The history of the NBL is woven with storied cross-town Melbourne rivalries. While this is now embodied in South East Melbourne Phoenix and Melbourne United’s ‘Throwdowns’ this is just the most recent addition to one of the greatest chapters in the competition’s book of feuds. So intense and so hard fought has the battle for supremacy in the Victorian capital been across the journey, it has often decided ownership of the NBL Championship Trophy. One such example was the short lived but long remembered rivalry between the South Dragons and Melbourne Tigers.
The Tigers had been a constant in the competition since the early ’80s and the centre of some heated cross-town rivalries over the journey. As merger and financial difficulties accounted for each of their foes, the Team of Gaze, Bradtke and Copeland remained for their fans and as a subject of loathing for those left without a team to support.
Enter the Dragons
In 2005 ahead of entry in the 2006/07 season, amid a blaze of noise and publicity to fill this void were the brash, confident and ambitious South Dragons. With an eye on young Australian talent, the Dragons first signing was an 18-year-old future Utah Jazz star named Joe Ingles. More celebrated at the time though, were the signings of Shane Heal to captain and four-time NBA All-Star Mark Price to coach.
While announced amid great excitement, the relationship between captain and coach would not prove to be long, prosperous or harmonious. Just five matches into the Dragons first season and without a win to his name, Price would stand down as coach and left nobody in any doubt as to his thoughts about Heal. The former Boomer’s appointment as playing-coach would do little to contradict Price’s claim that Heal had undermined him.
Partly because of a final eight system being in place in a 12 team competition, and partly because the Heal led Dragons went on a tear, the expansion club recovered to make the playoffs in their first season. This remarkable charge would include a Boxing Day victory over the Tigers but would ultimately end with elimination at the Quarter Final stage. The Dragons were more successful when the end of season awards were decided though, with Joe Ingles winning the Rookie of the Year award.
The cross-town Tigers, who the Dragons would have played in the Semi-Finals had they progressed from the Quarter Final stage, experienced a much more successful Finals series. Defending their 2005-06 Championship, the Tigers qualify for the NBL Grand Final but would lose the best of five series in five games.
Second Year Blues
Heal’s late season coaching heroics in season one would not translate to an improved showing in season two. In fact the Dragons would commence the 2007-08 Season 0-6 like they had 12 months earlier. While the club would not immediately show the same ruthlessness as they had the previous year, Heal would not see out the season as the Dragons finished last with a 5-25 record.
While the Dragons wallowed at the wrong end of the table, the Tigers continued to set the pace in the NBL. Finishing second at the end of the regular season, the Al Westover led team would win a second title in three years with victory in game five of the Grand Final series against the Sydney Kings. Little would they know that a number of key personnel from the team they defeated in this series would return to haunt them again in 12 months time wearing the red and black of the Dragons.
Empires fall, Dragons soar.
A tumultuous off-season saw competition powerhouses the Sydney Kings and Brisbane Bullets both hand back their licenses as a result of financial difficulties. A bitter blow for the competition became a boon for the Dragons who quickly swooped upon the Kings Coach Brian Goorjian and their star Mark Worthington. The Bullets 2007 Championship player Adam Gibson would soon follow to provide some valuable pieces to the Dragons assault on season 2008-09.
The two Melbourne clubs became caught up in a tug of war for the services of former King and Bullet big man Ebi Ere. While it had appeared that the Dragons had got their man early, the two-time NBL Champion ultimately decided upon the Tigers as his club of choice. Quickly recovering from their disappointment, the wooden spooners added Mika Vukona from the New Zealand Breakers and Tremmell Darden as a second import to partner fan favourite Cortez Groves.
Despite their new and improved roster, the Dragons replicated their first two seasons, with defeat in their first match. This would be the last time this team looked anything like those that had gone before them. After five wins from their next six games, they hosted the Tigers in the first meaningful derby in this new rivalry. In front of a full house at Hisense Arena, the Dragons proved themselves a championship calibre team with a 28-point victory to claim top spot on the NBL ladder.
