We’ve already seen rivalries renewed in 2017 and it’s only fitting that the Swisse NBL Finals will feature a battle between Mark Worthington and Shawn Redhage one more time when the Cairns Taipans and Perth Wildcats fight over a Grand Final berth.
Two of the NBL’s fiercest individual rivals of the past decade go to battle one last time starting Friday night at Cairns Convention Centre.
Both are without question greats of the NBL with Worthington having begun his career as a development player in Cairns where he will now finish with the Taipans.
In between, he played with the Sydney Kings, South Dragons, Gold Coast Blaze and Melbourne Tigers/United before arriving at the Snakes the last two seasons.
He is a championship winner from the Dragons in 2009 a year after coming up short with Sydney against Melbourne in the Grand Final. It was the semi-final series prior to that against the Wildcats which is where the rivalry with Redhage took off.
Six months later, they were Olympic teammates and ever since watching them do battle has been a highlight of any NBL season as they amassed Hall of Fame careers.
Redhage arrived at the Wildcats after an ill-fated stay with the New Zealand Breakers and has gone on to create a legacy that has him in the echelon of Ricky Grace, James Crawford and Andrew Vlahov.
He is a three-time championship winner with the Wildcats, is second only in games played behind Grace and a six-time club MVP winner alongside Grace.
The two individually have had remarkable careers, but together they have had a fascinating individual rivalry. Even more, illicit a strong response wherever they play whether it’s their home fans loving them, or opposition fans deriding them.
The pair do battle one more time and that the career of one of them will end at the expense of the other, Worthington believes is only fitting.
“It’s almost poetic justice that either Shawn’s career or my career will be over by the hand of the other person at the end of the day,” Worthington told NBL Media.
“I know there’s a lot been made of the rivalry but there really hasn’t been that big of a rivalry in a number of years, it just makes for good reading and people look forward to the match up if nothing else and it sells papers, that’s what I’m pretty sure it does. ”
Worthington isn’t sure the rivalry has quite lived up to what the outside perception has been or what it threatened to boil over into during that semi-final series in 2008.
But he does respect Redhage and has no doubt the fact they illicit such vocal responses around the country is good for the league.
“What he has been to the Wildcats has been phenomenal and I think he should have his jersey retired when it’s all said and done, and he will go down as a Wildcats great because of how good he’s been for that club for a long period of time,” Worthington said.
“There has been a lot more build up of it from the outside than the reality, but it depends on who you support and you either like me or hate me, and you either like Shawn or hate Shawn. That’s the sort of people that we are and we are characters within the sport.
“The good thing about both of us is that we evoke emotions one way or the other. We essentially are the John Cena’s of the NBL, you are either parochially against us or for us, and there’s not much middle ground in between.”
Redhage, too, has enjoyed the challenge of battling with Worthington throughout their entire NBL careers, and it wouldn’t have been the same without having such a rival to measure himself against.
“Both of us enjoy the challenges going up against great players and we’ve been on winning teams for most of our careers so that all makes up the factors going into a great rivalry like we’ve had. I’ve enjoyed those challenges and as a player you always want to go up against the best,” Redhage told NBL Media.
“I think we both respect the competitors that we are when we step on the court and that you’re going to try to help your team win any way you can. It’s one of those things where you enjoy the battle and part of the reason you play professional basketball is because you know you will go against some of the best in the world.”
The battles of Worthington and Redhage, along with any combination of Mika Vukona and Anthony Petrie, have been a mainstay of the NBL throughout the past decade.
Redhage has enjoyed competing against all of them but he has now played against Vukona and Petrie for the last time with only Worthington left for him.
“We’ve had a lot of battles come playoff time or in the regular season, and we’ve both been lucky to be on good teams so I have a lot of respect for him, but then there’s guys like Peach and Mika as well who I’ve battled for a long time,” Redhage said.
“Me and Peach came into the league around the same time from the SEABL when we didn’t have much of a reputation but through hard work and perseverance we’ve been able to stay in this league for that long.
“I have a lot of respect for all those guys for what they’ve accomplished and you think of them and they are always part of good teams. There’s definitely a great amount of respect there.”
Another fascinating part of the Redhage-Worthington story is that just months after their heated clashes during the Wildcats-Kings semi-final series in 2008, they were Olympic teammates playing with the Boomers in Beijing.
Redhage had no trouble accepting Worthington as his teammate and actually enjoyed it.
“To be honest when you make that Olympic team, you are just so proud to put on that green and gold,” Redhage said.
“All the battles that you’ve had previously just kind of drop away and you are there for one reason and you are proud to put on the green and gold, and represent the country.
“It was actually enjoyable to have him on your side rather than compete against him. To play with him and the other great players on that one team was a fun experience.”
Worthington was also more than happy to accept Redhage as his teammate, but it did make for some intense training sessions as you would imagine.
“Once you put the green and gold on all individual stuff goes out the window and that’s the way it should be,” Worthington said.
“I’m happy for him that he got the opportunity to represent our country and he deserved to be in that team, and the fiercest thing was probably the training sessions.
“He was a teammate and you can never take that away from us at the end of the day and while it was a little bit strange, you don’t think about it when you are in the green and gold.”
One thing that Redhage and Worthington haven’t had the chance to do since spending time together in that Olympics team is spend time together away from the basketball court.
Redhage is more than open to that possibility down the line and did enjoy the chance to reflect after the last meeting of Perth and Cairns in the regular season several weeks ago.
“After our last game when we weren’t sure if we’d play each other again, we both had the chance to say congrats on a great career,” Redhage said.
“We’ve never really had the chance to see each other outside the court but I’m sure at some stage later in our lives our paths will cross again and there’s definitely respect there from knowing what a professional basketballer has to go through to play this long.”
Not sharing a passion for drinking beer could be a reason why the pair haven’t caught up away from the court too, but for Worthington he too appreciated the chance of reflection between the pair after that last game in Cairns.
“I’m sure there’ll be an opportunity at some stage, but Shawn’s not much of a drinker and I am so that’s probably another reason why that hasn’t happened,” Worthington said.
“We had a really good conversation after the last home game in Cairns where it was a quiet moment and a reflective moment on both of our careers.
“At that stage we probably didn’t think we’d see each other again and we had similar feelings about our retirement, and the same sort of emotion and knowledge going into the season that it was probably going to be our last.
“There was obviously those similarities that once again drew us together to make us a drawcard one last time.”