Back in the Day: Part 2: Ooh, aah, Ebi Ere

Back in the Day: Part 2: Ooh, aah, Ebi Ere

Special Report 2.2: The 2004 NBL Grand Final.

Previously in “Back in the Day”

The NBL’s dreams come true as the Kings and Razorbacks meet in the first all-Sydney Grand Final.

Having had to reconstruct his team following an inaugural title the previous season, Sydney coach Brian Goorjian prepares his charges for a five game war against West Sydney’s all-Australian squad. The first two games were studies in contrasts: C.J. Bruton’s 35 points is the main factor in the Kings’ 96-76 victory in Game One, while John Rillie led the Razorbacks with 18 points on the way to an 87-72 triumph in Game Two. With the series tied at one game apiece, it is now best-of three with the Dr. John Raschke Memorial Trophy at stake...

Despite some wisecracks from the outer (Boti Nagy of The Adelaide Advertiser wrote in his weekly column published between Games Three and Four that “You know what’s the worst thing about an all-Sydney final? One of them has to win”) the Grand Final had produced its share of thrills and spills. With a 1-1 scoreline it was, according to Kings coach Brian Goorjian, “back to a normal NBL championship series”. These three games would prove to be anything but normal...

Wednesday 31 March, 2004
NBL Grand Final Game Three: West Sydney Razorbacks @Sydney Kings
Final score: Razorbacks 82-Kings 80 (OT)

The big news in the lead-up to Game Three was Simon Dwight being declared fit to play for the rest of the series. After being involved in a heavy collision with Sydney’s Brad Sheridan in the second quarter, it had been feared that West Sydney’s shot-blocking colossus of the key had suffered a chipped bone in his knee. Fortunately for the Razorbacks, later tests showed it was merely strained ligaments and Dwight was back in the action.

The game itself was a knock-down drag-out slugfest. The Razors led 19-16 at quarter-time and increased that margin by a point at the half. The third quarter saw the match swing back slightly to the Kings, who took a two point lead into the final term. Both Dwight and C.J. Bruton missed shots in the closing moments that would have ended the game in regulation. And so it was on to overtime.

The overtime period opened with a bang as West Sydney’s Aaron Trahair unleashed two massive three-pointers that rocked the Kings back on their heels. Dwight followed up with a three-pointer of his own that seemingly put the Razors on the road to victory. But like a champion boxer that doesn’t know when to quit, Sydney came back again to be behind by two points with only seconds remaining. Again Bruton had the ball in his hands for the final shot and again it caught the front of the rim. West Sydney captain Sam Mackinnon took the rebound, only to have the ball stolen from him by Sheridan, whom he was forced to foul. With the crowd of 8073 persons on tenterhooks, Sheridan stepped up to the free-throw line. Unbelievably, he missed them both and the Razors ended Sydney's ten game winning streak at home. They were now one game away from their first NBL title.

For the winners, John Rillie was the leading scorer with 18 points. For the home side, Matthew Nielsen had a mighty game with 28 points, 19 rebounds, five assists and five blocked shots. Possibly the most important statistic of the night was field goal percentage: while Nielsen shot 68%, his teammates shot only 24 per cent.

Milestone Alert: The 66-66 scoreline at the end of regulation was the lowest aggregate score (after regulation) in a Grand Final since the introduction of the multi-game format in 1986 (The all-time low is Launceston’s 75-54 victory over Nunawading in 1981).

It was also the first NBL Grand Final game to go to overtime since Game One of the 1994 decider between Adelaide and North Melbourne.
This was C.J. Bruton’s 200th NBL game. He finished with seven points on 3/18 shooting.

Sunday 4 April 2004
NBL Grand Final Game Four: Sydney Kings @West Sydney Razorbacks
Final score: Kings 82-Razorbacks 77

The crowd of 4053 at the State Sports Centre for this Sunday stoush brought back fond memories of the Kings of ’89, when the standing room areas would be filled eight or nine deep. This correspondent was the only member of his family to be present at the game with his father announcing that the Kings played so poorly in Game Three that any chance of back to back titles had been buried in Rookwood Cemetery. Oh, ye of little faith!
Sydney coach Brian Goorjian minced no words going in, saying that “Now it is the last man standing...and you can be sure that both teams will leave nothing on the floor.” What both teams didn’t bring onto the floor was their shooting touch, with more than two minutes passing before West Sydney got the opening score of the contest. After almost seven minutes the score was still only 6-4 Razors. From there the game went basket for basket so that at quarter-time West Sydney led 15-14.

