Basketball: Inside the Breakers-Wildcat rivalry

By Michael Brown

A bitter, long-running rivalry between the Breakers and the Wildcats will be to the fore on Sunday, writes Michael Brown.

Kevin Lisch of the Wildcats and Tom Abercrombie of the Breakers.  Photos / Getty Images
Kevin Lisch of the Wildcats and Tom Abercrombie of the Breakers. Photos / Getty Images

What started in a Christchurch carpark in 2004 has developed into the biggest rivalry in Australasian basketball.

It's often said they "hate" each other and both sides talk about going to "war" when they clash but, in many respects, it's a rivalry that doesn't make a lot of sense.

Most traditional rivalries are derbies, played out by two near neighbours, but in this case they're separated by 5346km, the Tasman Sea, a desert and three time zones.

As one protagonist puts it, it's the "derby of distance" and the travel factor only adds to the desire to win because of the effort to get there.

The Breakers and Perth tangle in an eagerly-anticipated three-game grand finals series, starting with Sunday's first instalment at Vector Arena. There are bound to be flashpoints because it's often been the way since the two sides first met a decade ago.

The first incident occurred in a Christchurch carpark in 2004, the Breakers' debut season, when Dillon Boucher got in a spat with Perth's Rashad Tucker. Boucher was ejected from the match for elbowing Tucker. He was in an unhappy place at the time, both personally and because of what was going on at the Breakers, and snapped when Tucker got a bit lippy.

In the carpark after the game, Boucher was alone in the team van waiting for his teammates when Tucker approached him. Word were exchanged. Things got heated. Rashad swung at Boucher and cut his lip. Boucher had to be restrained.

It provided an explosive backdrop to a return match between the two sides two days later at the North Shore Events Centre, when extra security had to be brought in for the match and there were even stories the family of Breakers guard Paora Winitana, who is a Mormon bishop, would drive up from the Hawkes Bay to help keep the peace.

"There was some people who were pretty disappointed about what he had done to me," Boucher recalls. "There were some who openly said they wanted to get him back for it and I had to talk a lot of people out of going to the game and doing something. The good thing was we both got suspended for the game, which meant he didn't go anyway."

Many people see this as the start of the rivalry. Boucher disagrees. That, he says, came later.

"That was a one-off incident between me and Rashad. No one else was involved so there was no team rivalry back then. The Wildcats certainly didn't care about the Breakers in those days because why would they care about a team on the bottom of the table?

"It didn't spark a rivalry because I went and played for Perth the following year and there was no animosity towards me from the team or fans. When I went there, the only person who cared about the Breakers was me. I wanted to beat them because they got rid of me."

Boucher had recently rejoined the Breakers, via Brisbane, when the next major incident occurred in November 2008, after Phill Jones and former Breakers import Shawn Redhage tangled. Redhage was holding on to Jones, who lashed out and connected with his opponent's delicate area, but Redhage hit the floor as if he had been shot. Jones copped a one-match ban.

"When we went over there, they made a meal of that and focused on Phill," Breakers general manager Richard Clarke says. "Andrew Vlahov was their owner at the time and said in the media that, 'we hate New Zealanders and want to smash them'."

That, many say, is probably when the true rivalry started.

It ushered in a new era of competitiveness on court, especially as the Breakers were starting to emerge as a competitive outfit, but also barbs in public.

Perth coach Rob Beveridge has often been at the centre of that. A number of Breakers players and coaches were offended when Beveridge labelled the Breakers a one-man team after Kirk Penney's incredible 38-point haul in Perth to lift the Breakers to a series-levelling 93-89 victory in game two of the 2011 semifinals.

"We didn't get beaten by the Breakers, we got beaten by Kirk Penney," Beveridge said at the time.

He followed that up the following year when he complained about Gary Wilkinson's "over-celebrating" of the Breakers' win in game one of last year's grand final series.

Many of the Breakers watched in bewilderment as Perth scrambled over the hoardings to hug their fans after their one-point victory in game two. Coincidentally, the winning basket came courtesy of Wilkinson tipping the ball into his own net.

Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis, not one to usually get dragged into controversy, spoke about "cheap shots" against his players and others talked about Perth's apparent liking for "flopping" in order to win fouls. Perth countered with their own grievances.

Tom Abercrombie has called it a feud. Mika Vukona admitted they just don't like them.

"The feeling is definitely mutual," Perth guard Kevin Lisch said on the eve of last season's finale.

"I don't hate them," Breakers guard Daryl Corletto says. "I enjoy the battle. It's always a battle. It's always a war playing them. It's the two best teams in the competition going at it."

Corletto played in the great rivalry of yesteryear, when his Melbourne Tigers took on the Sydney Kings in the mid-2000s. They met in two grand final series in three years, and former Sydney coach Brian Goorjian played the role of Beveridge with his comments in the media, but Corletto doesn't remember them being nearly as fierce as the Breakers/Perth encounters of today.

"It was more about who could [get] the most points," Corletto says. "When we play the Wildcats, it's all about defence and who can shut down the opposition. If you don't come mentally ready to beat the Wildcats, you're not going to win. You need to beat them in all the effort areas."

Boucher has made a career doing that and the 37-year-old, who is retiring at the end of the season, could be a pivotal figure. He thinks the rivalry is over-hyped.

"For me, it's just two good teams who play a hard brand of basketball," he says. "That's where the true rivalry comes in.

"The big thing is the way Perth play. They play an in-your-face style of defence. They are very physical, probably the most physical team in the competition. Sometimes the physicality goes a little further on than the referees are willing to police so that's where the grey areas come in as to what someone deems as okay and not okay. That's where the hate comes in for the other team because you don't like the way they are playing against you.

"When you bang two stones together, you're going to get a spark and that's exactly what we have when we come together."

Where the ANBL finals will be won and lost

Defence
Perth will be missing influential guard Damian Martin, who was recently named the league's best defensive player for the third year running, but they have replaced him with hard-nosed veteran Brad Robbins who has come out of retirement to play in the series.

The Big Men
Alex Pledger is developing into a good player - the Breakers centre recently won consecutive player of the week awards - but he has often struggled against Perth big man Matt Knight who often saves his best for the Breakers. Knight can score from the inside and outside and is a terrific rebounder.

Home sweet home
The Breakers have secured home court advantage, courtesy of winning the minor premiership, and they had an impressive home record this season with only one defeat. The thing is, that loss was to Perth on the opening game of the season and the Wildcats are equally intimidating at The Jungle. The Breakers won't want to drop the first game.

- NZ Herald

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