Even as the 2001/2 season drew to a close it was clear that the future of Leopards was in the balance. The previous season had seen the club put up for sale after a controversial defeat at Thames Valley and they had probably only taken to the floor for what proved to be the final season after winning $50,000 in Las Vegas tournament.
Clearly much of the show-business element of the Big Cats had disappeared during the final couple of years and running the club had become more of a chore than a hobby. The Supporters’ Club had held preliminary talks with Leopards’ owners about running the club on their behalf without being able to come to any kind of deal and the Vegas money ensured a ninth season. A year later, early in 2002, it became clear that new investment was needed. Coach Mike Taylor introduced London gym Tom Henner as a prospective buyer and the final game at Sheffield arrived supporters of the club believed that a deal was imminent and the club would be under new ownership by the time they returned to action in September.
However it soon became clear that Henner simply didn’t have the money to either buy or run the club, with an unrealistic suggestion that he would take over the club by they wouldn’t compete in the 2003/4 season.
On July 21 owner – and long time benefactor – Ed Simons was contacted by programme editor Dave Ryan and told him that the Henner deal was effectively dead. Ryan, former coach Chris Pullem and one of the club’s sponsors Fred Dicker (who went on to be chairman of the new club) spent the next two and half weeks trying to put a deal together to ensure the team played in 2003/4 before an early August deadline set by the BBL. Pullem was in contact with a Utah-based businessman who was interested in taking a majority shareholding, with the plan being that the Supporters Club would play a significant party in the day-to-day running of the club.
It looked like the club would be saved. But BBL CEO Mike Smith was unimpressed by the deal and effectively blocked it, leaving Simons with little option but to tell the league that Leopards would sit the season out with the intention of returning for 2004/5. The BBL’s caution was understandable in many ways. The deal had been put together very quickly and the memories of Manchester Giants’ collapse less than two years before would have been fresh in their minds. With more time, it may have been feasible for the proposed consortium to save the club but Henner’s involvement had muddied the waters.
But it wasn’t over. By the middle of September the supporters had regrouped as Leopards Alive – a group dedicated to getting Leopards back in action for the 2004/5 season. Meetings were held, advice was taken – MK Lions’ owner Vince Macauley being particularly helpful – and discussions were held.
Meanwhile the fans had no team to watch and would be found in small groups around the south east watching basketball. Milton Keynes, Towers, Sutton, Ware and even Brighton had the benefit of Leopards’ fans in attendance. Although – obviously – when they were at Crystal Palace it was the away side who received the extra support.
It became obvious after a while that the supporters group were not going to be able to raise enough funds to run a BBL club and that there wasn’t available investors to buy the franchise with or without help from the fans. This shouldn’t have been a surprise. The club had been up for sale for over a year while they continued to play, and there had been no realistic offers. The price Simons was asking had steadily dropped and was reasonable – certainly compared to buying a franchise from the BBL – and he clearly wanted the club to continue. But the numbers concerned were also an indication of just how much money had been put into the club by its ownership, even to be a mid-table club at Brentwood.
So the tough decision was made. If the BBL wasn’t a feasible option, the group would look to find a way to play in NBL Division One – the tier below the competition the original Leopards had spent their entire existence. It wasn’t a unanimous decision, it was BBL or nothing for some of the group although it was pretty clear to everyone that the top flight simply wasn’t achievable. The NBL had three tiers at the time but the idea of starting at the bottom was rejected as it was felt that it wasn’t a level where people would pay to watch and there was a real risk that there would be occasions when the opposition didn’t turn up. The latter point was a genuine worry, and in subsequent years a couple of lower division teams failed to show up for National Cup ties.
So the group needed to find a way of finding a direct route to Division One. Worthing Thunder had shown it could be done when Bears departed for Brighton and they bought Stevenage Rebels five years earlier, moving the side to the south coast. A similar situation had seem Bury & Bolton move to Richmond where they won and a league and play-off double before folding, and although that wasn’t the kind of thing that Leopards aspired to, both situations showed that it was feasible.
The group initially held talks with Sutton Pumas, and it appeared that a deal was on the verge of being done which would have moved the south London club to Brentwood before they stopped taking phone calls and the move collapsed. Curiously, Pumas withdrew from Division One that summer without selling the club.
The chances of a new Leopards emerging looked to be slipping away as the 2002/3 season drew to a close before a conversation between former Leopards assistant coach Mark Clark and Ryan following a Ware Rebels game changed the course of Leopards’ history.
Rebels had been formed as Ware Fire following the original club’s move to Stevenage but after rising through the divisions were finding life in Division One where the majority of teams were bringing in imports and paying expenses to their British players. Clark was director of basketball with Rebels having stood down as coach a few months earlier, and a deal was quickly done. The last couple of Rebels games at Wodson Park saw plenty of Leopards’ fans coming to watch what would soon become their club.
Games would be split between the Brentwood Centre and Wodson Park, partly because of venue availability (Friday night or midweek games were not an option in Division One) and also due to the cost of hiring a BBL quality venue. The club needed a name to reflect their new catchment area.
Essex & Herts Leopards were born.
At this point, it’s a good time to show Leopards’ full BBL record and the box stats from those nine years, while thanking Maz Curtis, for making those scrapbooks that have helped massively for the first ten parts of this history, and Paul Phillips for doing some of the technical stuff that I’ve never got around to learning about.