When the National Basketball League (NBL) launched in 1979 as a 10-team league, there were just two Victorian teams in the competition; the St Kilda Saints and Nunawading Spectres. Within five years, there were six Victorian clubs in the league, which had expanded to 16 teams, underlining the strength of Australia’s traditional basketball heartland.
Now Melbourne United is one of two NBL teams in the state and respectfully acknowledges each of the previous Victorian NBL teams who have been before it.
ST KILDA SAINTS
The Saints were the original NBL power, winning the first two championships with a roster that represented the cream of Australian basketball.
Among the players on the 1979 and 1980 championship teams were Larry Sengstock, Robbie Cadee, Tony Barnett, Danny Morseau, Steve Breheny and the amazing American Rocky Smith. The Saints were on track for a third straight title in 1981, but an invitation to a quasi world club championship in Brazil created a scheduling clash with the NBL finals.
When the NBL refused to alter its schedule to allow the Saints to play in Brazil and come home to contest the finals, the Saints opted for the international tournament, abdicating as NBL champion.But it was the last time the Saints would get close to winning a title. After initially playing at the old Albert Park Stadium, the Saints moved to Keilor as the Westside Melbourne Saints, and returned to the city at the Glasshouse as the Southern Melbourne Saints. At the end of the 1991 season, the Saints merged with the Nunawading Spectres to become the South East Melbourne Magic.
One of two Victorian teams in the first season, the Spectres fell just short of making the grand final and that proved to be the story of their NBL existence.
With legendary coach Barry Barnes in charge, the Spectres made the semi-finals in the first five seasons – losing the grand final in 1981. The Spectres, who had swapped Nunawading for Eastside Melbourne, returned to the grand final in 1991, losing to the Perth Wildcats in the best-of-three series,
But it turned out to be the Spooks’ last games in the NBL. During the off-season, the Spectres merged with the Saints to become the South East Melbourne Magic, but Nunawading had left an indelible mark on the NBL. Among the players who wore the red, white and blue were Damian Keogh, Dean Uthoff, Bruce Bolden, Gary Fox, Alan Black and Bill Palmer, who went on to the long-time NBL general manager.
While their NBL days are long gone, the Spectres still play in the SEABL.
While the NBL had come into being in 1979 as the national league, there was still great prestige and honour in winning the Australian Club Championship.
As winners of the ACC in 1979, the Giants were granted NBL status for 1980, giving rise to a clubsthat originally played its home games almost within the shadows of Melbourne’s infamous Pentridge Prison. Although the Giants early NBL years were relatively modest, it grew into a genuine power, winning titles in 1989 under maverick coach Bruce Palmer, and in 1994 under Brett Brown, now the head coach of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.
During the late 1980s, the Giants traded Coburg for North Melbourne and the name change coincided with the club’s most successful era, playing in front of sellout crowds at the Glasshouse, now Collingwood’s club HQ. The Giants’ history includes having the first Australian NBL MVP, Ray Borner in 1985, and some of the league’s all-time great: Bennie Lewis, Wayne Carroll, Mark Leader, Scott Fisher, Pat Reidy and Darryl McDonald.
Despite the success of the Giants, the club was forced to merge with the South East Melbourne Magic in 1998 to become the Victoria Titans.
Making the NBL debut in 1982, the Geelong Supercats did not stand around waiting to be asked to dance.
The Supercats, with Cal Bruton taking over as coach four games into the season, went all the way to grand final, losing to a West Adelaide Bearcats team that featured Leroy Loggins, Al Green and Ken Richardson. That first season turned out to be a high point for the Supercats, who were actually just the Cats until 1988, which turned out to be a season to forget. Not only were the Supercats the worst team in the NBL, they actually went 0-24, posting the only winless record in NBL history during a soap opera season.
But the Supercats did bounce back, appointing Barry Barnes as coach and making the playoffs in 1991 with a team that included Shane Heal, John Dorge, Bobby Locke and Vince Hinchen.
The Supercats’ NBL journey ended in 1996 when the owners sold their licence to the NBL, but it was a journey that featured outstanding players such as Cal Bruton, James Crawford, Brad and Mark Dalton and Wayne McDaniel. Since leaving the NBL, the Supercats have won several SEABL titles.
It was only a brief stay, but the Frankston Bears’ two seasons in the NBL left an imprint nonetheless. The Bears failed to make the playoffs in either the 1983 or 1984 seasons, and did not get above .500 in the win-loss column
But during those two seasons, the Bears uniform was worn by players such as Wayne Burden, Mel Dalgleish, Dave Leslie and Mark Gaze, who played eight seasons in the NBL, but had his best years with Frankston, hitting 15.8 ppg in 1983 and 22.9 in 1984
The Bears morphed into the Blues and Frankston still plays in the SEABL.
The Melbourne Tigers are the most famous and storied team in the history of Australian basketball, mainly because of the massive influence and contribution of Lindsay and Andrew Gaze. Between them the father-son combination wrote many chapters for the Tigers alongside fellow NBL stalwarts Lanard Copeland, Dave Simmons, Warrick Giddey, Ray Gordon and Mark Bradtke.
