Kings Celebrate Women’s Basketball

By Matt McQuade

 

If you asked the average fan about the first team to win a championship in the history of the Sydney Kings organisation, 99.99% would likely respond in the same manner.

The answer would almost certainly be a memory of the 2002/2003 Kings’ unit that won its historic title in Perth with a destruction of the Wildcats.

But the thing is, the answer itself would be wrong.

For in 1993, there was a team that captured hearts throughout the Harbour City.

And it wasn’t a team that wore purple and gold.

It was a team called the Sydney Flames.

In late 1990, under the urging of Sydney Kings Legend and then General Manager Lorraine Landon, the great Mike Wrublewski had taken over the running of the Bankstown Bruins Women’s National Basketball League team and moved their home games to the Sydney Entertainment Centre, where they played double-headers with the Kings, starting in the newly revamped WNBL that began play in 1991.

“Michael was very committed to women’s basketball,” Lorraine remembered.

“At the time, Bankstown was struggling for fans, mainly because of the name. The marketing people were telling us that it needed to be a city, because that’s how the NBL was heading.”

“It was just the right time for the Kings to get involved. And I must have gotten Mike on a good day because he thought it was a really good idea.”

“Running double-headers at the Entertainment Centre was a challenge initially because it was hard to attract fans for four hours, but people seemed to really like it.”

“But the big thing is that just like with wheelchair basketball, Mike was really committed to the idea of basketball for everyone.”

Initially known as the Sydney Bruins, the team was renamed as the Sydney Flames in 1992. And by ’93, following a highly successful preseason recruiting drive, the Flames turned into a powerhouse.

Led by Carrie Graf, a product of the powerful Nunawading club in Victoria and considered a rising star in the coaching ranks, and featuring Australian women’s national team members Karen Dalton, Shelly Gorman, Annie Burgess and the legendary Robyn Maher – who before Lauren Jackson came along was arguably the best female ballplayer Australia had ever produced – the Flames took the WNBL by storm.

In a year when the Kings collapsed in a storm of acrimony underscored by the walkout of import Kenny McClary midway through the season, the Flames provided the goodwill and a winning atmosphere while their male brethren were struggling.

Their exciting style resonated with fans and once they started piling up the victories, it was not uncommon to see as many as 4,000 in attendance to watch the women do their thing before the men’s team stepped on to the Kingdome floor.

In fact, the old joke that year used to go that it was the Kings who should be the warmup act and the Flames elevated to the main event.

There was a lot of truth to that. These women could flat-out play.

They were also fashion-forward. Remember the Lycra bodysuits? The Flames popularised that outfit and it ended up becoming the standard for the national women’s team for a time.

Such was the rise in the popularity of women’s basketball in the ‘90s, the Flames were even given back page coverage in the major Sydney newspapers, something that was unheard of for women’s sport in general.

But it was all about the team and how well they gelled on the court. The 1993 unit was a squad for the ages.

Maher and Gorman bolstered a strong line-up that already included Dalton and Burgess plus veterans Gail Henderson and Michelle Landon, and in what became a remarkable 1993 campaign, the Flames turned into an irresistible force.

Following a first-up loss to Melbourne by a point in overtime, the Flames tore off 17 straight victories to finish on top in the 1993 regular season. The streak included a memorable 84-68 win over the Australian Institute of Sport, a game that drew national attention after Maher returned to the court just ten days after the birth of her daughter Stevie.

Gorman – who in her day was the equivalent of Australian Opals’ superstar Penny Taylor – averaged 17.1 points per game to finish fourth in scoring in the WNBL and was selected in the League’s All Star Five for the fourth time; team captain Dalton was named WNBL Defensive Player of the Year while Graf finished second in voting for Coach of the Year behind Adelaide’s Jan Stirling. Landon – Lorraine’s daughter – led the WNBL with 7.9 assists a game while Dalton finished second in rebounds.

Overall, the team averaged 71.8 points a game over the entire season while conceding just 57.2 points per contest, an average winning margin of an impressive 14.6 points. They were as dominant as any team in the history of the WNBL.

After their stunning 17-1 regular season, they outlasted the always powerful Adelaide Lightning in overtime in a thrilling semi-final, then went on to win the 1993 WNBL championship, edging the Perth Breakers 65-64 in a nail-biting Grand Final at the Kingdome in front of over 6,000 screaming fans and a national television audience.

With Burgess knocking in three clutch three point bombs in the second half and Gorman showing ice water in her veins with a must-have free throw in the final seconds, the Flames triumphed, sending the crowd into absolute hysterics.

They made history a decade before the men’s team would finally climb the mountain.

“Carrie Graf was similar to a Brian Kerle, or a Cal Bruton or Bob Turner,” Lorraine Landon said.

“These were people who were all coaches, but also great advocates for the game. They were passionate about driving promotion of the game and getting people to watch it. Carrie was a great fit for Sydney in that way.”

“The funny thing is on Grand Final day, Mike had Carrie ringing up radio stations to promote the game, even though you’d think the coach would need to be totally focused on winning.”

“But anyway, we won. It was exciting for everybody, and it gave us an opportunity to showcase what women’s basketball was all about, particularly with ‘Oz94’ (the 1994 FIBA World Championships for Women) being held in Sydney the next year.”

In Sydney, the Flames had become a team to be celebrated. And over the next three seasons they would show the men what a winning culture was all about, compiling a spectacular 47-7 mark during that period, reaching another Grand Final in 1996 with legendary point guard and FIBA Hall of Famer Michele Timms leading the way.

And then in 1997, perfection was achieved.

