The Melbourne Tigers are one of the biggest names in Australian basketball. Many NBL greats have donned the famous red and yellow uniforms over the years. However, three years ago their world changed and their proud past was lost.
Now, through the eyes of a supporter, and discussions with Victorian basketball legend, Darryl McDonal, you can see the Tigers are creating their own history. Again.
The heater turned on, I drove through Melbourne on a dark Saturday night in the middle of May. Traffic was stopped for the thousands of football fans making their way to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Each member of the mob was draped in their team’s colours.
Waiting for a gap in the crowd to materialize, I continue. Driving past the crowded stadium the anticipation is in the air, it is so thick that you can almost taste it. I can sense it and I’m only on the outside looking in. The fans take no notice of the cold, the excitement is keeping them warm. I stop at a red light and soak in the atmosphere, but I have somewhere else to be.
As I drive further away from the MCG, the lights from the stadium become smaller and smaller through my rear-vision mirror. I keep driving all the way to the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre. The atmosphere here is, different. Finding somewhere to park is relatively easy, even though I am running late. The football crowd pushed my arrival time back later than expected. Being able to see every breath in front of me, I grasp my coat and hurriedly walk towards the glass doors. As I approach I can hear music and the murmurings of a crowds’ pre-match entertainment.
Inside, the Melbourne Tigers, Australia’s most iconic basketball side is about to take the court. The MCG this is not. The Tigers are hosting the Ballarat Miners in a regular season semi-professional SEABL game. The SEABL is the biggest semi-professional league in the country, so there is a sprinkling of professional and American college players taking the court in their offseasons. However, as stated, the MCG this is not. There are approximately 141 people in attendance – I counted during a later timeout, although I may have counted a man with a red shirt twice – the passion in the building is still high. The situational irony of the moment is so obvious that it isn’t mentioned. One of Australia’s great sporting teams playing to a tiny crowd on a cold night.
The watermarks of the old championship teams are all there. Club patriarch, Lindsay Gaze, is sitting with his wife, Margret at centre court. No man has contributed more to Australian basketball than Gaze: a player in three Olympic games, coaching four more, coach of the Melbourne Tigers for over twenty years, a member of the FIBA Hall of Fame and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach. I could go on listing accolades, but just be aware that there is a lot. Lindsay and Margret’s son, Andrew is coaching the Tigers. Andrew Gaze is the only man who is more iconic than his father. Again, the list of accolades is far too long to list, but the five-time Olympian is the NBL’s greatest ever player. Plain and simple.
The Gaze family are the biggest in Australian basketball, and here they are, in a small gym in front of approximately 141 people. Coaching and supporting a Melbourne Tigers side that is a little different from what most of Australia became accustomed to.
This is not just any regular season game though. This weekend and indeed the game marked a sad milestone. It is coincidently the three-year anniversary of Melbourne basketball changing forever.
As the name would suggest…
Whilst the Melbourne Tigers remained a staple of NBL basketball, a carousel of other Victorian teams had all come and gone from the league. New Tigers’ owner and eventual league kingpin, Larry Kestelman made the decision to rebrand the Tigers in a push to unite fans of all teams which had previously been based in the city.
Just like that, the Melbourne Tigers became Melbourne United. Kestelman spoke at the time, of the decision to change the brand:
“We found it difficult to unite all other associations behind the Tigers brand,’’ Kestelman explained. ‘‘We tried everything to work with associations but found resistance – partially due to our name and the history of how basketball has been played in Victoria”.
Shockwaves were felt throughout the country with Tigers’ fans left wondering where it went wrong. Club legends were vocal at their feelings towards the name change. No person had more microphones pointed at them that morning than Andrew Gaze. Gaze handled the situation in a diplomatic and gracious manner.
“It’s the end of an era for the Melbourne Tigers, and that is great, great sadness for many, many people,” said Gaze. “I think the most important thing is the Melbourne Tigers live on, I’m not going to go into the history of it, but it has a long, long history and one where it will still continue to be involved in the junior competitions and the senior competitions, it just won’t have that representation in the NBL, and that is particularly disappointing.”
Gaze’s long time teammate, Lanard Copeland spoke on Melbourne radio station SEN and voiced his opinions in a way which mirrored what a lot of people were thinking.
“Please take my singlet down, it’s not a Melbourne Tigers game. It’s not a Melbourne Tigers team, I don’t want my jersey hanging from the rafters.” Copeland continued, “I think it is a disgrace what these guys are going and ripping the heart out of the Melbourne Tigers,”
Gaze was correct about one thing. the Tigers’ youth teams were going to continue to produce some of Melbourne’s best basketballers. This is due to the NBL franchise and the junior club eventually separating into two different entities.