Two quick buckets soon after the resumption had the lead out to 19-14 and the stands were rocking (literally). The Kings produced a 7-2 run to tie the score at 21-21 midway through the term. As had been the case throughout the series, both teams played a physical brand of ball likened to the style of the New York Knicks in the early 1990’s, derisively termed ‘sludgeball’. Another twelve lead changes brought the teams to the end of the first half with a Luke Martin jumper on the buzzer putting Sydney up 39-37.

John Rillie opened the second half with a three-pointer that put West Sydney ahead before the visitors ground out a 47-42 lead with eight minutes to play. Then the tensions between the two teams exploded: C.J. Bruton was crudely fouled by Razors enforcer Russell Hinder at centre court. As Bruton remonstrated with Hinder, several other players joined in to create a melee. After senior referee Ray Hunt and his fellow officials eventually restored order, Sydney became energised and went on a 16-2 run, finishing the third term 65-53 to the good.

With their chances of sealing a premiership ostensibly slipping away, Gordie McLeod called on his charges for one final effort. They responded with a 16-8 run to open the fourth quarter that cut the score to 73-69. Rillie was unconscious, hitting shots from impossible angles with two defenders in his face. With the Kings scrambling to hold on to the lead, Rillie hit his fifth three-pointer of the game to make 75-74 with 2:35 remaining to play. The crowd was roaring itself hoarse, all present believing that they could make the difference between victory and defeat. With 57.8 secs Rillie’s sixth three-pointer, taken while falling out of court, tied it at 77. With the momentum now with West Sydney it would take a desperate man to stop them.

That man was Brett Wheeler. In his 400th game and still searching for a title, Wheeler was fouled and went to the line for two crucial free throws. After the game, Wheeler said that his mind took on the guise of Homer Simpson: “No thoughts in brain now, just shoot ball” (Perhaps something like “Mmm, free throws’ would have been more appropriate!) In any case, the discipline worked as Wheeler hit both of them to put Sydney ahead. Rillie’s attempt to add to his game-high 31 point tally (6/9 from three-point range) sailed long with Nielsen grabbing the board and being fouled immediately. With the cries of the ‘Simon Dwight Stand’ crashing through his ears, Nielsen coolly sank both free-throws to seal an amazing victory. As Ebi Ere walked to the line with 0.8 seconds remaining, Nielsen acknowledged the cheers coming from the Kings fan club by signalling the number one. Ere hit one of two and it was now title or bust.

Ere was Sydney’s leading scorer with 24 points with Nielsen again standing tall with a double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds). Wheeler made a major contribution off the bench, grabbing 15 rebounds. Sam Mackinnon was the only other West Sydney player to reach double figures with ten points. Aaron Trahair had a particularly bad evening, shooting 0/10 from the field. As this correspondent laid his head down to sleep that Sunday night, he knew that if Game Five was as physical as what he had just seen, the ‘Thriller in Manila’ would have been a cakewalk...

Milestone Alert: This was John Rillie’s 300th NBL game and Brett Wheeler’s 400th NBL game.

Tuesday 6 April 2004
NBL Grand Final Game Five: West Sydney Razorbacks @Sydney Kings.
Final score: Kings 90-Razorbacks 79

A crowd of 9609 (the biggest crowd of the season) packed into the Sydney Entertainment Centre to bear witness to history. Few people in attendance knew of the high drama that played out before the first tip. Referees Bill Mildenhall and Michael Aylen (scheduled to control the decider with Vaughan Mayberry) were trapped at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport after a thick bank of fog swamped the area, delaying all flights in and out. After some frantic phone calls across Sydney, Roger Shiels (who ironically worked in avionics at Kingsford-Smith Airport) and Brett Hogan were drafted in as replacements. Shiels was happy to assist the NBL in its hour of need, saying that “I’ve controlled Grand Finals before, just never one this important.”

