The Nunawading Spectres: An Aussie basketball factory
Very few have had the longevity and success of the Nunawading Spectres. But what sets them apart as one of the great Australian basketball clubs?
If you’re an AFL fan you may have heard junior clubs referred to as “footy factories”. It’s a term they throw around pretty freely and not one we hear used when it comes to basketball. If the basketball community were to take on the phrase “basketball factory” then at the top of the list would be the Nunawading Spectres.
Once known as the Eastside Spectres, and a few other names along the journey, Nunawading have been one of the great long term successes in Australian basketball history, playing high quality basketball at numerous levels and producing some incredibly talented players, coaches and administrators.
Let me run you through just SOME of the names that have spent time with the Spectres during their basketball journey: Robyn Maher, Tom Maher, Shane Heal, Darren Smith, Jason Smith, Penny Taylor, Michele Timms, Tony Ronaldson, Daniel Kickert, Alanna Smith, Bec Allen, Bec Cole, Damian Keogh and Barry Barnes.
As mentioned, that is just a handful of the incredible list of basketball people that have been involved with the club.
But what makes it such a special place, how does it cultivate such incredible talent across the ranks?
I was lucky enough to chat to current Operations Manager and women’s NBL1 head coach Paul Flynn, along with a few club legends to talk about Australia’s great basketball factory.
The Spectres were a foundation member of the NBL back in 1979. They would spend 12 years in the NBL, reaching the grand final series twice, once with Barry Barnes as coach and another with Brian Goorjian in charge. In 1992 the NBL side merged with the South Melbourne Saints to create the famous South East Melbourne Magic.
However, it was a different merger that truly altered Spectres’ history.
“The Melbourne Telstars was a leading women’s club in Melbourne, but they had no men’s program. Nunawading had a very strong men’s program but had no women’s program,” explained FIBA Hall of Fame coach Tom Maher.
“So, I approached Barry Barnes who was the head coach of the men’s team if we could join Nunawading. He said he would take it to the committee and apparently there was also interest in creating a junior girl’s program as they didn't have this either.
“The committee approved the merger. That was the first year of the WNBL in 1981.”
The merged team kept the Melbourne Telstars moniker for one year, before becoming the Nunawading Spectres. It was the beginning of the most successful club in WNBL history, a title which was snatched away by the Canberra Capitals close to 30 years later.
“The mighty Spectres won WNBL titles in 1983, 84, 86, 87, 88 & 89 during my time there,” said three-time Olympian and club legend Robyn Maher. “We also won Club Championships and Victorian Championship titles.”
So like most clubs, the foundations of longevity were built on a strong foundation of success. With iconic head coaches Barry Barnes and Tom Maher leading the charge in the early days with superstars like Robyn Maher, success was a foregone conclusion.
But it' wasn’t anything outrageous that helped cultivate greatness. It was just what you would expect. Strong leadership and people that were willing to put in to help build something special.
“It was a good Club and a strong club with good juniors and great volunteers,” said Tom Maher.
“We had a great committee with the Spectres,” explained Robyn Maher.
“They [the club] were always very supportive and they had lots of courts back in the day, which created an army of support for the team and good juniors.”
As mentioned earlier, Nunawading has provided a pathway for generations of incredible talent (hear from a few here) and the Smith family is a fantastic example of that.
Darren Smith had never played for a representative team until he was selected in the Spectres U16s program. It was the start of a long and storied career, which saw him progress through to the U18s, then the senior side in what was eventually known as the SEABL. From there Smith enjoyed over five seasons in the NBL before eventually returning to Nunawading to finish off his career.
“I think it [Nunawading] has a unique culture that combines hard work but with a sense of confidence,” explained Smith.
“The club has always had very good coaches that committed their time and passion which made a huge impact on the athletes to learn the essentials and how to compete at a high level.”
And Smith became one of those dedicated and hard-working coaches, looking after numerous girls teams, including ones that involved his daughter, and Olympian, Alanna.
“I have a couple of great moments throughout my time at Nunawading - the championships as a player, both in juniors and seniors will always be something I reflect fondly on,” Darren Smith said.
“But I loved being able to spend time with my daughter, helping her to develop her skills and sharing a combined passion for our great game.”
Alanna Smith’s development has seen her become one of Australia’s great young stars, dominating at Stanford before taking her talents to the WNBA. She was also part of the Opals campaign at the Tokyo Games.
The Smith family, which obviously also includes former Aussie captain Jason, is a prime example of the incredible pathway the Nunawading Spectres has provided over such a long time.
According to Darren Smith, it’s that longevity that sets it apart as a club.
“Some of what makes Nunawading such a great club is the consistency that it has held for so long,” he said.
“It consistently has good administration at the top. It consistently has great coaches who give back to the game and genuinely love to coach young athletes. And it seems to consistently attract athletes that are hungry to improve and do what it takes to get to the next level.
“From my experience, there are not many other clubs in Australia that can claim the same.”
The club today
So history illustrates just how strong Nunawading is as a club, but what about the Spectres now?
Well, they continue to produce out incredibly strong teams. Their juniors compete at the highest level across each men’s and women’s age group, they claimed the inaugural NBL1 men’s championship, and have also claimed multiple Victorian Youth Championship Men’s titles over the last few years.
Paul Flynn is the Operations Manager and current women’s NBL1 head coach at Nunawading and is also a former Spectre and NBL player himself. He progressed through the ranks like most others, and did the same coaching wise, taking over the Victorian Youth Championship women’s side on his return to the club before eventually getting handed the reins for the senior team.
Despite coming through the Spectres pathway himself, Flynn believes it is an honour to work with such an iconic club.
“I consider myself fortunate to be able to work in an environment and organisation that I am incredibly passionate about,” he said.
“Like most within our Spectres family, I started my basketball pathway in the MEBA domestic competition, then moving into the representative stream.
“I was presented an opportunity to move into the then CBA/ABA team as a bottom age U18 player, which again gave me exposure to a higher quality of athlete to learn from - you go from playing with guys your own age to suddenly defending Jason Smith at practices.
“It's experiences like these that inspire me to continue building pathway opportunities for the next generation of Spectres’ players coming through - so that one day they can take their game somewhere beyond what is available here.”
Like in all parts of life, Flynn knows that the club is not immune to making mistakes, however, their strong foundation and direction continually puts them back on the right path.
“Success breeds success - we have had such a good depth of talent, it helps keep everyone grounded and moving forward - players, coaches, administrators,” Flynn explained.
“We have several figures, both past and present, that are fantastic leaders within our community that we do find ourselves, more often than not, pointing in the right direction.
“We're not immune to making mistakes but much like throwing a turnover, it's what you do on that next possession that defines what kind of player you are. “
A strong foundation, an incredible pathway, and good people. It seems so simple, but they are the key pillars of what has built Nunawading up to be one of the great Australian basketball factories.
Long-term success can be so hard to come by in sport, but the Spectres have seemingly found the winning formula and continue to prove themselves.
It seems only a matter of time until we see yet another Robyn Maher, Darren Smith or Alanna Smith come straight out of Nunawading and into the wider basketball spotlight.
“It sounds a little cliche but I do like to view the Nunawading Spectres as a family - as such we have a long line of kin for want of a better description,” Paul Flynn said.
“I believe we should be proud of the achievements of those that walked the roads before us and be thankful because they have in a large part paved the way.
“For our current representatives, it's now their time in the sun and an opportunity to add to our story.”
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