Australians will get the chance to see the Chemist Warehouse Australian Opals, currently ranked No. 2 in the world, compete on home soil against the world’s best players for one of the sport’s most prestigious titles, for only the second time in FIBA World Cup history.
To fully appreciate the significance of hosting a FIBA World Cup for women’s basketball in this country and the incredible opportunity to continue growing the women’s game and inspire a new generation that lies ahead, one needs only to look back at the 94 event and the legacy it left behind.
The 1994 FIBA World Championship for Women, also known as OZ 94, would serve as a pivotal moment in the history of the Opals, and take Australian women’s basketball to the next level.
Their surprising and scrappy performance would propel the Opals into the mainstream of Australian sport, earn the respect of the global basketball community, and help set the stage for an unprecedented run of World Cup and Olympic medals.
After earning a fourth-place finish at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, the team’s best international placing at the time, the Opals would narrowly miss out on qualifying for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
Australian coaching legend Tom Maher would be selected to lead the Opals ahead of the 1994 FIBA World Championship for Women. In his national team debut, he would guide Australia to a fourth-place finish and its best-ever result in a FIBA World Cup.
The playing group, captained by wife Robyn Maher, included a stack of future Australian Basketball Hall of Famers who would go on to be staples of Australian teams over the next decade.
Players such as Allison Tranquilli, Michelle Brogan, Michele Timms, Rachael Sporn, Sandy Brondello and Trish Fallon.
Michele Timms, who competed in four FIBA World Championships (86, 90, 94, 98), said the 1994 World Championship was a coming of age for the Opals that helped them forge a new identity and culture that would carry on with future teams all the way to the current Opals.
“What it really meant to be an Opal and put on the green and gold was established in a group session led by Tom [Maher] and involving every member of the program in the lead up to OZ 94,” said Timms.
“For the first time we collectively defined what being an Opal represented and what style of game we would be known for from that day on and it brought a new approach and understanding of the qualities you needed to be part of the Opals.”
“To this day you can ask any staff member or player from that OZ 94 campaign and they will be able to still recite themes like being physical and assertive, being able to handle adversity and being relentlessly persistent.”
“I think discovering our identity, which we all had a hand in creating, was very powerful heading into the event and kept us and all future Opals coming into the program accountable.”
Robyn Maher, who represented Australia an astonishing six times at FIBA World Championship tournaments, says the team was able to shorten the learning curve that comes with a new coach because several of the team’s top players were already familiar with his system.
“Tom had previously coached me, Michele Timms and Shelley Gorman so we were already on Tom’s page. We knew his approach and style of play and we were able to help teach and inform the other players to get everyone up to speed. With Tom being a new coach, this was vital to our success.”
In addition to forging team principles that would remain the backbone of the program’s culture to this day, OZ 94 also led to the creation of the Australian Opals moniker.
Maher said the team wanted their own identity to be more widely recognisable during the lead-in to the event.
“We didn’t just want to be known as the lady Boomers, so a competition was put out amongst the basketball fraternity and the Opals brand was born,” said Maher. “We were the first women’s national team in Australia to have a team name and after that every Australian national would follow suit.”
“I don’t believe any other national basketball team has a nickname that I know of, and I think it is great that international teams won’t say their playing the Australian basketball team, they’ll say we’re playing the Opals. It makes us unique in the global game.”
The move would ultimately attract a substantial sponsorship with Goldmark Jewellers. The Australian Goldmark Opals would go on to capture the Australian public’s imagination when they came within a point of defeating a dominant China squad (66-65) in the semi-finals and then just missed out on their first World Cup medal with a narrow loss to the US (100-95).
However, Australia’s aspirations to put women’s basketball on the map were almost derailed early in the Preliminary Round in Adelaide, where the Opals were paired with China, Italy and Japan in a tough pool.
After squeaking by Japan in the first game (60-58), and then dropping their match against China (87-67), the Opals found themselves in a must-win situation against an undefeated Italy where they would need to win by 14 points to advance to the next round in Sydney.
“The pressure to win that game was incredibly intense and there was no escaping it,” said Trish Fallon, who competed in 224 games as an Opal and served as Captain in 2003 and 2004.
“Needless to say, it would have been an absolute disaster if we hadn’t qualified for the next round. I remember the feeling our team had that we had to get the job done for us, all of Australia who were supporting us and Basketball Australia, who had put so much hard work into the event.”
Rachael Sporn who played in 304 games and three World Championships for the Opals, added, “I remember Tom kept saying over and over we have to get out of Adelaide. We’re all trying to do the math toward the end of the game, trying to pour on as many points as we could.”
