Michael Jordan will forever have the universal acclaim but when it comes to Chicago’s late 1990s dynasty, Steve Kerr is the player who beats even “His Airness” when it comes to respect.
There are some names that are simply synonymous with the NBL.
When you hear them, you immediately think of their legendary status in Australia’s men’s professional basketball league.
Their surnames are usually enough to evoke mental images of their greatness on the court over a long period of time.
Counting them down from 10-1, here are the NBL’s greatest icons.
10. Mark Bradtke
He had a presence whenever you saw him on or off the court, and he was a presence in the paint for the best part of two decades.
He spent four years at his hometown Adelaide 36ers before joining Melbourne in 1993, giving the Tigers the interior force they’d lacked as they surged to their maiden championship in his first season.
A 10-time All-NBL First Team representative, he ended his Melbourne stint in 2007 – which was interrupted by a year in the NBA with Philadelphia a decade earlier. He farewelled the NBL with a season in Brisbane and played his part as the Bullets downed his old mates at the Tigers in the grand final series.
9. Mika Vukona
A relatively new entry to the NBL’s iconic figures, the Fijian-born Kiwi forward made his debut for his beloved Breakers in 2003 before spending the 2008-09 season with the South Dragons’ in their championship run which bizarrely was their last foray before folding.
After a year at the Gold Coast Blaze, he returned to New Zealand and was the heartbeat of a team which would win three straight titles from 2011-13 and then another in 2015. Cruelly, his NBL career ended in 2020 with an Achilles tear at the Bullets just one game shy of 450.
8. Lanard Copeland
When the NBL was exploding in popularity in the early 1990s, this import was exactly what was needed to bring the wow factor to nascent hoops fans. This guy had hops and when you pair someone like that with a passing master like Andrew Gaze, the alley oops would regularly bring the crowd to their feet.
He starred in Melbourne’s 1993 title run and was grand final MVP when they added a second championship four years later. He averaged 20-plus points per game in 532 NBL outings but it’s the way he scored those points with flair and panache which make him such a legendary figure in the game.
7. Damian Martin
Icons are not confined to the early days of the league.
He may not have been everyone’s favourite player but nobody has had a more influential career in the past decade than the retired Perth Wildcats skipper. In an era dominated by defence, Martin stood tall despite usually being the shortest player on the court. A record six-time Defensive Player of the Year, he won just as many championship rings as the Wildcats dwarfed their rivals from 2010-20.
6. Cal Bruton
The smoothest of operators as a point guard or coach, he was the man for the NBL, literally from day one. He led the league in scoring with 33.2 per game in the 1979 foundation season for Brisbane and spearheaded the Bullets’ first title six years later.
Bruton then headed west and transformed the previously under-achieving Wildcats into a force, culminating in their 1990 breakthrough championship.
5. Phil Smyth
It may not have been fashionable to have a national captain with the body of an accountant and the balding combover to match but Smyth embodied the grit and determination of Australian basketball’s early days to rise above the assumption that the NBL was somehow an inferior product to other sports.
Smyth was the focal point of Canberra’s golden era of success from 1983-88 which delivered three titles. He’s arguably had more influence on the league as player and coach than anyone else – leading Adelaide to three titles with clipboard in hand from 1998-2002.
4. Brian Goorjian
Although he came to Australia as a player and spent eight seasons at Melbourne Tigers even before they were in the NBL, he made his mark as a coach, one of the greatest mentors in any sport in the nation over the past couple of generations. A six-time NBL Coach of the Year, he has just as many championship rings and probably would have racked up more accolades if not for a decade-long switch to China before his return last year with the Illawarra Hawks.
As well as an illustrious career littered with success, Goorjian has been a fierce advocate for Australian basketball and it was no coincidence that the Boomers won their first Olympic medal under his guidance when they collected bronze at Tokyo a few months ago.
3. Leroy Loggins
Skill, success and charisma made the long-time Brisbane champion one of the most dominant figures of his time. It’s a little-known fact that he won his first championship with the West Adelaide Bearcats in 1982 during a two-year stint in South Australia before rejoining his beloved Bullets for the next 17 years, leading them to two titles along the way.
A three-time league MVP and nine-team All NBL First Team selection, his is another career that is not great because of the amazing statistics – Loggins was a household name, a star in every sense of the word who could get fans through the turnstiles and provide the razzle dazzle that the NBL built its reputation on.
2. Shane Heal
Another player who polarised opinion but ensured the NBL was never far from the mainstream news cycle.
The bleached-blond hair, the flashy shooting, the in-your-face aggro combined to create a remarkable career that thrilled home supporters and enraged opposition fan-bases, much to Heal’s delight.
A knockdown shooter who scored at more than 20 points per game over his 440 NBL outings, he was a star from the moment he came into the league in 1988 at Brisbane. “The Hammer” achieved what was thought to be mission impossible in 2003 when he propelled the Sydney Kings to their first title.
1. Andrew Gaze
When you think of Australian basketball, there’s only one GOAT and that is Gaze.
As unassuming as they come, there will never be anyone as prolific as the Melbourne Tigers great. For more than two decades from 1984-2005 he gave his all for the only club he’d ever wanted to represent, ending his astounding career with two championships, seven MVP trophies and more points than anyone can probably even imagine scoring – 18,908 from 612 games at 30.9 per game.
Not only an icon of basketball but of Australian sport, his passion for the NBL is as strong today as it ever was – the league can have no greater advocate.