A working class Olympian, WNBL championship winning coach and a legend of Coburg basketball.
It’s a fair resume to accumulate on court, but for Basketball Victoria Wall of Fame inductee Les Riddle, it still comes as a shock to see the achievements on his mantle.
Riddle freely admits he wasn’t the most talented, nor the biggest… but he valued his work-ethic and seized any opportunity throughout the years.
The man who grabbed every opportunity and made the most of his time on teams from Fawkner Technical School, Coburg, Victoria and all the way through to the Australian Boomers at the Olympic Games.
It was the northern suburbs way after all. Coburg born, Fawkner raised… you didn’t get that many opportunities given out easily, so whenever you found one you had to make it count.
Les Riddle showed throughout his career that the most important aspect of any athlete’s journey was the determination and grit needed to stick it out and force the world’s attention.
He was inducted to Basketball Victoria’s Wall of Fame last month at our BV Awards night as the Victorian basketball community stopped to celebrate a humble player who let his initiative and drive do most of the talking.
The spotlight isn’t something he springs towards. The honest, straight-shooting Coburg boy was thrilled to see his name put alongside his heroes – those men who helped drive his basketball along the way – but at the same time he was baffled by the selection.
Joining the likes of Lindsay Gaze, Ken Watson and Ray Tomlinson on our Wall of Fame set him aback… how could he be in the same air as those legends? It’s something Les is still wrapping his head around a month after his induction.
“When it comes out of left field and the letter says you’re being inducted into Basketball Victoria’s Wall of Fame, it catches you totally surprised and I couldn’t get my head around it at first,” Riddle said. “I didn’t know what it meant – was I being considered or is this actually it? But when you read the letter and take it on board you think why me? What have I done of any significance? As a player, I never considered myself to be a natural athlete of the game and even after I finished playing I still thought what had I done in the game.
“Why did I deserve this accolade? It’s trying to understand – there’s this shock and I’m very humble to receive this award but I was trying to make sense of it.
“I’ve seen the wall and I’ve seen the names on it and the standard of people from when it as introduced.
“It was amazing to see there were only 36 names on the wall and here I am being inducted with another two people… 37, 38, 39, thinking about my involvement in the game.
“I tell people and honestly I’m very humbled and honoured about all of it.
“My children had never saw me play but people are so excited when I tell them about what I’ve done and what’s happened over the years… I’ve never been one to pat myself on the back and I think this is another example of that.
“It’s humbling to say there’s a tile on that Wall of Fame and there’s a bio of what I’ve done and to be part of the history of the sport. It’s mind-blowing to think I have that connection to the game. Some of those names, they’re people I know well and now I’m one of those very few people to have that honour. Mind-blowing.”
Basketball didn’t come naturally to Riddle. He was a footballer by winter and a cricketer throughout the baking Melbourne summers… but there was something alluring about basketball. It caught his eye through the hard work of a Fawkner Tech high school PE teacher Mike Baker who brought 201cm Fred Guy to talk to the class.
Those chance encounters and taking on the happenstance opportunities defined his journey and set in motion the basketball career he never knew he wanted…. But thrived to achieve thereafter.
“For me it was at school – my background then as a young teenager going to secondary school was with football and cricket,” Riddle said. “Both of those sports come easily to me and I was a little bit of a natural.
“Fred Guy (the first American to come out and play in Australia), our PE teacher Mike Baker got him to come out and speak to a group of us who were interested in basketball and from there I was captivated.
“It intrigued me and it was more or less something that I wasn’t good at but I took it as a personal challenge.
“Because footy and cricket were so natural to me, it was something about basketball and it was a challenge for me.”
The hard winter training sessions on the outdoor courts at Fawkner Tech steeled his resolve and helped his improvement. Piece by piece, shot by shot, the gears started to mesh together in his basketball repertoire.
“We used to train outdoors on asphalt courts – they were a little undulating to say the least, wooden backboards… going back to the old days,” Riddle said. “With the basketball program at school we were training two days a week – 6.30 in the morning prior to school, rain, hail or shine… literally.