The Tigers entered the NBL in 1984 and struggled initially, given a lack of financial resources, and finally made the playoffs for the first time in 1989. But it was another four years until the Tigers won their first NBL title, adding a second in 1997 when they finished the season on a 17-1 run that included a record 16-game winning streak. After Lindsay and Andrew fittingly retired from the NBL together, the Tigers launched a new era, winning two more titles as Al Westover steered things from the bench as Chris Anstey and Darryl McDonald took charge on the floor.
It was history that included two league MVP titles for Anstey to go with the seven won by Andrew Gaze and one by Mark Bradtke, arguably the best and most consistent big man to have played in the NBL. The Tigers’ 30-year history came to a close in 2014 as the team owners launched a new era for the franchise now know as Melbourne United.
SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE MAGIC
When financial reality squeezed the Saints and Spectres at the end of 1991, the South East Melbourne Magic was born, and so was one of the NBL’s greatest rivalries. With coach Brian Goorjian drumming a hard-working, win-at-all-costs mentality into his players, the Magic quickly became one of the NBL’s best and most despised teams, especially by Tigers fans.
The Magic and Tigers played in three grand final series – 1992, 1996 and 1997 – and had some epic derby showdowns at Rod Laver Arena, making for must-see and dramatic basketball. But every NBL team wanted to beat the Magic, which won titles in 1992 and 1996, because it was the yardstick and work the black hats to go with the black uniforms and the Men In Black tag.
The Magic put some of Australia’s best players on the floor – Jason Smith, Tony Ronaldson, John Dorge, Bruce Bolden, Chris Anstey, Sam Mackinnon, Frank Drmic and Brett Wheeler – and set a standard to follow. But when the Magic left the floor after Game 2 of the 1998 grand final – beaten by the Adelaide 36ers – it was for the final team, swept up in an off-season merger that created the Victoria Titans.
There was another significant shift in Melbourne’s NBL scene during the winter of 1998 as the North Melbourne Giants and South East Melbourne Magic merged to form the Victoria Titans.
This was considered a shock marriage given the history and standing of the Giants, and the on-court power of the Magic, which had won two NBL titles and was a perennial contender. While financial considerations were the major force behind this merger, it was also an emotional amalgamation for several reasons, not least of all when it came to the appointment of coach and selection of players.
In a power move by the former Magic owners, they ensured Brian Goorjian was named coach, leaving Giants championship coach Brett Brown without a job. That put Goorjian at odds with the former Giants fans who opted to follow the new team, and even more so when the coach decided not to take Giants stalwart Pat Reidy over to the Titans.
Despite the early turmoil, the Titans were immediately on the championship radar, featuring men such as Darryl McDonald, Jason Smith, Brett Wheeler and Tony Ronaldson. Alas, it was to be a relatively short ride for the Titans, who withdrew from the NBL after just four seasons.
This resurrection - or incarnation - of the Giants was short-lived and, with the benefit of hindsight, was probably doomed from the start. Backed more by the emotion of former Giants people than anything, the new team battled against the odds, playing initially at Hisense Arena before moving to the intimate MSAC show court.
The Giants had some attention-grabbing players in the line-up – Darryl McDonald, Rob Feaster, Adonis Jordan and Adam Ballinger to name four – and gave several players a chance to stake their claims in the NBL under coach Mark Wright. But it was always a struggle on and off the court for the Giants, who reluctantly played their last game in 2004, finishing with a 20-43 record over their two NBL seasons.
The call for Melbourne to maintain a two-team presence in the NBL was answered in 2007 by the unfettered ambition and enthusiasm of the South Dragons. Such was the Dragons’ desire to make an instant impact they hired Cleveland Cavaliers legendary guard Mark Price as head coach, and lured Olympian Shane Heal back to his home town.
Just five games into the season, Price was sacked and replaced by Heal, who immediately cut both imports, bringing in Bakari Hendrix and Kavossy Franklin as the Dragons turned around their fortunes and went to the playoffs.
As season two headed for ultimate disappointment, Heal was replaced late in the campaign and the Dragons achieved an off-season coup by signing Brian Goorjian as coach. With a beefed up roster that included Mark Worthington, Joe Ingles, Adam Gibson and Mika Vukona and further boosted mid-season by import Donta Smith, the Dragons went to the grand final.
In an amazing best-of-five derby series, the Dragons topped the Melbourne Tigers to win the 2009 NBL championship, the sixth for Goorjian in a brilliant coaching career. But the high point for the Dragons was also the curtain call, the team withdrawn during the winter after ownership failed to agree with the NBL over the competition’s restructuring.
In 2014, the difficult decision was made by the Melbourne Tigers ownership to rename and refocus the club, becoming Melbourne United. It was a decision that evoked angst and emotion, but it was a decision taken after long, relentless and thorough research, and in the best interests of Victorian and Melbourne basketball.
Melbourne United is here to make basketball better for everyone, here to create and forge its own lasting legacy and history. United represent all of the past clubs and unite Melbourne's basketball-loving public.