With a heavy heart, Andrew Gaze turned on his power saw and started slicing up the court.
It was a cold winter’s night in 1997 and Gaze was on his hands and knees cutting up Albert Park Court One.
This was the court he’d grown up on.
His favourite court.
The court with the soft backboards and the springy floor.
The court with the stands full of secrets.
For 40 years Albert Park Basketball Stadium had been the beating heart of basketball in Australia.
It was a stadium that hosted the best men and women in the business and with its nine courts was the mecca of Victorian junior hoops. Its show court was where every young baller wanted to play.
“Coming through juniors you couldn’t wait for the day when you’d get to play on Albert Park Court One,” Gaze told Basketball Victoria. “It was like the greatest treat you could have.”
But, sadly, all that was history.
The demolition had begun.
Gaze re-focused and sawed through the hardwood.
Converted from a war-time stores building, Albert Park Stadium was officially opened in 1959.
The then Premier Henry Bolte did the honours and the occasion was marked by an exhibition game that saw the Vics grab a win over the Mormon Yankees.
The Victorian Basketball Association, led by the late Ken Watson, had been desperate to establish a significant centre for the sport. They succeeded. And in Albert Park, they essentially created the game’s national home.
What began as six courts quickly became eight, with a ninth tacked on in ‘65. Participation in the sport took off throughout the 60s, with many attributing the boom to the building of the stadium.
Managing the place was Lindsay Gaze, who lived in the attached residence with his wife Margaret, and later two kids, Janet and Andrew. With their home literally connected to the stadium, the Gazes became synonymous with Albert Park. Stories of Andrew’s childhood in their ‘nine-court backyard’ have become part of Australian sporting folklore.
When he wasn’t away at Olympics or World Champs, Lindsay was busy sanding back floors, painting lines, chasing burglars through the joint or dealing with ‘salacious activities’ (as Andrew describes it) in the car park out the front.
One morning in ‘61, he woke up to find the stadium flooded.
“I opened the doors at 8:00am and two basketballs came floating out,” Lindsay told reporters at the time.
For whatever reason, those who played or coached at Albert Park over the years seem to have really vivid memories of the place.
The orange seats … Nana Gaze in the canteen …‘Theo’s Meat Supplies’ … The undersized courts three, four, five and six … holiday camps … Tip Off Newsletter … ‘Jungle Ball’ … Pete’s Bar … possum piss … possum poo … posters in the pro shop … Ken Watson pushing coins around … the big blue curtain.
If you close your eyes, you can see the place like it was.
For the Gazes, the stadium could get awfully quiet and, at times, a little spooky.
“I can remember as a youngster on Friday nights when dad had to lock up the joint and he’d make me run down and turn off the lights at the back court,” Andrew recalled. “Walking from there back to the canteen in pitch black, my mind played some silly games with me.”
Over the years the stadium played host to a wide range of competitions including international games, junior tournaments, national league fixtures, national championships and more.
The most important part, though, was the constant flow of youngsters who swarmed through the front door every week, each sliding their entry fee to Roger as they made their way inside.
The stadium also hosted various non-basketball events, including judo and karate championships and even a sock dance, with prizes awarded for the most decorative socks.
In 1987, a fire nearly burnt the joint down. The stadium survived but the VBA offices were lost, with 50 years of records and memorabilia going up in flames.
What the building couldn’t survive, though, was progress. So when approval was given for the multi-million dollar Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre to be built nearby, plans were put in place for the old stadium’s demolition.
* * *
The stadium’s final international game was held on 24 May 1997, just weeks before the wreckers rolled in.
It was a showdown between the recently-crowned NCAA Champions Arizona Wildcats, and the hometown Melbourne Tigers. They didn’t know it at the time, but Melbourne was actually midway through their own championship campaign in the NBL.
The stands were packed to absolute capacity and the atmosphere electric as the Tigers clawed their way to an overtime win.
Two champion teams, each led by Hall of Fame coaches, duking it out in extra time.
It was a fitting farewell.
“I remember it really was nostalgic for us, especially for dad,” the younger Gaze said. “We really wanted to go out with a win for his sake more than anything because (Albert Park) was his home and sort of the place he built, a place he was so responsible for.”
On his ‘home’ court, Gaze led all scorers with 48 points, Lanard Copeland dropped 33 and Mark Bradtke put up a monstrous line of 14 points, 19 rebounds and nine blocked shots.
In the change rooms after the game, Lindsay addressed his players.
“We’ve played some great, great international teams in this building over the years,” he said, as recorded in The Age newspaper at the time.
“And given that we’ve finished with the NCAA champions, you couldn’t want anything better from a historical sense.”
* * *
As Andrew Gaze’s power saw sliced through the court, emotions got the better of him.
“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” he reflected. “You’ve got this pristine court that has meant so much to us for all those years, and there I am sawing through the timber to get a bit of memorabilia. It was a painful experience.”
Nonetheless, he pushed on, cutting up more and more of the hardwood. As he did, Gaze gradually began revealing some of Albert Park Stadium’s long-held secrets.
Firstly, Court One was actually a double floor, a second court having been laid over the original decades before.
“As far as the actual surface was concerned, it was by far the best surface I’ve ever played on,” Gaze said. “That double floor was why it was so soft and bouncy. It had just the right touch of spring in there.”
Then, after cutting up parts of the three-point, free throw and centre lines, Gaze took his saw to the stadium’s best-kept-secret: the stands.
Few knew it, but the stands on the left-hand side of Court One were actually the floor from the 1956 Olympics.
Hall of Famer Bill Russell, one of the best to ever do it, won a gold medal with one of the most dominant Olympic teams of all time in 1956, and the playing surface from Melbourne’s Exhibition Buildings had then been used for the stands at Albert Park. For almost half a century people had been unwittingly parking their backsides on a remarkable piece of sporting history.
“I grabbed a whole bunch of that,” Gaze laughed.
Of course, ‘Drewy’ wasn’t the only one grabbing souvenirs that day. This writer owns a piece of Court One, as do others.
In fact, place a drink on the coffee table at Nigel Purchase’s home and you’ll be putting parts of the canteen-end keyway to good use.
“Albert Park wasn’t the most beautiful venue, but it had a real feeling of belonging and there was a culture there,” Purchase told Basketball Victoria. “It was like your bedroom, you know, things weren’t in place but you sort of felt at home there.”
According to Gaze, the stadium’s greatness had little to do with its physical structure. It was the people, he says, and the basketball that made it special.
“It certainly didn’t have all the same amenities that other places have now, but I think it was more the history of the joint,” Gaze said. “All the great players who went through there and all the great games that were played there… that’s what brought about the reputation and, dare I say, mystique of the place.
“That’s what made it such an important part of basketball in this country.”