Almanac Basketball: When the Toowoomba Mountaineers were on top of The World

 

Mick Nielsen giving everything, as always [Photo: Nielsen Family Collection]

It’s the late 1980s. Basketball has become a prominent element of Australian sporting life. I follow (loosely) the fortunes of the Brisbane Bullets and the Lady Bullets. I have been at Greasy Harry’s on Petrie Terrace when, at three in the morning, Leapin’ Leroy Loggins’ limmo has pulled up and he’s appeared (with dames) in his fur-lined coat ready for a burger with the lot. Leapin’ is star in the north.

I have not grown up with basketball but I have become increasingly interested. I like going down to the Auchenflower Stadium, a block from the Brisbane River, to watch the A Grade Brisbane comp – men’s and women’s – on a Wednesday night. I have friends who play and the XXXX cans are icy cold. North-West, Mayne, Lang Park, University:  it’s seriously good basketball.

The Auchenflower Stadium is a tired and dusty relic, stinking hot in summer, and pretty cold in winter. It’s nothing like a stadium. It’s a big barn next to a noisy railway line. The caretaker lives in a panel van in the car park. He’s a cross between Oscar the Grouch and Robin Williams’ character in The Fisher King.

But there is much affection for the old place. It really is the spiritual home of Brisbane basketball.

People refer to it (with more than a hint of Queensland irony) as The Auchendome. Before Boondall was built, people were crammed into the temporary stands to watch national league games. It has become home to state league and club basketball.

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  1. No-one has heard of John Rillie. He’s still at high school.

Over the next two decades he is to become a big name in Australian basketball. He is NBL Rookie of the Year in 1995. He leads the Adelaide 36ers to the 1998 NBL title. He makes the NBL all-star five in 2004. He plays for Australia.

Not many people have heard of Mick Nielsen either. Mick helped find the basketballer in John Rillie.

If you’ve been around Queensland basketball over the years, you’d definitely know Mick, or about Mick. As a younger man he lived life to create material for stories. He still tells them beautifully – in a way that makes you hurt with laughter, grimace with pain and shake your head with disbelief and sometimes pity. He tries not to look at your reaction but occasionally you catch him glancing, because he loves to see you laugh, and frown and nod.

Mick Nielsen was always an enthusiast. He did everything with the intensity of one who knew his youth would not last for ever. The sensible world eventually got hold of him.

I don’t see Mick very often these days.  But ,when we get together, we talk about things sporting. He loves to play. He loves to watch. He loves to think. He loves to test his observations and theories. So do I. They are always lively exchanges over a few beers.

At every meeting, without fail, the conversation returns to one of the most memorable sporting events of all time: the Toowoomba Mountaineers v Gold Coast, State League Basketball semi-final, Brisbane, September, 1989. We were part of it. Mick was playing. I was watching.

This is the story of the game.

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Toowoomba is a provincial centre in southern Queensland. Known as The Garden City, it sits on top of the Great Dividing Range. It is big enough to have its own TV channel, but small enough for the station to make terrible ads about farm machinery and silos, veterinary products and menswear stores. To the west, the fertile Darling Downs provides very healthy incomes for the farmers when it rains. It used to rain a lot.

Toowoomba seems to be an unthreatening place; a safe haven for families. It has a deeply conservative past, its history influenced by the many churches which have prospered there. It has been a town of moral decency, citizenship and a commitment to hard work and progress whatever that all means. Cockies and their wives delight in coming to town to organise their lives, to drop their kids off at school, and when they get old enough, to retire. And Toowoomba loves to have them, delighting in its own torpor: sleepy fireside winter days away from the bitter westerlies and shady summer afternoons lazing in the beautiful gardens.

Sleepy, yes, but Toowoomba has not been without its activity. People have loved their sport and the mythology of Toowoomba is sprinkled with stories. Herb Steinohrt and the famous Toowoomba Clydesdales beat the touring English rugby league side in the 1920s at a time when half the Australian side had come from the Downs. Olympic gold medallist, Glynis Nunn, is a Toowoomba girl. The town has produced racehorses, cricketers, tennis players, hockey stars, and even a few basketballers.

