered from the bone bruising around his knee that kept him out of the game for almost two years; Rookie of the Year Steve Markovic (the fifth Sydney-based player to win the award in the last eight seasons) and the NBL’s leading shot-blocker Simon Dwight.

Sydney was also a team that was well-stocked with talent. Matthew Nielsen had stepped into the leadership role vacated by Shane Heal and led the League in scoring while finishing second in total rebounds. With star recruit Jason Smith spending much of the season on the sidelines, more of the scoring load was placed on the back-court led by Boomer hopeful C.J. Bruton and Ebi Ere, of whom more next week. Providing the muscle up-front alongside Nielsen was former Duke star Chris Carrawell, David Stiff and Brett Wheeler. Wheeler was a desperate man, having played in 59 play-off games and five Grand Finals without capturing a ring. He felt sure that this would be his year, saying that “I’ve got a really good feeling about this group.”

Here is what the experts said prior to the start of the series

Adelaide: Phil Smyth’s tip — RAZORBACKS. Why? — “I think they might be a little more desperate.”

Brisbane: Derek Rucker’s tip — KINGS. Why? — “I just think the home-court advantage will tip the series.”

Cairns: Guy Molloy’s tip — RAZORBACKS. Why? — “They can score explosively from all over the floor.”

Hunter: David Simmons’ tip — KINGS. Why? — “Just the experience of some of those players.”

Melbourne: Andrew Gaze’s tip — KINGS. Why? — “The Kings have got so many weapons... and they are very deep.”

New Zealand: Frank Aresgo’s tip — RAZORBACKS. Why? “I just think that they have just got all the right pieces.”

Perth: Mike Ellis’ tip — KINGS. Why? — “Home-court advantage may be the only advantage.”

Townsville: Ian Stacker’s tip — RAZORBACKS. Why? — “It’s too close to call but I’d like West Sydney to win.”

Victoria: Mark Wright’s tip — KINGS. Why? — “Their consistency and their experience of last year will get them through.”

Wollongong: Brendan Joyce’s tip — KINGS. Why? — “The consistency that they showed throughout the whole year will be too good in a five-game series.”

One thing on which everybody agreed was that the series would be a thriller that would go the distance...

Wednesday 24 March, 2004

NBL Grand Final Game One: West Sydney Razorbacks @Sydney Kings

Final score:
Kings 96-Razorbacks 76

A crowd of only 7126 persons attended the opening encounter disappointing many who had expected a sell-out crowd of 10,500. While West Sydney prepared quietly in their dressing room, Sydney received a pre-game pep talk from boxing champion Kostya Tszyu. Unfortunately for Kostya’s motivation skills, the first quarter was more like Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper in their dotage than Hagler and Hearns in their prime. While the Kings sauntered their way to a ten point lead, West Sydney were mired in a swamp of offensive mediocrity. Their first field goal did not drop until 8:15 into the first quarter and the Razors finished the term having shot 3/18 from the field. Sydney wasn’t much better putting up 7/20 from the field.

It all changed in the second quarter when C.J. Bruton decided to take over the contest. Wearing a “gravity-defying hairdo” that “resembled a braided mohawk” designed by his wife, Bruton sparked the Kings offence with 11 points, including 3 three-pointers. West Sydney simply could not get anything going at the offensive end due to a combination of Sydney’s stifling defence and their greater passion in chasing down the loose ball. At half-time it was 45-35 to the home side.

The third quarter saw more of the same as Bruton put up a further eight points while Carrawell also turned in nine points of his own. Carrawell also grabbed some crucial offensive rebounds in a more even third term that saw the score at 66-54.

The final period saw the Kings run away with the game as Bruton hit another couple of three-pointers. C.J. finished with 35 points, Carrawell with 26 points, nine rebounds and three assists. As Carrawell was taken out with 3:38 remaining, he called on the crowd to go ‘Cameron crazy’; the suggestion was followed by the Sydney fans present.

The Razors ‘Big Three’ of Dwight, Rillie and MacKinnon were held to a combined total of 36 points. Dwight provided 23 of them as well as 12 rebounds in a strong solo effort. The Kings won the rebound count 58-41, 28 of them on the offensive end. Here then are some of the quotes from the post-match press conference:
Brian Goorjian on C.J. Bruton: “When the money is on the line and you need a basket I’m pleased as punch that I’ve got him on my side.”

Gordie McLeod muses on what went wrong for his team: “We just had a very poor game... We came out very flat, Sydney dominated possession and a lot of that came out of offensive rebounds and more hunger for the loose ball...We’ve got to get back to playing the style of game that got us to the grand final in the first place.”

FYI, it was Sydney’s tenth straight win at home.

Milestone Alert: The 18-15 scoreline at the end of the first quarter was the second lowest aggregate in Grand Final history (The 36ers and the Magic hacked their way to an 19-11 start in the 1998 decider).

Also, C.J. Bruton’s nine three-pointers set a NBL record for the most three-point shots made in a NBL Grand Final game.

Friday 26 March, 2004

NBL Grand Final Game Two: Sydney Kings @West Sydney Razorbacks

Final score: Razors 87-Kings 72

A standing room only crowd of 4038 packed the State Sports Centre to see if the Razorbacks could make a comeback from their below par performance in Game One. On the morning before the game, West Sydney had a closed door meeting to vent frustrations and plan their revenge. For Sydney both David Stiff (right wrist) and Chris Carrawell (left thigh strain) were passed fit to play.

“The Simon Dwight Stand” was in full voice and their hero did not disappoint, scoring the home team’s first eight points. Then Bruton hit his first shot, a three-pointer and the worries started to grow. There were seven lead changes before a long three-pointer by Aaron Trahair with 5:00 remaining in the period pushed his team’s lead to 18-13. From there the rafters were rocking as the Razors went into quarter-time 31-22 to the good. They also led 15-5 in rebounds.

The great form continued into the second period and by the 6:00 mark West Sydney led 41-28. Dwight and Sydney’s Brad Sheridan then contested a rebound and both hit the floor hard. Sheridan got up; Dwight did not, holding his left leg. After a couple of minutes Dwight was taken to the dressing room. His injury, later diagnosed as a chipped bone below his left knee, meant that he took no further part in the game. Despite this unfortunate stroke of luck, Sydney could only get it back to 48-39 by half-time.

In the second half no matter what the Kings did they were unable to break the home side’s stranglehold on the game. At three-quarter time the score was 67-61 in the Razors’ favour. The final term saw West Sydney give their opponents some of their own medicine, holding them to only 11 points for the quarter. It was the Razors’ eighth straight home play-off win and continued a 16 game winning streak when leading at half time.

Rillie returned to form for West Sydney, leading all scorers with 18 points. Ebi Ere was the leading scorer for the Kings with 17 points with C.J. Bruton and David Stiff adding 13 apiece. Sydney was also pasted 59-43 on the boards and their bench was outscored by 27-14. Razors captain Sam MacKinnon, held to only three points in Game One, had a much improved second outing; his stat line read seven points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, four blocks and four steals. West Sydney CEO Robbie Cadee breathed many sighs of relief with his bet on MacKinnon’s impact when healthy finally paying a full dividend.

Next week in Back in the Day: the continuing saga of the 2004 NBL Grand Final. There will be thrills, spills and a finish that those present will never forget. Also in the news, a black crime will bring light to the darkest part of a war; a voice of decency and knowledge is silenced and a national pastime begins another season. That’s next week in “Back in the Day”.

P.S. This column congratulates Bill Mildenhall on his 945th and last NBL game last Sunday week in Melbourne. So long, Bill!