“A lot of the time in the middle of winter we’d have to squeegee the courts to remove the puddles and we’d use rubber basketballs, so even the equipment was pretty basic back then.
“In the middle of winter I’d always remember you’d go in the shower afterwards and your hands would be so numb just from the cold and the constant pounding of the ball.
“It was take 10 minutes to get the feeling back in your fingers and get the pins and needles from the hot shower.”
Mike Baker’s love for the region’s basketball community ignited the passion in Riddle and many other juniors from the school team as he would help them make the weekly pilgrimage to Albert Park Basketball Stadium… cruising in with the team piled into the back of an Austin Freeway.
“Playing in the major competition on the Friday night – northern suburbs, some parents were interested and some weren’t,” Riddle said. “Mike used to have little Austin Freeway – a little station wagon – and he used to cram the kids in that and we’d have as many as we could. There’s many different regulations these days… but we used to have 16 kids squashed in like sardines.
“I just find it remarkable as a single man, a PE teacher with a passion for the sport, these were the lengths he went to personally to make sure the kids got there.
“A lot of his teams didn’t have coaches so he’d coach them all.
“He’d virtually coach one team and if it overlapped he’d leave us to finish the game off and he’d race off to coach another team and that’s how it worked every night.”
From there Riddle had his first taste of Victorian try outs – as he attempted to join the under-14 squad… but it wasn’t to be. His time in the Victorian colours emerged at the next age group as he flourished in the championships held in Perth.
“I would’ve been about 13 years of age and with junior state representation then I was invited along virtually straight away to under-14 state tryouts,” Riddle said. “I didn’t make that team but that only created a further desire to commit myself to the sport.
Those early days, recently introduced to basketball and being not very good at it, and exposed to that opportunity to try out for a state team it captures your imagination further. “I thought at the time it would’ve been great to make a state team and I sort of looked further ahead to under-16s which would’ve been a few years off and made my first team then – probably 1966 or 1967.
“Then the under-16 championships were in Perth and that was more intriguing as well as a young kid who was getting a chance to travel interstate.
“It was probably my first exposure to travel within that sporting environment and we won that championship – Victoria did with a lot of the junior teams back then and it’s probably later on that other states got stronger.
“That was the way – Victoria was always the powerhouse.”
Playing out of the newly developed Coburg stadium – the Ken Watson Stadium named after one of Basketball Victoria’s most influential administrators – he caught the eye of the association and would find himself thrust into the senior men’s team. The dribs and drabs he earned on court were fleeting but his passion for the club and his desire to learn never wavered.
“Intriguing,” Riddle said. “I was just humbled to even be there just sitting there and absorbing it all in.
“There was a bit of a changing of the guard at Coburg where the older players were moving on and the younger players were starting to come through.
“The opportunities started from there, eventually becoming a starter at Coburg – like any transition it takes time but for me it all same to come quickly.”
The association brought across another Wall of Fame inductee Ray Tomlinson from Melbourne, which added the next layer of discipline and determination to young Riddle.
“He was well versed and we noticed he played for that team that continually thumped most other teams,” Riddle said. “So, you knew that was going to be special – he had been part of a very disciplined system under Lindsay Gaze and also a lot of structure around their programs.
“That’s what Ray brought to Coburg and you might guess that northern suburbs boys weren’t the most highly disciplined.
“Once you bring that into your basketball it comes into your personal life – you’re introduced to that and when you start getting rewards and wins on the board because of that discipline that feeds the whole program I think.
“When people see that as a group they gel and you perform a lot better.”
That disciplined paid dividends quickly. Les was fast-tracked into the Australian squad. A fair cavalcade of talent existed in that new-look line-up. Larry Sengstock and Phil Smyth amongst others and Riddle were all introduced and soon taken across to Manilla for the 1978 World Championships.
