After the disappointment of the 1999/2000 campaign the first full season of the new millennium proved to be far more enjoyable for Leopards. Life was never dull with Bob Donewald coaching the Big Cats, it was a year that saw pretty much everything; Ejections, High Court injunctions, practice balls being poured all over the court mid-game, coaching via text messages from the balcony at Brentwood and footage of a crazy game at Crystal Palace that seems to reappear on A Question of Sport on a regular basis.
Rashod Johnson returned after joining the Big Cats midway through the previous season and he was joined in a three-man back court of Jason Kimbrough and rookie Rod Brown. Human timebomb Rico Alderson joined having played for Donewald at Derby, with big man Mo Robinson following the same route as the Big Cats went with small ball. This was a team in Donewald’s mould, playing high-tempo in-your-face basketball and trying to finish the game with five players who hadn’t fouled out. With a short bench, that last bit didn’t always happen with a pre-season friendly victory against Milton Keynes Lions saw Leopards finish the game with four men on the court. They repeated the trick with an unbelievable double overtime win Derby Storm and also finished home wins against Brighton Bears and Thames Valley Tigers short-handed.
Amongst all the lunacy, the team were pretty good, and wins against Worthing Thunder and Newcastle Eagles put the Big Cats into the National Cup semi-final where they faced deadly rivals London Towers at Coventry. A thrilling 84-82 victory at the Skydome sent Leopards to the final but there was no happy ending as Donewald’s former club Leicester Riders – coaching by former Leopard Billy Mims – lifted the oldest piece of silverware in English basketball with an 84-82 win. Donewald lobbed his runners-up medal in the bin!
The BBL had persisted with the conference system which seemed to have few fans, and the Big Cats spent much of the season chasing big-spending Towers. They eventually finished second in Southern Conference with a 24-10 record, with injured England international Kojo Mensah-Bonsu officially coaching the final five games (all wins) due to Donewald being banned. With the exception of the final, all of the play-off games were staged at Coventry (another of life’s mysteries), Leopards received a bye in the first round before beating Birmingham Bullets 89-84 in the quarter-finals on Easter Monday before Northern Conference winners Sheffield Sharks ended our hopes with an 87-77 victory.
The season also saw a nine-game tour of America early in the campaign, but that one will have to wait for another day.