Australian basketball legend Ken Cole has been doing something of a whirlwind tour of Australia these past couple of weeks. Ken now lives in the USA with his wife Pauline but has been back doing a series of functions and speaking engagements with assistance from Tracey Browning and her company Game Changer Events and the Free Throw Foundation in Adelaide.
My first memory of Ken was when I was about 10 years old, sitting on a ball on the baseline watching the Grand Final of the Victorian State Championship with a full house at Albert Park Stadium.
These were the days when the Victorian State League was the pinnacle of Australian basketball, it was pre NBL and pre SEABL when if you wanted to play in the best league in the Country you needed to come to Victoria. There was also a one week long National Tournament called the Australian Club Championships but if you wanted week in week out tough competition, Victoria is where you had to be. There was also a feeling among interstate people that as Lindsay Gaze was the National coach you needed to be in Victoria if you wanted any chance of making the National team.
What I remember most about that game and that time was that Ken’s team, St Kilda Business Houses was made up of nothing but Aussie players. The team they were playing, “Church” as they were known at the time (later to become the Melbourne Tigers) had about five or six American players. I was very young at the time but I clearly remember thinking how cool it was that St Kilda was all Aussie. I played junior basketball for the Melbourne East Demons (later to become the Nunawading Spectres) their senior team at the time was coached by Owen Hughan and was also pretty much an all aussie squad with the now president of Basketball Victorian Mike Bainbridge one of my favourite players.
Those early times certainly had an impact on the thoughts of a budding young basketball player.
Ken’s team played an exciting brand of basketball, even for those days and Ken was at the forefront of bringing a professional attitude to the game with increased training commitments required if you wanted to be a team member of the Saints.
Ken’s career has been well documented with highlights including playing for Australia in Olympic and World Championship competition and a successful coaching career in the NBL with the Adelaide 36ers and Newcastle Falcons, his 1986 Adelaide team went 24-2 to win the NBL Championship and Ken won the NBL Coach of the Year.
My first personal involvement with Ken was when he offered me the assistant coaches role with his Newcastle Falcons. It was to be a 12-month apprenticeship to take over the team as head coach after one season. Tempting as it was I was already assistant coach with Brian Goorjian at the South East Melbourne Magic, a pretty good situation anyway so I declined the offer but really appreciated Ken’s interest in my coaching ability.
Not long afterwards the Newcastle Falcons were out of the NBL, sad news but with a silver lining. Ken had always taken the Falcons on an end of year tour to the USA – in those days’ professional teams could play college teams in preseason exhibition games. There were significant game guarantees for these games – the bigger schools would pay $10-15K for the game which usually covered the cost of the tour with some profit left over for the tour organiser.
Ken still had his tours but now had no team to take. I was Director of Coaching for Victorian Basketball at this time and Ken approached us to see if we were interested in taking an All Star team on the tour. Following some exhaustive negotiating between Ken and Lindsay, with me as the go between, we eventually were given approval to put together a Vic All Stars tour.
This started about 5 years of us taking some of our best young players each year to play against some of the best US colleges. The tours included games against North Carolina, coached by Dean Smith, Indiana University coached by Bob Knight, the University of Kansas where Roy Williams was in his early days, Digger Phelps coached Notre Dame and Dale Brown at Louisiana State University. We also faced Wake Forest lead by Tim Duncan, Penny Hardaway at Memphis and many other players who went on to fame and fortune.
These tours also provided great international experience opportunities for players like Chris Anstey, Sam Mackinnon, Frank Drmic, Aaron Trahair, Glen Saville, Tony Ronaldson, Pat Reidy, Rupert Sapwell and many others.
While the basketball was great, the highlight of these tours for me was the times spent with Ken. These tours involved a significant amount of travel, it wasn’t unusual to play a game and then have another game the next day which required an 8-hour drive. Ken loved to drive and he would hire four Lincoln Continentals for the team to travel in, we would all pile into the cars and off we’d go. I’d get in the front seat in Ken’s car and then receive an eight-hour tutorial on Australian basketball and blues music, two of Kens great loves. Anyone who has had a conversation with Ken would know that eight hours is no big deal for Ken to talk and with me being a good listener they were great times.
Ken’s love of music and basketball ensured that the tours always went through the best places for both in the USA. Memphis and New Orleans were always on the schedule and once we even breezed through Nashville, so the basketball was always great as was the music and social life afterwards.
Ken would often draw an analogy between the way great musicians and great basketball players could naturally blend in with each other to create awesome performances, true words indeed.
Ken’s love of Australian basketball and his true desire for it to reach its potential is undeniable. He has little tolerance for politics which is probably why there hasn’t been more use of his knowledge and ideas by previous power brokers at the highest levels here which is sad because he has some wonderful ideas for the game that could certainly have helped us avoid some of the roller coaster rides the sport has been on at the elite level.
Ken is a legend of Australian Basketball and he has personally given me some of the best basketball memories that one could hope for. It has been great having him back in Australia, those enjoying the fruits of the game these days owe a little to those who came before us, thanks Ken Cole.