It was 20 years ago today that the Australian Under 22 National Men’s team won Australia’s first Gold Medal in Men’s competition, a feat that has been repeated only once in the 20 years since - by the National Under 20 Team in 2003.
My memories of this group are quite clear and 20 years marks a chance for me to head down memory lane.
One of the first things we decided for the team was the nick name. “22 & under National men’s team”, the official name, was certainly a mouthful. The National Men’s team were called the Boomers, the under 20 National team were called the Emus and along with all the names taken by other sporting codes there wasn’t much left. Basketball Australia had nominated the Dingoes as an appropriate nick name! We all hated it.
So, over a few drinks in Korea on a pre-World Championship tour with Steve Evans (team physio and one of my best mates) and assistant coach Bruce Palmer we tossed around names. I’m sure that I came up with the Crocodiles, although others reckon they did, a few drinks does that to your memory. None the less it was decided we would be called the Crocodiles, something that was feared, not the dingoes! Upon returning from Australia we advised Basketball Australia that we would like to be called the Crocodiles which, of course, they didn’t like Probably because they didn’t think of it, so the decision was made to call us.............nothing!!! I couldn’t believe it. However strangely at the press conference held later to announce the team it was leaked to the media, by I don’t know who!!! – that we wanted to be called the Crocodiles. The media went with it and throughout the tournament we were referred to as the Crocodiles. BA used that name for the team from that time forward and have recently renamed the National Under 17 team the Crocodiles. Hopefully someone has explained to them the history of that name.
We went through several other stages of our selection process involving games and camps with our final selection camp scheduled for January 1997. The World Champs were to be held August 1st to 10th in Melbourne.
I had involved as many coaches as possible in the camps and games so that I could get as much input as possible from people whose opinions I valued. I had also tried to involve Brian Goorjian in the process too. Brian had been very much on the outer as far as Basketball Australia programs had been concerned. While we had created a winning culture with both the Eastside Spectres and the Melbourne Magic he had not had the opportunity to dip his toe in the National scene. With the recent addition of Brett Brown to the Boomers staff the door was now wide open for Americans to get involved with the National programs. I also felt I owed Brian for the opportunity he gave me to get a start as an NBL assistant coach so anything I could do to help him was worth it. I also thought he could give us with some ideas to help us win.
In the selection process for a team, whether it be a club team, State team or National team, the coach will usually have preconceived ideas about who he thinks should make the team. Over the years I have seen many dubious selections made on a coach’s whim and I am certainly no different to any other coach in that regard. Going into our final camp I figured I had in my mind how the final team would look and someone would have to do something special to change my mind.
A young Matt Nielson was one of those guys. In my mind Matt was not going to make the team. He was the youngest of the group, a bit of a hot head, talented but something of a loose cannon.
What I didn’t know was that Matt’s father had recently been diagnosed with cancer. Matt had made a commitment to his father that he was going to make this team no matter what. He wanted to show his father that if you set a goal, no matter how hard to achieve and you throw everything into it you can get there. He wanted to show his father how to fight this cancer. (I didn’t know this until after we had selected the team). Well with Matt on a mission from god he came into the camp and kicked everyone’s backside. Again, he was the youngest of the group and likely not to make the team but came out into each session with such determination that you simply had to pick him. The other thing that was a dilemma for the selection process was my pre-conceived idea that Frank Drmic could play the point guard position for us at the Worlds. I had seen Frank from a young age come up through the camps I conducted for Basketball Victoria and he always demonstrated great leadership qualities, good basketball smarts and the ability to handle the ball. I thought at 6’6” or whatever he was he would give us an edge at the PG spot that might be a great help to us. He was also contracted to the Magic so I thought I could convince Brian to play him at the PG spot with us which would have been great for Frank's development and versatility and great for the Under 22 team.
There was much debate among my informal group of selectors about whether we needed to take the two small point guards (Brendan Mann and Brad McKinnon) or whether one would be enough and we could take another big or small forward. With Nielson now playing himself into the team it came down to a decision between Glen Saville and Brad McKinnon. Saville had proved himself on the International stage with the under 20 team two years earlier where they had gained a Silver Medal at the World Champs under Gordie McLeod. Whereas McKinnon, who was also on that team, provided us with a solid two point guards if the Drmic plan didn’t work out. The decision was made to go with McKinnon as a back up to the Drmic plan and Glen Saville was to miss out on the team. This was a very controversial decision at the time but one that I was confident was the right one.
