Shane Heal and the '96 Boomers: A documentary we'll likely never see

Australians are known for being easygoing and laid back. When the going gets tough, the battler emerges. It's all about sheer will, determination and never backing down, especially when the odds are stacked against you.

Shane Heal was no different. Playing against a superior USA Dream Team in an exhibition game, the Boomers guard brought what he had to the table, and kept shooting. One pull-up three, right off the dribble. Dribbling off a high screen, sinking another deep three-pointer.

Heal did not waver, even as Charles Barkley charged him, while he was aloft launching another shot. The point guard was unsurprisingly, sent sprawling to the ground.

“I did what I would have done – whether I was playing as a junior or in the NBL – I got up and told him what I thought,” Heal had commented during an interview with The Pick and Roll's Warren Yiu on the Sydney 2000 Boomers.

Never back down. It was what Heal would have done in any situation. It was what any self-respecting, competitive Australian would have done.

I guess the Australian way is that we weren’t going to kiss their arse – we were going there to test ourselves against the best," Heal recounted in a 2013 feature from The Guardian. "We weren’t going to treat them any differently than we did anybody else. We had respect for them but we certainly weren’t going to bow to them.”

Heal ended the game with a sterling 8 of 13 shooting performance, his defiance in that fateful 1996 game enshrined in YouTube immortality.

2015 was the year when the NBL was in its darkest hour. In March, after the Townsville Crocodiles and Wollongong Hawks' moves into voluntary administration, Andrew Gaze himself had called for the league to be shut down.

“I have never held this view at all throughout this challenging phase of the NBL, but I have reached a position where I think they are better off regrouping and shutting it down,” Gaze had said.

Enter Brendan Pinches, an Australian basketball fan, who grew up barracking for the South East Melbourne Magic during the heyday of the NBL. Gaze's comments felt like rock bottom for the league; he decided to look into the possibility of making a documentary about the rise and imminent fall of the NBL. While researching that project, he stumbled across that fateful Shane Heal video.

To Brendan, it was astonishing. Inspirational, even.

"I thought [the video] was unbelievable -- Hubie Brown losing his mind over Shane Heal hitting 30-foot threes. I knew about the bump on Charles Barkley, but I didn't know all the other details. Heal's eight threes, Gary Payton talking trash, Karl Malone and Andrew Vlahov getting into it.

"There were so many details that emanated from that game. The fact that the Boomers and the Dream Team played again two weeks later at the Olympics, and that those games ultimately led Heal to the NBA.

"Then Payton came out to Australia after the Olympics, going on 'Hey Hey It's Saturday' and talking trash about Heal in the Australian press. It was such an unlikely sequence of events.

"And it was clearly a story that wasn't going to be told, unless I did it myself."

To sculpt, one must first have clay. Brendan needed to make sure he had his 'clay' --in this case, game footage-- before work could begin in earnest.

"I really had no idea what I was doing," Brendan remembers. "But I wrote a story outline and put an application to the NBA and the Olympics, and managed to get the game footage. Once I saw the second game --which is even more physical, with more trash talk than the first game-- I just had to keep going.

"So I pitched it to Heal's manager, and they got on board."

It was November, 2015. Despite having only worked on short films and not a full production before, Brendan did not back down from the challenge ahead.

Together with high school friend and cinematographer Dave Cleeve --who worked on productions for Kingswood and Danny Green, among others-- and Heal's support, Brendan decided to take the plunge.

The project began to pick up steam, as the days went by. Brendan planned interviews with other personalities and former Boomers of that era, including Andrew Gaze, Andrew Vlahov, Tony Ronaldson and Chris Anstey. The amount of compelling material he was gathering, made him realise one other thing - his original plan was not going to work.

Brendan had initially envisioned the project to be a 20-minute film, nothing longer. The story he now had, far exceeded that. He felt like he had a duty to Shane and to the Boomers, to tell the story in full, without whittling it down. Brendan saw the final product as a retelling of Shane Heal's journey from the NBL to the NBA, the special bond that tied the '96 Boomers together, and how it all culminated with that fateful clash with Barkley and the Dream Team.

Idealism aside, something more immediate stood in the way of success.

"Once I interviewed Heal and Gaze I knew it had to be longer, and that's when I started to worry about how I was going to pay for it. And the fact that we had to fly for half the interviews -- it got expensive really quickly."

Licensed footage, travel expenses, it all began to snowball, as the documentary steadily took shape.

It did not stop Brendan from pushing on. Never back down.

"The hope is that this story can show how far Australian basketball has come, especially as it relates to the NBA," Brendan says. "And more generally speaking, I feel like relative to Australia's interest in sport, we don't have enough sports documentaries."

It's been nearly two years since Brendan began his journey. Over the last six months, efforts on getting distributors and broadcasters to a deal have not borne fruit, largely in part to the high licensing fees attached to game footage.

A rough cut standing at 54 minutes --more than twice the duration of the original plan-- is completed, but progress has largely come to a standstill, due to the lack of traction on finding a broadcaster. Right now, the trailer is the only fragment of what looks like a solid tribute to The Hammer and the '96 Aussie Boomers.

https://vimeo.com/228009704

Like Brendan mentioned, Australia's rich sporting history is all too often limited by the lack of storytellers, especially on a visual medium. It's up to passionate individuals like Brendan and Lennon Cooper (perhaps better known on basketball social media as NBAussie Films), who weave the highlights, the conversations, and deftly tie it all together into a cohesive tale. Cooper, who now helms Flix Productions, was a 5-time NBL Media Award Winner, and covered sport for Fox Sports Australia for over a decade at various events, including the NBA Finals, US Open and more.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hl4fuWXNfio

https://vimeo.com/224156847

Documentaries like these, tell stories that define our Australian sportsmen and sportswomen. They give our athletes digital immortality, and allow future generations to connect and relive days long gone.

Brendan remains optimistic about finding the funding necessary to get the production to air. Would you be interested in watching the completed documentary?

Share this article and the trailer, sign up for updates on the official Hammer Documentary website. Bring awareness to the project, and help the younger basketball generation remember our basketball greats that helped shape today's Aussie hoops landscape.

This is not the end. If nothing else, you can count on one thing. And it's that Brendan's not backing down.

“If nothing emerges, the next step is crowd funding.”

The Hammer Documentary official website

The Hammer Documentary's official Facebook page

*Additional footage and deleted scenes could be released in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.