Back in the Day: Top Ten Teams in WNBL History II

Back in the Day: Top Ten Teams in WNBL History II

Basketball Australia historian, Nicholas Way, continues his count down of the top 10 WNBL teams of all time. There's only five teams to go.

If you have just joined us in the countdown, here’s what you missed so far:

At 10, hope for the future in the 2010-11 Bulleen Boomers

At 9, the dynasty begins with the 1986 Nunawading Spectres

At 8, some respect for the 2004-05 Dandenong Rangers

At 7, valking the walk is the 2007-08 Adelaide Lightning

At 6, the power and the passion of the 1995 Adelaide Lightning

Remember that arguments are welcomed via

5. The 1998-99 A.I.S Students

Regular Season: 16-5

Finals: Major Semi-Final: 81-62 over Perth

Grand Final: 88-79 over Perth

Notables: Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor, Suzy Batkovic, Kristen Veal, Belinda Snell, Desiree Glaubitz, Phil Brown (coach)

In the history of our great sport there have been certain occasions where a team has had ‘One Magic Season’. When all the stars are in perfect alignment, the team is fit and playing at their potential and little pieces of luck go their way, it can create something wonderful. Such was the case in the WNBL’s first summer season when the primary nursery for the sport in this country put it all together and won its first title.

The core of the squad had been together for the previous two campaigns which had seen a steady progression from semi-finalists to Grand Finalists in the abbreviated 1998 season. At the centre of the Institute’s hopes for a title was Lauren Jackson, coming off a bronze medal at the World Championships in Germany and already gaining notice as the brightest prospect seen in Australian basketball in over a decade. She was linked at the hip to players who would go on to become some of the WNBL’s brightest stars and future world champions. A massive front line that included Jackson, Penny Taylor and Suzy Batkovic was complemented by ball-distributing guard Kristen Veal and contributions from Deanna Smith, Desiree Glaubitz and Tammy Hoare. Such was the depth and quality of the squad that Belinda Snell was a benchwarmer and played only four minutes in the Grand Final!

After a tough 82-69 loss to Sydney on December 16 the Students reeled off nine straight wins on their way to the title. In the individual awards Jackson swept all before her, going home with the MVP, highest field goal percentage, leading scorer and rebounding titles as well as a slot on the League’s All Star Five. This haul, including an A.I.S. award for being ‘Junior Athlete of the Year’ was gathered at the ripe old age of 17! Phil Brown was named WNBL Coach of the Year for the second consecutive time. Their Grand Final clash with Perth was no coronation but a hard-fought battle. The Breakers restricted Jackson to only 15 points and 10 rebounds, leaving it to Batkovic (18 points) and Taylor (16 points) to pick up the slack. Taylor’s three-pointer with 3:00 remaining, breaking a 77-77 tie, was the basket that put the Institute up for good. Veal was named Grand Final MVP for her fine display in grabbing 14 points, six rebounds and 11 assists. Through the season the Students averaged 78.3 points per game while conceding 72.1 or +6.2 per game, the narrowest of any team in this list.

To use some perspective, this one magical season would be like a precocious team from a high school going into the WNBA competition and winning it all. The rarity of the A.I.S challenging and winning a title along with the depth of talent in the team is what gets them this slot on the list. In a season that seemed like a dream, the final word goes to Phil Brown: “You have got to dream and if you don’t dream big, then good things aren’t going to happen.”

