Revisiting the '96 South East Melbourne Magic: A tale of how resilience and fortitude led to victory

The 1996 NBL Grand Final series marked a new chapter, in a rivalry that stretched across the decade.

The 1996 NBL Grand Final series marked a new chapter, in a rivalry that stretched across the decade. In front of record-breaking crowds, the South East Melbourne Magic did battle with the Melbourne Tigers, two contrasting narratives that laid the foundation for the resilient Australian basketball culture of today.

A team comprised of even contributors and developing youngsters, the Magic built on a philosophy that mental and physical toughness would separate them from the pack. Head coach Brian Goorjian implemented a training regime that was in many ways ahead of its time, considering strength and conditioning above all else, and getting the most out of his playing group. By '96, both Melbourne teams recognised that they each had their own unique narratives. The Tigers were the established team with a fast and flashy style of play, led by Andrew Gaze, with his father Lindsay as head coach.

Aussie big Chris Anstey spent time at both Melbourne clubs early in his basketball journey. By the time he had suited up with the Magic in the 1996 Grand Final, Anstey was well accustomed to how both systems were played.

“The Tigers had ready-made players, established players, [and] a coach who ran a system and put pieces in, and got the best out of veteran players. Around the centrepieces of Gaze, Copeland and Bradtke,” former Magic center Chris Anstey shared in an interview with The Pick and Roll.

South East Melbourne were a process-driven team, upholding an ‘us against them’ mindset that created a healthy competitive culture within the playing group, all while developing players who would go on to play key roles at the international level, including Tony Ronaldson, Jason Smith and ‘Slamming’ Sam Mackinnon.

“The improvement of the team was going to come from the improvement of the young players. It wasn’t going to come from replacing us or bringing in other players, it was going to be on us and the only way to get better was to work harder than what we’ve done before,” Anstey explained.

In an era where the key players would play upward of 40 minutes per game, Goorjian’s Magic carried a team-first attitude characterised by their determination. Across the ‘96 season, six players averaged 11 points or more. No player would consume multiple dribbles at once, instead the Magic put emphasis on ball movement and finding the open man.

“We always felt that they were more dependent on three players than we were. We felt the strength of our group was our depth.”

A team which made the opposition scurry for every possession, Magic took pride in being the aggressive tone setters in an era that was as physical as any, all this was amplified when facing the Tigers - it became more than bragging rights. Anstey reflected on small but noteworthy moments that created tension when the teams would compete.

“Every time we could hit Drewy [Gaze] on a cut, we’d try that. Anytime we could get a clipping on Copes [Lanard Copeland], we’d try that.”

Building and sustaining

“The import we brought in, wasn’t someone who at the time was coming in from the States on a big contract. It was someone who busted his ass through the SEABL, was hard working, was hard-nosed - was Mike Kelly.”

Adding the defensive-minded Kelly helped drive the team’s philosophy that continuous defensive efforts would lead to stellar offensive play. The ultimate barometer for preparation was the level of competition each individual brought to the team.

“When we brought Mike in, we didn’t bring in a Lanard Copeland. We didn’t bring in a Leroy Loggins, we brought in someone to absolutely be a part of that group, an import who was willing to work as hard as what we were, which was continuing to grow the culture.”

Another key piece for the Magic’s sustained success that season came from strength and conditioning trainer Bruce Gray. Now one of the most recognised figures in his field, Gray helped guide the team through the grind of a 33-game season, and to this day remains the preferred trainer for members of that championship winning team.

One of Anstey's fondest memories, the battles which went on internally. The action behind closed doors constructed the building blocks for the Magic, creating the intensity that would transition to game day, and help guide them in any situation.

“Back then it was the red team trying to beat the black team at training, those battles were the best ones,” Anstey recalls. “They were competitive because there were fights, there were hits, blind screens, and we always knew that training was going to be tougher than the game, because there were no referees at training.

As the players bought in to the intensity and ruthlessness on the court, the unselfish nature of the veterans helped bind the team together, giving players like Anstey the confidence to compete at a young age.

