Back in the Day: Play-Off Push 1997

Back in the Day: Play-Off Push 1997

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).

2012-13 Pre-Season Week Four: ‘The Knights have Won!’

  • A double earthquake in the Umbrian and Marches regions of northern Italy sees 11 people die and thousands forced out of their homes. Among the many buildings damaged is the world famous Basilica of St. Francis at Assisi, with several pieces of priceless artwork from artists such as Giotto and Cavallini destroyed. In a bitter coincidence, the earth tremors strike on St. Francis’ birthday (September 26).
  • Closer to home, there are earthquakes in Federal Parliament after Prime Minister John Howard is forced to sack three ministers and two senior members of his staff as a result of what they did (or didn’t do) or what they knew (and when) of a long-running scandal concerning the rorting of travel allowances for Parliamentarians. The most painful departure is that of Howard’s closest advisor (and personal friend) Graeme Morris.
  • The year-long gun buy-back scheme that was launched in wake of the Port Arthur massacre comes to an end. Official figures show that just over 600,000 guns had been turned in with a total of $292,582,353 paid out to their owners. The scheme, one of the key sections of the Federal reforms to gun laws, is pronounced a great success.
  • In New South Wales, efforts led by Premier Bob Carr and his Treasurer Michael Egan to capture ALP support for the privatisation of the state’s electricity industry appear doomed to fail at the upcoming State Conference. Cabinet sits for two days before officially backing the plan which is hoped will raise several billion dollars to fill the coffers of the State Treasury. Most analysts agree that the final vote of Conference will end up being 70% against the policy.
  • As Britain’s Labour Party begins its first conference since its landslide election victory in May the work of government goes on. The Ministry of Agriculture is placed on alert following the release of a study by British scientists that definitively points to a link between a variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (a degenerative disorder of the brain) and meat infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as mad cow disease.
  • Fiji’s Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka announces that his nation will be rejoining the Commonwealth after being suspended for a decade. The Commonwealth had taken this action following two coups d’état, led by Rabuka, in 1987. The formalisation of Fiji’s return to the Commonwealth is on the agenda of the next Heads of Government Meeting, slated for Edinburgh in October.
  • The weekend sees two of the most dramatic grand finals Australian sport has known: On the Saturday the Adelaide Crows and St. Kilda play in front of a crowd numbering 98,045 in the AFL Grand Final. Darren Jarman enters Grand Final lore by kicking five goals in the last quarter to see the Crows home 19.11 (125) to 13.16 (94). Adelaide star Andrew McLeod is an unarguable selection as the winner of the Norm Smith Medal for the best player on the ground. As the Crows supporters start chanting “Adelaide, Adelaide”, South Australia’s Premier John Olson is seen to turn towards his Victorian counterpart Jeff Kennett and say “Isn’t that the most wonderful sound?”
  • Twenty-four hours later the Newcastle Knights create their own piece of history by defeating a vaunted Manly side 22-16 in the ARL Grand Final. In a year when the code of rugby league was split into separate competitions, this heart-stopping match begins the process of binding the game’s wounds. The result is not determined until the final seconds when Knights winger Darren Albert streaks through a hole in the Sea Eagles’ defence and plants the ball behind the posts. Albert’s try ignites utter delirium in the Hunter region and warms the heart of the most jaded neutral fan of the game.
  • Golf’s Ryder Cup once again produces some of the most thrilling moments of the sporting year. Held at the Valderrama Golf Club in Spain the star of the three-day event doesn’t play a single shot. Europe’s non-playing captain Seve Ballesteros directs the action with all the swashbuckling flair he showed as a player, guiding the home side to a heart-stopping 14 ½ to 13 ½ victory over the United States to retain the Cup.
    -Notable deaths of the week included the American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (at the age of 74) and BBC executive Graeme MacDonald (at the age of 67).
  • “Honey”, “Candle in the Wind 1997/Something About the Way You Look Tonight” and “Men in Black” were rocking the top of the charts.

NBL Round 24

Wednesday 24th September 1997
NBL Game One: Perth Wildcats @North Melbourne Giants
Final score: Wildcats 106-Giants 102

In a physically taxing encounter for both sides, Ricky Grace’s 17 points in the final quarter proved to be the decisive factor as the Wildcats came from seventeen points down to snatch victory in the final two minutes. It was a rough night for the Giants: they not only lost the game but also lost their centre Paul Rees who broke the scaphoid bone in his left wrist after colliding with Perth bench player Gavin Van Der Putten in the first quarter. 

Friday 26th September 1997
NBL Game Two: Perth Wildcats @Townsville Suns
Final score: Wildcats 102-Suns 100

For the Suns, the equation was simple: win and they were in the play-offs for the first time, a loss and their pre-season would start early. The usually passionate Townsville crowd was positively ravenous that night with tickets having sold out four weeks in advance of the tip-off.

Needing a win to guarantee themselves home-court advantage in the first round of the play-offs, Perth held off a furious late charge by the Suns to snatch another thrilling victory. James Crawford had a huge influence on the match, scoring 18 of his 23 points in the second half. That influence was matched by Derek Rucker, who hit seven three-pointers on his way to a game-high 36 points.