Even to this day some people still give me a hard time about not picking Saville, funny we won the World Championship and people still question whether you picked the right team. I can remember telling Sav that he had missed out on selection but also telling him that I thought he still had a very promising International career ahead of him if he stayed focused and kept working hard. No one was happier than me to see him selected for the Olympic team in 2000. The other great moment of that selection process was telling Matt Nielson that he had made the team. That was when he told me about doing it for his dad, I think we both shed a bit of a tear as only real men can!
So now the fun and games begin, we have picked our team and can start preparation as a team where we are all in it together instead of all competing against each other for a spot on the team.
We had a press conference in Melbourne at Rod Laver Arena to announce the team and also to announce the draw for the tournament. There were several media there to follow the event, remember this was 1997 and basketball was big. I pulled the team aside before they were to be introduced and told them that if they were asked by the media what our expectations were for the tournament their answer was to be that we are going there to win the Gold Medal. I didn’t want any talk of “a” medal. This is one of my gripes with our National teams, no one ever talks about winning the tournament, it’s always we hope to win a medal. For me there is only one medal you win which is the Gold, the others are basically for losing. Of course, you need to have a team that is capable of winning the tournament, and I truly believed we had that, as I believe many Australian teams have been capable. But, I wanted that big goal out there; we want to win the Gold Medal. Our theme for the tournament was that our last game together is going to be our best game together!
Interesting that the Boomers stated before the 2016 Olympics they were going to win the “Gold Medal”. Great idea that and they also went closer than any Boomers team before them.
With our final team, we had several memorable practise games leading into the tournament. One was against the Boomers, our senior men’s team featuring the likes of Gaze, Heal and Bradtke. We played them in Bendigo and lost narrowly to them, not bad for a bunch of young players.
We also had a game against the Croatian Men’s team who were in Australia for a series of games against the Boomers. A little known result, but we beat them after they had soundly beaten the Boomers in a three game series. We knocked them off at the Belconnen Basketball centre in Canberra by 1 point with Simon Dwight blocking three shots in the final seconds of a classic game.
We also had a three-game series against the University of Arizona who were coming off just winning the 1997 NCAA championship. The Wildcats had future NBA players Jason Terry, Mike Bibby and Miles Simon on their squad. We beat them 2 games to one with Lute Olson whinging his way to a final win in the third game. Lute and I had developed a good friendship over many years of me visiting Arizona and he bought the Wildcats to Australia, but boy was he a sook to compete against.
In the final week leading into the World Championships we had a feature event which was Australia V the USA, us against the undisputed team to beat for Gold. The USA was coached by Rick Majerus the Head Coach of the University of Utah. We had played Utah on the Kenny Cole World Tour in November the year before where we had got well and truly screwed by the refs in the dying seconds of the game. Future NBA star Keith Van Horne made the final play for them in a game we were never going to be allowed to win. I always remember Majerus’s smart arse look on his face shaking hands after that game and me thinking – yes you @###@ . I will see you again at the World Champs, those refs won’t be there then.
So, the USA were the benchmark and we would know for sure after this game whether we had a serious chance of winning this thing or not. The US team had several players who went on to have substantial NBA careers. Brad Miller, Mike Doleac, Sam Jacobson, Pat Garrity and one that had a very long NBA career Andrej Miller, so they were going to be tough. My plan leading into this game was to give it our best shot however no matter how the game went I was determined to make sure we lost!!! Strange you may probably think but as I have said before, I have seen our National Women’s team beat the US in exhibition games only to get them angry with the US coming back stronger the next time they met in the games that matter. The US have this complacency that slips into their basketball teams from time to time feeling they can never lose. However if they do lose anytime they will come back harder and stronger the next chance they get. Beat them in a final at a World Championship though and they don’t get a chance to come back at you. So, I didn’t want to make them angry by beating them in some crappy exhibition game and I also wanted to make Majerus feel like he was the master coach and I was just some dumbo from Australia – all lessons from the book The Art of War by Tzu.