"We use to beat the shit out of each other at training. We loved each other, respected each other, but we always knew that we had to. I learnt that with Dorge knocking me on my ass every other day for three years in a row, but then picking me up and teaching me. Tony Ronaldson was exactly the same. I was a young, skinny kid, didn’t know what he was doing, and knowing what I know now I was a threat to their job, or their starting position. But they were two of the best teachers I could have had."

As narrated on the Aussie Hoopla podcast, former Magic guard Frank Drmic vividly memorises the physical nature when training as a rookie on Goorjian's squad.

“I do remember the first training session. Darren Lucas absolutely smashing me on a screen, thought I had ran into a brick wall.”

There were no passengers within these scrimmages, but it brought with it a burning desire that set the Magic on a path to consecutive Grand Final appearances from 1996 to 1998. The fierce battles lead to memorable clashes on game day, and created the hype that allowed basketball to thrive in the city of Melbourne. Dressed in black, South East Melbourne were recognised as the ‘villains’, eager to diminish the Tigers' dominance.

The two Melbourne teams had owned the regular season. With both clubs at the top of the ladder boasting an identical 21-5 record, the stage was set for a defining series in NBL finals history. The 1996 decider marked the second meeting for these teams, after the Magic won their first championship in 1992.

“I do remember Men in Black played when we got introduced and that was what we were, it was almost: we were the bad guys coming after the established guys,” Anstey said.

A series to remember

“Leading up, the discussion was that we’re busting our ass on the training court, they’re out playing golf. We believed that our hard work, that the longer the season went, we’d be able to wear them down.”

The Magic possessed a group of players who could regularly put up big numbers, but individuals focussed solely on getting the best out of each other.

“The mentality was always individual success followed the team success, not the other way around.”

Goorjian created safe ground for his players to raise the intensity, and the focus for the three-game series was to wear the Tigers down through timely interruptions and defensive pressure.

“The bigger statistic we all bought into were deflections on the defensive end. Taking charges, blocked shots, hands on passes, disrupting what they wanted to do… our goal was 40 [deflections] a game. It was always about the deflections. We felt like if we could defend, then we could run, we could be athletic and play. It was always about grinding them down.”

The Tigers took hold of Game 1, flexing their muscles with a 21-point victory in front of a packed Melbourne crowd. Gaze continued his strong MVP form with 35 points and seven assists. But Game 2 defined what the Magic would seek to accomplish all year - it was a grind-it-out battle right to the end. With the Magic leading 86-84, Kelly sealed a four-point win knocking down two late-game free throws that are remembered in Magic folklore.

“The memory I’ve got was Lanard Copeland's three-point shot, rolling around, Sammy Mackinnon rebounding it and outlet it to Mike Kelly who got fouled. It was like time stood still watching Mike shoot those two free throws,” Anstey explained.

“If you recall Mike’s technique, he’s got the knee bent, the arm bent behind the head, think there was a piece of tape or a band-aid hanging over one of his ears. It was just like slow motion, when he made those, it was incredible to know that we turned around a massive Game 1 loss.”

The series was taken to a deciding final game. Anstey and his Magic felt the contest had shifted, and the short turnaround would be a factor in the final encounter. The Magic carried out their goal of grinding the Tigers down.

“Game three was in less than 48 hours, so that was the perfect scenario for us, they didn’t get a week to recover.”

South East Melbourne’s season had come full circle. All the hard work and effort was about to pay off, with the final hurdle within reach.

“We knew we recovered better, we knew we were fitter, and once we won Game 2, we knew we were favoured.”

The decider ended in a tumultuous defeat for the Tigers. A 37-point deficit was far from a reflection of the season/post-season series, but the Magic had pushed their opposition to breaking point.

A rivalry was born.

“We didn’t believe we had the same ability and same natural talent as what the Tigers did, and we knew we were younger,” Anstey explained. “That was the team Goorjian needed. At some level we were naive enough to believe every single word he said, and he’d take that and run with it, and take it to a degree we’d never been to.”

As displayed in 1996, unwavering belief and execution eventually led to championship success for South East Melbourne. As upstart challengers, they took on the Melbourne Tigers with grit and determination, emerging from a magical season to claim what would be their second and final championship in the club's brief history.