Back in the Day: Atlanta, 1996

Back in the Day: Atlanta, 1996

The mixed scents of peanuts, peach blossoms and a well-known carbonated beverage tell us that the BA time machine has landed in Atlanta for the second week of the Centennial Olympic Games...

Winter Season Week Twenty: Riding the Midnight Train to Glory.

-The investigation into the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park continues. It is reported that the main suspect is a security guard named Richard Jewell. It is subsequently revealed that Jewell was in a fact a hero: he had discovered the device and his efforts to clear the area assuredly saved lives.

-From the Olympic Stadium: controversy, acclaim and moments to savour. The men’s 100m final is won by Canada’s Donovan Bailey in a new world record of 9.84 secs. There is drama before the final, with three false starts leading to the disqualification of defending Olympic champion, Great Britain’s Linford Christie.

The women’s 400m final sees a classic duel between France’s Marie-Jose Perec and Australia’s Cathy Freeman. Perec eventually holds off her challenger to claim gold in a time of 48.25 secs, setting a new Olympic record. Perec would go on to win the 200/400 double.

The same double was also claimed by the United States of America’s Michael Johnson. His victory in the 200m, in a new world record time of 19.32 secs, produced this pearler from Bruce McAvaney ‘Look at the time. Unbeeeeliveeeeable!’

-Carl Lewis wins his record-equalling 9th gold medal with victory in the men’s long jump.

-Around the Grounds: Our hockey teams have mixed results: the Hockeyroos defeat South Korea 3-1 to win gold, while the Kookaburras again disappoint, finishing with a bronze medal.

At the tennis, Mark Woodforde and Todd Woodbridge win gold in the men’s doubles, defeating Britain’s Neil Broad and Tim Henman in the final 6-4 6-4 6-2.

Australia finishes the Games with 41 medals, the highest number of medals that Australia had ever won at a Summer Olympics to that time. We will now follow the efforts of the Boomers and Opals to add to that tally: we join them in the final round of preliminary matches...

July 29th 1996: Group B Match: Boomers vs. Greece.

Final score: Boomers 103-Greece 62

The Boomers’ final group game sees them get a comprehensive victory over a curiously flat Greece team that had finished fourth at the European Championships the year before. Suspicions are immediately raised that Greece had planned not to play to their full potential in order to secure a seemingly more favourable match-up with Lithuania in the quarter-finals.  Boomers coach Barry Barnes waxed philosophical about the result ‘I know we would never try to lose a match...I think Croatia suits us better anyway.’ All twelve Boomers get on the score sheet, with Andrew Gaze leading the charge with 17 points. The biggest positive to come out of the game is the performance of Pat Reidy, who scores 12 points in 18 minutes of work while playing with a metal plate in his hand as a consequence of a serious injury suffered just prior to the team’s departure. When confronted with the allegations of playing dead, Greece coach Makis Dedrinios coldly replies ‘I don’t think that is right.’

July 30th 1996: Group B Match: Opals vs. Ukraine

Final score: Ukraine 54-Opals 48

News Limited’s Mike Colman summed it up best when he wrote that ‘They [The Opals] could not shoot the side of a barn with a howitzer.’  The stats made for sobering reading: 15/68 (22%) from the field, including 2/12 (17%) from three-point range. The worst offenders were Robyn Maher (1 pt, 0/4 from the field), Sandy Brondello (1 pt, 0/7 from the field), Trish Fallon (9 points, 3/10 from the field) and Shelley Sandie (10 points, 4/15 from the field). This humiliating loss ended the Opals preferred path to a medal: to avoid meeting the United States until the Gold Medal match. For many observers, the abysmal performance indicated that all was lost and a repeat of the fourth place at Seoul was on the horizon. Coach Tom Maher was steaming mad and came up with some pearlers: ‘We had a couple of people out there today who didn’t do anything...Up until this game we were in control of our own tournament...Now that has all gone out the window...Now we are looking at maybe gold, maybe nothing...One thing about the Opals, they always seem to go better with their backs to the walls.’