It might seem remarkable, but Toowoomba has one of the oldest basketball clubs in Queensland. The Eagles, a working class club, is nearly fifty years old and has been a force in the Toowoomba league. While that local competition has always been important, it is the next level which occupies the hearts of basketball players and followers. The representative side, the Toowoomba Mountaineers, have toiled away for years against sides from around the state. They’ve enjoyed occasional success. In 1969, John Rillie’s Dad played in the team which beat the Queensland side in a match at the Toowoomba Indoor Bowls Centre.

Mick Nielsen first played for the Mountaineers in 1976. John Rillie was four years old. By 1980, when the State League was reorganised to include eleven teams, Mick was a regular for the Mountain men. This was a fiercely contested competition in which regional loyalties were ferocious. Teams with limited talent did everything they could to win. Away games were treacherous. At Candlestick Park in Mackay the court was so poorly lit that unsmiling American imports could be lost in the pockets. In the days when officials were provided by the local organisation, Bundaberg referees were notorious. Visiting teams had to be twenty points up at three-quarter time else they had no chance.

Despite the moral forthrightness of the Toowomba community, the basketball side which represented them was not beyond establishing its own home-court advantage. The basketball stadium, if you can use that term, generates affection from only those whose feelings for Toowoomba and the game are genuine. It is set in a freezing hollow near the City Golf Club and spends much of the winter under fog. It is an eerie place. You wouldn’t be surprised to find a graveyard out the back. While the Mountaineers enjoyed the warmth of the radiators in their dressing room, the Visitors’ rooms were frosty. There were never heaters and somehow the large top louvre was always open. On the court, the visitors’ bench was in front of a canvas awning which was always partially unzipped. Despite great coats and tracksuits, fingers were always crystal-brittle and hamstrings piano-wire tight. Over the years opponents learnt to change in their bus.

In those days the Mountaineers needed every advantage they could muster. They didn’t have the physical size of some of the other teams, nor the depth in their squad.

But they remained enthusiastic.  Mick had a reputation as a fiery customer with a big mouth. Even his teammates wondered about him. It took Charlie Uebergang, the Mountaineers’ reliable centre and giant Lutheran farmer from Yandilla, a few years to realise that Mick’s constant lip was not showmanship but a tactic to make up for his limitations on the court. It was only when Charlie realised how determined Mick was to play to the best of his ability, and for the team to do likewise, that he developed respect for him.

Mick was his own worst enemy. In 1982 he was so outraged that he chased a referee into the carpark. As he biffed him, he pointed out he was a coward for running away. The authorities didn’t take too kindly to Mick’s idiosyncratic sense of justice. He was banned for five years. It was a Federation Internationale de Basketball (FIBA) disqualification so he could not play anywhere in the world (something I’m sure officials from Croatia to Cincinnati noted).

It was a big penalty. Mick couldn’t live without ball, as he loves to call it; he could hardly survive without the rock in his hand. Five years dragged on. He continued to train with some of the boys. And he played tennis.

Mick returned to basketball in 1987. He was not short on desire. He had a brilliant season with the Mountaineers in the State League, making the All-Star Five. I think he would take it as a compliment if I mentioned that this is like a good steeplechaser winning the Cox Plate. But he was disappointed that Toowoomba had only finished fifth.

They finished fifth again in 1988. The Mountaineers had put together a pretty reasonable first five based around ‘Pop’ Dickerson who had arrived in Brisbane like a character in a musical with what Mick always  said  he turned up with “nothin’ more than a suitcase and a prodigious talent for ball”. He had grown up on tobacco road in Virginia and learnt to play in the dirt, before being picked up by the University of Hawaii. He was a star averaging 20 points a game in the NCAA. No-one called him anything but ‘Pop’. He was drafted by the Washington Bullets as a matter of course. But, strangely, he never made the cut and was left to find somewhere to make a living from the gifts he had.

