The NBL – 41 Years Of Amazing Changes

NBL - 41 Years
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Sometime back around 1978, a group of dedicated basketball administrators from around the country followed up on a suggestion from Dr John Raschke, that the South East Conference be expanded to create the National Basketball League.

It is difficult to locate any details on this group, but going on memory that group included  –

  • Bob Staunton  – NSW
  • Bob Elphinston  –  NSW
  • Vince Hickey – Queensland
  • Warren Skelton  –  Newcastle
  • Ron Harvey  –  Canberra
  • Gordon Clamp  –  South Australia

Please forgive if I have missed anyone.

So here we are in 2020 and can you believe it, but the NBL has just enjoyed it’s 41st  season, so what did we do for our Basketball fix way back before it started in 1979.

Well before the NBL commenced there was another interstate League operating, involving teams from Victoria, South Australia, NSW and Canberra called the South East Conference or SEC, which started around 1967.

First NBL game 1979  –  Illawarra v St Kilda at the Snakepit in Wollongong

NBL 1979

This continued to operate until the NBL commenced in 1979 and then continued as the South Eastern Basketball League or SEABL, basically as a second tier league to the NBL. 

Surprisingly when the NBL commenced in 1979, the Melbourne Tigers under Coach Lindsay Gaze, declined to be involved concerned that the formation of this new league would threaten the control that Victoria then enjoyed over the running and management of Basketball in Australia.

Andrew & Lindasy Gaze celebrate the 1997 Title

Many felt that Ken Watson, the architect of the success of the Tigers and Basketball in Victoria over many years, was against the NBL because of this He was of course correct and the centre of power most certainly moved away from Melbourne and quite rightly spread control to Basketball Australia and the entire country. 

So Melbourne Tigers instead chose to continue their involvement with SEABL which saw their role as the dominant club force in Australia reduce significantly.

They very quickly realised that they had made a mistake and subsequently joined the league in 1984.

That decision was to become a costly one as they were never to regain that dominance, in fact it took them until 1993 to claim their first NBL title and then a second in 1997.

It is interesting to note that at the commencement of the league, most of the member teams were association based. This slowly changed as that financial model struggled to survive, with those association based teams being replaced by private ownership.

The last association based team left was the Adelaide 36ers, who due to financial issue at the State level finally passed into private hands in the early 2000’s.

All member Clubs are now in Private ownership. 

NBL 42

Since the very positive involvement of Larry Kestelman with the NBL the League has chosen to refer to each season as NBL19 for last year and then NBL20 for the season planned to commence in November 2020.

I think in doing so they are missing an opportunity to widely promote the longevity of the League and as such should adopt the season moniker so successfully used by the American Superbowl. So the next event will be Superbowl LV ( 55 ) scheduled to be held in Tampa, Florida in February 2021. 

That would mean that NBL20 would become NBL42 and as such much better reflect the status and long term success of the league.

In conjunction with the original SEC, the major states all had very high quality and successful state leagues, especially Victoria, NSW and South Australia.

NSW had a statewide league as their Country regions were very strong, whilst SA certainly punched above their weight, consistently pushing Victoria as the most successful state.

This was largely due to the influx of European migrants into the state in the late 1950’s, especially from Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

The American Mormon missionaries also had quite a significant impact in Adelaide.

Whilst Victoria also had European migrants, their influence was not as profound on the competition as it was in SA.

Melbourne also had the wonderful Albert Park, which ultimately grew to some 12 courts and was the mecca of basketball in Australia.

It had a real atmosphere and excitement, with all of the games in each competition being played in that same venue on that same night, allowing you to not only see all of the best players each week, but to meet and socialise with them as well.

Adelaide had Forestville Stadium, the first purpose built venue in Australia, which although only having 3 courts, had a similar level of atmosphere and excitement.

This of course was done with totally Amateur players, who all held fulltime jobs or were students and who mostly trained only twice per week with probably another game thrown in somewhere.

This central venue is something which I think is missing from the competitions today.

NBL – 10 Teams

But the NBL got started in ’79  and has without doubt changed and dramatically improved Basketball completely in Australia, especially in size and athleticism.

It started with just ten teams and played a roster on a full home & away basis, with 3 game away trips in order to save money.

Since that time their has been continual changes in the make up of the competition with clubs entering and exiting, merging and changing names. 

This was the era of the Tin Sheds ( without air-conditioning ) and quickly gained popularity and we all loved it, despite the terrible quality of some of the venues.

The quality of the performance was surprisingly good from this bunch of Amateurs, with some very good players arriving on the scene.