Well strangely everything went to plan, we played very well against them either leading or being narrowly behind for most of the game. As we got deep into the second half I could see we had a chance to win and I had to make all sorts of substitutions taking out players who were playing well while still looking like I was trying to win the game. Trouble was, whoever I put in also played well and I thought we were going to win! But, fortunately, we were able to come away with the loss. Majerus shook my hand again in his usual smart arse fashion, most people at the game probably thought I had blown the only opportunity I would ever get to beat the USA. Bruce Palmer couldn’t believe some of the subs I had made. I explained to him my big picture process here but he couldn’t understand it at all. As an American he could never understand how anyone could contemplate taking a minor loss against the yanks with a view to a bigger gain later on.
So, the stage was set and the World Champs were ready to start. We headed to Melbourne and had one more practise game against Argentina who boasted such future NBA and International stars as Manu Ginobili, Fabricio Oberto, Luis Scola & Pepe Sanchez. We had a good game against them which I think we won by a couple of points. I think like typical European/South American teams they were setting us up using some art of war tactics too. We had our final few practise sessions where once again Brian Goorjian was brought in to help the group and get his foot in the door and we were ready to go. Our last game together is going to be our best game together.
Our first game of the tournament was against Turkey, not at that point any sort of basketball powerhouse but with future NBA players Hidayet Turkoglu and Mursad Turkan. The first-round games were played at the Glasshouse in Melbourne (the 1956 Olympic swimming pool) which holds about 6,000 people. Here we were all fired up to play in front of our home crowd and surprise, surprise I think there must have been 4000 Turks at the game, all dressed in red and white and chanting “Turkalee, Turkalee”. It really rocked our world as we were expecting the home crowd support. They were tough, we didn’t play well and we went down in the first game 83-75 The Turkish crowd stormed the court after the game chanting the cheer, the security staff at the glasshouse had never seen anything like it. Great I thought, some fans who are really passionate about their team winning, and hopefully the Aussie crowd can get behind us the same way.
Our second and third game of the round robin were also not very impressive, we had wins over Egypt and Korea but certainly weren’t playing very well. The experiment of Drmic at the point was an issue but we also had some other things to deal with. Chris Anstey had recently been drafted by the NBA team the Dallas Mavericks. He had been over with Dallas before the tournament and made the mistake of wearing his Mav’s lycra tights under his Australian uniform, which showed the Mavs logo each time he ran, jumped or fell over. Local journalists Chris Appleby and Tim Morrissey were all over him for disrespecting the Aussie uniform and questioning his commitment to the cause. I also learnt that Chris and Sam Mackinnon had been sneaking out of the team hotel each night to stay with their girlfriends. Chris and Sam are both from Melbourne so it was easy to come up with alternative accommodation but not in the best interest of team unity. I also had some tactical issues with Simon Dwight who was a great shot blocker but a bit lazy when it comes to other aspects of team defense. I won't try to explain what he wasn’t doing here but best explained by saying he was always taking short cuts rather than putting in the extra effort that was required. We had some team chemistry things to deal with and our next game was against Argentina who was looking like being a handful. We had a solid game against them but went down 81-67. This meant our record now in our group was 2-2 which meant that we were assured of going through to the next round but our final round robin game was against Spain. A win would mean a quarter show down with the USA and a loss would mean that we would face Puerto Rico.
One of the great things about these types of tournaments is the mix of different nationalities that compete, I’m sure it’s even better at the Olympic Games. Well at this tournament all the coaches would find the bar at the hotel once all the players had gone to bed (or so we thought) and we would all sit around drink and talk as best we could despite the mix of languages. I got on very well with the coach from Argentina and also the coach from Turkey, probably because we let them beat us. Both of them were advising me we should lose our game against Spain so that we could avoid playing the USA in the quarter final. It was typical Europe and certainly in line with the strategies of the Art of War. I had seen European teams deliberately lose games in the past to improve their match ups in the next rounds but it was something that most Australian coaches would not consider as a strategy. I had already played this card when we lost to the USA in the exhibition game. I had them where I wanted them and I thought we would be able to beat them. I didn’t want to avoid them, I wanted to play them.
