“Not Bad Thanks” – Graeme Willingham: an extract

Graeme Willingham’s book Not Bad Thanks (an extract is included below) is a celebration of a very special basketball team which has been going for forty years. It is the stranger-than-fiction tale of the grass-roots team’s refusal to let power struggles, tragic events, media scrutiny and lack of skill hinder their climb from the bottom of a city league. Spurred on by run-ins with the Harlem Globetrotters, Makybe Diva and a fugitive train robber, the dysfunctional group of blokes discover just how far the Australian traits of mateship and sporting obsession can take you.


It’s Graeme’s Willingham’s first book.  But Graeme feels he has been writing forever… as a journalist on regional and metropolitan newspapers in Victoria, news editor of a business weekly in London, Australian correspondent for several other UK publications, a public relations communicator and occasional travel writer.


Graeme will be talking about his book in a forthcoming Almanac dinner, details HERE


To buy the book click HERE


Extract 1 (First premiership)


Graeme in the middle?




Fronting up to the last game of the 1992 season, clear in fifth

place on the E Grade ladder, NBT would, yet again, miss the

finals; another mediocre middle-of-the-road season. Just like

most of the 23 before this one. A last game win would hand

the team three premiership points, never enough to push them

into the final four. Fifth was where NBT belonged. The teams

above had their measure.


NBT duly won its last game and retired to The

Clubrooms for refreshing reflections on the game, and on

another season lost.


On the following Monday, the VBHBA alerted NBT it was

actually in the finals, having finished third.

It was Secretary Eric again.

“Jeez, Eric, whaddya mean third? You must be mad!”

“No, I’m not mad. You play Nads on Thursdee night in the

second semi.”

“How come?”

“The team that you beat was a substitute for a team

that withdrew mid- season. As it turned out, they were of

vastly different standard, so we put in place a system of

compensation, or equalisation if you like, across the board,

which means you’ve got six points for the win instead of the

normal three. That pushed you into third place, on percentage.”

“I don’t understand; are you for real?”

“Yep, you play on Court 6 at 7.45. Good luck!”


Immediately the call went out to all Players, who were

unanimously astonished with the abrupt resumption to a

season vanquished. Everyone was available. The Patrons

were advised, too. This could be it. Knock off Team 2 and

into the Grand Final. Team 2, though, was a formidable

opponent, having disposed of NBT comfortably twice during

the season. That did not deter Players’ families, and Patrons,

who attended with blue and gold streamers, representing the

colours of the NBT uniforms of the day.


It was a disaster. Smashed from the outset. Never in the

hunt. Lacklustre. Pathetic. An embarrassing 23-point defeat.

Nothing for the supporters to cheer about. Wish they had not

been there, the Players reflected at The Clubrooms. The loss

was their fault. From that point, supporters were discouraged

from attending NBT finals games.


“Good luck next week against API” was the sentiment

of NBT Players as they sportingly shook hands with their

conquerors. There was no love lost between API Rats and the

rest of the competition. API played it hard, fast. They were a

tough outfit, deservedly holding top of the ladder throughout

the season.


“I assume by this phone number, you’re on school

holidays. Sorry to interrupt the holiday, but NBT is playing in

the Grand Final.” It was association secretary, Eric Hingston,

on the line again.

“Bullshit! What do you mean?”

“Nads ran an unqualified player, so you won the game.”

“You have to be joking!”

“No, the scoresheet names differed from the list of

qualified players on the noticeboard … there was a player on

the sheet whose name wasn’t on the noticeboard list.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“One had played only seven games, instead of the required

10, so you win!”

“We get into the finals by default, and now we’re in the

Granny by default?”

“The stupid thing is … if Nads had asked permission for

that player to be eligible, we would probably have given them

the nod. The player was not a top-class ring-in, but a long-serving

player who’d missed many games because he was

in Europe for work, and he’d just got back. He was a regular

member of the team, but not a game-breaker, so we would

have probably let him play. That’s the silly thing about all this.

They should have asked.”


“API will be happy as they’ll see us as an easier option

because they’d be really pushed hard by Nads.”

“Maybe. I assume I’ll see you Thursdee, then?”

“Hell Eric, it’s Tuesday now, and I’ve just 48 hours to

get the team together, which might be difficult given school

holidays. I know some Players have gone away as a result of

last week’s semi loss, but we’ll be there. What a hoot. I don’t

believe it.”


Eric said a protest had been lodged immediately after

the game, but he declined to reveal who lodged it. One NBT

Player believed he overheard a comment to that affect, as he

was leaving the stadium. Who lodged the protest? All NBT

Players at the game later declared they had nothing to do

with it, because they were unaware of any issues surrounding

player eligibility. None had checked the eligible players list

compiled by Eric’s association. And, strangely, there is little

comment on the incident in NBT’s archives.


Then another twist. All members of the semi-final team

declared their availability. Except one. Given the semi loss

on the Thursday, the next day, 2x6Packs called his gambling

group together for their annual trip to Launceston Casino. He

is the captain of the group, the organiser, for the four-day foray

on the casino’s blackjack and roulette tables. Over several

years, the group had proven so profitable for the casino that

the establishment provided complimentary accommodation.