Apollo Stadium in Adelaide was the premier venue in the country with it’s 2800 capacity which really rocked with a full house, which was very common. This continually changed however, with new and bigger entertainment venues coming on line, such as Boondall in Brisbane.

36ers playing Sydney Supersonics at Apollo Stadium in Adelaide – 1986

Prior to 1979, there was also the annual Australian Club Championships, which attracted all of the best teams in Australia and was played in a different host venue each year.

Usually held around Easter, it was a great event, both on and off the court. 

It was not too long however before the success of the NBL sadly spelt the doom of those championships.

The ACC was a great event with so many teams all in the one venue, which inevitably led to some serious party times especially from the teams that had been knocked out.

However the NBL’s  first year saw 10 teams compete  –

  • CANBERRA CANNONS
  • BANKSTOWN BRUINS
  • NUNAWADING SPECTRES
  • ST KILDA SAINTS
  • WEST ADELAIDE BEARCATS
  • GLENELG TIGERS
  • CITY OF SYDNEY ASTRONAUTS
  • NEWCASTLE FALCONS
  • BRISBANE BULLETS
  • ILLAWARRA HAWKS

So that is correct, only two teams still remain, with Brisbane missing several years and Illawarra having a name change to Wollongong for a number of seasons

But who was Glenelg  –  an Adelaide based club that evolved through the Catholic Youth movement,  CY and still operate today as the Noarlunga Tigers based in Adelaide’s southern suburbs.

They only lasted the one season and were replaced in 1980 by West Torrens Eagles, who changed their name to Forestville Eagles in 1981 and were then renamed the Adelaide City Eagles in 1982 and then the Adelaide 36ers in 1983.

Forestville are still a strong local Adelaide Club.

Also joining the league in 1980 were the Coburg Giants and the Launceston Casino City Tigers, who won the title in 1981 and then folded in 1982.

1982 NBL game at Albert Park in Melbourne  –  Nunawading v Coburg

In 1982, the City Of Sydney Astronauts were renamed the Sydney Supersonics and were joined in the league by the Geelong Cats and the Weststate Wildcats.

NBL – National League

In 1983, the league expanded to 16 teams with the addition of  – 

  • HOBART DEVILS
  • DEVONPORT WARRIORS
  • FRANKSTON BEARS

Who then joined with –

  • CANBERRA CANNONS
  • SYDNEY SUPERSONICS
  • COBURG GIANTS
  • NUNAWADING SPECTRES
  • WEST ADELAIDE BEARCATS
  • NEWCASTLE FALCONS
  • ADELAIDE 36ers
  • ST KILDA SAINTS
  • BANKSTOWN BRUINS
  • BRISBANE BULLETS
  • ILLAWARRA HAWKS
  • GEELONG CATS
  • WESTSTATE WILDCATS

and became a true National League with teams representing every state as well as Canberra. The first truly National League in Australia.

Television Coverage

Although the league was struggling financially, it was receiving good TV coverage, through the ABC, and this exposure was extremely helpful in assisting the clubs to obtain sponsorship.

Canberra for example used their entire sponsorship money from Mazda to pay Channel 7 to televise all of their games.

Adelaide followed that example as did several other teams with each regional station then swapping tapes to provide coverage of many of their teams away games as well.

This operated very successfully for several years until a National Broadcast deal was achieved.

In 1984, the Weststate Wildcats changed their name to the Perth Wildcats.

The league was also joined by the addition of the Melbourne Tigers, who had steadfastly resisted to lure of the NBL to remain in the South East Conference.

1984 also saw the demise of –

  • FRANKSTON BEARS
  • DEVONPORT WARRIORS  
  • WEST ADELAIDE BEARCATS 

This left only the one club in Adelaide, the 36ers, which still remains the case today 36 years later.

Clipsal Powerhouse the 36ers 8,000 seat venue opened in 1991.
First large facility owned by a club.

1986 saw the introduction of the best of 3 home & away Grand Final series which saw the 36ers defeat the Bullets in game 3.

For the 2019 – 20 season, every playoff series was the best of 3 with the Grand Final being best of 5.

In the late 80’s, the NBL then entered it’s so called ‘ Golden Era “ when the sports popularity, attendances, and media coverage exploded.

This coincided with similar growth around the world including the NBA and basketball gear becoming the clothing style of choice for street wear amongst the younger generation, basketball followers or not.

Regrettably however, NBL management made a huge mistake with their handling of television coverage. Around 1991, Channel 7 were contracted for some $850,000 per year to televise games on a delayed basis, with the then CEO of Seven, Bob Campbell co-opted as an NBL board member.

