How an Australian basketball team went from playing with Magic Johnson to being out of a job within weeks

How an Australian basketball team went from playing with Magic Johnson to being out of a job within weeks

In November 2002, NBA legend Magic Johnson laces up his sneakers for an exhibition game against the former college basketball team, the Michigan State Spartans.

The 43-year-old former Los Angeles Lakers has selected a lesser-known Australian team, the Canberra Cannons, who have just been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, to face their former college team.

What followed was one of the most surreal moments in Australian basketball as the Cannons won 104-85 by 12 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists from the Magic.

For Brad Williams, playing alongside the five-time NBA champion was a dream come true.

“It was a really great experience not only to actually meet one of the grown-up heroes, but to play with them,” he said.

Brad Williams at Tageranon Basketball Stadium
Brad Williams says it was great to play with Magic Johnson.(ABC Canberra: Matt Roberts)

But while Williams and his teammates were living the dream in Los Angeles, a nightmare was forming for the Australian team.

Upon returning home, the Canons returned to the National Basketball League (NBL) season, only to be shut down abruptly just weeks later, leaving the team under control.

Players and team staff were suddenly unemployed and without pay just weeks after Christmas.

But what happened to the Canberra Cannon in 2002 was nothing special. In its 43-year history, the NBL has lost his 24 teams. The lingering question remains whether the league is vulnerable for this to happen again.

Birth of NBL

The NBL was formed in 1979 to bring together some of the best local clubs, including the Canberra Cannons, to launch the National League.

Its early success saw the number of teams grow from 10 to 17 in just five years.

Award-winning NBL writer and journalist Boti Nagy has covered the league since its inception.

He said the team’s initial outburst was accompanied by some serious setbacks.

Portrait of award-winning author and NBL reporter Boti Nagy
Boti Nagy says many NBL clubs have been poorly managed for decades. (ABC News: Jeff Kemp)

“These were all club teams based in 350-capacity suburban stadiums, with the cost of traveling across Australia. he said.

“Then when they became part of it, they realized, ‘Oh my god, this is a lot more expensive than we thought.'”

By the end of the 1980s, the NBL had already lost eight teams, including the Sydney Supersonics, West Adelaide Bearcats and West Sydney Westers.

“Golden age”

The West Adelaide Bearcats playing in the 1980 NBL Grand Final
The West Adelaide Bearcats in the 1980 NBL Grand Final.(ABC News)

As teams began moving to bigger and better stadiums in the late 80s, the quality of television broadcasts also improved greatly for those watching from home.

This led to an increase in spectator numbers and the money that went with it, and the late 80s and mid-90s was widely considered the league’s “golden age”.

NBL legend Andrew Gaze says it was a landmark moment for Australian basketball.

“In 1987 we were in a terrible state, playing to 600 people, but four or five years later we were at our best. [Melbourne] A tennis center playing in front of 15,000 people,” he said.

“This was the growth of the game in a relatively short period of time.”

1993 NBL Championship winner Andrew Gaze with his father Lindsay.
1993 NBL Championship winner Andrew Gaze with his father Lindsay.(Provided by: NBL)

But Nagy said the huge success of some teams has created an uneven playing field for smaller clubs that have not been able to keep up with the league’s boom.

He said some clubs started to lose their way simply because they couldn’t financially meet the level of commitment now required to compete with big city teams.

By the turn of the century, the league had lost eight more teams, including the Geelong Supercats, Hobart Tushy Devils and North Melbourne Giants.

cannon collapse

Canberra Cannons memorabilia in the back room of Tageranong Basketball Stadium
Many Canberra still miss the golden age of artillery.(ABC Canberra: Matt Roberts)

The Canberra Cannons were one of the league’s storied franchises, winning championships in 1983, 84 and 88 before their sudden downfall.

By the late ’90s, however, the team began to run into difficult times.

They have played at the Australian Institute of Sports (AIS) Arena since its inception.

However, the 5,000-capacity venue was beginning to lag behind other venues used by the league.

This hampered the team’s ability to generate enough revenue to survive, and the team went into debt.

And when the Cannons returned from a historic game against Magic Johnson in late 2002, the team’s luck had run out.

Players and staff were informed of the team’s closure at an emergency meeting at the team’s training facility.

Cal Bruton playing basketball on the court
Devastated by the Cannons’ departure from Canberra, Cal Bruton hopes there will be a new team in the capital in the near future. (ABC Canberra: Matt Roberts)

Hall of Fame NBL player Cal Bruton, then coach of the Cannons, said the news was devastating for the team and its fan base.

