How to win 16 in a row
Photo - Left to right - Andrew Goodwin, Wayne Turner, Andrew Murdock, Peter Crawford, Graeme Anstey, Kelvin Robertson, Mike Kelly, Andrew Rice and Ian Stacker
A few weeks back I wrote about our team building activity conducted by Ritchie Gibson and how it turned our year around and drove us into the Grand Final series. Two years later in the 2002-2003 NBL season I had further need to bring in Ritchie’s expertise and also created a team bonding commitment that had outstanding results.
In the preseason I had arranged to take the Crocs on a tour to Europe where we visited Italy and Spain. I believed the experience of touring Europe would have a great impact on our players as most Aussie players only get such experiences when they play for National teams. We had also toured to Slovenia and France two seasons earlier, the year we went to the Grand Final so I was convinced it would be great for our preseason.
On the tour it had become apparent to me that we had a real winner in our new American Point Guard Wayne Turner, a graduate of the University of Kentucky. Wayne had shown himself to be a big time player and I was looking forward to having him play for us in the NBL. Unfortunately, during the last game of the tour against Real Madrid, Wayne injured his knee and as a result was going to miss the first third of the NBL season. I decided to stick with Wayne as I believed he was going to be a big time player in the NBL. We bought in former South East Melbourne Magic point guard Adonis Jordan as a short term replacement until Wayne would be good to go.
Our season started poorly, very poorly and we got off to a 2-9 start. It was going to be a long way back from there. We ran another team building activity with Ritchie around this time which again involved an overnight adventure, this time on Magnetic Island and once again the impact on the players was outstanding. Wayne returned to the line-up and things were looking more promising. We had the bulk of our home games in the final third of the season so with some changes we could get things back on track.
While I felt good about the impact Ritchie’s activity would have on the group I also felt the team needed something else to remind them of the seriousness of our situation. I felt the team understood we were in trouble but I also felt that once they left practise and headed home they could easily forget our plight until the next time we got together. I wanted them thinking about it all the time. I also believed that if we could shift our momentum from a losing mentality to a winning mentality that we could turn our season around. Our remaining 17 games featured more home games and I truly believed we were still in the hunt despite being 2-9.
I came up with the idea that we wouldn’t shave until we won five games in a row. I thought that if every time the players looked in the mirror they saw the facial hair, it would remind them of the task at hand and occupy their mind and thoughts more often. As soon as I came up with the idea I shelved it as I didn’t think the players would go for it.
The next game after the activity with Ritchie we were to play the Brisbane Bullets in Brisbane and we had a great road win. At the post game meal, while everyone was in good spirits I was sitting with Rob Rose, Pat Reidy and Mike Kelly, who were the veteran leaders of our team, and I told them of the crazy idea I had regarding the not shaving until we won five in a row. I don’t know if it was the post-game good vibe or the couple of beers we were having but they all agreed it was worth a try. Getting those guys on side was a critical element of the whole thing being accepted by the rest of the team. The younger guys tended not to disagree with anything those guys wanted so it was full steam ahead. We met as a group and we all agreed, coaching staff, support staff and players that we would not shave or get a haircut until we won five in a row. Shane Froling who was one of my assistant coaches was the only one who wouldn’t commit to it, I think he thought it a stupid idea, but everyone else was in.
Our next game was against the West Sydney Razorbacks at home and we came away with a 115-101 win. The five game commitment was off to a good start. The next game was on the road against the fully loaded Sydney Kings, I say fully loaded as they had about 5 National team players on their squad as well as league MVP Chris Williams. They were headed to the NBL championship but we were able to put them away 94-92. The five game chase moved to 2-0. It had taken a couple of weeks to get to this point and local media had heard of our commitment and interest started to grow in the chase. The next game was a 101-83 win against the Victorian Giants in Townville and we were now 3-0. You can imagine everyone was starting to get a little hairy now and general banter around the team was about how hairy everyone was getting and how we only had two wins to go to achieve our goal of five in a row. Our next two games would certainly be a challenge though. It was to be a two game road trip to play the Melbourne Tigers and the next night the Adelaide 36ers.
