From the brink of basketball oblivion to ABA East Conference champions, today marks 10 years since the biggest moment in Albury-Wodonga Bandits history as STEVE SMITH reports.
LEIGH Gooding still isn’t sure how it happened.
Trailing a rampant Frankston Blues, 79-73, with a tick over seven minutes remaining in the 2001 Australian Basketball Association East Conference grand final, the Albury-Wodonga Bandits coach was fast running out of options.
The Bandits had played sluggishly for much of the match and now, on the biggest stage, the league’s perennial strugglers were on the brink of yet more heartbreak.
Pacing the sidelines of the Albury Sports Stadium, Gooding shouted a play to his charges as they huddled up during a break in play, hoping against hope they could find a spark to retrieve what was looking perilously close to an unwinnable situation.
What Gooding didn’t know, was that in that huddle, the Bandits players — Allen McCowan, Matt Sheehan, Russell Hinder, Nick Grylewicz and Nick Payne — could barely hear each other, let alone their coach, such was the noise of a 1500-strong crowd that was cheering itself hoarse trying to rally their beloved team.
No one involved can remember exactly what was said but the consensus is that there was an almost absurd level of confidence and positivity; that regardless of the scoreline or how tired they were, they would not lose this game.
And they didn’t.
Starting with a putback from a pumped-up Hinder and an energising three from a blond-tipped Payne, the Bandits went on a 27-8 scoring blitz over the next seven minutes, while at the other end they were racking up defensive stops against an increasingly frustrated Frankston team whose momentum had ground to a halt.
When the dust had settled, the Bandits were champions, capping a remarkable rise from near-extinction to the summit of Australia’s premier winter basketball competition.
It was a stunningly successful culmination of a two-year resurrection and a fitting reward for a loyal team of local players, coaches and volunteers.
A decade later and now the head of the Dandenong Basketball Association, Gooding — or “Scoota” as he is almost universally known — was still scratching his head at both the comeback and the sheer energy the raucous home crowd provided.
“It was a strange one, we were trailing all game and honestly didn’t look like we had a hope of turning it around,” Gooding said.
“We just didn’t have a spark and we were running out of ideas on how we might turn it around to be honest.
“But I do remember talking to the guys at three-quarter-time and saying to them that the crowd was just waiting for something to happen, they were really anxious for us to create something and give them a reason to really get behind us.
“That crowd was just dying for us to make a charge, to make a run and once we brought them into the game, they did the rest.
“Luckily enough, we had a couple of guys fire up, the crowd got behind us and lifted the rest of the team and the rest is history.”
And while Gooding can’t quite explain it, point guard Matt Sheehan is in no doubt the players’ inexhaustible reserves of self-belief pushed them to the 100-87 victory.
“I can remember it was with five minutes to play, we were down but were absolutely positive that we were going to run over the top of them,” Sheehan said.
“And that’s just how that team was, we knew we could chase teams down and positivity turned that around, we got some stops and went from there.
“It was so loud, we couldn’t really hear each other in the huddle, without a doubt that crowd helped get us over the line, it was very inspirational.”
Sheehan, named most valuable player for his 21-point, seven-rebound, five-assist performance, was only too happy to acknowledge he has played on more talented teams but said the 2001 Bandits were the classic team in every sense of the word.
“It definitely wasn’t the most skilful team I’d played with,” Sheehan, who won the East Conference Golden Hands award that year, said.
“If you put those names on paper, then definitely not but it was the whole team aspect that got us where we needed to be.
“To say we were greater than the sum of our parts was an absolutely true statement, there were other teams that looked better but when it came to cohesion, they weren’t anywhere near what we put together at Albury.
“To Leigh’s credit, he built a team with players designed for specific roles, you look at Gryls or Blacky (Shane Black) and they were defensive juggernauts, they had that pass-first mentality, everyone played their role absolutely sensationally.
“Defence was the backbone of Leigh’s philosophy and good defence turns into a running game on offence and it makes the game more enjoyable to play and that was the type of squad we had.”
Earlier in the season, the Bandits had travelled to Frankston and been soundly thrashed, 109-89, a defeat Gooding at the time blamed on “passengers” on the team.
But as their campaign wore on, the playing group’s cohesion was evident, with star guard Allen McCowan leading from the front.
The Kentucky native was a force of nature all year, averaging 26 points per game — including a 52-point detonation of Geelong in round three — but all McCowan remembered of that fairytale season was a tight-knit team that refused to back down against anyone.
“That whole group came together and said ‘whatever it takes’,” McCowan said.
“Whatever it took to get the job done, no one cared who did what, we said we’d play team defence and that was the biggest key, that everyone said they’d all do the little things.
“And looking back, that was definitely the most satisfying memory.”
The Bandits started the season with a low-post duo of Chris Blakemore and Tony Ferris, an effective combination that gave the Border outfit size and strength down low, as well as some deft touch at the offensive end.
