Shane Heal… the pesky peroxided point guard complete with piercings and tattoos to complete the look will never stop getting asked about the time 18 years ago when his never back down attitude became a thorn in the side of the NBA’s biggest stars during an Olympic Exhibition game in Salt Lake City, USA.
Charles Barkley, who was the NBA’s premier power forward at the time, was clear about the goals of Dream Team III from the outset. “We’re here to prove we are the best country in the world. We’re the best at basketball. We have got to kill them all.”
This week our Shane Heal will join us on the Aussie Hoopla podcast to discuss the time he refused to back down to Charles Barkley and members of the Dream Team during the Boomers Atlanta Olympic campaign. We take a look back in preparation to the episode being released this week.
This was something Shane ‘The Hammer’ Heal and his Australian Boomers team-mates were excited about, rather than daunted by when it came to testing their worth against Basketball’s elite players like Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Gary Payton and Karl Malone.
“I think it was a defining sort of a moment,” Shane Heal recalled during his recent podcast with Aussie Hoopla.
In what has become a synonymous with the Australian Men’s Basketball Team, the 1996 Boomers squad were a blue-collar line-up by international standards and approached the game with total respect and zero fear of their opponents. Heal recalls “we’d seen other teams getting photos taken with them and autographs before and after games and things like that. We said that wasn’t the Australian way and we certainly weren’t handling the game like that.”
Heal nailed 8-from-13 from three-point range and was the stand out individual performer for both squads in their “friendly” and yet it was his confrontation with the notorious Barkley that captured the attention of the media and fans alike.
Late in the first half and growing in confidence, Heal found himself open on the wing and released a shot for his fourth three-pointer of the game. Barkley arrived late, aggressively undercutting Heal and sending him sprawling to the floor in front of the Australian bench.
“The thing with Barkley and I, it was just a dirty play. You just wouldn’t expect someone to make such a dirty play against someone that’s in the air, anywhere in the world,” says Heal. “He just took my legs out and I landed on my back. It was just a really dirty play … he just ran straight through my legs. You definitely don’t expect that and you don’t expect it from an NBA superstar.”
Undaunted by the obvious size difference between Barkley and himself, Heal chased the “Sir Charles” down the court, choosing a few select words to let Barkley know what he thought of such and act and even bumped chests with 1.98cm tall Barkley. “When I got up and gave him a few choice words I remember him looking down and he said ‘What did you say?’ I didn’t know whether he couldn’t understand the accent or he couldn’t believe what I’d just called him.”
The tough-talking Barkley would later conclude “He is a talkative little fellow,” Barkley said. “I told him that if I don’t take that off Americans, I’m definitely not going to take it off foreigners.” The Australian media asked Barkley if hitting Heal was a sign of respect. Barkley reassured them it was no such thing.
“I try to treat people equal,” the ambassador of basketball said. “I try to hit everybody, and in that way I’m very consistent.”
Heal and his team-mates acknowledged they were playing against the world’s best but refused to back down from confrontation when necessary. “I guess the Australian way is that we weren’t going to kiss their arse – we were going there to test ourselves against the best. We weren’t going to treat them any differently than we did anybody else. We had respect for them but we certainly weren’t going to bow to them.”
As stunned as the Aussies were by the physical nature of the clash, not even Heal expected the sight of Barkley mimicking a gunshot at him as the teams went to their huddle. “I was going from one end of the court to our bench and he was going from the other end to his bench and we ran into each other again and we grabbed each other by the singlets and he was a big man, mate, he was a very big man. I’m very lucky he didn’t hit me because I’d still be asleep today I reckon.” Not for the last time, the match officials had to intervene.
Shane Heal VS Charles Barkley
In turn, Heal recalls Gaze’s attempts to halt the bubbling animosity, “I remember Andrew trying to calm [the Dream Team] down and try and calm us down, he was like the international peacekeeper. I remember him being hurt by the fact that they were so angry, but we really didn’t take a backward step.” Asked if his treatment of Heal was a sign of respect, Barkley replied: “I try to treat people equal. I try to hit everybody, and in that way I’m very consistent.”
“He was definitely consistent,” laughs Heal.
Add to the fact while all this was going on, Shane was also amidst verbal battle with future NBA Hall-of-Famer Gary Payton that would have been deemed too excessive even for the film “8 mile”.