The two teams would spend the rest of the season in a battle for this position. They would split the next two encounters at the Netball and Hockey Centre before the Dragons would claim the season series after a 93-83 victory at Hisense on February 8th. With the Dragons eventually claiming a three-game advantage over the second-placed Tigers at the end of the regular season, their hat-trick of derby victories proved invaluable.
With their season on the line, the men in black produced a team effort to overcome the spirited Crocodiles. A 25-18 second quarter set up the victory, giving the home team an eight point lead at the main break. Mark Worthington, one of five Dragons to reach double figures on the night, was the leading point scorer with 17 points as they qualified for the Grand Final series with a 101-78 victory.
Fans anticipating a classic Grand Final series were not disappointed as the Tigers and Dragons traded home court victories. Twice the Dragons would take the lead in the Best of Five series only to have the advantage negated by the Tigers in the very next match.
Like all the best series before and after it, controversy was never too far away. Chris Anstey was the central figure when the bad blood between the two sides reached its peak through Games three and four. Ejected for elbowing Rhys Carter he had to watch on as the Dragons grabbed a 2-1 advantage with their 84-67 victory in Game Three. A war of words erupted in the aftermath as the Tigers fought to clear their man.
Remarkably, despite the NBL labelling them bad sports for their behaviour in response to Anstey’s ejection, the Tigers managed to negotiate a suspended sentence for their centre. Any disappointment the Dragons felt at the judiciary’s penalty would have been compounded by Anstey’s match-winning performance in Game Four. A first half in which he scored 23-points and grabbed nine rebounds all but ensured the Grand Final Series would head to a fifth and deciding game.
Seemingly down and out after their Game Four capitulation, despite having home court advantage, there were doubts over the Dragons ability to recover in time for the decider. Doubts that appeared well founded when the Tigers led 17-10 during the first quarter. Yet, than watch Al Westover’s men cruise to a second straight title, the 8922 fans at Highsense Arena were about to watch the match turn again before the teams broke for the quarter time break.
Donta Smith played a major role in the change of fortunes, throwing down a dunk then nailing a three on the buzzer, as the Dragons closed out the term with an 18-7 run to take a 28-24 lead at the first break. Scores would be levelled again at 33 before Smith landed four consecutive baskets to help his team finish the half the stronger. Dominating the contest at both ends of the floor saw them round out the half with a double digit lead on the back of a 19-8 run.
Having started slowly during his time in Melbourne, Smith’s output grew inline with the stakes on offer. Already a Finals MVP in Israel and Spain, Smith’s performances for the Dragons in the 2009 Championship Series came as no real surprise.
He starred in the Dragons victories in Games One and Three with a near double-double in the former and near triple-double in the latter. His 21-points in Game Five meant the Finals MVP was a foregone conclusion but it would be another import that would ensure the Dragons claimed their maiden title.
Already trailing by 11-points at half-time margin the Tigers hopes of back to back titles were forlorn, but it was only after Tremmell Darden’s third quarter that they were finally extinguished. The 27-year-old Californian exploded after the long break scoring 21 of his 31-points in the third term. The Tigers had no answer for six-foot-five forward as he took the match away from them in 12-minutes of exhilarating basketball.
A Luke Kendall half court heave on the three-quarter time buzzer meant saw the margin reduced to 18 at the last change but the final term was merely a coronation ceremony for the NBL’s newest Champions. Just 12-months removed from a wooden-spoon season, the final term offered the team and their fans a chance to soak the moment in.
Despite the incredible achievement, the post championship celebrations would be brief for all involved. Just two months after raising the Championship Trophy the Dragons would be no more with their ownership refusing to take part in the ‘new’ NBL set to commence the following season.
An intriguing postscript to the teams short lived rivalry, the Dragons decision to stand out of the competition was originally one made in solidarity with the cross-town Tigers. However, the Tigers concerns with the lack of reforms being made by the competition dissipated and they took their place in the 2009-10 season.
In one last turn of the knife in the hearts of the fans of their fallen rival, among their number when they took to the court that season would Dragons Championship winning skipper Mark Worthington. The Dragons might have won the battle but, as the last Melbourne team standing, the Tigers most definitely won the war.
While it would just a short reign, for a few glorious months in 2009, the SouthDragons ruled the NBL.