We were 15 points down against the Tigers at three quarter time and came back to win 94-88. Now all we had to do was beat Adelaide in Adelaide and we would have achieved a remarkable turnaround in our season. Adelaide were at the peak of the Phil Smyth era and we hadn’t had much success in my era when we had gone to Adelaide. They were very tough to beat at home partly because they had a very good team and partly because of home town referee Geoff Weeks. Weeks had a knack of making some very interesting calls in favour of the home team when things got tight. I can remember scouting a game on video of the 36ers playing Newcastle. The Sixers had been leading most of the game but the Flacons were staging quite a comeback. There was a call under the Falcons basket and it was their ball from the baseline out of bounds. Weeks called the Falcons for a 5 second violation as they tried to inbound the ball. While I was just scouting the game I thought to myself that seemed pretty quick. I rewound the video and watch him count out the five seconds – referees are supposed to give a visual count by moving their forearm in a sweeping action for each second, so for a five second count he would need to sweep his arm five times. He swept his arm three times then called a five second violation! I watched this over and over trying to figure out how he could make this call and whether it was somehow right. It was in fact just three seconds, he called a violation and gave the ball back to the 36ers who went on to win the game. These type of calls were not uncommon in Adelaide; unfortunately, it wasn’t until you got to review the VHS video later that night or some days later that you would see the questionable calls. The quick three second count, the mysterious travel, the three points awarded when a player clearly had their foot on the line and so on and so on. It happened all the time and Geoff Weeks was often the guy making the call. You could complain to the league all you like but no one wanted to hear about it. It was commonly accepted among coaches in the league that if you wanted to beat Adelaide in Adelaide you needed to do something special if Weeks was calling the game.
Well things didn’t go well in this game and we were outplayed for most of the game. In fact, with 2.50 left to go in the fourth quarter we were down by 18 points, I need to say that again, we were down by 18 points with two minutes fifty seconds to go in the game. I had just subbed Wayne Turner out as I thought we were done, but then a couple of quick turnovers by the Sixers and a couple of quick scores by us, we quickly closed the gap. Wayne was also quickly subbed back into the game. We won!! It was the most amazing comeback I have ever been associated with, we went on a 20-0 run in 2.50 to win 114-112. It took everyone by surprise, including Weeks who never got a chance to weave his magic. I can remember doing cart wheels in the middle of the court (I’m sure they were cart wheels) as the siren went in a moment of celebration that I hope will never reappear among the video archives. I think Phil Smyth thought I was over reacting a little but he didn’t understand we had just achieved a significant goal, five in a row for the team who had only now won 8 games for the season, we were all getting very hairy, Geoff’s team had lost, it was all good.
At the post game meal, I gave a speech to the team about how proud I was of them, how our season was now back on track and how they could all now go and have a serious shave.
But the players had other ideas. Led by Pat Reidy they explained that they didn’t want to mess with the hoop gods and they wanted to not shave now until we lost a game, they wanted to extend this streak as long as they could. Seemed like a good idea to me.
Well five games became six, then seven, then eight and so on. We were getting very hairy and the beards had taken on a life of their own. Everywhere we went to play the local media would write about it, the local team would state they were going to be the team to break our streak and make us shave but everywhere we went we would win. Nine, became 10, 11, & 12. By now we had all sorts of requests for us to shave from different charity groups, wives, schools, everyone wanted in on the action when we eventually lost. Prior the thirteenth game, which was a home game against the Canberra Cannons, someone pointed out to me that if we won this game then we had beaten every team in the league at least once during the run. We had also had a request from Townville Hospital for us to attend a shave for cure event they were having so it seemed like a good idea to change the focus from the beards back on to the team. I discussed it with the team and we decided win or lose, we would all shave after the Cannons game.
We won and went on to draw the league record for the longest season winning streak at 16 games, finishing the season with 19-9 record and into the play offs. We eventually lost to the Sydney Kings who went on to win the NBL championship. Although we didn’t end up with the title, there was certainly something in the journey of the 2002-2003 season.
Momentum in sport is a difficult thing to change. Whether it is the scoring momentum of a team that is hot in a game or the momentum of a winning or losing season. As a coach you need to be able to access whether momentum is going against you and make the necessary adjustments to try to change things back into your favour. Not shaving until we had won five in a row might have seemed like a crazy idea at the time but it certainly helped changed our season. I’ve found as a coach you have to be prepared, at times, to lose big if you want to win big. In Townville we never had the luxury of three or four National team players or imports that cost the big bucks, but we were able to have some remarkable seasons when the team bought into our plans.