“That was an incredible – to make the Australian squad and then make the Australian team – that was where it all began for me,” Riddle said. “Similarly to the likes of St Kilda and Melbourne thumping teams in our programs, you’d come up against Russia and Yugoslavia and just seeing them playing at a completely different level internationally and getting thumped as our national team by 30-40 points.
“I think like anything in life – you want to keep the nucleus together for a while and try to improve your position and that’s what happened to us.
“1977 to 1984 and I think Australia’s position internationally was 12th in 1978 at that World Championships we finished seventh and my transition was going to Moscow Olympics in 1980 and another World Championships in 1982.
“When I finished in my last international appearance I think we finished fifth in that champs in 1982, so for me personally there was a great improvement over that time.”
The World Championships were just the curtain-raiser in his career. Riddle’s time in the spotlight – for reasons outside of basketball’s control – would soon happen in 1980.
The Cold War shaped the Moscow Olympic Games just as much as the athletes and participating sports. The East vs West mentality from Korea and Vietnam reignited and set Afghanistan into the next puppet war. With athletes under pressure to boycott the Soviet Union, Riddle and basketball had the tough choice. Go or stay, take your spot in controversy or risk never participating in another Olympic Games.
In the end, the Australians went and skirted their own controversies while over there and Riddle went on to cherish the peak opportunity of his career.
“There was a lot of controversy with Afghanistan and a lot of countries boycotting the Games, so you’re part of that,” Riddle said. “Even before we left Australia the pressure from the government was there, they didn’t want sporting teams to go so Lindsay (Gaze) said for a lot of you there might not be another opportunity of playing at an Olympics so consider that.
“For me I thought I needed to grab the opportunity when it came. As it turns out I never got that second opportunity so if I did pass it up I never would have gone to the Olympics.
“And what difference did it really make? I know that people have to make a stand but how much longer did Afghanistan go onwards, so if you pass up that opportunity at the Olympics would it make an immediate impact… you staying at home?
“I think that was good to divorce yourself from that further pressure and we prepared overseas in Europe and got into Moscow to settle early.
“That was a great thing to do, so we got exposed to playing against some of the teams we would play against at the Olympics in that pre-Olympic time.
“That was just a part of the excitement and doing something completely different, I know they do that all the time now but back then it was something different.
“Being in an Eastern bloc country, you hear stories and its different today going into Russia and Moscow but back then I remember there wasn’t much advertising and it was fairly sterile in the streets.
“Even what surrounds the Olympics today with fanfare and promotion, but back then it was subdued and with what was going on in Afghanistan maybe that was what they wanted to do.
“There weren’t many billboards or anything like that in the streets – a few Olympic flags on the streets but it was like going into a ghost town going into a major event.”
The Australian team had its own controversy occur at the end of the pool stage. Leading Italy and Cuba on the last day before the finals began, Australia only needed for Italy to lose or Cuba to lose by any amount besides seven points to advance to the top pool of the finals.
In the end, Cuba lost by exactly seven to allow Italy – the eventual silver medalist nation – and Cuba to go through.
“Controversy for us how it all unfolded with the famous thing about the seven-point margin,” Riddle said. “In the last game of our pool, we were getting through to the top eight unless there was a particular outcome between Cuba and Italy for it to go against us that result had to be exactly seven points… and it ended up being a seven-point result.
“There was talk of about how it might’ve been a manufactured result or if it was mere coincidence.
“You’re playing for a lesser position in that stage and I think ours was equal seventh or eighth. Playing minor games against the likes of India and Sweden rather than advancing further up. That was the unfortunate outcome.
“When it’s your first exposure what are you going to do about it – we were bitterly disappointed about it but Lindsay said we achieved a great outcome and considering where we finished.”
After earning his place at the Brisbane World Championships in 1982, Riddle’s international career started to get plagued by injury. After he was denied a second Olympic Games campaign – which many people said was a baffling decision – he retrained his gaze and focused on Coburg.