“Doktor, I am really torn here on my commitment to NBT

and by duty to my group. You’re the Captain of NBT and

I’m the Captain of Cards. I think I have to stay here.” That

was 2x6Packs’ immediate response. The next day, Instigator

advised he had booked a return flight for 2x6Packs for

Thursday afternoon, and an early Friday morning flight back

to Launceston.


“2x6Packs, there have been developments,” Doktor called.

“There’s a ticket waiting for you at Launie airport. Instigator

has organised it through his GatorGetThere Airlines. No-one

will know you’re gone.”


Instigator is both a generous and a club-spirited man.

His gesture didn’t work though. The NBT team lining up for

the VBHBA 1992 E Grade grand final would be one Player

down, a Player in form and a potent long-reach ally of Big

John. 2x6Packs was worth four-to-six points a game — he had

command of NBT’s high post — as well as saving the same

off the defensive backboard. 2x6Packs’ game on Grand Final

Night was to be on the tables at Launceston.


Crossing the Westgate Bridge, at just before 6pm on this

mid-September Thursday, the western faces of Melbourne’s

CBD office blocks were illuminated gold. The sun had broken

through threatening clouds. Was the gold tone an omen? The

55-storey Rialto took the brunt of the rays. Rialto builder,

Bruno Grollo, would have smiled; at this moment, his glass

towers glowed as a resplendent contemporary art installation

on the city skyline.


Fast Eddie, driving his carpentry workhorse white 1965

Holden ute, had chatted with Doktor all the way from

Geelong about: the imminent State Government Election; Paul

Keating’s Prime Ministership; Fast’s work of making robustly beautiful

table tops from recycled timber; and, Doktor’s

holidays with his wife and sons on the Surf Coast, which were

interrupted by the VBHBA’s call to arms. All sorts of topics.

Except basketball.


Five minutes before arriving at the stadium, for the

showdown with API Rats, Doktor blurted out what was really

on his mind for the entire journey.

“Fast, these bastards have cleaned us up easily in our two

encounters this season; what do we do?”

“Dok, simple really. In both games, they put a half-court

press on the ball-carriers. They double and triple-manned our

Player with the ball forcing him to make panic passes, which

they intercepted and ran off to do uncontested layups … they

stripped us centre court.”

“You’re right. What’s the answer?”

“Don’t panic. No rushed passes. If our ball-carrier is

blocked, he must hold the ball until someone gets to him.

And we’ll run another Player in that zone until we get to our

offensive set-up. They can’t intercept a pass that’s not been

made. The likelihood is that, in the process of them hassling

that Player, they’ll foul him. It’s a win-win either way. The

only difference between the teams is their ability to strip the

ball from us mid-court.”


“Got it. Our defence is good; we’ve got no worries there

against this team, but we’ll miss 2x6Packs’ reach. What about

once we get the ball into our scoring zone? We need a simple

plan there, too, one that everyone understands.”

“We’ll set up a strong side, with both high and low post

on the same side of the key, plus a strong winger. So, we have

a triangle one side. The point is at the top. And, on the other

wing is our other Player, who will in effect be unguarded,

because their five-man defence will collapse to defend our

strong side. The ball-handler will pass the ball to the high

post who has the option of shooting himself, or dishing it to

the low post for an inside play, or to the immediate winger

to shoot long. The other move is to shoot a pass to the standalone

Player who will have a clear shot.”


On arrival courtside, Fast explained the simple game plan

to his teammates, all of whom harboured low expectations

given the drubbings by API during the season. It all made

sense. Fast and RAGS had brought that much-needed

basketball nous to a club renowned for its football-style

attack on the ball and ‘wing’ and ‘back pocket’ positions. The

team had 24 seasons under its belt, but had garnered little

knowledge of the finer points of the game. The defence was

usually in a 2x1x2 configuration.


Fast Eddie’s plan worked a treat. In previous encounters,

the half-time score was 20-10, or thereabouts, in favour of API.

This time it was a lowly 10-10. Game on!


NBT was dealt a serious blow when RAGS collected his

fifth foul early in the second half. RAGS was a controlled

dribbler, consistent mid-range shooter, accurate passer and

team Player. He had extremely strong hands for rebounds.

On the court, Fast was the General, RAGS the Colonel.

Both astute strategists. As members of the Geelong and

Melbourne Lithuanian clan, they bestowed on NBT their

native country’s blood-rich basketball heritage. RAGS’ other

skill was asking referees at half-time to be consistent in their

interpretations, and, after the game, explaining the rules at

length to referees as they tallied the scoresheets. He did so

emphatically, but respectfully.


NBT maintained centre-court control. API became

frustrated at their lack of progress as NBT edged ahead.

Six points down with less than a minute to go, API called

their last Time Out.


Fast instructed NBT that they must control the ball at all

costs. Milk the clock.


NBT had the ball on resumption.