July 31st 1996: Men’s Quarter-Final: Boomers vs. Croatia

Final score: Boomers 73-Croatia 71

Front pages across the land were emblazoned with the news: The Boomers had won! And, oh, how they won. The Boomers started off like firecrackers, with Andrew Gaze cutting Croatia’s defence to ribbons through passes by Shane Heal on his patented back door cuts. Mark Bradtke was lion-hearted in the paint against his taller opponents while Andrew Vlahov and Scott Fisher constantly rotated and wore down NBA champion Toni Kukoc. With five and a half minutes remaining in the first half, the Boomers led by 16 and a major upset was on the cards. Slowly but surely, with a mixture of zone/man defence and a strong interior offence, the Croatians worked their way back into the contest. The margin was cut to eight by half time (41-33 Australia) and with 12:50 remaining in the game Croatia took the lead, 54-53. Josip Vrankovic had cut off Gaze’s perimeter options and the Boomers offence was starting to sputter.

The lead was slowly stretched until there were seven minutes to go; Croatia now led 64-56. Shane Heal was having an off night (he would eventually finish with 2/12 from the field) and with Mark Bradtke on 4 fouls, it all seemed bleak.  Now it was the Boomers’ turn to inch their way into the contest. It was 58-64, then 60-64, 62-66, 64-66 with 2:30 remaining.  Tony Ronaldson had the dangerous Dino Radja cocooned in a fire blanket (he would be held scoreless) and with 2:08 remaining Barry Barnes called time-out. Following the time-out, Kukoc threw up a three which hit the front of the rim and flew out of bounds. The ensuing Boomer possession saw the ball fed into Mark Bradtke, who was fouled. First one, then two: who would have thought it? Scores were level at 66, 1:24 remaining. Croatia worked it to Kukoc, who drove to his right against Fisher. There was a scramble, Fisher knocked it to Heal and the Boomers were away. Tony Ronaldson described what happened next:

‘If it was planned, it would never have gone to me...I knew I had to take the shot, I just made sure my feet were set. I put it up there, but then I got fouled, so I didn’t actually see the ball in flight. Then I looked up and saw the ball going in. It was the biggest shot of my career.’

The free throw made it 70-66 and from there the game was decided by free-throws. The players, the fans, the media contingent went a little crazy. Barry Barnes was even seen with a smile on his face. For the Boomers, having knocked off the team ranked second in the world prior to the tournament, it was onward to a battle with ‘Dream Team III’.

August 1st 1996: Women’s Quarter-Final: Opals vs. Russia

Final score: Opals 74-Russia 70 (OT)

After the heroics of the previous day, it was difficult to see how the Opals could make their own splash. In the end, they too would own front pages across the country after surviving ‘a quarter-final in which it became apparent that mugging was legal in Atlanta’ according to Fairfax’s Martin Blake. Russia got off to a fast start, led by their gun player Elena Baranova and were up by six. Then Trish Fallon came in off the bench and sparked the Opals running game. The two sides ran even for the next several minutes. Michelle Brogan, who had struggled in the preliminary games, then found a rich vein of form. A quick six points and the Opals were level: at half-time the score was 38-38.

The second half again saw the Russians get off to a fast start and lead by 7 after three and a half minutes. The Opals jibbed and jabbed for a period, then picked up the pace again. A turnaround jumper by Jenny Whittle saw the Opals in front 55-54 with 9:19 remaining to play. The next few minutes saw nails being chomped off across the country as the two teams went score for score. When Yelena Pshikova fouled out with 5:30 remaining, the momentum had definitively swung towards the Opals. When Brogan hit a lay-up, drew a foul and hit the free-throw, Australia led 64-62 inside the two minute warning. A couple of crucial offensive rebounds ostensibly had the Opals on the cusp of victory. Then Baranova hit a push shot from the foul line to tie it with twenty seconds remaining. With the Georgia Dome crowd roaring, Rachael Sporn’s last-gasp shot went long, and the game went into overtime knotted at 64-64.