1998-99 Schedule and Results

October 10 1998: 69-61 vs. Melbourne                         October 17: 72-87 vs. Bulleen

October 24: 74-69 vs. Perth                                          November 1: 93-72 vs. Dandenong

November 7: 75-66 vs. Adelaide                                   November 8: 68-78 (OT) vs. Perth

November 21: 73-72 vs. Sydney                                    November 22: 73-61 vs. Bulleen

November 27: 100-74 vs. Dandenong                          November 28: 51-55 vs. Melbourne

December 4: 70-62 vs. Canberra                                   December 5: 64-83 vs. Bulleen

December 12: 86-76 vs. Adelaide                                  December 16: 69-82 vs. Sydney

December 19: 82-73 vs. Canberra                                 January 2 1999: 78-77 vs. Melbourne

January 10: 94-62 vs. Sydney                                         January 17: 80-73 vs. Perth

January 30: 84-81 vs. Canberra                                     February 7: 96-78 vs. Dandenong

February 14: 80-78 vs. Adelaide

February 27: 81-62 vs. Perth (Major Semi-Final)

March 13: 88-79 vs. Perth (Grand Final)

4. The 1990 North Adelaide Rockets

Regular Season: 22-2

Finals:  Major Semi-Final: 65-68 vs. Hobart Islanders

Preliminary Final: 79-70 over Nunawading

Grand Final: 72-57 over Hobart

Notables: Vicki Daldy, Rachael Sporn, Donna Brown, Jo Hill, Marina Moffa, Mark Molitor (coach)

The 1990 Rockets produced one of the most extraordinary seasons in the history of Australian basketball. In all competitions, North Adelaide was 55-5 while wrapping up the City of Adelaide, South Australian state League, WNBL and Australian Club Championship titles. Donna Brown would win the Halls Medal as the Most Valuable Player in the South Australian state competition. Not bad for a club that lost four of its key players from the previous season! The additions of Brown and Rachael Sporn (originally from West Adelaide) added plenty of firepower to a front-line that looked to be the most powerful in the League. On the bench was an extremely young Jo Hill, who just last week played her 300th WNBL game.

The Rockets had been the bridesmaids of women’s basketball for much of the 1980’s. In the first nine years they had missed the play-offs twice but had only reached the Grand Final on one occasion (of which more anon). The first decade of the League had seen the champions come exclusively from Victoria. The mission of these Rockets was to change all that. Coach Mark Molitor made his team’s goal public: “We’re ready to go out and have some fun”.

At that time, the competition structure of basketball in Australia was very different. As this was a tournament year (the World Championships were held in Malaysia in July) the Rockets started their season by claiming the City of Adelaide title without losing a game. The undefeated run continued at the Australian Club Championships held in Melbourne over the Easter weekend. Vicki Daldy was the star of the tournament, named MVP in each of the Rockets’ five victories and hitting the game-winning shot in the final against Hobart.

The WNBL season proved to be something of a cakewalk until September, when losses to the A.I.S and Bulleen in the WNBL were matched by a surprise defeat at the hands of West Adelaide in the State League competition. The WNBL Finals structure was also changing. As had been the case prior to 1990 the semi-finals were played in a single venue (in this case, Melbourne’s Albert Park Stadium). For the first time, however, there would be a ‘double-chance’ semi-final and a preliminary final the following week. This rule change proved to be the saviour of North Adelaide’s march to the title after falling to Hobart in the Major Semi-Final. The Rockets did receive the benefit of hosting the Preliminary Final at Apollo Stadium against their auld enemy, Nunawading.

The Rockets’ defeat of Nunawading in the Preliminary Final is Australian basketball’s equivalent of the Boston Celtics losing to Philadelphia in the 1967 NBA Eastern Conference Finals. Though a chant of ‘The Spectres are dead’ would have been redundant! 2000 of Adelaide’s most knowledgeable basketball devotees saw the Rockets take off from the tip-off and take a commanding lead only to see Nunawading whittle it away to four points with four minutes left to play. Rachael Sporn’s block of a Tracey Browning shot proved to be the match-winner as North won the game from the free-throw line. For the first time, the WNBL title would be leaving the Garden State. The players knew that all the celebrating would be for nought if the job was not completed.