Mick was immediately attracted by Pop’s obvious physical advantages. Somehow he convinced the swish American champion basketballer, then in his mid-twenties, to move to Toowoomba. He was also able to find out Pop’s real name. From then on, in his irreverent and pestering way, Mick called him nothing but Clarence, or equally affectionately, Clarrie. When another visiting American heard Mick mention Dickerson’s name he looked with disbelief, “He lets you call him Clarence?”

Clarence could play. He was big, fast, strong, dynamic and charismatic. He lit up the league in the finest tradition of African-American imports, averaging nearly 35 points per game. But the Mountaineers just couldn’t make the play-offs.

Mick and Clarence wanted 1989 to be their year. The Gold Coast were going to be tough. They had planned to become an NBL side but some hitch prevented them from playing and they were left with a National League standard squad in a State League competition. Townsville and Brisbane were also certainties to make the play-offs. Under coach Harry Spencer, the Mountaineers devised a season’s plan. If they played to their absolute potential they could finish fourth. This meant they had to twice beat every team below them. They had a strong starting five but the shallowest bench in the history of the game.

Harry Spencer knew they had to run the ball. And all year they did. Despite an early loss to a struggler, Ipswich, they finished 13 and 7, losing both matches to each of the three teams they predicted would be above them. That meant they were fourth. The boys were ecstatic. Anything could happen in finals.

Their season had been built around tireless containment. They got enough possession from the defensive boards to run the fast break, Charlie, at thirty-three, was inspirational taking up that space under the hoop and bringing down the rock, while using his strength at the other end of the court.

Yandilla is 80 kilometres from Toowoomba but Charlie never missed a training. He cruised into Toowoomba in the early evening in his Kermit-green Gemini. He would wave to his two spinster aunts who would be sitting on the front veranda of their West Street home, playing the cello, reading, and looking out over their garden and their pristine Studebaker. It was like something from a Garrison Keilor novel.

Charlie also drove the team bus when the Mountaineers were on tour. When I asked Mick, why, he looked at me like Kramer and said, ‘Because he was the best driver.’ He was good at other things as well. He set screen after screen. He was the ultimate team player, earnest and determined. He rarely dribbled. He just looked out for his boys.

Help came from the other big man, Paul Riley, a twenty-one year old Afro-American from the countryside in Texas. Riley was a down-on-the-farm kind of lad who loved the idea that he was playing for a team which represented the Toowoomba district. He had played ball at the University of Alabama where he learned to use his size and athleticism but even at the Mountaineers his was a less attacking role. Like Charlie, he had to haul in the rebounds and feed the runners, which he did with discipline.

The runners were the scorers. Clarence, of course, could do outrageous things which meant he always racked up the points. And Mick averaged 14 points per game. He delights in telling you that more than half his career points came in the last quarter: “They might have been faster, taller, stronger. But I wore those bastards down, and then I got away from them.” For all their pretty points in the opening minute, Mick was registering the gritty ones at the end.

The Mountaineers had another champion, their point guard – David ‘Razor’ Blades whose explosive pace saw him cut up many a defence. Eventually  the Townsville Suns recruited him. He was marked by things Toowoomba, attending St Mary’s, driving a Galant, marrying his childhood sweetheart and washing cars at Eager’s Holden for a living. Radio station 4AK was across the road and when they needed a voice-over to promote a Mountaineers game they would yell out to Blades who would down bucket and sponge and wander across to read, staccato-style, the scripted words. But like his team mates he loved ball, and, apart from Clarence, Blades was the only genuine match-winner in the side. He loved to perform. After another withering lay-up Blades would wander across to Mick and breathe, ‘Aahhh like it’, which loosely translated suggested that he liked it.

Clarence and Blades worked seamlessly together, Blades drawing the defence while big Charlie knocked opponents over to get Clarence free. Mick reckons sometimes he’d think, “Where the hell is Razor going with the rock?” when suddenly Mick would have it in his arms for a simple shot under the basket.

Over and over again. They ran the ball from the back court as ritually as church on Sunday. It was predictable but consistent and when there we no turnovers, hard to beat.