The bigger issue for me was getting our team playing better, it was time for some changes and some home truths. Drmic at the point wasn’t working so plan B, moving Mann and McKinnon into a point guard rotation was now put into action. We also called a team meeting and spelt out to the players they needed to get their act together. MacKinnon and Anstey were blasted for leaving the hotel each night, if the rest of the team had to stay why couldn’t they, all the other teams were staying there too. I laid into Simon Dwight the hardest, I thought he wasn’t pulling his weight and I let him know it and the whole team received a general spray for not performing up to expectations.
Another interesting thing that was happening at this point was the support and lack of support we were receiving from different quarters. Power people within Basketball Australia were starting to distance themselves from the team. Delegates were being seen less around the group, when I would see BA people around the hotel or at games they would look the other way and avoid eye contact. I knew my arse was on the line here and I could see many a person jumping off the bandwagon!!
Anyway, we went into the Spanish game fired up by a pregame motivational speech from Andrew Gaze. I had been planning on using Andrew to talk to the boys before a final but the shit was hitting the fan now so he needed to come in. He was great! It all worked and with the new point guard rotation and some bells rang in the team meeting, we came out, played well and defeated future basketball power house Spain. I had decided before the game that I was taking Dwight out of the rotation but would get him back in if we needed him. As the game was winding down in the final 5 or 6 minutes the result looked comfortable our way. Some members of the crowd, Dwight friends and family no doubt, started to chant “we want Dwight” well that sealed it for me, there was no way he was getting in now!
So, we defeated Spain, our reward was a quarter final against the USA, basketball superpower and tournament favourites. My philosophical theories were about to be tested and my basketball coaching career was also at a crossroad. Lose now and we were out of the tournament and I was finding a new career, win and life would probably go on.
You could see there was no shortage of people who thought we were done, fair call I guess too. Australia had never beaten the USA at this level and with the quarter final on the line I guess I can understand. Someone who was very supportive right throughout the tournament was Barry Barnes who was still National Men’s coach. He was at every team shoot around and always was supportive and positive. Barry and I had banged heads from time to time but he won me over for good for how he stayed firmly in our camp when the shit was going bad and others were abandoning us.
Well I hoped that team USA went into our game feeling confident about beating us. That’s just how I wanted them feeling, not pissed off about losing to us in the exhibition game and fired up for revenge. My tactics were be the most aggressive team on the floor, put them on their heels in every aspect of the game. Roll the dice a little, we needed to take some low percentage chances that might help fire us up and maybe put them off their game. A lesson from a book by Jimmy Johnson former coach of the Dallas Cowboys – we were going to press them some and show them we were not in the slightest bit intimidated by them.
To start the game we ran a set play for Sam Mackinnon. It was the play most of the group had run to start games at the under 20 World Champs. It had worked well for them, it was the first time we were to use it as I had wanted to keep it for a special situation. If the play worked our first bucket would be Sam Mackinnon dunking from an Aaron Trahair lob pass, bingo it worked! Our team was fired up and the pro Aussie crowd had something to cheer about from the first seconds of the game.
Majerus also made a tactical mistake that also helped us. You could see that he thought our point guards, Mann and McKinnon, could not shoot so they kept their defenders well off them. Big mistake! Mann and McKinnon both knocked down three pointers in the first half that helped us get a 10-12-point advantage for most of the game. Simon Dwight, still angry that he didn’t get to play much in the last game came out like a man on fire (thankyou Simon) blocking shots and knocking down big shots. Just like we had hoped he would play from the start of the tournament. As the Americans say, it was a Turkey Shoot, we smashed them by 17 points. You can’t imagine the enjoyment I had walking the court to shake Majerus’s hand after the game. I just looked him in the eye and said “good game coach”, both of us know what I was really thinking!