The Grand Final, held at Kingsborough Stadium in Hobart, was reported to be the first women’s team sport event to be ever broadcast live across Australia through the ABC. The viewing audience that Saturday afternoon saw the Rockets assert their authority from the opening, taking a lead after 2:00 of the game and never relinquishing it. Donna Brown won the match-up expected to determine the contest, scoring 20 points while completely blotting out WNBL legend (and three time MVP) Kathy Foster on the defensive end. Daldy and Sporn each added 14 points while Marina Pearce was tremendous in the paint, garnering 11 points, 13 rebounds and six assists. Brown and Daldy would be named in the All Star Five. With the victory the Rockets became the last team to complete the so-called ‘Triple Crown’ (St. Kilda in 1981 and Nunawading the previous year).

1990 Schedule and Results

April 16: 64-63 vs. Hobart (Australian Club Championships Final)

May 6: 71-51 vs. Canberra                                              May 13: 72-59 vs. Noarlunga

May 18: 61-59 vs. Brisbane                                             May 27: 67-65 vs. Nunawading

June 2: 73-61 vs. West Adelaide                                      June 8: 77-58 vs. Sydney

June 9: 79-65 vs. Brisbane                                               June 16: 70-68 vs. Perth

June 24: 81-72 vs. A.I.S                                                   June 29: 66-64 vs. Hobart

June 30: 85-80 vs. Melbourne                                         July 21: 74-62 vs. Hobart

August 4: 74-57 vs. Perth                                               August 12: 72-68 vs. Melbourne

August 18: 68-63 vs. Sydney                                          August 24: 66-59 vs. Coburg

August 25: 69-63 vs. Nunawading                                 August 26: 75-73 vs. Bulleen

September 2: 53-51 vs. West Adelaide                           September 8: 75-54 vs. Canberra

September 9: 74-82 vs. A.I.S                                         September 14: 87-73 vs. Coburg

September 22: 55-75 vs. Bulleen

September 28: 65-68 vs. Hobart (Major Semi-Final)

October 5: 79-70 vs. Nunawading (Preliminary Final)

October 13: 72-57 vs. Hobart (Grand Final)

3. The 1997 Sydney Flames

Regular Season: 18-0

Finals: Major Semi-Final: 54-58 vs. Adelaide

Preliminary Final: 57-54 over Melbourne

Grand Final: 61-56 over Adelaide

Notables: Robyn Maher, Annie La Fleur, Michelle Brogan, Trish Fallon, Rhonda Bates, Gail Henderson and Alicia Poto

Having been crushed in the previous year’s Grand Final on their home floor, the Sydney Flames organisation decided that changes needed to be made to go one better in 1997. Rhonda Bates and Michelle Griffiths (nee Brogan) were brought in to bring muscle and skill to the Flames’ front line. Alicia Poto came into the team and acted as a sparkplug off the bench. Some of the changes, however, were out of the team’s control. After Carrie Graf accepted an offer to coach the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury a search was instituted to find a replacement. In something of a surprise decision, Bill Tomlinson, the former coach of the now defunct Hobart Devils was appointed to take the job.

Much of the scoring load for the season rested on the capable shoulders of Trish Fallon, seasoned by two years of playing in Europe. Some of the notable milestones during the season included:

-Captain Robyn Maher playing her 300th WNBL game in the 62-46 victory over the Melbourne Tigers on May 3rd. She was the third player to achieve the landmark.

-A win that gave great satisfaction was the 72-53 triumph over the previously-undefeated Adelaide on June 7th. The victory was made all the sweeter by the fact that it eventuated on the Lightning’s home floor. Fallon had the team’s season-high points total with 31.

-When Sydney sealed the season series with Adelaide on June 21, they also sealed the minor premiership that would in theory give them home-court advantage through the play-offs. 

