Over 25 seasons of Leopards basketball there have been some fairly random moments, possibly none as random as when a guy walked into the gym during our game at Birmingham and sat on one of the subs’ seats. We never did find out who he was.
But there’s also been several games that didn’t happen, and a similar number that happened but didn’t count for a variety of reasons and one that didn’t count and then didn’t happen. Confused? Read on….
Early in the 2001/2 season Leopards hosted Manchester Giants at the Brentwood Centre. Games between the two clubs were a big deal even both sides had slipped down the pecking order a bit. Giants had twice won best-of-three play-offs series against the Big Cats after Leopards had won the away leg, and had signed the core of their 1998 BBL title winning side and had eventually lifted the title in 2000. So a comfortable victory for the Big Cats against their northern rivals was a real boost for Chris Pullem’s team, and it was therefore a real blow for Leopards when a few days later Giants withdrew from the BBL. Obviously not as much as a blow than it was for Giants, who eventually re-emerged just over a decade later. The battle of the reformed clubs in 2015 saw new Leopards record their only BBL Trophy victory.
That wasn’t the only “game that never happened” for the old club, but it took only three years for their successors to repeat the situation. Nottingham Knights had been promoted to the top flight for the 2005/6 season and despite finishing bottom of the table with a 3-23 record and playing in probably the worst Division One venue we’ve ever graced, they somehow got a reprieve. It proved to be a bad move, they looked okay in their opening game of the season as Leopards laboured to a 93-84 victory in the National Trophy before England Basketball’s request that they actually paid their entry fees saw them withdraw from the league and fold!
In February 2009, Leopards were due to play at Taunton Tigers as part of an away weekend in the West Country. The Big Cats had won a hard-fought game 81-72 at Bristol the nigt before, while Tigers had lost in overtime at home against Manchester Magic.
Most of the players were still sleeping when the phone rang in my room as I was given the news that the game was off. A club volunteer who was also the mum of one of the players had taken her dog for a walk, had suffered a fall and had died. It was a stunning way to not play basketball. We went home feeling a bit empty. It later transpired that the Tigers’ coach had quit the previous night after that double overtime loss – a game in which they’d apparently grabbed defeat out of the jaws of victory. Judge as you see fit. There was no time to rearrange the game and Leopards were given a 20-0 win.
The 2010/11 season saw an even stranger situation. Leopards arrived at London Capital’s rather dingey court to find that it was marked out with the post 2012 court lines – a bigger key area and three-point arc Basketball England were willing to allow clubs to play with the new three-point line, but they insisted that the smaller lane under the basket was also marked out and with Capital refusing to remark the court, Leopards played the game under protest. Despite being right, it still came as a surprise when BE ruled in their favour and ordered the game to be replayed. However, Capital failed to agree a date for the game, and Leopards were given a walkover. “It’s not how we want to win games, we were happy to replay it – we actually like playing basketball!” said general manager Dave Ryan as he celebrated Leopards’ first ever Wednesday lunchtime victory! “But it puts us back in the Trophy, and hopefully we’ll make the most of the reprieve.”
It was 20-0 time again two years later as Leopards opened their defence of the National Cup with a walkover. Neighbours Brentwoood Fire had already lost in the competition but it was discovered that half of the Eastside Eagles victorious team weren’t registered. Sadly, having been beaten by 18 at the Brentwood Centre the previous year, Fire didn’t fancy taking advantage of their reprieve and conceded the game leaving Leopards to hastily arrange (and lose) a friendly against Reading Rockets.
The next game that didn’t happen, actually did happen but didn’t count. And it was one of the low-points in Leopards’ history. With two games of the 2013/14 Division One season remaining, the Big Cats still had an outside chance of denying Reading Rockets the league title. It had taken about a month to get the trip to Newham Neptunes arranged, The original game had been postponed because Neptunes had forgotten that they’d agreed to stage the National Trophy final (easily done, I’m sure) and it had been painful to get it fixed. In the end rather than claiming a 20-0 victory (and I still regret this), we agreed to visit the University of East London on the final Thursday of the regular season. When assistant coach Roger Malpass said goodbye to everyone following the 83-80 overtime win against Team Northumbria at Brentwood and mentioned that he was away working away during the week and wouldn’t be at the Neptunes game, it never occurred to anyone that he had the licence cards.
By about 7.15pm on the evening of the game, we’d all remembered. Despite pleas to the referees that Roger would send over pics of all of the licences, Newham were having none of it. They wanted their 20-0 and they got it. The refs had no choice, so despite everyone knowing everyone, and no suggestion that anyone was trying to play an unregistered player, Newham got their win. Leopards won a friendly between the sides 65-61, Reading won both their games that weekend anyway (although we’ll never know if they’d have bottled it under pressure) and Basketball England introduced an online licence system.
And finally, the 2016/17 season wasn’t a great success and ended with the only relegation in Leopards’ history. So wins were at a premium, but we could have done without getting one by default against Ipswich in the National Cup. It was 9.20am when I staggered downstairs to find I’d just missed a call from Ipswich. We spent the rest of the day trying to let people know it was off, and I still missed my daughter’s under-11 game to stand in reception at Harlow LeisureZone telling people there wasn’t any basketball. So I had a rant online next day
“It’s really disappointing, and makes the whole sport look amateurish” said Ryan . “We were called at 9.40 on Sunday morning to be told that they couldn’t raise a team, and it’s really not acceptable. They managed to put a team out for a home game on Saturday evening, but obviously it was too much effort to get on a mini bus the following day.
“We’d put a lot of time and effort into promoting the game and, as I don’t hold out much hope of getting proper compensation, we stand to lose a lot of money we can’t afford. We spent a lot of time on Sunday morning trying to ensure everyone knew the game was off, but people still turned up at Leisurezone on Sunday afternoon and if they think the whole sport is Micky Mouse and don’t bother coming again it’s hard to blame them .
“We’re through to the next round, but that isn’t much consolation, we wanted to see our team play but instead we all wasted our time. Basketball England revamped the competition in the summer in an attempt to cut down on blowouts and stop teams from lower divisions crying off because they believed they’d get hammered . But I really thought better of Ipswich, they’re an established club who know the repercussions for the home side when you call a game off. They have a decent under-18 side who didn’t have a game, so they should’ve been able to raise a team. We’ve all gone to games short-handed knowing that we’d probably get beaten, but the important thing is to get the game played.”
And we were hammered at second division Kent Crusaders in the next round – a game I wished had never happened.