As the two teams came onto court for the opening tip-off, there was a fevered atmosphere as both sets of fans strove to outdo the other in the volume of their cheering and chanting. West Sydney won the tip and quickly moved the ball to Trahair, who banked in the first shot of the game. From early on, Sydney’s offense was sputtering and they took six possessions and almost three minutes to get their opening score (on a breakaway lay-up by Chris Carrawell). Dwight held the hot hand for the visitors, ripping off eight early points. Trahair also stepped up his play, scoring eight points of his own on 4/6 from the field. 

The Razors were finding plenty of seams in the Kings defence and looked a more confident outfit. Brian Goorjian called a time-out with 2:04 remaining and told his players to “settle down”. The message didn’t get through as with a couple of steals, West Sydney had gone on a 9-0 run and finished the opening quarter with a 28-14 lead. Worryingly for the home side, they had shot an abysmal 4/17 (24 per cent).

The second quarter began with David Stiff breaking the ice with a tough three point play after almost two minutes.  Ebi Ere then made his first injection into the contest, hitting five quick points to cut the lead to 32-25 and forcing McLeod to use his first time-out with 8:14 remaining the period. Goorjian implored his players “to just stay in there and keep pounding away.” Immediately on resumption, Ere hit a lay-up and the lead was five. A Mackinnon bank-shot broke the run; the Kings then gave up their fifth team foul with 6:36 to go. With that advantage, West Sydney started to control possession; they grabbed some crucial offensive rebounds and continually drove to the baskets, looking to get fouls. When Steve Markovic brought up his tenth point on a transition basket with 4:08 to play, the score was 39-29 and Goorjian called time to halt the rot. Commentator Steve Carfino hit the nail on the head: “They (Sydney) look rattled.” Their offense remained stagnant with little movement off the ball and too high a reliance on high pick and rolls. On the opposite end, the Razors were on form and looking good. Open three-pointers by Sam Mackinnon and Luke Martin gave West Sydney a 49-37 lead as the teams entered the long break.

As in Game Four, John Rillie opened the second half with a three-pointer (his second of the match) after almost three minutes. A Mackinnon dunk followed on the next possession and the Razors led 54-37. Sydney was cooked, finished and done.

They went almost five minutes before hitting their first field goal of the period (Nielsen hit a jumper off the elbow).  A trend was becoming ever clearer: no matter how many opportunities they were given, West Sydney simply could not put their opponents away.

With 4:00 remaining, a Dwight line-drive three-pointer broke a 6-0 mini-run by the Kings and made it 58-46. From there Sydney slowly crept their way back into the contest. At three quarter time the Razors held a tenuous 62-56 lead. With the Kings hitting six field goals in the quarter (West Sydney made only four) it was obvious that the team that could make a sizeable run in the fourth would win it.

With the crowd slamming their noisemakers together and howling their heads off, the Razors inbounded the ball to start the fourth quarter. Following misses by Mackinnon and then Carrawell, Wheeler showed his soft touch to bring up his fourteenth point: 62-58 Razors. Rillie, working one on one against Bruton, hit the long jumper from the right side: 64-58 Razors.

The Kings’ next possession saw Bruton force a long-range three which clanged off iron; West Sydney responded with a miss by Dwight from eighteen feet. Bruton brought the ball down the floor, passed to Nielsen, three-ball, good! 64-61 Razors. As bedlam swept the Entertainment Centre, the Razors patiently work the shot clock down to single figures. Trahair penetrates, is trapped and throws out a wild pass aimed at Mackinnon, shot clock expires, Sydney ball.

With a chance to tie, Nielsen works into the post. His shot, similar to the one he hit in Game One of the 2003 Grand Final, does not fall. Wheeler’s tip-in also rims out and Rillie takes control for West Sydney. When the defence drops off, Rillie puts up his patented fade, swish, 66-61 Razors. Bruton then throws up a silly shot and Mackinnon grabs the rebound.

The Razors work an isolation play for Rillie, who again hits a fade-away on Bruton. A dagger in the heart, its 68-61 Razors. Rillie has scored their last six and twelve overall.

Nielsen drives but has the ball stolen from him. West Sydney breaks clear in a four on one fast break, Trahair puts up a three, it’s long, Mackinnon rebounds and the Razors set up again.