The Flames were unbackable favourites to win the Major Semi-Final and sweep through to the decider. Due to issues related to venue availability, the game was played at the E.G. Whitlam Centre, soon to be home to the NBL’s Razorbacks. A tight first half saw Sydney slide into the locker room with a 29-28 lead. With the defending champions having fallen behind 39-30 early in the second half, it was left up to League MVP Rachael Sporn to drag the visitors back into the contest. Coming off a 1/10 shooting display in the opening half, Sporn hit five consecutive buckets that gave her side the winning edge. A stunned crowd saw the Flames throw away any chance they had of winning with some silly fouls late in the game. Both sides shot as if they were playing in a final: Adelaide were 27/62 (43.5%) while Sydney put up a miserable 24/60 (40%). A despondent Tomlinson could only be moved to say “We didn’t capitalise on our defensive rebounds.” Much of the basketball community was in shock: Surely what was seen to be “The most dominating force seen in women’s basketball since the inception of the WNBL” would not be knocked out in two straight hits.

Fortunately for posterity the Flames were able to steady their ship and carry on as before. A nail-biting win over the Tigers in the Preliminary Final (Bates hitting some crucial shots down the stretch) gave Sydney the chance to revenge themselves on their bitterest enemy. Some early silverware was handed out at the WNBL Awards dinner prior to the big game. Fallon was named to the All Star Five while Tomlinson became the first Sydney-based coach since Robbie Cadee in 1988 to be named Coach of the Year.

This was the middle panel of a triptych of Grand Finals between these two teams and by far the closest. After a sluggish start that saw them fall behind by twelve points, Sydney roared back into the game with Annie La Fleur hitting a couple of key baskets. The game eventually swung on Maher using all of her experience to draw two key fouls that put the visitors up for good. Fallon’s 18 points saw her receive the Grand Final MVP award. For Flames boss Lorraine Landon, now off to work for the Organising Committee for the 2000 Olympics, her feelings were of “great pleasure that a championship has come to Sydney when we get a lot of mud slung at us. That makes it all the more sweet.”

1997 Schedule and Results

April 13: 79-51 vs. A.I.S                                                April 19: 79-48 vs. Bulleen

April 26: 66-48 vs. Brisbane                                          May 2: 76-54 vs. Canberra

May 3: 62-46 vs. Melbourne                                         May 9: 77-74 vs. Dandenong

May 10: 64-42 vs. Bulleen                                             May 24: 87-58 vs. A.I.S

May 31: 82-65 vs. Brisbane                                           June 7: 72-53 vs. Adelaide

June 20: 70-59 vs. Dandenong                                     June 21: 67-51 vs. Adelaide

June 28: 72-51 vs. Canberra                                         July 5: 60-54 vs. Perth

July 11: 64-58 vs. Melbourne                                       July 12: 72-56 vs. Brisbane

July 18: 72-63 vs. Perth                                               August 1: 56-54 vs. Adelaide

August 15: 54-58 vs. Adelaide (Major Semi-Final)

August 23: 57-54 vs. Melbourne (Preliminary Final)

August 31: 61-56 vs. Adelaide (Grand Final)

2. The 1993 Sydney Flames

Regular Season: 17-1

Finals: Major Semi-Final: 64-59 over Adelaide (OT)

Grand Final: 65-64 over Perth

Notables: Robyn Maher, Trish Fallon, Karen Dalton (captain), Shelley Gorman, Annie Burgess, Carrie Graf (coach)

I make no apologies for ranking this team above all bar one. It is partly due to the undoubted achievement of achieving a record of 19-1 for the season. They are also here for more sentimental reasons: this is the team that inspired my love for women’s basketball. With the Kings’ title hopes collapsing in an exhausted heap the Flames were the one bright spark for Sydney’s basketball community in 1993. Your correspondent’s father took to the habit of sending a fax into the Flames office, congratulating them on yet another victory. Not seeking any reward, these faxes produced a memorable result. The week before their Grand Final tussle with Perth, a package arrived at our home. Inside the package were several posters signed by members of the team. Outside the room in which this article is being written, two of those posters still hang as a reminder of what was truly a glorious season.