What sometimes beat them was the sheer physical strain on these five. David Fletcher was a serviceable guard who could come from the bench but the rest were terribly inexperienced. Tim Kelly, Torben Marcussen, and Nigel Mouncey were good junior players, but struggled to look at home with the big boys. They warmed the bench for most of the year.

John Rillie seemed no different from the rest of the youngsters. If anything he was skinnier, whiter, pimplier, more gangly. He was very shy. But he loved ball. He lived for ball. Mick and Clarence loved him for it. As Mick says: “He was the kid locking the gym at midnight, and he was the kid opening it up early the next morning.”

Mick coached him in junior representative sides and ‘Pop’ spent hours with him, one-on-one during the week. He was developing good skills but at 60kg and about 180cm, he was up against it. He desperately wanted to play ball in the States and, then seventeen, was working as a boner in the meatworks, saving every cent to get over there. These were all dreams.

The Mountaineers were set to play the top team, the Gold Coast, for a place in the Grand Final. That week the boys trained four times. They believed they could win. Mick and Clarrie sat together after each training drinking their usual six pack of light beer and talking about the game. These opportunities didn’t come around that often.

That Friday, game day, the team travelled to Brisbane. They had lunch at Sizzler’s; then an afternoon snooze before heading to The Auchendome where the Mountaineers had always found it hard to win. It was Brisbane’s smelly floor.

As Mick and Clarrie and the boys togged up, the small gathering sat quietly.

It was a good year: 1989. I was knocking around with a basketballer called Gillian who had, for a while, played for Brisbane’s Lady Bullets. She could play. More importantly, Gillian was a free spirit and a delight to be with. The Geelong Football Club were playing sensational football and Ablett was so magnificent we got a kitten and named her after him.

We had come to the basketball to watch some of Gillian’s old friends from north Queensland. We knew little of Toowoomba’s season, or of the mind set of Mick and Clarrie, of what Blades had done all year, of the solid performances of Riley. I’d never heard of Charlie Uebergang. I have learnt all of this since.

I had grown up on the Downs and played a lot of junior cricket, rugby league, and golf in Toowoomba. My sympathies were genuine. It was Friday evening and the beers were on and friends were chatting. People were happy and high-spirited.

The Gold Coast ran onto the court smugly. They had all the shallow glamour and glitz of the area they represented. They looked like a million dollar team: ten huge, talented, athletic but faceless men. They had been traded here and there around the globe and were now with the Gold Coast franchise. I can hardly remember their names. Maybe a Goldfinch, a Meyers, a Roberts, a Hutchins.

Toowoomba emerged with a single-minded determination and did exactly as planned: they ran the ball. Charlie lumbered from key to key, setting screens like a battering ram. Blades was everywhere. As the crowd built they warmed to the underdogs. The Mountaineers were hanging on but it looked like one of those games where the favoured side runs away late in the game.

After half-time, the resolve of the Mountaineers did not dissipate. The contest remained tight, Clarence and Blades replying consistently while Riley and Charlie absorbed the physical pressure. The boys sat nervously on the bench. Blades again. And again. Why wasn’t this guy playing in the NBL? The crowd was drawn into the game. I felt the surge around me; the excitement. They cold sense something happening. They started to give. And give some more. There were creases of doubt on the Coast stars’ faces.

Mick was doing the team things. He had played some huge defence but had taken risks to do so. He was in foul trouble, and if he fouled out it would be tough to win. End to end. Mick was tired. Charlie could see it. He said to Mick after a basket: “Hey Mick, you’re having a bit of trouble. Bring that guy over here.” When Mick did, Charlie was waiting with everything but the violin case.