Saturday 27th September 1997
NBL Game Three: Sydney Kings @Canberra Cannons
Final score: Cannons 98-Kings 95

What had been a rotten season for the Kings got even worse after forward Justin Withers continued his cruel run of luck in relation to injuries. He would miss this last game of the season when he separated his shoulder while riding a bike in Cronulla for a segment for the Ten Network’s NBL magazine show Air Time.

The result of this match was decided by one man: Canberra’s Robert Rose. He torched a powder-puff Kings defence for 24 points in the fourth quarter (which included an 18-0 run) and guided the Cannons into the play-offs. Canberra coach Brett Flanigan could only shake his head: “When the game’s on the line there are special people in this league who can step up.” None of these people were playing for Sydney, who faced an off-season of necessary change after the worst season in the club’s history.

With only a four-month break between the end of this final winter season and the start of the interim 1998 season, the process would have to be swift and brutal. A list of players that included Cameron Dickenson (increasingly unhappy at the lack of court time he was getting) and Isaac Burton had already indicated that they wanted to leave post-haste. There were also questions about the future status of head coach Alan Black. With the prospect of a second team in Sydney looming on the horizon, action was needed to preserve the team’s fan base.

NBL Game Four: Melbourne Tigers @Adelaide 36ers
Final score: Tigers 110-36ers 104

There were two anthems played before this match: Advance Australia Fair followed by “We’re the Pride of South Australia...” Fortunately for the self-image of Victorian sports fans, a team from the Garden State were able to beat Adelaide on that Saturday. Andrew Gaze’s 36 points combined with the input of key mid-season acquisition Marcus Timmons (23 points and six rebounds) allowed the Tigers to continue their red-hot finish to the season (of which more will be spoken later in this article).

In missing the play-offs for only the third time in the club’s history (the first since 1992), Adelaide chairman Bernie Lewis and his board wasted no time in making the wholesale changes that they though necessary to return their team to the top.

Head coach David Claxton (who had only taken on the job after Mike Dunlap walked out before the start of the season) was shown the door while prodigal son Phil Smyth was vigorously wooed to take Claxton’s post and come on home.

NBL Game Five: Brisbane Bullets @Illawarra Hawks
Final score: Hawks 115-Bullets 90

Brisbane coach David Ingham had it absolutely right: “We walked into a belting”. Having defeated the Kings at home the previous week, Illawarra was looking to finish off what had been a very disappointing season on a strong note. Even Hawks coach Brendan Joyce would not have dared to dream up a result such as this, as his charges led at one point by 40 points against a team destined for the play-offs.

Terry Johnson had an outstanding game, scoring 31 points on 11/18 from the field, including six three pointers. A 36-44 deficit on the boards and a 20-11 margin in turnovers did not assist the Bullets’ cause. Leroy Loggins played a lone hand in what was otherwise a dreary display from his teammates, scoring a game-high 32 points. It was clear that Brisbane desperately missed the scoring power of Dwayne McClain and Mike McKay, both missing through injury. Ingham dismissed suggestions from the deep North that his status was under review, with strong whispers that Brian Kerle was being groomed to re-take his former post.

Milestone Alert: Illawarra’s Matt Zauner plays his 100th NBL game. It is also the Hawks’ biggest winning margin against the Bullets.

Sunday 28th September 1997
NBL Game Six: Newcastle Falcons @South East Melbourne Magic
Final score: Magic 108-Falcons 99

Originally scheduled for Melbourne Park, this match was moved to New Zealand to avoid a clash with the AFL Grand Final post-match celebrations. When the hoped-for sponsorship monies did not eventuate the match was then moved to Dandenong Stadium for a 3:00 p.m. tip-off. Several of the Falcons’ players were not pleased as they had planned to watch the Knights’ ride to glory.

The game itself was not of a particularly high standard with the Magic taking a lead in the second quarter that they would not relinquish. Sam MacKinnon continued his run of post-World Championship in leading the scoresheets with 25 points. South East Melbourne’s defence of their title was progressing steadily; having sealed the minor premiership, they now had a week off before their semi-final series began.

Monday 29th September 1997
NBL Game Seven: Brisbane Bullets @Melbourne Tigers
Final score: Tigers 116-Bullets 107 (OT)

The Tigers and Bullets closed the 1997 regular season with a fine match that had the home crowd roaring. In the third example of the trend of the weekend (teams giving up big leads then chasing their opposition down) Melbourne came from well back to grab a 101-101 tie at the end of regulation off a Blair Smith tip-in with four seconds remaining. Once Andrew Gaze scored five points in the opening minute of the overtime period, the game was essentially over.

This victory completed an extraordinary run of success for the Tigers who had been at one point of the season 3-8 and tenth on the ladder. They had now won 13 game on the trot (then a club record) and with the Magic having been seen to wobble in the final couple of rounds were the warm favourites to take home the Dr. John Raschke Trophy. There was still some superb play-off action to come, however; a story that will be told another time...

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