A product of the Nunawading nursery, Carrie Graf interviewed for several head coaching jobs at the end of the 1992 season. The only slot for which she wasn’t interviewed was the job she eventually got: head coach of the Sydney Flames. Soon after her arrival at the Flames headquarters in Alexandria, Graf received two phone calls. Two old teammates, Robyn Maher and Shelley Gorman, were ringing to cash in favours. Robyn was on her way to Sydney with husband Tom, who had been appointed as the first full-time coach of the Opals. Gorman had earlier promised Graf that if Carrie ever became a head coach, Shelley would not be far behind. Without any apparent effort, Sydney had grabbed two Hall of Famers just like that!

They, along with fellow Opal and newly-minted ‘face of the franchise’ Trish Fallon would play key roles in the creation of a club that then CEO Lynda Palmer placed “on a pedestal in its operation and framework”. They had been the first team in Australia to wear bodysuits as uniforms, drawing attention from the mainstream media. With a solid base in Annie Burgess, Michelle Landon, Gail Henderson and team captain Karen Dalton the Flames had moved from being a middle of the road team to a genuine title favourite.

Following a first-up loss to Melbourne by a point in overtime, the Flames tore off 19 straight victories to seal the club’s first title. The streak included a memorable 84-68 victory over the A.I.S on May 28 that drew national attention after Robyn Maher returned to the court ten days after the birth of her son Stevie. Their Grand Final tussle with defending champions Perth, played in front of 5500 partisan fans at the Sydney Entertainment Centre, was a classic and broadcast across Australia. Three Annie Burgess three-pointers in the second half sparked a furious finish capped by a Gorman free-throw that provided the margin of victory.

Gorman would be selected in the League’s All Star Five for the fourth time, team captain Karen Dalton was named Defensive Player of the Year while Graf finished second in voting for Coach of the Year behind Adelaide’s Jan Stirling. Gorman averaged 17.1 points to finish fourth in the race for the scoring title, Michelle Landon led the League with 7.9 assists a game while Dalton finished second in average rebounds behind only Bulleen’s Debbie Slimmon. Overall the team averaged 71.85 points a game over the entire season while conceding 57.2 points, a plus-minus ratio of 14.65.

1993 Schedule and Results:

April 17: 53-54 (OT) vs. Melbourne                                April 24: 86-44 vs. A.I.S.

May 7: 88-53 vs. Canberra                                               May 8: 67-56 vs. Dandenong

May 15: 60-53 vs. Brisbane                                              May 21: 62-61 vs. Adelaide

May 23: 67-60 vs. Perth                                                   May 28: 84-68 vs. A.I.S

June 5: 80-58 vs. Bulleen                                                 June 12: 80-53 vs. Perth

June 19: 63-62 vs. Brisbane                                             June 26: 80-59 vs. Canberra

July 10: 70-40 vs. Hobart                                                 July 11: 66-51 vs. Bulleen

July 24: 75-72 vs. Adelaide                                              July 31: 75-67 vs. Melbourne

August 7: 81-53 vs. Hobart                                            August 14: 77-57 vs. Dandenong

August 21: 64-59 (OT) vs. Adelaide (Major Semi-Final)

September 4: 65-64 vs. Perth (Grand Final)

1. The 1988 Nunawading Spectres

Regular Season: 21-1

Finals: Semi-Final: 81-63 over West Adelaide

Grand Final: 71-43 over North Adelaide

Notables: Robyn Maher, Michelle Timms, Shelley Gorman, Karen Smith, Tracey Browning, Samantha Russell, Tom Maher (coach).

