By: Andrew Price / @andrewbprice
There were five games played this week in the NBL, and all of them had winning margins of at least 10 points. Despite this, there is one game that had all the attention, and rightly so.
Melbourne Tigers vs. Wollongong Hawks.
Wollongong are currently the worst team in the league, and I don’t just say that because they are the bottom ranked team in the league—they stink. They are struggling at both ends of the court, haven’t got any superstar player to carry them and rely on aging veteran players to produce points they simply can’t anymore (see this article if you want an in depth look at the Hawks problems).
What makes this an interesting match up between the Hawks and the Tigers therefore is based on off-court drama, rather than an on-court rivalry.
Two weeks ago the Tigers had just lost on their own court to the Gold Coast Blaze. This wasn’t anything unexpected either, the Tigers by this stage were into a three-game losing streak that had seen them lose pace with the top running teams and saw their playoff hopes dangling in the balance. The Blaze are a great team too (NBL Power Rankings) and the Tigers shouldn’t have been expected to beat them given their current form.
The problem with the loss was the Tigers fell short in all the ‘effort’ stat categories. They were out rebounded horribly, and shot poorly, including just 40 percent from the free throw line.
Directly following this loss, notorious Tigers owner Seamus McPeake stormed his way into the player’s locker room demanding answers for the disappointment that the team had brought him and the fans.
No one is really sure what went down, and the Australian press and NBL itself are strangely quiet on the issue, but what we do know is that import guard Ayinde Ubaka was fired on the spot, reportedly told to pack his bags and not come back.
For those unfamiliar with Ubaka, the 6’4″ guard played his college ball at Berkley and has been abroad since. He’s currently in his third year in the NBL, and has been a fan favorite at all three teams he has played for (Gold Coast, Cairns, Melbourne).
I have written an extensive analysis of the firing of Ubaka for those who want more information about the situation, but the long and short of the situation is that it was frowned upon by both fans and players alike and has left the Tigers in tatters. Despite the controversial way in which the ‘firing’ took place Ubaka handled the situation with professionalism and dignity, which only further the rage of fans at the management, as Ubaka was left looking like the innocent party betrayed.
Within two days the Tigers had replaced Ubaka with a new import guard, leaving fans wondering if it was in fact a pre-meditated decision to sack him in first place and Ayinde Ubaka had been quickly snapped up by the desperate Wollongong Hawks.
And now I’m sure you understand the reason for the hype surrounding the aforementioned game.
The first time Ubaka took to the court since being controversially and unceremoniously sacked was going to be against his former team. The media attempted to hype the story up as much as possible, and rightly so—but Ubaka was having nothing to do with any kind of revenge talk, maintaining he took no issue with the players or coaching staff but rather the management that mistreated him. Still, there was no hiding that he wanted to beat his old team, regardless of his reasoning.
And beat them they did.
Up until that game, the Hawks had only won a miserable four games (with 12 losses), but the Tigers came in a team in ruins and they showed it on court. They looked lethargic and lacking in confidence and the final score (90-68) certainly reflected that. As usual the Tigers were killed on the boards, but it wasn’t the Tigers that lost the game, it was the Hawks who won it.
Fired up by the public attention, the new point guard and the desperation for a win the Hawks came on to the court like a new team. They shot lights out and rebounded well but most of all, they played like a team. The result couldn’t have been better for Hawks fans, and indeed anyone not from Melbourne. Ubaka finished the game with 15 points, 4 boards, 3 assists and 3 steals—an all-around effort that will excite Hawks fans for the remainder of the season.
Where to for the limping Tigers from here though?
Their new guard Myron Allen certainly has the credentials having played three seasons in China and winning almost every award the Chinese league has to offer, but by the looks it is very much a stop over tour for Allen, and I imagine the Tigers will have their third rebuild in three years come the off-season.
With the founding of a second Melbourne team on the horizon for next season too, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few current Tigers jumping across town to play for a management that won’t fire them on a whim.
For now though, the Tigers will miss the playoffs again after such a promising start, and Ubaka will become a much needed hero for the city of Wollongong.
Andrew Price is the creator of lobpasstoabercrombie.com, where he writes about the NBL and his hometown team, the New Zealand Breakers. Follow him on Twitter @andrewbprice and read ‘Abercrombie & Fitchett’ every Monday on ELA.