But when Ferris headed to Lander University, the Bandits faced a stretch run without any post depth behind Blakemore, a situation that put their title hopes in serious peril.
Enter Russell Hinder.
The 208-centimetre centre had just returned from a four-year US college stint and was training with the NBL’s West Sydney Razorbacks, where Gooding was an assistant coach.
With the not-insignificant carrot of guaranteed play-off action (not to mention exposure to NBL scouts), Gooding convinced Hinder to commute to the Border once a week and the big pivot proved to be the crucial missing piece in the Bandits’ championship puzzle.
Hinder — now the captain of the Townsville Crocodiles — admitted he couldn’t remember much from the grand final, only that he’d been assigned to guard Frankston’s 211-centimetre behemoth Wade Helliwell.
In the final wash-up, Hinder dominated Helliwell, dropping a sublime double-double of 19 points and 15 rebounds against Helliwell’s eight points and six boards before the Blues pivot fouled out in the frantic final quarter.
What Hinder does recall though, is just how much the championship meant to the dedicated band of Border locals who had been so welcoming to him, a complete outsider.
“I remember hearing before the game that Frankston had this monster of a player called Wade Helliwell and that I was going to have to guard him,” Hinder recalled.
“I don’t really remember heaps about the game but I remember him complaining a lot that I was fouling him a lot and the refs weren’t calling it.
“I probably was but if the refs don’t call it ...
“It just went off. It was a wonderful thing and I didn’t have nearly as much invested in it as everyone else down there.
“But you could see how much it genuinely meant to all the people down there, they really cared about the town and the club and that’s what made it really special for me.
“I was jacked for the guys, they’d shown so much faith in me, I came in late, they’d done the preseason and I just blew in and trained once a week but no one ever made me feel bad about it and I guess I wanted to repay everyone’s faith in me.”
To this day, Hinder, who won a Commonwealth Games gold medal with the Boomers in 2006, credits both Gooding and his short playing stint on the Border as crucial points in his playing development.
“Without a doubt, I really enjoyed my time there, it’s probably the premier second division competition in Australia,” Hinder said.
“I remember playing well in the grand final and thinking that maybe I’ve got a shot at lasting longer in the NBL than just a preseason.
“Scoota did a really good job of boosting my confidence and to this day I’m still a confidence player; if I get a coach that doubts me or second-guesses me, I’m just a piece of crap, I fall in a heap.
“But if I’ve got a coach that backs me, I always put up good numbers and play a lot better and Scoota was always great for me.”
For Payne, the last local link still playing in the SEABL, the memories of the grand final heroics are still freshly etched in his memory.
“It really doesn’t feel like 10 years ago at all,” Payne, now the current Bandits skipper, said.
“It still feels like it was just yesterday that I was a 19-year-old, running around, having a breakout season and winning a championship.
“I guess I’ve been very fortunate to go on from that and win a couple more titles with Knox but the memories are still very fresh, I don’t think any of the guys who played on that team will forget that game for a very long time.”
And for all their talk of togetherness, resilience and perseverance, the notion that this was a team of destiny is hard to ignore, even for some of the players.
McCowan, for one, certainly believes the glass slipper was a perfect fit for this Cinderella team.
“Oh I definitely think it was destiny,” McCowan said.
“In our minds, once we locked down top spot, we knew we had home court (advantage) and everyone had to come through here to win.
“We’d always had that mindset that we could come back and win, especially in our house.
“It was a matter of getting some stops and finishing them off.”
Payne echoed his fellow club legend, acknowledging just how far the Bandits came in the space of one special season.
“Yeah, I think it was destined, early on, I don’t think anyone knew what to expect from this team,” Payne said.
“We only had one import and a really good core of local guys; I think after five or six weeks we were winning and the guys got a really good sense that we could do some really good things.
“We certainly grew in confidence as the season wore on and it was going to take a lot to stop us from winning it, I know that.
Sheehan, however, has a much more logical — if less romantic — viewpoint.
“Was it destined? I don’t know, was it deserved? I wouldn’t even say that,” Sheehan mused.
“But it was our just reward, just purely for what we had accomplished in the previous 28 games and what we had built together, that last five minutes, we executed better than Frankston did, simple as that.”
But the final word goes to Gooding, who still maintains it was the maturity and strength of character of the players that got them over the line. That, and that home crowd.
“Those guys just had a lot of faith in each other,” Gooding said.
“It was a pretty mature group that had been around a while and all got along pretty well and was very easy to manage.
“It was just a matter of things going our way too, up until the final quarter we had nothing go our way and Frankston were totally outplaying us.
“However they were probably playing as well as they could have and we weren’t playing well and we knew we could play better.
“But once we had a sniff of belief I thought we were always going to be in pretty good shape and that last quarter seemed to last forever for us.”