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Featured News / June 10th, 2016

LARRY SENGSTOCK: THE LEGEND

37 years ago, the NBL was cemented into sporting folklore when the St Kilda Saints won the first ever Championship, with a thrilling game-winning basket in the final play.

June 10, 1979 was historic for many reasons.

A finish that ensured the new competition would prosper was a scriptwriters dream and a young Aussie teenager began making waves of his own.

The game was the first NBL game to be broadcast live throughout the country on ABC-TV, ensuring the Australian public got to see the new competition for the first time.

It also created a legend.

A teenager from country Queensland, Larry Sengstock’s dominant performance would set his name in history, with the future Grand Final MVP award to be named after him.

The first true sporting competition in Australia involved clubs from every state had found its poster boy and both would be intertwined for the next 18 years - taking the NBL from sheds to the biggest entertainment venues in the country.

Larry acknowledges that his timing was very lucky.

“There is no question I got to ride the crest of the wave of the NBL.

“We did the hard yards as far as promoting the game, running clinics and just getting the word out there.”

“We willingly spent a lot of time on that. Certainly we helped to forge the NBL and a lot of us look back with pride on what we did back then,” he said.

larry_sengstock_1980No-one was sure how long it would take to make this new competition a success, but it all came together on that Sunday afternoon at Albert Park Stadium in Melbourne.

The Saints line-up began that first season with a 3-3 record, but proved they were the best team by finishing the season on a 12-game winning streak.

There was more drama in finding their opponent for that sudden death final.

Canberra and Nunawading were tied on 13 wins, but the Cannons earned their place in the Grand Final on a count back thanks to a four-point differential in matches against the Spectres.

Head Coach Brian Kerle was in his early stages of his coaching career and was responsible for recruiting Sengstock from Maryborough in Queensland and giving him an opportunity in the big smoke.

Together they would go on to share four NBL Championships over the first seven years in the NBL, and Kerle remembers the 1979 Final as one of Sengstock’s best.

“The battle between Larry and Cal Stamp [Canberra’s import centre] had to be seen to be believed,” Kerle explained.

“They went at it on both ends of the court. Larry’s rebounding was phenomenal and I think that was the making of him that game.

“He was our biggest player and Cal was a couple of inches taller than him.

“For a young guy, Larry just battled on and played one of the best NBL games that I coached him in.”

Sengstock finished the game with a career-high 33 points and his opponent Stamp finished with 32-points, illustrating just how much of the contest came through the centre position.

Sengstock remembers his battle with Stamp was a pivotal one.

“As far as my game went it was just a straight match-up between me and Cal Stamp,” said Sengstock.

“We had a couple of good battles during the season - he was the big brash American in those days. Me being the young bull I was, just wanted to beat him and that was as simple as it was.”

As historic as Sengstock’s performance was, the thrilling finish to decide the title was the moment that Kerle knows will be remembered forever.

“I can still remember the last shot and the last pass from Robbie Cadee to Peter Vitols. I can visualise that very clearly.

“Being the first Grand Final and playing it at Albert Park was special. When you look back at that particular stadium, it had a huge part of Australian basketball history with so many high-level games being played against so many good teams.

“If the NBL could have scripted that finish any way they wanted, that’s how it would have turned out - with a one-point result.

“That was the first game of the making of the League itself when people started to stand up and take notice of it because it was formed under controversial circumstances.

“A lot of people weren’t happy with it or how it was done and I think that game helped change the face of Australian basketball.”

It was also important that St Kilda won the first National Championship without any import players, and Kerle considers this another ground-breaking feature.

“The greatest thing about that game was that we are still the only team that has ever won the NBL title as a totally Australian team.

“Canberra had three imports that day (playing-coach Cal Stamp, Herb McEachin and Jerry Lee) so it was very significant to me, and very important that we could win it with an all Aussie line-up.”

Sengstock continued to set records throughout his impressive 17-year NBL career, and retired as the all-time games played leader and the only player to win five Championships.

Nowadays, Sengstock is just an impressive off-the-court, as a successful sports administrator and consultant. And despite almost four decades since the classic encounter, the first Grand Final is still a vivid memory, that holds a special place.

“I still remember after that win we just went to a restaurant to celebrate it,” said Sengstock.

“In the Monday paper we just got a five-centimeter story that St Kilda had won the first ‘NIBL’ and that was it.

“But to us - it was massive.

“It was very much the early days of basketball in this country."