Soon after the start of the overtime period, Robyn Maher stole the ball and broke clear. As she drove to the basket, Svetlana Kouznetsova attacked Maher’s injured hand. With Maher being tended to on the bench, Sandy Brondello hit the two free-throws: Opals 66-64. Russia then scores the next four: 66-68. Jenny Whittle works the post, hits the shot, draws a foul and hits the free-throw: 69-68. Irina Soumnikova hacks Brondello, who hits the resulting two free throws: 71-68. With Dawn Fraser reprising her supporting role from Seoul behind the bench, Australia’s defence lifts and forces the miss.  Brogan loses the ball over the end line: 1:35 to go in overtime, 71-68 Opals. Russia goes down low again and Brogan forces another key turnover. The ball is kicked in to Whittle, whose shot is blocked. Russia turn on the speed and Baranova is all alone under the basket: 71-70. Under a minute to play, nerves are jangling.  Brogan takes it inside, is fouled, to the line. After a timeout, Brogan hits them both: 73-70, 36 seconds. Russia look harried as they attempt to tie. Timms fouls near halfway with 15.6 remaining, no shots. On the inbound, Russia can’t find an open player: the Opals defence is like a clamp. Sporn almost steals it: Brondello dives and forces a jump ball. Up it goes, the whistle blows: the Canadian referee has seen a violation, Opals ball!  Tom Maher calls time, Robyn Maher jumps up and down, a grin on her face, her hand wrapped in ice. There’s 5.1 seconds remaining: the ball is thrown in to Brondello. But wait, there’s action off the ball: Irina Routkovskaia has grabbed Michelle Timms, thrown her to the floor and given her a face massage. Timms’ motor mouth soon reaches full power, decrying Routkovskaia’s lack of sportsmanship. It’s a miracle Routkovskaia is still in the game: meanwhile, Brondello hits one of two free-throws. It’s all over, 74-70 and Timms points to the scoreboard in defiance.

The final word goes to Tom Maher, when asked about Robyn’s hand: ‘Her hand? I don’t know. I didn’t ask her. Who cares? We won, that’s all that matters.’

August 2nd 1996: Men’s Semi-Final: Boomers vs. United States

Final score: USA 101-Boomers 73

The main interest in this game, apart from the result, was whether Shane Heal and Charles Barkley would renew their warm and friendly relationship that had opened in a friendly held in Salt Lake City just prior to the Games. For a while, the Boomers paced their opponents, with Andrew Gaze and Heal hitting every shot in sight. Gaze would finish with 21 points for the first half with the U.S. leading 51-41 at half-time.

Then U.S. coach Lenny Wilkens made two decisions that sealed the game: he switched Reggie Miller onto Gaze (who hit only four free-throws in the second half) and he gave Barkley a signal to run riot. Charles would eventually finish with 24 points and 11 rebounds (on 7/7 shooting and 9 from 11 from the free-throw line) as the deeper team finally won out. The loss of Luc Longley prior to the tournament due to a necessary ankle operation left a huge hole in the Boomers front-line: in this encounter they were outrebounded 53-31 and outscored 67-23.

August 3rd 1996: Women’s Semi-Final: Opals vs. United States

Final score: USA 93-Opals 71

These two teams had met earlier in the tournament, with the U.S. running out winners by the score of 96-79. The Opals fought and clawed for every advantage or loose ball, but it was the interior strength of their opponents that eventually bore fruit. Lisa Leslie top-scored for the Americans with 22 points and 13 rebounds while Katrina McClain was just as impressive, racking up 18 points and 15 rebounds. For the Opals, Michelle Timms again played a lone hand with 27 points, including 5/10 from three-point range. Despite the defeat, the team’s mood was summed up by Alison Tranquilli: ‘In the change rooms the girls were defiant...We believe we can get the bronze medal.’