Our reward for beating the USA was another match up with Argentina, very strong candidates for winning the whole thing. (This group in fact consisted of many players who would eventually win an Olympic Gold Medal for Argentina at the 2004 Olympic Games) So it wasn’t going to be easy but our team kept hearing the message, our last game together will be our best game together, we had two more games to play as a group. Win this next one and we are playing for gold, lose and we still get another game but it would be for Bronze.
Interesting that after beating the USA the band wagon was all of a sudden filling up. A lot of back slaps, BA officials back around team, happy faces, we were starting to feel the love.
I don’t think there is any piece of video that I have watched more in my life than the final three minutes of the semi-final game against Argentina. it represented the best win of my coaching career for excitement and success. The game was great, both teams played well and the lead shared throughout the game. Players from both teams played with a desperation and effort that both Countries could be proud of. In the final minute and a half Argentina had a six-point lead with us on the foul line. We figured we would be down 4 after the shots, but the second foul shot missed, and off a long-rebound Lucas Victoriano was able to sprint the floor and end up with a layup and worse we fouled him on the shot. So now they were up 7 with Victoriano on the foul line which could now push it out to 8. Not good with the little time left to play. We called time out and instructed the players to execute our quick offense. This basically meant we get the ball to MacKinnon, he drives off an on ball screen and either he shoots it or whoever he passes to is going to get it up, we needed quick shots not time wasting. Trahair hits a three, we get a stop on defense, and then Dwight hits a three. Aaron’s shot has been spoken about a lot over the years but Simon’s shot was just as big. Down one with 35 seconds to go, they have the ball. They have to shoot, and we must get the stop, no time outs left. They pass the ball around and move randomly then one of their guards drives hard to the basket. Anstey comes across to block the shot, Oberto is left open at the basket, they bounce pass to Oberto, and Brad McKinnon, god love him, rotates down and picks off the pass. We have it now about 10 seconds left in the game Brad drives it out of the back court as quickly as possible and spots Trahair running the right side lane, he passes ahead to Trahair who launches a three point shot from long range. This is the part I have watched in slow motion over and over, the faces of our players, their players, the crowd as the ball flies through the air, it has to go in for us to win, miss and we are out.........swish! The crowd goes wild, we all go wild. I have to walk down and shake hands with my Argentinean friend after such a heartbreaking loss for him. He understands, we have all lost games like this before, none this big. I show him the respect he deserves and then go and launch myself onto the pile of players who have jumped all over Trahair.
At this point I figured it was our destiny to win, we had to now. We had just knocked off the teams that would shape senior men’s basketball for the next ten years, Spain (2008 World Champions), Argentina (2004 Olympic Gold Medallist) and the USA, winners of everything else. What happened to Australia from this point forward? Well we’ll get into that later.
In the change room after the Argentina win it was understandably electric. A win like that doesn’t happen very often, we had many back slappers on board now. I emptied the room out, congratulated the team, told them they now had just won a Silver medal, something most of this group had won before. They had another shot at a Gold Medal, my final message, our last game together is going to be our best game together!
Basketball minnow Puerto Rico were to be our Gold Medal game opponents, they had pulled off some miracles of their own during the tournament, beating the USA in the minor rounds (wrong time to beat them) and had knocked out European basketball power Yugoslavia in their semi-final. They were obviously not going to be a push over but I was confident we were going to come out and play well.
We did, we beat them comfortably to win Australia’s first Gold Medal in men’s basketball. The feeling as the final siren blew was unique, we had won the NBL title in 1992 with the Melbourne Magic and I cannot deny that thar was a great feeling too. But this was about 10 times better! Standing there listening to the National anthem while they raise the Australian flag, with all our players standing on the podium with Gold Medals around their neck was special. Something I will have as a memory the rest of my life.
The press conference after the game, the back slapping at the post game function and the sheer joy and relief, I thought I had saved my coaching career. I looked forward now to seeing what would come next.
The members of the 1997 World Championship team were;
Sam MacKinnon, Chris Anstey, Simon Dwight, Aaron Trahair, Brad MacKinnon, Brendan Mann, Ben Pepper, Ben Melmeth, Matt Nielsen, Frank Drmic, Phil Doherty & Scott McGregor. Bruce Palmer Assistant & Ian Stacker Head Coach