They were always his go-to team. He went through the wringer with them time and time again and always returned for more. Under Tomlinson’s leadership Coburg took the VBA Championship in 1977 and won a pair of Australian Club Championships in 1977 and 1979. It was a glorious team that earned the opportunity in 1980 to join the fledgling national competition.
Would the experiment work? It was another chance for Riddle to showcase his passion on the big stage as the Giants joined the National Basketball League.
“We were looking on from a distance in the first year, there was plenty of excitement around it and some opposition about how they were going about it as a national competition,” Riddle said. “Obviously that was proven when you look back, but to then become part of it in 1980 was a great challenge.
“By then I was coming towards the end of my career so it’s a matter of making the most of those opportunities too – there weren’t the opportunities to play on til your mid-30s like there are now, maybe at 30 or late 20s then.
“I was out of the game in 1984 so I was 31 when I retired so the early years of the national league I played from 1980-1984 for about 100 games.
“I think personally throughout my career there was a sense of me always wanting to do more personally to maintain the standard.
“I did a lot of personal training on top of the team training and requirements and not many people were doing that back then.
“Injuries definitely came into it – patella tendonitis in my knee leading to the World Championships in 1982 and trying out for the 1984 Olympic Games had injury starting to interrupt my ability to play.
“Trying out for 1984 – that’s Andrew’s first introduction into the Australian program and another transition of new blood coming into the program.
“I trained particularly well, it was injury interrupted, had a great try out and from all accounts I was terribly unlucky to miss out… but everyone has one of those stories.
“A hard luck story – I accepted that.
“You’re disappointed about it at the time and it’s one of those things – at least for me – you rationalise it and you move on.”
From there he went on to coach the Coburg Giants women to a national title in 1985, and also coached the team where it all started for him with the Coburg men, although that experience wasn’t as joyous.
“Back then at Coburg, the CMYS girls – Karin Maar, Jan Morris, Jan Lawrence… Jan Smithwick today, Australian representatives, had transitioned across and there was consolidation across from two clubs,” Riddle said. “I was coaching those girls and that was a learning experience but in that season, we won the WNBL – it was in its formative years back then. “That was pretty special to learn with those girls as it wasn’t a natural fit for me as a coach. “Similarities between me as a player and me as a coach – I wasn’t a natural fit and had to work on it so there was a lot of learning and understanding and seeing what that means.
“There was another transition going on with their coaching and looking for a men’s coach and I was approached to coach the side – that wasn’t a great experience in retrospect and saying that I should’ve stayed with the women was putting that into context and I should’ve stayed with the women and avoided that conflict.”
After a three-year stint with Melbourne Tigers as an assistant coach, it was time for Les Riddle to pack up and refocus on his life away from the court.
“I’ve been out of it for a long time and only observed from a distance,” Riddle said. “Seen the changes that are going on and there are a lot of changes going on in Australian basketball along the way.
“At state level and national level, they had varying success in different stages then I think they went through hard times as well and when that’s going on and you’re observing from a distance you lose your connection to the game.
“But when you reconnect it’s eye-opening and mind-boggling to see all these support mechanisms around the sport these days and you can only compare that to my day when there was nothing.”
He got to share the Wall of Fame evening with his family – his children Kyle, Jordan, Paris and Lexis – and show them this side of their father they’d rarely seen, as basketball was a choice for his kids, not a passion drummed into them. The one child he couldn’t share the moment with was his son Jake, who sadly passed away in a car accident some years ago.
“As a father, they haven’t known much about what I’ve achieved in the game as I never drummed much into them about it,” Riddle said. “Choices for them were important, I didn’t push them down any path.
“I didn’t want them to play basketball just because I played basketball – I wanted them to find their own way.
“They all played socially and that was about it and that’s the way that it is; as a parent, I haven’t insisted at all.
“Because they’d never seen me play and to get to this point and see me get honoured in this way that was the most pleasing thing for me as I could share it with them and use this accolade to let them hear about what their father had done in the sport.”