“The amount of rubbish that I listened to from Gary Payton about what he was going to do to me after the game and all the rest of it, it was just laughable. No-one spoke as much as what he did, that’s for sure.”
On a promotional tour of Australia later in the year, Payton would admit that he was looking forward to squaring off against the NBA-bound guard and that he’d eat Heal for lunch, mockingly concluding: “It is wonderful for Australia that a short guy can make it to the NBA.”
“We certainly didn’t expect that it was going to be as physical and that we were going to have to stand up for ourselves like we did either,” says Heal. “The fact that they could be frustrated by an Australian team coming over with no NBA players like that, it was a little bit embarrassing I would have thought if you’re an American.”
“A lot of the time when you look back on games you didn’t realise you were [shooting from] that far out, especially when you’ve got momentum and adrenalin and everything. You just shoot.” Despite Heal’s game-best scoring performance, the Australians went down 118-77.
At the conclusion, Barkley stopped and embraced Heal in a sign of respect for the Australian’s performance and chutzpah. “From that point on he was great,” recalls Heal. “During the battle he was a knucklehead but then you forget about it and you move on.”
Heal still views that Olympic tournament as the sport’s peak in his homeland. “Australian basketball was probably, if you look back and pinpoint where the high was in Australian basketball, it was probably right then.”
Later that month after the Boomers had progressed to an unlikely semi-final clash with the Dream Team Payton was straight back in Heal’s face. “He was still talking to me right from the start and we were playing off to go into the gold medal game and obviously it was a big thing then because there was so much build-up because of [what had happened] the last time we played. During that [time Payton signed] an $89m contract and I remember when he was talking trash I said to him, “mate, the first thing you need to do when you get your $89m is buy yourself a jump shot.” His eyes spun – I reckon he was then the angriest man that I’d ever played against. He wasn’t happy.”
Even though semi-final clash saw the American’s claim victory once again in a 101-73 contest it was enough for Barkley to offer his begrudging respect for Heal. “That little kid’s tough. I hope he comes to the NBA. He doesn’t have good common sense so he’ll fit right in with the [NBA guard] JR Riders.”
“I think that from that Dream Team game we built belief and then we won big games and played our roles and just kept finding a way to be able to get through,” says Heal. “We knew they were going to throw everything at us and we were on the world stage and playing in front of 40,000 people or something.”
Barkley concluded, “I don’t stroke people, but I think the Australians should be very proud. I really think they thought they could win. “
Australia had made the voyage weakened by the absence of then-Chicago Bulls centre Luc Longley but succeeded largely due to strong tournaments from Gaze and Heal and a healthy dose of enthusiasm and team spirit. “I have the utmost respect for guys like Bradtke and Ronaldson and Vlahov that were playing against much bigger opponents,” recalls Heal.
In the bronze medal play-off the Australians went close to upsetting a strong Lithuanian team containing NBA stars Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis and fell only 6 points short of a bronze medal…. Perhaps the closest an Australian men’s team has ever come to Olympic silverware.
Shane Heal’s performance at Atlanta landed him a three-year NBA contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves of which he only played one and then asked to be released. Heal says he only has himself to blame for not playing in the NBA for longer. “I don’t have too many regrets but that’s one of them.” Injuries and the challenges of raising a family in the land of 10,000 lakes got the better of the Australian, who packed his bags for home after a single season.
The Timberwolves stint also reunited Heal with his Olympic sparring partner Payton. “He was still speaking when I went to the NBA and it was amazing. I remember standing at the free throw line and he looked over at a team-mate and he’s like, ‘I’ve got him, he’s mine’. I was like, ‘mate, you’ve gotta let it go – I’m a scrub at the end of the bench and you’re a superstar.’
“He didn’t stop talking trash to me until I hit the five threes in a quarter for Minnesota against Seattle. At the end of that game when I hit five threes he came up and sort of gave me a hug of respect and that was the only time he ever did that. “
Barkley too took the time out to offer his sentiments to Shane Heal during his lone NBA season. “I was like ‘wow, that’s Charles Barkley’ and we ended up having a chat and he was great.”
The full interview with Shane Heal will be released on iTunes and Aussie Hoopla this week.
Subscribe to the Aussie Hoopla podcast on iTunes to download the episode as soon as it’s released.