Remembering the early days of the NWBU — the league that changed regional Tasmania
The Devonport Warriors, one of the teams that kicked off the North West Basketball Union and the first premiers in 1974. (Supplied: Nick Haywood, The Union)
In 1974, basketball broke big on the north-west coast of Tasmania, transforming the sporting and social life of the region.
The new North West Basketball Union pitted town against town, midweek — perfect for sports-mad rivals impatient to settle differences at the football on Saturday.
Tuesday night was now showtime, offering new thrills and storylines in place of what was usually, for many, a night to go to bed early ahead of milking the cows.
A steady flow of US import players into the NWBU was the clincher, adding star power — and cultural diversity — that would in time help reshape the local identity.
A new book, The Union, recounts the growth of a strong competition and the local culture and personalities that came with it.
The author, Nick Haywood, is himself a veteran of more than 400 NWBU games and half a dozen premierships, most with the very successful Ulverstone Red Hoppers.
He was also assistant coach of SEABL team North West Thunder before stepping aside in 2016 ahead of becoming a father.
Nick Haywood, a 400 game veteran of the NWBU and now author of a history of the competition called The Union. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
High-flying imports lit league up
A child of the 1980s, Mr Haywood remembers being excited by import players dunking the basketball — something that just did not happen at a local level.
“Curtis Coleman is one import remembered by many as the ‘human highlight reel,'” Mr Haywood said.
“He did something unbelievable in nearly every game he played, whether it was a big dunk or a round-the-back full court pass.”
Coleman is one of many US imports to stay on in Tasmania after basketball.
His early impressions of the NWBU after he arrived in the 1980s, capture a vital, exciting competition.
US imports Mike Coleman and Arfie Smith go one-on-one in 2003. (Supplied: The Union, Dale Cummings)
“The crowds were great! It felt like you were going into a zoo,” he told Mr Haywood for the book.
“You could also feel the tension of the North West coast rivalries — there was nothing like it.
“The crowds were hostile, parochial, but it brought the best out in the game … so much energy!”
There were also legendary locals like Robbie Thompson, Trevor Matthew and Marcus Bellchambers – and buzzer-beating grand finals that have become folklore.
The book looks back at the origins of the competition, the peak moments, the gun players – but also the people who were part of what author Nick Haywood describes as ‘the NWBU family’.
“I’m pretty proud of putting this together. It was out of love more than anything. There are so many people who have been touched by the NWBU,” Mr Haywood said.
“Not just coaches, fans, it’s people who worked in canteens, sitting on the door. When you interview players, it’s that sort of thing they talk about, that it’s been a kind of a family.”
The cover image of Nick Haywood’s North West Basketball Union history, The Union, is somewhat surprising. It’s four men and a tractor! (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
Build it and they will come
The book’s cover captures in a single image what really makes any sports competition work — hard and often selfless work by passionate people.
Rather than a picture of a spectacular dunk, it’s four men and a tractor, planting potatoes — the staple crop of north west Tasmania — back in 1953.
The paddock was in the middle of what is now suburban Devonport.
The aim was to raise money to build the Devonport Youth Centre.
Like the movie Field of Dreams, it was a case of ‘build it and they will come’.
One of the men in the picture, George Russel, was ultimately inducted into the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame.
“George took local basketballers to the US for the experience and later helped bring US players to Tasmania,” Mr Haywood said.
“Until the 1970s, there were only small comps, within towns.
“Garry Davenport was another driving force behind the NWBU. Also Robbie Burke, Warren Morris, Lou Cox, Owen Robson … there were many and from every town involved.”
Stars of the south
Mr Haywood remembers the import players of the 80s and 90s being genuine celebrities.
“I remember walking straight past queues into nightclubs with guys like Lamont Ware or Jason Pepper,” he said.
“They were in the papers every day and they had a good time.
“They brought the party, were popular with the ladies and people wanted them in their place.
US import NWBU players, Barry Howard and Lamont Ware were friends in the US who quite randomly reunited as team-mates in Wynyard. (Supplied: Nick Haywood, The Union)
“I also hear a lot of stories about a house in Somerset back in the 1980s where 15 or 16 import players would all come together to party after the Tuesday games with a revolving door of guests from everywhere.
“The thing that would be cool to do would be a ‘not for PG’ version because I have heard lots and lots of stories that I simply couldn’t write about.
“There are certainly some that end with import players getting back on the plane sooner than they were meant to.”
Johnnie ‘Gimme Some’ Moore, a US import player from the mid 1990s who brought some game – and hip-hop music – to the NWBU. (Supplied: The Union, Nick Hayward)
Of the many great finals in the NWBU, the 1998 game between Penguin and a Burnie team stacked with US talent is the standout for Mr Haywood.
“Burnie were about 20 points up at three quarter time and Penguin came back to win with a three pointer from Shane Hayward on the buzzer.
“There was a time when those big NWBU clashes would fill the stadiums, in the cold of winter, with kids sitting right next to the court.
“Another reason for embarking on this project is that I’d love to see the NWBU re-energised, to be like that again.”
Mr Haywood is now also turning his attention to a history of the NWBU women’s competition.