Rillie is isolated again but this time Carrawell takes up the assignment. Giving Rillie no room to move, Carrawell forces a poor shot and the ball caroms off the ring into the former Blue Devil’s hands. Sprinting down the floor, Carrawell waits and then decides to go to the hole, where he is fouled by Dwight (his second of the night). It has taken 4:10 for the first foul to be assessed.

Carrawell, a veteran of March Madness pressure, hits the first but misses the second: 68-62 Razors. Trahair, Mackinnon and Hinder work a double screen, Trahair cuts, catches, lays it up and in, 16 for Aaron, 70-62 Razors. With 7:32 remaining, Goorjian calls for time to plot the next phase. Let’s listen in: “It’s been keyed by stops...Don’t drop the head, head up, play through, plenty of time. I’ve got one time-out...” On the ensuing possession, Ere misses with a jumper from the right elbow, Nielsen and Hinder fly for the rebound; Hinder gets the last touch, Kings ball from the baseline.

Following the in-bound, Bruton drives left then dishes to Wheeler, who is fouled by Dwight while going for the shot, which misses. It’s a smart foul by Dwight as it will force Wheeler, not a noted free-throw shooter, to the line. To chants of “Razors, Razors” Wheeler sinks one, then two, 16 for ‘Wheels’, 70-64 Razors. The Razors run the shot clock to two before Trahair puts up a runner from the foul line; it takes three bounces before dropping in, 72-64 Razors, 6:44 left.

Nielsen penetrates and dishes, there are fumbles, Bruton recovers, quickly passes to Ere who takes two and a half steps to his right, puts up the three, swish, 72-67 Razors. Trahair posts up on Bruton, delivers to Hinder cutting to the basket; Nielsen has to foul (his fifth). Horns blow but Hinder is unperturbed and sinks both free throws: 74-67 Razors. Sydney gets the ball to Ere, who is trapped in the left corner by Mackinnon. Ere’s clearing pass comes off Mackinnon’s hands, Kings ball again from the baseline.  Nielsen received the ball off the inbound and put up a three-pointer, which missed. Wheeler attempted the put-back but was dragged to the ground by Dwight, who looked around in amazement when the referee’s whistle blew. Wheeler, channelling his inner Homer, sinks both free-throws: 74-69 Razors, 5:48 left. West Sydney again run the shot-clock down, Dwight forces up a shot, air ball, it’s a violation. The Kings have the ball.

The ball is worked to Nielsen, who is guarded by Dwight in the post. Nielsen spins, beats Dwight on the first step and draws the foul. As the shot rims out, Dwight is fuming; he’s received his fifth foul and starting to lose his cool.

Razorbacks call a time-out with 5:09 remaining, 74-69 Razors. On the free-throw line, Nielsen misses them both with his team now having shot 18/34. Dwight rebounds and West Sydney sets up. With three on the shot clock, Mackinnon puts up a three-pointer which goes long. Ere then connects with a three of his own; he has 17, 74-72 Razors, 4:31 left. With the rafters shaking, Mackinnon draws the foul on Ere, who jumps up and down in frustration.

The Razors offence, on the verge of seizing up from the pressure, gains great relief when Trahair sneaks a lay-up off the inbound: 76-72 Razors. Carrawell is forced into a miss by strong defence from Dwight, standing straight and tall. Again West Sydney works the shot clock down into single figures; Dwight receives a pass from Rillie, line-drive three, it’s good! 79-72 Razors, 3:31 away from the title.

Now comes the 3:07 that changed the course of basketball history. It starts with Bruton going coast to coast and then turning the ball over to Markovic. West Sydney now has a two-on-one fast break with Nielsen the lone man, on five fouls. Trahair misses the simple lay-up and Nielsen grabs the rebound. Sydney brings it down and Nielsen who, as a captain should is leading from the front. He penetrates and forces Trahair to foul, his third of the night. To the line, no mistake, 79-74 Razors, 3:09 to go. Dwight, on his own, works the baseline but Wheeler forces the turnover.

The Kings break away and the ball finds its way to Ere, who fires a three from in front of the Razorbacks bench, good!! 79-77 Razors, 2:50 left.

