Shane Heal, the USA and the Golden Generation of Australian Basketball
When the USA took on Australia in basketball at the Olympics a couple of weeks back it brought the sport back into the Australian media spotlight for 24 hours.
An interesting aspect was that Australia were relatively competitive, moving to within 3 points on the back of 11-0 run to start the 3rd quarter.
More interesting was that this was a team of virtual unknowns to the casual Australian sports fan. With no Andrew Bogut, Patty Mills would be the only player even verging on household-name status in Australia.
Juxtapose this with the first time Australia met the USA post-Dream Team.
It was 1996 and in a warm-up to the Atlanta Olympics, Australia played the USA in Salt Lake City. For a generation of Australian kids there was so much back-story to this seemingly innocuous and meaningless game of basketball.
The late 80s had seen a huge growth in basketball in Australia that by the early 90s had become a tidal wave. Born at the start of the 1980s, it was a wave that swept my generation.
As a kid in a sports-mad city like Melbourne the traditional sports of Australian Football (AFL) and cricket dominated the psyche, it seemed that everything you grew up with had these elements woven in its history.
So the Basketball wave started as something slightly exotic, something that cool kids started playing, but importantly something that was claimed as our generation’s.
In Melbourne long before the sophistication and ruthlessness of television sport hit Australia, the NBL sat snugly in a live Sunday 12-2pm slot nestled between the AFL panel review show and its live broadcast at 2pm.
It was the piggy-back that would never be allowed today but introduced this generation to basketball and gave rise to a new set of heroes; Leroy Loggins, Andrew Gaze, Scott Fisher, James Crawford all were kings of the kids as the 80s became the 90s.
It also gave rise to a ‘dads trying to be cool’ phenomenon as they tried to grasp the sport that was taking their kids attention.
And the US imports were kings, for a still relatively backward nation as far as multiculturalism went, 6’8″ black athletes were another world away from the traditional Australian ‘every-man’ sports heroes of the time. They were the logical successor to West Indian cricketers as the coolest people on the planet.
This was the danger that ended up playing out, the US imports were often the drawcard and ultimately the kids were going to take it a step further. As this growth was occurring and kids everywhere in Australia were dribbling basketballs to and from school, what seemed to be the perfect storm was brewing.
Within 6 months of Michael Jordan winning his first NBA title in June 1991, Australia was awash with kids wearing Chicago Bulls caps.
1992 saw the Ten Network secure the Australian NBL TV rights and took it to prime time television, the 1992 Dream Team poured fuel on the fire and basketball was a raging inferno that was threatening the traditional sporting order of the country.
But the Dream Team started a subtle shift, whereas Christmas 1991 saw Chicago Bulls caps everywhere, Christmas 1992 saw Charlotte Hornets caps everywhere. Before it was a Jordan-inspired basketball fashion statement for kids, within a year anything NBA had become the hot item for 12 year olds.
The NBA was the new exotic. There was literally 1 and half hours a week on Australian television of NBA; NBA Action and a brutally butchered hour highlights package of a match played sometimes a week beforehand, screening Saturday at noon.
This fact it seemed so remote in a strange way added further to the mystique. NBA licensed apparel was quickly clothing every cool kid in Australia.
The downside was the NBL became uncool. It ultimately could not justify prime-time television ratings and it was shuffled around but now without the launching pad it previously had.
So come 1996, a 15 year old like myself was fixated on the NBA heroes that were saddling up for Dream Team III. The emotional and patriotic pull of an Australian team taking on this team for the first time in the Dream Team era made this most anticipated.
So we had this Golden Era of Australian basketball effectively closing but culminating in the Australian team including all the names that we’d grown up with and were now effectively part of the wallpaper.
Without question most of the team were names your non-basketball people knew – household names.
Andrew Gaze, Mark Bradtke, Shane Heal, Andrew Vlahov, Scott Fisher had naturalised for the Olympics and even Ray Borner was playing too – full of childhood icons for this generation.
