Heritage Round is a fantastic recent initiative by the league, this being the second season that we honour the former glories of the National Basketball League. As we celebrate the round, it’s worth taking a walk down memory lane to appreciate what has changed and what has remained the same in the NBL over the years.
Stepping back 10 years, we find ourselves in the midst of the 2002/03 NBL season. The league’s leading scorer and ultimate MVP that season was Sydney Kings import Chris Williams, who put up 23.6ppg, whilst also being second in rebounds, second in steals, fifth in blocks, twelfth in assists, in addition to shooting 53.4% from the field. With that type of production, Williams was never long for this league and ended up being lured elsewhere at season end.
The big story of the season was the Kings going on to win their first NBL title, defeating the Perth Wildcats in a 2-0 sweep. Current Kings head coach Shane Heal led that squad on the court, in what was his first title, seen by many as satisfying a final form of validation in a remarkable basketball career.
Brian Goorjian, regarded by most as the best coach Australia has ever seen, took the Kings’ reigns from the sidelines and was thrilled to coach a player of Heal’s quality. "From him this season I sensed that he did feel like we could do that, and he understood better than anyone in this competition about winning a championship ... second wasn't good enough," Goorjian said. Heal led the league in three-pointers made, was third in assists, and eighth in points per game.
That Kings team, who finally satisfied a long-held Sydney desire for a title, contained a solid array of talent. Along with Williams and Heal, the team boasted Matt Nielsen, Kavossy Franklin, Ben Melmeth and David Stiff. The Wildcats team that they defeated was no group of slouches either, with league legend and 2003 assists leader Ricky Grace, Stephen Black, James Harvey, Rob Feaster, Tony Ronaldson, Matt Burston and Brett Wheeler.
Meanwhile, across the league, we were treated to a variety of other talent. This was the great Andrew Gaze’s third-to-last NBL season, and he still managed to rank third in scoring behind Williams and West Sydney Razorbacks sharp-shooter John Rillie.
Equally, the league had the benefit of the talents of Aussie-bred Heal, Nielsen, Ronaldson, Brett Maher, Pat Reidy, Martin Cattalini, Sam Mackinnon, CJ Bruton, Paul Rogers, still-performing Glen Saville and league-leading rebounder Mark Bradtke. In addition, one-time imports (and ultimately Australian stalwarts) Grace, Darryl McDonald, Derek Rucker, Darnell Mee, Robert Rose and Lanard Copeland were tearing up the league.
In addition to its on-court excitement, the league had a variety of off-court stories. In December 2002, Canberra Cannons fans were shocked to hear that their club had hit financial woes, ultimately forcing the foundation club to make 2003 their final season in the league, despite the best efforts of Cal “the Black Pearl” Bruton. Bruton, always the entertainer, had organised a pre-season exhibition tour which involved Magic Johnson playing for the Cannons (video).
Changes in the league head office and structure were also afoot. The first makings of a points cap were discussed in December 2002, with an accompanying salary cap scale that was linked to player experience and ability. By the end of the season, the NBL had named a new commissioner -- highly heralded Rick Burton.
Burton came to the league with a wide range of ideas for revamping the Australian basketball landscape. Upon arrival in Australia he floated ideas as far-reaching as playing games on the beach, glow-in-the-dark games, and centralised revenue restructuring. Burton remained in the role until 2007.
Flash forward to now and much has progressed in the league. Many former greats of the game still have an intimate involvement in the game -- Heal, McDonald and Chris Anstey can be seen prowling the sidelines as coaches. Gaze, Steve Carfino and Ronaldson are amongst the television broadcasters that provide commentary for our games. Perhaps most importantly, fans have access to the game in an unprecedented variety of ways -- including via the NBL website, on free-to-air television and via the revelutionary NBL.TV broadcasts.
Heritage Round provides an opportunity to fondly look back at and honour the great times and players that the league has seen, whilst also setting a contrast to the developments that have been achieved in recent years.