However, that history that Gaze spoke about. That rich history did not travel with the Melbourne Tigers. That history remains affiliated with the new Melbourne United. A look into the current Melbourne Tigers’ homepage, and there is no mention of any of any title won by the NBL team. Not one.
That historic win in Perth to claim the 1993 title is no longer a part of the Melbourne Tigers’ history. That title meant so much to the city of Melbourne, and lead to the most iconic photo in NBL history. A father and son celebrating a goal which had proven so difficult for so long. A moment between two men, but shared with a nation. That is now no longer a part of the Tigers’ history.
Sadly, teams folding, relocating, and rebranding is by no means a new concept to the NBL. The Tigers were just the next in a long list of teams. NBL legend, Darryl McDonald is extremely experienced in dealing with the lifecycle of an NBL side. Having played for nearly every Melbourne based NBL club. He has seen teams fold, start, relocate, and merge. He also knows the effects it has on the history of teams and its players.
Darryl McDonald: “There is a lot of history lost there. There are a lot of good players that people don’t know much about anymore because the history is not there… I could go down the list… If you’re going to retire a jersey, it’s over those seven, eight, nine years you’re there. How are you going to retire a jersey when the team lasts four years”?
Speaking to Darryl it is easy to understand that the history of the old Melbourne clubs still is important to a lot of people. It is a shame that these proud histories are now no more than a feeling memory. In addition, many feel as though the Tigers history disappeared with the rebrand. If fans of the old clubs don’t feel as though their history is represented, and the Tigers feel likewise, is having one team uniting the old fans? or creating new ones?
The latter is important for sustained success, although achieving the former has proven difficult.
The new, old Tigers
As the current Tigers are an extension of the junior club, it is technically a different entity from the old NBL franchise. However, the heart of the club remains the same as the glory days of the NBL. When the side entered in national competition again, this time in the SEABL, the Tigers needed a coach. There was only one man right for the job, Andrew Gaze.
Andrew Gaze: “I am indebted for the rest of my life to the Melbourne Tigers and this is a way I can contribute back to the club and I am more than happy to do it.”
It would not have been the same to see a Tigers senior side in a national competition and not have a Gaze involved.
A possible return?
Whilst it has only been three years, Melbourne United’s crowd numbers are rising and the move looks to be paying off. Having one basketball team with the Victorian market is by no means a perfect solution, but has been a short term success. How long that success lasts is to be seen.
The addition of a second NBL team in Melbourne and the creation of a cross-town rivalry is something that will generate long-term interest. If the right team were to join, that is. McDonald spoke of the glory days and how important those rivalries are to the sport.
“I want them (United) to do well. However, you’ve got to keep in mind that there is a lot of fans in Melbourne. You need to start catering to them… Imagine having that rivalry back. How awesome would that be? Its just not the same (anymore)… There’s enough players to go around. You have all the Australians playing over in Europe and college, and you can still get three imports”.
Speaking about the possibility of the Melbourne Tigers one day filling that void in the NBL,
“I believe that if there’s a way to get the Tigers back to the NBL it should be done”. McDonald continued, “Why not (the Tigers)? If they can support it, why not bring those guys back”?
The ever-ambitious Tigers are looking at the SEABL as a single step in a long journey. General Manager and former player Nigel Purchase told reporters that the Tigers have long-term ambitions to reach the highest level of Australian basketball again one day.
“My dream is quite clearly we have a program and a club that is good enough and well backed to put in a bid for the NBL one day”.
The question then, if the team were to make an NBL come back one day, what happens to the Tigers’ past? McDonald believes that Melbourne United would allow the history of the Tigers to return to its rightful owners should the Tigers return to the NBL.
“If the Melbourne Tigers could come back. I think they would (relinquish the titles). I don’t know. But I believe they would”. McDonald continued “They (United) won’t be starting over. Melbourne United is a very popular brand. They have already built that”.
So who knows? If the basketball gods are smiling, one day we may see the red and yellow of the Tigers back in the nation’s eye.
The game against the Ballarat Miners on a cold May evening is almost as a reflection how far the new Tigers still need to go to reach that dream. On the anniversary of the club’s darkest moment, a poor night shooting had the side going down by thirty points.
As I left the stadium and faced the cold, the atmosphere of a crowd was different than what you would expect from a team that convincingly lost. Whilst nobody is happy at losing by thirty points, now, with the help of their youth program, and a few old club legends, there will always be another game for the Melbourne Tigers – and who knows, maybe one day they may re-assume their historical records.
Whilst that day may or may not come, the Tigers are happy to be creating a new history.