“They called us in and said, ‘That’s it, like that,’ so everyone was just shocked,” he said.

“It was a whole new level of disappointment.”

Former Cannons player Cameron Rigby said the announcement’s proximity to Christmas made the situation worse.

“We had no jobs, no money, and all of that hit us right away,” he said.

The Canons eventually returned to the court, ending the 2002-03 season while searching for a new owner.

Cameron Rigby treats injury while playing for Cannons
Cameron Rigby says the decline of artillery was rapid and messy.(ABC News)

To make up for missed games, teams had to play grueling, compressed schedules, even bringing retired NBL stars like James Crawford into the squad.

“I wouldn’t call it a traveling circus, but it was an interesting way to close out an elite pro season,” said Rigby.

“Absolutely bizarre. If I hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have believed this could have happened.”

The Canons were eventually sold to a Newcastle-based group before the end of the season.

Soon after, it was announced that the new owners would put the team together and move to Newcastle to become the Hunter Pirates.

But after just 30 wins out of 67 games in its first three seasons, the Pirates moved on again to form the Singapore Slingers, the NBL’s first and only club based in Asia.

After two losing seasons, the Slingers also closed down and their team license was completely revoked.

return from the brink

Larry Kesterman sitting at his desk
NBL has seen a remarkable turnaround since Larry Kestelmann took ownership in 2015.(ABC News: Simon Tucci)

By 2015, the league was in one of the most troubled financial situations in its history, with many teams either in debt or struggling to make ends meet each year.

The NBL was then given a lifeline by Melbourne-based real estate mogul Larry Kestelman, who acquired an entire league ownership for just $7 million.

Kestermann said building a sustainable business model for the league will be his top priority after taking office.

“I really wanted to put the focus squarely on: ‘What kind of business are we in? What is sport really?’ Make it into a business,” he said.

“If you can’t make clear, concise and quick decisions, it’s a formula for disaster.”

Since then, the league has made a remarkable comeback.

The league’s international spotlight came in 2019 when young American prospects LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton took center stage.

With the addition of South East Melbourne Phoenix in 2018 and Tasmania Jackjumpers in 2020, the number of teams has grown to 10.

NBL then signed a record-breaking $45 million broadcasting deal with ESPN in 2021.

Young fans celebrate during a Tasmanian Jackjumpers basketball game.
Teams like the Tasmania JackJumpers have attracted a whole new generation of fans to the NBL.(ABC News: Luke Borden )

“What Larry has done is put us back on the map. It shudders to think what basketball would have been like if he hadn’t run the NBL,” Nagy said. Told.

But despite the turnaround, some NBL teams continue to struggle.

The only NBL Foundation team still active, the Illawarra Hawks escaped complete collapse in 2020 after managers advised the team to quit.

The Hawks’ struggle continues today, with the team regularly failing to fill even half of the 6,000-capacity arena, according to Ostadium figures.

Can NBL return to Canberra?

Kestermann said the success of the Tasmanian Jackjumpers expansion squad indicates that Canberra could have a new NBL team.

“We would love to see a team in Canberra. In the past it has been very successful and very popular.

“I think we have a huge supporter base, a fan base, a participation base.

Bird's eye view of the Australian Institute of Sport arena
The AIS Arena has been closed since the start of the pandemic and is scheduled to reopen in 2023 once critical upgrades are completed. (ABC Canberra: Don Shale)

The main barrier to Canberra’s NBL reunion is the right venue.

The Canons’ old stomping ground, AIS Arena, has been closed since the start of the pandemic due to inadequate fire safety.

And despite the recently announced $11 million financing package to upgrade the arena and reopen in 2023, Kestermann said it wasn’t enough to accommodate the NBL.

“Looking at all the venues across Australia, we expect a very professional and world standard event,” he said.

“If the government wants it, it’s a conversation and we’re certainly open to those discussions.”

For NBL legend Andrew Gaze, continued expansion of the league is absolutely essential if Australia hopes to score more podiums at the Olympics and World Championships.

“Given the talent we’re playing with right now, I think we could do with three or four more teams,” he said.

“If you want to win medals at the Olympics and World Cups and have your national team consistently playing at the highest level, you need a really strong program at the national level to keep developing talent and performing. To play on the international stage.”

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