August 4th 1996: Men’s Bronze Medal Match: Boomers vs. Lithuania

Final score: Lithuania 80-Boomers 74

The reason that the Boomers missed out on the bronze medal in Atlanta runs two words: Arvydas Sabonis. No-one in the Australian team could make any impression on the Lithuanian superstar who scored 30 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, produced 3 assists and blocked 5 shots. Mark Bradtke, who was exhausted after struggling manfully for two weeks against taller and heavier opponents, said ‘I was a bit of a distraction to him and that’s all’. Despite Sabonis’ mastery of the middle, the Boomers kept it close and were behind 72-73 with a minute to play. In the end, however, free throws and exhaustion were enough to extinguish the Boomers’ hopes of a first-ever Olympic medal. Coach Barry Barnes looked at the positives afterwards, saying that ‘I don’t think we let anybody down.’

August 5th 1996: Women’s Bronze Medal Match: Opals vs. Ukraine

Final score: Opals 66-Ukraine 56.

On the final day of the Games, the Opals faced their nemesis from the pool games for a chance to make history. The game started evenly on the scoreboard, but Australia was making the running. Michelle Brogan was again causing havoc inside while the team defence was forcing Ukraine into putting up some poor shots. With 8:35 remaining in the first half, it was level peggings, 18-18.  Then the Opals put together a crucial 12-1 run, mainly through Brogan’s two-step drives through the lane that either drew fouls or scored lay-ups and drew fouls. Shelley Sandie was also having her best shooting performance in some time. The Opals’ defence had already forced 11 turnovers and with a half-time lead of 33-24, the Promised Land was in sight.

After the interval, the Ukrainians came out firing. Nataliya Sil’yanova had the hot hand shooting wise and the lead was cut to 43-40 with twelve minutes remaining to play. Then the Opals frontline stepped up: Jenny Whittle hit a couple of long range shots, Brogan was ferocious at both ends and suddenly, the score was 53-42 in Australia’s favour.  For those who were there and for those who were watching at home, the next eight minutes were the longest minutes of their lives. As the teams went basket for basket, miss for miss, the realisation dawned: the medal could be ours! A Sandie free-throw, followed by a Brogan jumper with four seconds left set off the biggest party in Australia’s basketball history. As the siren sounded, the Opals stormed the floor, their tears and smiles shared in equal measure. Tom and Robyn Maher embraced, the dreams of a lifetime fulfilled. The team then made their way, Pat Cash like, into the stands to share the moments with their families and partners, who were shedding as many tears as the team were. It was a moment to be shared with all of Australia’s basketball community: a moment to be savoured for all time. Michelle Brogan top-scored for Australia with 19 points and 12 rebounds.

Two final quotes: firstly from Tom Maher “It would have been a tragedy, if some of the older players didn’t end up with a medal”. Secondly, Sandy Brondello “A few of the girls have headed off in search of a daiquiri and I don’t walk to talk too long before I catch up.” Amen to that!

Now for the two squads:

Opals: Robyn Maher (c), Alison Cook (later Tranquilli), Sandy Brondello, Michelle Timms, Shelley Sandie, Trisha Fallon, Michelle Chandler (later Cleary), Fiona Robinson, Carla Boyd, Jenny Whittle, Rachael Sporn and Michelle Brogan.

Boomers: Tony Ronaldson, Brett Maher, Scott Fisher, Pat Reidy, Sam MacKinnon, Tonny Jensen, Andrew Gaze (c), Shane Heal, Mark Bradtke, John Dorge, Andrew Vlahov and Ray Borner.

Next week in ‘Back in the Day’ we return to your normally scheduled reading pattern. Before we go, this column gives a hearty “Hurrah!” for the Rollers, now Paralympic and world champions. Onwards, onwards to London!

This is another in a regular series of articles that will take note of the historic events of the modern era of Australian basketball (1979-today). If you have memories to share, or topics that should be discussed, send an email to Nicholas.Way@Basketball.net.au and put in the subject line ‘Back in the Day.’