Today marks 45 years since the Tall Blacks claimed their maiden victory over Trans-Tasman basketball rivals Australia, in an epic 67-65 win at Wellington’s Walter Nash Stadium.
With New Zealand unable to beat Australia in seven previous matchups (1971-1976), the Boomers travelled to New Zealand in April 1978 to play the Tall Blacks in a three-game FIBA World Championship Qualifying series a.k.a. the FIBA Oceania Championship. Australia boasted a strong squad led by veteran point guard Phil Smythe, with FIBA Hall of Famer Lindsay Gaze in as coach.
As they are today, Australia back then was regarded as a basketball powerhouse on the world stage; having finished eighth overall at the 1976 Olympics and recording a seventh-place result at the FIBA World Cup in 1978. So Kiwi coach Steve McKean and his squad knew they had to play to their absolute best to beat the Aussies and were highly motivated to claim a series win.
Led by Captain John McDonald and brothers Stan and John Hill – with Stan recently returned from a one-year stint at San Jose State University in California and in the best shape of his career – the Tall Blacks travelled to Auckland’s YMCA for Game 1 of the series. Unfortunately they would lose the first game 71-93, extending their losing streak to eight streak against the Aussies.
Preparing for game two, the Kiwi’s still had a strong belief that they could beat the strong Australian team. The second game was held in the then-newly built Walter Nash Stadium in Hutt Valley, in front of a sold-out crowd. The game was close all the way, as emphasised by the 51-50 score line in favour of New Zealand with six minutes to play.
The unfancied kiwis fought hard in the closing minutes as the lead see-sawed back and forth. With seconds on the clock and behind one point, John Hill scored on an offensive tip-in on a missed jump shot by Macdonald, his incredible play allowing the Tall Blacks to a last-gasp 67-65 win. It was part of a six-point scoring outburst by Hill in the final minutes of the game as he helped will the Kiwis to victory with his play.
You can watch the final two minutes of this game at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NHlXJkussG8.
In preparation for game three at Cowles Stadium in Christchurch, the mood in the Kiwi camp was upbeat; the pressure now firmly on Australia as no-one picked New Zealand to have any success against a very talented Aussie team. This was again a close game from start to finish, before Australia prevailed 76-69 – the seven point margin only the second time that New Zealand had come within single digits of the Aussies.
Macdonald was a standout of this series as he outplayed Smythe in the backcourt, while the Hill brothers were both solid performers in all three games. Other key contributors for New Zealand included John ‘Dutchie’ Rademakers, Warwick Meehl, John Fairweather and Stu’ Ferguson.
Following this series loss, the same team – with the exception of captain John Macdonald – took part in the inaugural Commonwealth Basketball Championships in Great Britain. The Kiwis progressed to the final against highly-ranked Canada, ultimately claiming silver in a performance which captured the attention of the country at the time.
In recognition of their efforts, that 1978 Men’s National Team was inducted into the BBNZ Hall of Fame in 2021, at the BBNZ Awards. The 2023 BBNZ Awards are being held on Saturday 6 May 2023 at the Pipitea Marae & Function Centre in Wellington – more info here.
1978 FIBA Oceania Championship: New Zealand vs Australia
- Game 1, Auckland: Australia 93, Tall Blacks 71
- Game 2, Lower Hutt: Australia 65, Tall Blacks 67
- Game 3, Christchurch: Australia 76, Tall Blacks 69
Tall Blacks 1978 Squad
Paul BARRETT (25 games)
John FAIRWEATHER (62 games)
Stu FERGUSON (58 games)
John HILL (123 games)
Stan HILL (144 games)
John MacDONALD (98 games)
Warwick MEEHL (106 games)
John ‘Dutchie’ RADEMAKERS (130 games)
Gordon REARDON (50 games)
John VAN UDEN (64 games)
Coach: Steve MCKEAN