Seconds were valuable to NBT, as long as they are ticking

down. Instigator, on court, noticed the scorers — two referees

— had not restarted the clock, which favoured API’s chances

of rescuing the game.


“TURN THE FUCKEN CLOCK ON!” he yelled, just a

metre from the scorers’ faces.

“Oh shit, NBT’s trying to invent another way to lose a

grand final!” was recorded on a video being shot by Keith,

the father of Mad Dog and The Great RP. The voice belonged

to Founding Player, Squeaker, who stopped playing after 299

games (it’s more memorable than 300 games, he argued).

Full-force direct abuse of referees or officials of this

magnitude automatically wins a Tech Foul call. Most refs of

the time would record it as a reportable offence. Either way,

the opposition would get two free shots from the line followed

by possession of the ball from the side. It could, or should,

have been a possible game-turning moment for API.

No disciplinary action. Stunned by their apparent

carelessness, the scorers restarted the clock without comment.

NBT held on to win by six points.


NBT had ‘done a Bradbury’, way before Bradbury became

a noun.


The bizarre journey to the Club’s First Flag was complete.

Players and their small band of supporters chorused into

The NBT Anthem which resonated Domingo-like under the

corrugated asbestos roof of Albert Park’s biggest shed.

Nothing like this had been seen, or heard, before at

the stadium, NBT was told. Some 100 other players in the

stadium who had also completed their grand final matches

in other grades on eight courts, stopped in their tracks,

swivelling their heads to identify the source of this melodic,

but raucous outburst.


By the time Players returned to The Clubrooms after the

grand final success, the doors had been shut. Luckily the pub

down the road was still open. Ironically, it was the same pub

where an NBT Player was denied a lemon squash 10 years

earlier. It was under new management. Players rejoiced in

their win, breaking away to use the pay telephone to call

Partners and friends. Pots of beer clustered along the bar.

Every Player bought a round for his teammates. The Poet

Laureate was there, too, and he chipped in, with what was

believed to be the first, and only, time a Patron had bought a

round of drinks for the Players.


When the pub closed, they kicked-on in St Kilda, but

Fast and RAGS got lost on the way. The next day, Squeaker

convened a long lunch in Richmond, so NBT’s first Mad

Friday evolved.


Lord Albert declared a Mad Monday and convened a

Players’ lunch at the Savage Club, in a private room, which

evolved to a pool tournament and end-of-day soiree in

the deep Chesterfield couches in the dimly-lit Smokers’

Room. Then he organised a Premiership Dinner at De Lacy

Restaurant, for two weeks’ hence.


At that black-tie function for Players, Patrons and Partners,

the Patrons promised to commission flag-maker, Evans &

Evans to produce a premiership flag in NBT’s colours, which

could be flown from the flagpole at The Clubrooms. The

VBHBA’s premiership flag presented to NBT was a decorative

felt type, about 1m long and just 10cm wide. It was designed

solely for the pool room. Tragically, during the celebrations,

Doktor raised it above his head, stretching it tight, for another

version of The NBT Anthem. The tip came adrift. He’d ripped

the Club’s factory-fresh Premiership Flag! It was pinned

together for the dinner and later repaired, mounted and

confined to a life behind glass.


Not satisfied with the collar-and-tie Mad Monday

Savage Club Premiership Lunch, nor the black-tie De Lacy

Premiership Dinner, the Club decided it should adhere to a

long-standing blokes’ sports club premiership ritual and call

a Premiership Pie Night. This was held at The Clubrooms.



Patron Gordon presented Australian Olympic tracksuits to

each Player, fulfilling a years-old promise by the Patrons to

donate tracksuits ‘as an incentive for NBT to win a flag’. NBT

won the Flag, without the tracksuits. The tops carried a fresh

premiership logo which had already appeared on a set of

Premiership T-shirts.


“I must remind Players,” said Patron Gordon, “that the

tracksuits remain the property of the Patrons and can be

recalled if Players are found to be unworthy of them due to

bad conduct, poor personal hygiene etc.”


The tracksuits were manufacturer rejects, seconds. When

Players tried them on, their legs could not penetrate the leg

cuffs. The elastic was the tension required for a 10-year-old.

Equally-embarrassed Patron Simon promised that his

promised Premiership Flag was in production, and would be

supplied at the next Golden Elbow. NBT had hoped to have

unfurled it at the Pie Night.


NBT’s First Premiership had been won, and well celebrated.


In his final NBT Bulletin for 1992, the Captain-for-Life

wrote: “Merry Christmas everyone and thank you all for

being part of the fantastic celebration of an almost-impossible

dream. We won a Flag!!!!!!!”



Graeme will be talking about his book in a forthcoming Almanac dinner, details HERE


Read extract 2 HERE.


To buy the book clickHERE



To find out more about Almanac memberships CLICK HERE




  1. Basketball ranks pretty low on my sports priority list but the stories behind the game are great regardless of what the code may be. If these excerpts are anything to go by, then this will most certainly be an ‘entertaining’ read!

  2. Yeah, retiring after 299 games is memorable.

    And, oh, the Patrons!

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