Few teams in Australian basketball history have ever shown as complete and utter dominance of a season as the 1988 Nunawading Spectres. The Spectres only lost two games for the season in all competitions at a time when players could expect to play over fifty games in a year.  Having won the previous two WNBL championships Nunawading had a winning tradition to uphold, which they would do gloriously.  As you can see below, in only two games that season was the margin of victory or defeat less than double figures. On both occasions, their opposition was their Grand Final opponent North Adelaide. The Spectres’ for and against ratio of +24.35 is the highest for any team on this list. On three occasions they scored over 100 points in a game. After the defeat on March 6 at the hands of the Rockets, Nunawading would not lose for the remaining four and a half months of the season (This did include a three week break to allow the Opals to qualify for the Seoul Olympics in June).

In the first year of the WNBL All-Star Five, three of its members wore the red and blue: Robyn Maher, Michelle Timms and Shelley Gorman (a welcome return to the team following a season at the A.I.S). All three would also be named to the Olympics squad. These three future Hall of Fame members were not solely responsible for the team’s success. They had the support of a fine supporting cast that included Gaylene McKay, Karen Smith and Samantha Russell, who was a beast under the basket. They were undefeated at home during the season.

The Grand Final, held at Nunawading, was expected to be a thriller. It pitted the home side against their arch-rival North Adelaide who had delivered the Spectres’ two losses (the other being in an Australian Club Championship semi-final at Easter). The Rockets were also well-stocked with stars such as Donna Brown, Pat Mickan, Marina Moffa, Vicki Daldy and Jan Stirling running the point. With unofficial League patron Dawn Fraser amongst the packed house the game turned out to be a laugher. Coach Tom Maher introduced a key wrinkle into his team’s defence by switching Robyn Maher onto the dangerous Donna Brown. It proved to be a master stroke with Brown held to only eight points for the game. After a tight first half, Nunawading powered away in the middle of the second period to make it three titles on the trot. Gorman, coming off 19 points in the win over the Bearcats, was sensational scoring a game-high 24 points including a running jumper on the full-time siren. Russell was almost as unstoppable in the lane, finishing with 19 points. Tom Maher was slightly exuberant saying “We’ve really dominated women’s basketball for the past five years...that says a lot for the people involved.” The frightening aspect for the rest of the league was that the team’s average age was only 22 years!

So why place the Spectres ahead of everyone else? I would argue three reasons:

1. The team was built around a core group of stars that were recognised around the League as the best players in the country. They also had a high-quality supporting cast that maintained the standards of the star players when they were off the court.

2. The team was superbly drilled and organised, comfortable in the plays that they ran and confident almost to the point of arrogance that they would win every single game that they played.

3. The number of blowouts in their season results shows, I think, that many times they had their opponents intimidated into a defeatist state of mind before the first tip. They set a record for domination that to my mind has not been matched since.

Schedule and Results

February 6: Victory over Bulleen: Score N/A                  February 13: 88-69 vs. Canberra

February 14: 82-51 vs. A.I.S.                                            February 20: 67-65 vs. North Adelaide

February 27: 78-53 vs. Coburg                                         March 4: 89-63 vs. West Adelaide

March 5: 79-66 vs. Noarlunga                                          March 6: 62-66 vs. North Adelaide

March 19: 93-48 vs. Noarlunga                                        March 26: 76-59 vs. Canberra

April 15: Victory over Brisbane: Score N/A                    April 22: 65-49 vs. Perth

April 23: 100-49 vs. Perth                                                April 30: 72-62 vs. Coburg

May 7: 95-66 vs. Brisbane                                               May 8: 65-47 vs. Bankstown

May 22: 70-57 vs. West Adelaide                                     May 27: 77-64 vs. A.I.S

June 25: 116-48 vs. Hobart                                              July 2: 81-36 vs. Bulleen

July 10: 64-52 vs. Bankstown                                           July 15: 114-64 vs. Hobart

July 22: 81-63 vs. West Adelaide (Semi-Final)

July 23: 71-43 vs. North Adelaide (Grand Final)

So, there you have it. Correspondence will be entered into and all emails will receive a reply.

Next week, in ‘Back in the Day’, normal service shall resume.

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.’