Seven were showing delayed telecast of games, but the NBL hierarchy decided that they wanted live coverage and left 7 to go with Network 10 on the promise of a live Saturday night game of the week and a contract of $950,000 per year.

Campbell advised the league that they were making a huge mistake and that 10 would not maintain this agreement as the ratings would not support this move. As I recall he commented that 10 would get better ratings from a re run of an old movie.

He recommended that they stay with the Channel 7 long term commitment and let the coverage grow with the sport, but what would a career TV executive know?

Campbell then had no option but to resign from the board – a great loss.

He was of course absolutely right, the live coverage lasted only a few weeks, and the live coverage on Saturday nights was replaced by old re run movies.

Even worse when the contract came up for renewal, not one network even bid one dollar to cover the league, a major miscalculation and error from management, leaving the league with no TV coverage at all.

So with no television coverage, the “Golden Era“ abruptly ended and the league entered a period where  crowds, sponsorship all declined and all clubs struggled to survive. This very poor decision nearly shut down the entire league.

Then a couple of years later, a saviour, in the form of the ABC and Pay TV emerged and slowly but surely the League began to recover.

TV coverage was essential in order to attract sponsorship.

Season Change

The 1998 season was the last to compete in the traditional Winter season from April – September, when again NBL management in their infinite  wisdom decided to alter the season dates to Summer from October – April.

This was supposedly to avoid having to compete head on with the AFL & NRL, and instead had them competing head on with Cricket, Soccer and the NBA.

It also meant that clubs could no longer undertake tours to the USA, which many had done on a regular basis.

Another very poor decision, the better clubs including the 36ers, who had just commenced playing out of their brand new 8,000 seat venue The Clipsal Powerhouse, had full houses already, so any season date change would certainly not benefit them.

But anyway, just weeks later a new 1998 – 99 summer season commenced.

In those previous wilderness years however, the list of club members  continued to change, with numerous mergers, name changes and some failures, so that by the end of the decade the League was comprised of 12 teams  –

  • ADELAIDE 36ERS
  • BRISBANE BULLETS
  • CAIRNS TAIPANS 
  • ILLAWARRA HAWKS
  • MELBOURNE TIGERS
  • PERTH WILDCATS
  • VICTORIA TITANS
  • SYDNEY KINGS
  • CANBERRA CANNONS
  • NEWCASTLE FALCONS
  • TOWNSVILLE SUNS
  • WEST SYDNEY RAZORBACKS
Lucas “ Suitcase “ Walker  –  NBL journeyman who has played for 6 different NBL teams

The league continued it’s popularity with the television coverage slowly continuing to grow and helping the League with crows and sponsorship, but clubs continued to struggle with finances with several succumbing, which included  –

  • VICTORIA TITANS 
  • CANBERRA CANNONS
  • GEELONG SUPERCATS
  • GOLD COAST ROLLERS
  • HOBART DEVILS
  • NEWCASTLE FALCONS

Some new clubs however came into the league  –

  • NEW ZEALAND BREAKERS IN 2003
  • HUNTER PIRATES IN 2004 – 2006
  • SINGAPORE SLINGERS IN 2006 – 2008
  • MELBOURNE SOUTH DRAGONS IN 2006  – 2009
  • GOLD COAST BLAZE IN 2007 – 2012

Interestingly 2 clubs came into the League, won a title and then collapsed all within 3 years –

  • LAUNCESTON CASINO CITY  –  1980 -82
  • MELBOURNE SOUTH DRAGONS  –  2006 – 09

Some other clubs clearly entered the league totally under resourced and were of course not competitive or successful, then failing quickly, with some major losses, not a very good business decision   –

  • GLENELG TIGERS   –  1979
  • DEVONPORT WARRIORS  –  1983 – 84
  • FRANKSTON BEARS   –   1983 – 84 
  • HUNTER PIRATES   –  2004 – 06
  • SINGAPORE SLINGERS  –  2006 – 08

It is important to note however, that the Brisbane Bullets, one of the founding member clubs of the NBL, dropped out of the competition in 2008 due to financial pressure, returning back to the league with new management  in 2018.

As such the Illawarra Hawks are now the only Club that has been continuously  involved in the league since it commenced in 1979, sincere congratulations to them on this achievement, having had to work through several major financial issues on several occasions  –  Great Job 

Larry Kestelman

The man who saved Australian basketball.