I remember the final minutes as if it were now. Again, basket for basket. Something has taken over. I cannot control my need to jump from my seat and scream my support for this heart-lifting effort. We have become Mountaineers. We would die for Toowoomba. It is as if we’ve lived there all our lives; had our children there; buried our grandparents there. Into the last minute. Scores level. Mick thinks he has outlasted his opponents. With twenty seconds to go he drives. His opponent gets to the spot. There is a clash. The ref blows a foul. We wait. ‘Foul is on…’ Which way will it go? ‘Nine, Toowoomba. Charge.’ The ref’s fist hits his hand to indicate the violation. The crowd groans, and yells its disapproval. Mick is shattered. He wanders to the bench, and sits down, covering his head with his towel, ashamed at the lack of discipline. The Coast will have the ball.

Harry Spencer looks along the bench. None of the youngsters has had much court time, if any. John Rillie hopes it will be him. Harry points to Rillie and he is on the floor. He will have to defend.

The Coast have the last shot at it. They work the ball down the floor. But they are nervous. There is a turnover and Marcussen finds himself in the clear. We rise in the moment. He races up the court, but he doesn’t have the courage to make the simple lay-up that will win the game. Clarence is trailing, yelling at him to go to the basket but Marcussen dishes to the champ. The pass is at his feet, the ball is lost and the hooter goes. The crowd is stunned. We sit down. Extra-time.

The Mountaineers must be exhausted, but you wouldn’t know. Again the two teams go basket for basket. Rillie is determined to do exactly as he has been asked: play solid defence, pass the ball and do nothing silly. He does not take a shot. Again Blades and Clarence are magnificent. Charlie keeps battling. Mick is jumping up and down off the bench. The Mountaineers are down by two with just seconds left. They have the ball. There is urgency and excitement but no panic. The crowd is frenzied.

The Coast defence are all over Clarence as if he were Michael Jordan himself. They know he’ll take the shot. Blades has his minders as well. With four seconds left the ball comes to Rillie, standing alone, without reputation, just outside the line and to the left of the top of the key. Pop yells instinctively at his young charge: “Shoodit, man, shoodit”. I think I hear him. Rillie’s feet have fallen into perfect position. He has a connectedness. He looks at the basket and cocks his forearm. He has the balance of a perfect yo-yo. Energy comes from inside the floor and projects gracefully through the spotty little fella. Through his legs. Through his hand. Through the rock.

Swish. It’s in. Three points. Toowoomba by a point.

Mick leaps. He knows what he has been part of. Harry Spencer shakes his head. Rillie is a hero.

I cannot contain myself. Gillian and I embrace; it’s the only appropriate response. I have no option but to go over. My spirit drags me into the throng. I introduce myself to an exhausted Charlie and tell him I used to play footy against his brother and that his sister married a family friend. I have to make some link. I tell Rillie that he will one day know what this night means. He looks at me as if I need help. I am dancing. I am bouncing.

Two days later, the Toowoomba Mountaineers lose the Grand Final to Townsville by 11 points.

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John Rillie went to the United States where he led Gonzaga University to the national play-offs. It’s a long way from the bumpy Harristown High School outdoor courts to Spokane, Washington. Gonzaga didn’t win. Rillie came back and played for the Brisbane Bullets and then with the Adelaide 36ers. He went on to play in other NBL sides and for Australia. Having retired in his late 30s he is now an assistant coach at Boise State University in Idaho.

Mick and John are still close. They share the same passion for ball and for life. There is a deep mutual respect.

I sometimes wonder whether people are meant to be something. They are given such gifts. It is in them. Gary Ablett is a footballer. Michael Jordan is a basketballer. Then I think of how much work they put in to develop their natural talent because they are driven to be the best they can be and because they love to play. Maybe it’s a question which doesn’t warrant answering, for in its mystery there lies a truth.

Later that famous night the Toowoomba players emerged from the dressing room and joined the crowd to watch Brisbane play Townsville in the other semi-final. By chance Rillie and Mouncey sat immediately behind us. They were drinking soft drink and munching on chips when I overheard John Rillie say to this team mate: ‘Hey Nige, did you know Twisties are ten cents dearer here in Brisbane?’

I recorded the incident.

 

 

Read more from John Harms.

About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and footyalmanac.com.au. He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo13, Anna11, Evie9. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.

Comments

  1. Charlie Uebergang says

    That brought back some memories, good on you John!

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