Led by Head Coach Bill Tomlinson – who as Brian Goorjian’s trusted right hand man was a big part of the Kings’ immortal ‘three-peat’ between 2003 and 2005 – and powered by the size, athleticism and sheer talent of Trish Fallon up front and a hard working forward in Michelle Brogan, the Flames became the first team in WNBL history ever to register a perfect regular season, going 18-0.

They were shocked by Adelaide in their major-semi-final at the Kingdome, but received a second chance thanks to the playoff format at the time, won the preliminary final and got their revenge in the Grand Final, overcoming the Lightning 61-56 for their second title.

Since those heady days in the 1990s, the standard of excellence in the Harbour City has continued.

In the past 18 years, a Sydney women’s team has gone on to win the WNBL championship twice, with the Sydney Panthers securing the crown in 2001 and more recently the Flames sweeping the Dandenong Rangers to grab the 2016/2017 crown. The team also finished runner-up on six occasions – going agonisingly close on four straight occasions between 2002 and 2005.

It’s not a bad return since 1991. Four championships and a whopping 12 WNBL Grand Final appearances. Put that in comparison with the Kings – since 1988 the men’s team has three titles and reached the NBL Grand Final five times.

This Sunday at Qudos Bank Arena, the Sydney University Flames, who own that team’s remarkable history, will play a double-header with the Kings, as the organisation pays tribute to those amazing women who set the standard for women’s basketball in the 1990s and then into the 21st century.

Over the years, the names that have represented Sydney’s WNBL team have been some of the greatest players in the history of the game. From Maher, Dalton and Gorman to Fallon, Timms and Belinda Snell – Sydney fans have been witnesses to some of the best that women’s basketball has had to offer – not just in Australia, but worldwide.

They were trailblazers. They were superstars. They meant as much to the growth of basketball in this city as the Kings ever did. Little girls had their own heroes to admire and emulate.

On Sunday, the Sydney Kings organisation will pay tribute to all these great athletes who have worn the colours of the Sydney Flames, Bruins and Panthers since 1991.

Happily, many of these remarkable women will be in attendance. As we look forward to what will be a great event at Qudos Bank Arena, we thought it would be fitting to get the thoughts of three of those superstars on their time in Sydney and what it meant to them.

MICHELLE TIMMS – FIBA Hall of Famer, Olympic Medallist, WNBA star, Sydney Flames 1996

I loved the Entertainment Centre, the double-headers, the women playing before the men and then hanging around for the after-game function; just the good old days of how hoops used to be. It was a wonderful experience in a city that just supported us so well, during a time when basketball was a major sport and had such a great following in Sydney. The whole Saturday night, going into the Entertainment Centre, going upstairs to the after-game function and the whole camaraderie of that, then going downstairs to watch the men – it was just a really fun time.

I loved the training facility at O’Riordan St in Alexandria – back then that was world class. It had its own gym, it had offices – provided the Kings or Flames weren’t training there we could go in any time we wanted to shoot around and work out. It was just a wonderful family atmosphere there and I remember one time Carrie Graf opening up the place late on a Sunday night for me to work out because my shooting was a little off. It was just fabulous.

And Mike Wrublewski was like royalty. What he did for basketball – whether that be women or men – was just phenomenal. As a player I was so appreciative of him but I remember I was really nervous meeting him because he was like our king, he was basketball royalty. But every time you met him you’d want to give him a hug because of what he was doing for basketball.

ROBYN MAHER – Sport Australia Hall of Famer, Olympic Medallist, captain of first Sydney Flames Championship Team

The best thing about playing in Sydney was that it was a new era of professionalism. That’s what struck me – how professional the organisation was. I guess not being part of a men’s program prior to Sydney – I was with the Nunawading Spectres and then with Hobart and Perth – to be part of the Kings and Flames program was great. They were very much a joint program – it wasn’t like it was just the Kings and then they had the women. They were very much entrenched in what we were doing and recruited likewise. It was also a very welcoming environment which I loved.

It’s funny about the Grand Final in 1993 in that I don’t remember much about that game, but I remember the excitement of having that first win ever for the Flames and for Sydney. At that stage the Kings hadn’t made a Grand Final so it was a little bit special that the women got there first. It was nice that we could get something done, not just for the women but for the organisation.

They were really good times – it was great to have our own training facility and being able to work out whenever you wanted. It was just a different era, the start of a new era for women’s basketball.

 

BELINDA SNELL – Olympic Medallist, 2006 World Champion, WNBA Champion, Member of 2001 Sydney Panthers Championship Team and 2017 Sydney Uni Flames Championship Team

It’s interesting in that my first season in Sydney was with the Sydney Panthers when they were still part of the Kings and we would play at the Superdome so it’s nice to go back there this weekend. I definitely enjoyed playing the double-headers with the Kings and that year we won the championship with Annie Burgess and Suzy Batkovic. The other great memory was captaining the Flames to the championship in 2017 but in between then I was in a lot of losing Grand Finals! But at least we got there!

It’s going to be exciting this Sunday for all basketball fans to come and enjoy two quality basketball games. Hopefully we can get two W’s on Sunday for the Flames and the Kings! It’s great to play at Brydens’ Stadium and we get great support there, but it will be nice to play in the big stadium. Hopefully the crowd can get out there and support us.

The Sydney Kings are urging all Sydney fans to get out to Qudos Bank Arena early on Sunday to cheer the Sydney University Flames as they take on the Bendigo Spirit! It’s a special double-header and you get two world-class games for the price of one! Tickets for this hoops extravaganza are on sale through Ticketek.

Venue: 
Qudos Bank Arena, NSW

Date: 
Sun 18 Nov 2018 4:45pm

Game Times:
Flames v Bendigo tip off: 2.30pm
Sydney Kings Pre-game show: 4.45pm
Sydney Kings v Breakers tip off: 5.20pm