NBL - 41 Years
Larry Kestelman

The best thing that ever happened to the League came about in 2012, when Melbourne property developer Larry Kestelman bought a controlling share of the Melbourne Tigers, a club which had historically enjoyed very divided loyalties in Melbourne with as many haters as fans. In order to garner a wider appeal across the city, he then changed the name of the club to Melbourne United, wiping out 60 years of basketball history, but succeeding  in “uniting” the basketball fans in Melbourne.

Not happy with the management of direction of the NBL, he then set about securing a major controlling interest in the League itself.

This has proved to be an absolute masterstroke and blessing for all the clubs involved, with so many successful initiatives and improvement being put in place very quickly  including –

  • League sponsorship
  • Television Coverage
  • Advertising and promotion
  • Merchandising
  • Relationship with NBA
  • Preseason games against NBA teams
  • Crowd attendances
  • USA  v  AUSTRALIA  2 game series pre 2019 World Championships

He has also expanded the league to 9 teams to include –

  • SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE PHOENIX

With further plans to reintroduce a team from Tasmania as soon as possible probably by the  –  2012 – 22 season.

He has also publicly stated, that so long as he is involved, there will not be another club fail.

NBL – 2020

So the membership of the NBL in 2020 stands at  –

  • ADELAIDE 36ERS  –  SINCE 1982  –  38 YEARS –  4 TITLES
  • BRISBANE BULLETS  –  1979 – 2008 / 2016  –  33 YEARS  –  3 TITLES
  • CAIRNS TAIPANS   –  1999   –  21 YEARS
  • ILLAWARRA HAWKS  –  1979   –  41 YEARS  –  1  TITLE
  • MELBOURNE UNITED   –  1984   –  36  YEARS  –  5  TITLES
  • NEW ZEALAND BREAKERS  –  2003  –   17 YEARS  –  4  TITLES
  • PERTH WILDCATS   –   1982   –   38  YEARS   –   10  TITLES
  • SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE PHOENIX  –  2019  –  1  YEAR
  • SYDNEY KINGS   –  1988  –  32 YEARS   –   3  TITLES

PLUS HOBART DEVILS   –  1983  –  1996  / 2021    –  16 YEARS

Andrew Bogut – returned from long NBA Career to play for Sydney Kings as part owner

Club List From Inception

So apart from the list above, let’s look at the total list of clubs involved since inception –

  • BANKSTOWN BRUINS / WEST SYDNEY WESTSTARS  – 1979 – 87
  • CANBERRA CANNONS  –   1979 – 2003   –   3  TITLES
  • CITY OF SYDNEY ASTRONAUTS / SYDNEY SUPERSONICS  –  1979 – 87
  • COBURG GIANTS / NORTH MELBOURNE GIANTS  –  1980 – 98   –   2  TITLES
  • DEVONPORT WARRIORS   –  1983  –  84
  • FRANKSTON BEARS  –  1983  –  84
  • GEELONG CATS / SUPERCATS  –  1982 – 96
  • GLENELG TIGERS  –  1979
  • GOLD COAST COUGARS / ROLLERS  –  1990 – 96
  • GOLD COAST BLAZE  –  2007  12
  • HOBART DEVILS / TASSIE DEVILS  1983  –  96
  • HUNTER PIRATES  –  2004  06
  • LAUNCESTON CASINO CITY TIGERS   –   1980  –  82    –   1  TITLE
  • NEWCASTLE FALCONS   –  1979  –  99
  • NUNAWADING SPECTRES / EASTSIDE MELBOURNE  –  1979   –  91
  • SINGAPORE SLINGERS   –   2006  –  08
  • MELBOURNE SOUTH DRAGONS   –   2006  –  09   –   1 TITLE
  • SOUTH EAST MELBOURNE MAGIC   –  1992  –  98   –  2  TITLES
  • ST KILDA SAINTS / WESTSIDE MELBOURNE / SOUTHERN MELBOURNE  –  1979  –     91   –   2 TITLES
  • TOWNSVILLE SUNS / TOWNSVILLE CROCODILES   –   1993  –  2016
  • VICTORIA TITANS / VICTORIA GIANTS   –   1998  –  2004
  • WEST ADELAIDE BEARCATS   –   1979  –  84   –   1  TITLE
  • WEST SYDNEY RAZORBACKS / SYDNEY SPRIT   –  1998  –  2008
  • WEST TORRENS EAGLES / FORESTVILLE EAGLES  –  1980  –  81 

The future of the league looks very promising.

Personally, I would like to see the League continuing to expand, with hope fully  – 

  • CANBERRA returning 
  • A second team in NSW
  • A second team in New Zealand –  perhaps South Island

So, let’s all look forward to the next decade, with who knows 20 or more players in the NBA. 

The NBL – 41 Years Of Amazing Changes

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