So here it was, for the first time Australia was going to have its moment in the spotlight. We were going to participate in this mythical NBA world. And how? Well it was like the friend in Primary School who you’d drifted away from in High School as they couldn’t quite cut it in the cut throat High School school stakes. But these NBL friends were still there and now we were fighting on the same side.
At the risk of hyperbole it was the seminal sporting moment of my generation.
It screened live on Australian free to air TV, at that point still one of the rare occasions we could see NBA players in real time. Running through period 4 and lunchtime, it seemed like the every male student had huddled into rooms at school to watch it.
Amazing to remember that even though my school was not known for formality, period 4 was effectively written off because of this match.
For an hour and a half we went back to our pre-NBA days and embraced our awkward looking white guys, and barracked (as opposed to ‘rooted for’- always one to bring laughs to 15 year olds) as one.
It’s interesting to look back at this match and note that Australia trailed by 21 at half time because it seemed like a lead. In the first half we’d somehow managed to look like we belonged, and when I say we belonged I mean the team but also this youth movement that had built over the 6 or 7 previous years.
Of course this was on the back of the Shane Heal long-range barrage. It was as if all of those 6 or 7 years were crystalised into every time Heal scored.
In a perfect world it would have been the undisputed man of Australian basketball Andrew Gaze that would have done the damage, but Heal took the chance. Gazey may have had an even greater moment though when he managed to scuffle with serious arsehole (nee asshole) Karl Malone on his homecourt.
It wasn’t just the 28 points Heal scored or the famous battle with Charles Barkley where he was cheap shotted with a shoulder charge after another 3 and then went back at Barkley down the floor.
It was the sheer audacity of taking ridiculous shots against these guys that made everyone watching in that classroom feel as if we were actually living in the same world as the NBA.
Amidst the string of ridiculous shots he was making, Hubie Brown comments “Now they’ve got to get out and guard this young guy. This guy can really shoot “ – how could you not feel the pride.
I must say looking back the memory of this match was that Heal and Australia played out of its skin and showed that we were worthy of respect. Rose coloured glasses they may be as Australia lost by 41 but when Barkely embraced Heal after the match (and he subsequently earned an NBA contract) Australia was at least a blip on the world we all idolised.
The fact was this seminal moment was also semi-apocalyptic for Australian basketball. It was the culmination of the Golden Era, the iconic Australian players barring Heal all slightly past their absolute peak, with the NBL plateauing and young talent starting to be lured to European basketball.
It was the curtain call on the Golden Era, but it sure was fitting.
As for the NBA, in Australia popularity slowed to a degree. As world sport became a smaller place , Pay TV in Australia was slow to take hold and did not latch on to the NBA like you would have thought.
The 1999 players strike and Jordan retirement also contributed to a lull in interest, and Basketball in Australia was hit with the ultimate catch 22 where popularity in the local product suffered from NBA comparisons and then waning popularity in the NBA had a knock–on effect for basketball popularity as a whole.
The NBL struggles today, in its boom time there were 16 teams catering for all sorts of markets that other sports didn’t cater for.
Today there’s 8 teams going around and a lot of the absolute best talent that Australia has now plays in Europe (aside from those few that have made it to the NBA).
However the showing of the Boomers against the USA reminded the Australian public that we are capable of competing with the best in the world like the way we earned that vindication in 1996.
The resurgence in the popularity of the NBA in Australia in recent years is no surprise. The generation that was part of the wave has grown up and is watching sport in their own homes on Pay-TV. Basketball is a ‘natural’ sport for 30 something year olds and younger due to the late 80s wave. The basketball generation are now having children and the opportunities will eventually come for the sport that made a profound impact 20 years ago.
There won’t be the ‘dads trying to cool’ cringe factor – whether we played basketball or not, we know the sport because we lived the boom as children.
That day in 1996 was a day that a generation can remember and who knows what kind of impact that may have for the next generation.
HIGHLIGHTS of USA v AUSTRALIA 1996 in Salt Lake City
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