“The atmosphere was frenetic, but it was an amazing feeling to win that game with our backs against the wall. It showed we can achieve amazing things and made us mentally tougher.”
The underdog Opals’ efforts against global juggernauts like China and the US in the semi-finals generated extensive media coverage and the games were televised on ABC, lifting the profile of the team and players to unparalleled heights and attracting new audiences to the game.
An article in the Adelaide Advertiser at the time commented, “ABC TV’s hotly contested Women’s World Basketball Championship produced enough drama, skill and suspense to make a believer out of even the most stone age misogynist.”
At one stage the Australia vs. China semi-final was outrating the AFL telecast airing at the same time on Channel Seven.
Timms said the build-up and hype around the event was infectious and that the massive home crowd support was something they had never experienced before.
“I feel like the style of game we played and the relentless persistence we showed were qualities the Australian public could really relate to,” said Timms. “I think people were genuinely surprised at these strong, dynamic women who were extremely approachable and willing to do whatever it took to help put our game on the map.”
While the narrow defeats at the FIBA World Championship were agonising, they would instil the Opals with a newfound confidence and serve as a catalyst for the ground-breaking success they have enjoyed following 1994.
“Any time you have success you start believing in yourself a little bit more,” stated Sandy Brondello, who is set to become the first Australian to both play and coach at a FIBA World Cup on Australian soil.
“In 94, we went in and played some close games that showed our fighting spirit and gave us confidence in ourselves to say, ‘hey, we’re pretty good’. We were always going to work hard, but self-belief pushed us to the next level.”
Sporn agreed that after OZ 94 there was more belief than ever before that the Opals could beat anyone on any given day.
“We wanted to be feared,” said Sporn. “We didn’t want to be seen as easy beats when teams were preparing to play us. We wanted them to think the Opals work hard and we’ll have to play at our best to stay in the game. We wanted other teams to think the Opals are bloody tough.”
“I still remember sitting in the stands with the team at the Sydney Entertainment Centre watching the medal ceremony and how much we wished that was us on the floor,” remarked Sporn.
“While we were disappointed to have missed out by such a small margin, I also remember thinking there is 8,000 people here and thousands more tuning in at home, many for the first time, and how great it was for our sport.”
“We could sense a real shift, both in our mentality and by how much everyone embraced our performances. I think it was a beautiful start of our achievements at that point.”
Two years later at the Atlanta Olympics, the Opals would be on the floor accepting Australia’s first Olympic medal (bronze) in basketball with their 66-56 defeat of Ukraine.
They would follow their Olympic success with Australia’s first FIBA World Cup medal (bronze) at the 1998 World Cup in Germany after a 72-67 victory over Brazil.
The upward trajectory would continue over the next 20 years to previously unmatched levels, with the Opals going on to claim a total of five World Cup and four Olympic medals.
The program’s incredible success during this period was highlighted by a silver at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and a gold at the 2006 FIBA World Cup in Brazil,
“The Opals program has consistently produced unbelievable talent in this time,” added Brondello
“Talent doesn’t win championships on its own because teams win championships. But you need really good players that are in sync and can play several roles and all of those teams have had great versatility, which is why we have had the success we’ve had.“
Australia is one of only four countries to win a FIBA World Cup since its 1953 inception and the only country to win a World Cup other than the United States since 1994. The Opals also haven’t dropped below a fourth-place world ranking since this time.
Fallon says hosting a World Cup event is a unique opportunity to leverage the Opals’ incredible talent on the court into increased interest and participation in the game amongst a new generation of women.
“We obviously don’t have the opportunity to play international events on home soil that often and unlike an Olympic event where there are multiple sports on display, this is a chance to solely showcase basketball,” said Fallon.
“Young girls need to see their idols play live, giving them the opportunity to watch and learn, meet the players and to aspire be a future Opal. I know several players, including myself, who were first inspired to pick up a basketball after watching an Opals or WNBL star in action.”
“This is what hosting a major international event like the FIBA World Cup in front of a home crowd can provide for our sport.”
The fact that Australia was selected to host this prestigious competition is a testament to the outstanding calibre of basketball talent in our country and the tireless work of our players, coaches and administrators in building the foundation of success the program currently enjoys.
Reflecting on how far the women’s basketball has progressed since the last time Australia hosted a World Cup, it is hard to not get excited about the tremendous opportunity ahead to deliver an event that celebrates women in sports, creates lasting memories and further drives the Opals program forward.