The Razors offence, erratic at the best of times, is now undergoing the basketball equivalent of a nervous breakdown. Dwight misses a lay-up and Wheeler grabs his 11th rebound. The adrenalin circuit between the fans and the players is in full flow now.

In transition, the ball eventually lands in the hands of Ebi Ere. The quietly-spoken Sooner takes two steps to his left and puts up a 16-footer for the tie; it’s good! 79-79, 2:24 remaining.

It’s impossible to hear yourself think now; some fans are so nauseous that they close their eyes, not able to watch. The crowd’s screaming “Defence!” at the top of their voices as Rillie throws up a terrible shot. Nielsen taps the ball to Bruton, who tosses it to Ere. Now, the moment comes: Ere lopes to a point just outside the three-point line and lets fly. Time slows down, breaths are held and...yes! 82-79 Kings at the two-minute warning. A 10-0 run and West Sydney’s dreams are turned to ashes, their hopes turned to bits of clay.

All is madness, Kings fans riding this natural high. Gordie McLeod calls a time-out, knowing that his best chance at a title had vanished in mere moments. On the Kings bench, Goorjian is the calmest man in the place:
“Now listen, if you’re guarding Dwight, he’s gunna look to pic, pick and pop. We’ve got to switch with him on the on-ball. You have to, Chris, you’ve got to... all boards are us... we’ve got to be strong with the ball. Right now, Wheeler!”

The teams come out of the time-out with the Razors to in-bound from the base-line at the CBD end. Panicked and unsure of themselves, Trahair is forced into a low-percentage three-pointer which catches the front of the rim. There’s a scramble, the ball spills loose and Bruton gathers it in. Running like a slow-motion film of his Hall of Fame father, C.J. goes coast-to-coast and hits the right-handed lay-up: 84-79 Kings, 1:28 remaining. After Markovic over-eggs the open three-pointer, he fouls Bruton who took the rebound. Ninety-four feet later, the two free-throws are successful: 86-79 Kings, 1:12 left.

Trahair fumbles and loses the ball over the baseline. All bar the few remaining Razors fans present are standing up, boisterous, lost in the pure joy of it all. 

Nielsen streaks through the middle, passes to Carrawell who fumbles the ball and turns it over. Rillie, double-teamed, puts up a three, which misses. Dwight taps the ball to Markovic who misses the 14-footer. Dwight taps it to Rillie, whose three-pointer is long. Ere pushes it to Wheeler who slips it to Bruton in the open floor. Markovic fouls him immediately and the game is up. First one, then two: 88-79 Kings, 35.4 seconds remaining. For long-term Kings fans this was a sweeter feeling than the first title: this one was at home. Mackinnon’s desperate shot barely touched the backboard before Bruton was fouled again. First one, then two: 90-79 Kings, 24.3 seconds. Markovic misses another three and Ebi Ere rebounds the ball. He brings the ball over the halfway line and then starts bouncing up and down as if on a pogo stick. The crowd counts off the seconds: 5, 4, 3... Al Michaels was right; miracles really do come true!

The Kings bench stormed the floor and mobbed Wheeler. The Razors bench slumped in their chairs, uncomprehending of what had just taken place.  Goorjian stomped around the arena, thumping his chest and expressing his shared passion with the fans. Matthew Nielsen received the Larry Sengstock Medal as Grand Final MVP, having averaged 16 points, 14 rebounds, almost four assists and two blocks in the series. It was later revealed that Nielsen had played through the pain of losing his grandmother, who had passed away prior to the start of the series. Most notably of all, after 401 games with four different clubs, Brett Wheeler was finally an NBL champion.

Milestone Alert: Sydney’s recovery from a twelve point halftime deficit was the biggest comeback in NBL Grand Final history, surpassing Wollongong in Game One of the 2001 series.

The Kings became the fifth team to repeat as NBL champions; they joined St. Kilda (1979-80), Canberra (1983-84), Perth (1990-91) and Adelaide (1998, 1998-99).

Brian Goorjian, in winning his fourth title, equalled Brian Kerle’s then NBL record.

Next week in Back in the Day, we will be visiting April of 1982.

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 Nicholas.Way@Basketball.net.au and put in the subject line ‘Back in the Day.’