WHEN the Giants beat London Lions by a single point on September 21, 2012 in front of a full house at Wright Robinson, they ended an absence from British basketball that had stretched to more than a decade.
Guard James Jones fired in 29 points as the club’s ‘Second Coming’ in the British Basketball League was heralded by a thrilling opening-night victory.
It was the first of 12 wins that saw the Giants, lead by Jeff Jones – player and coach of the club in their first incarnation in the 1970s, 80s and 90s – make a successful comeback to the country’s professional league, eventually finishing ninth and narrowly missing out on the post-season play-offs.
It had been a long time coming.
Plans for the resurrection of the club – one of the biggest and best-supported names in the game – had been reported by the Manchester Evening News in 2011 and came to fruition in early 2012 with the new owners – a consortium of Manchester ‘basketball enthusiasts’ – confirming their intention to bring the franchise back to life.
They were accepted into the BBL fold on June 19 with veteran Jones announcing a largely local roster of players that included his sons James and Callum, Stefan Gill, Nathan Schall and former Giants legend Mike Bernard, as well as David Watts and BBL veteran David Aliu.
For the first time since the original franchise folded in 2001, the Giants were back in business.
The Giants had first emerged on the Manchester basketball scene in the mid-1970s.
Based at Sale Leisure Centre, the club enjoyed a productive sponsorship with ATS and were the first northern team to challenge the southern dominance of the early National League years, becoming league runners up in 1976-7.
Home-grown talent included Steve Latham, Dick Powell, Ken Walton and John Nono while club legend Jeff Jones, who took to the court for the first time in the 1976 season and netted over 400 points, arrived from the US after a successful college career at BNC Oklahoma.
Other early imports included Vince Lackner, Mark Badger, John Miller and Steve Irion, then, as the Giants moved on, first to Stretford and then Altrincham Leisure Centre.
Manchester United dipped their toe into the basketball scene in the mid-80s, buying out the Warrington Vikings team – that included the likes of Wil Brown, Ed Bona, Steve Latham, Phil Brazil, Paul Gervais, David Lloyd – and moving in on the Giants’ patch in Manchester.
Coach Joe Whelton recruited Colin Irish, who was brilliant in the 1985 Championship Final win over Kingston, scoring 47 points in a 109–97 victory before United, after a short period of playing alongside the Giants, took them over in a merger that was largely opposed by fans.
It saw United – with the likes of Tom Brown and Dave Gardner added for the 1985–86 season – record 23 straight wins to storm to the National League title and the BBL era.
The Giants name lived on during the United ‘experiment’ in the guise of Stockport Giants an all-English club, who played successfully for four years, winning the English Central League and the North West Counties League before securing a place in the lower divisions of the National League, and reaching the National League Cup quarter-finals.
Two barren seasons followed the United title win and at the dawn of the BBL era the franchise was bought by a group of local businessmen in 1988, who changed the team name to the Manchester Eagles.
Jeff Jones returned to coach the team, starting a reign (1988–94) that would make him the longest-serving coach in Manchester history.
Coach Jones finished fifth in his first season as well as taking the team to the National Cup Final where they lost 87–75 to Bracknell. A year later, he led Manchester to a second placed finish in the League and the Final of the Trophy. On both occasions, the all-conquering Kingston team edged out Manchester.
That 1989–90 team included memorable players such as Jason Fogerty, Tony Penny, Jerry Johnson, Dave Gardner, Kris Kearney, Keith Ramsey and Kevin St. Kitts – the last four of whom are among the dozen players to have hit 1,000 career points for the franchise.
In 1991 the Giants name came back to the fore, with Manchester and Stockport Giants reuniting in time for a Trophy Final defeat by Kingston.
In 1993, the Giants were bought by the Cook Group Inc, an American medical devices company, at the start of another exciting new chapter in the team’s history. There were moves to the Armitage Centre, the new Velodrome and, most significant of all, to the Manchester Evening News Arena for the start of the 1995–96 season.
There was a great influx of American talent due to new league rules and the club utilised its American ties through the Cook Group to bring in Indiana University graduates Joe Hillman and Mark Robinson as well as ex-NBA players such as Robert Churchwell and Brian Rowsom in the 1997–98 season.
The new owners put together a new-look team and brought in respected US college coach Mike Hanks for the start of the 1994–95 season. Although they only finished fourth and fifth in Hanks’ two seasons, the Giants were Play-off runners-up, losing the Wembley Championship Final to Worthing 77–73.
The Giants made it into the record books in their first year at the Arena when they attracted an amazing 14,251 fans to their season opener against the London Leopards – still the biggest crowd to ever watch a domestic basketball match in Britain.
By the end of that season, Hanks was out and the coach with the most successful record in club history – Joe Whelton – was back.
He could not recapture the success of yesteryear in his one season and made way for Jim Brandon in 1997–98. However, he too found the task difficult although there was the consolation of a spirited end to the season and a run to the Wembley Championships where the Giants put up a good performance before losing their semi-final with Birmingham 91–80.
Brandon did win his final game as Giants’ head coach as they defeated London in the third-place game – more significantly Brandon started an all-English team of Matt Hogarth, Mike Bernard, Jason Swaine, Danny Craven and Ronnie Baker.
After several disappointing years in which the Giants struggled to live up to the expectations of their huge support, Nick Nurse was brought back to British basketball in 1998 to try and end the team’s 12-year wait for a trophy.
It worked as the Giants claimed the inaugural Dairylea Dunkers Championship and Northern Conference title in 2000, plus the 1999 uni-ball Trophy and reached the National Cup final. The Giants won 87 of their 106 games in the last two seasons, winning a BBL record 45 in 1999–2000.
American Nurse secured the services of Tony Dorsey, who he had coached in his Birmingham days, before looking south to sign Greater London Leopards’ pair John White and Makeba Perry, who had been with the Giants two seasons earlier, along with Thames Valley Tigers’ Tony Holley. White, Dorsey and Holley had all been selected to the end of season All-Star team and played in the League All-Star Games, while Dorsey (1995–96) and White (1996–97) also came to Manchester with League MVP awards to their names. Dorsey and White would both be selected to the end of season All-Star team in 1998–99.
After success, came decline, though, with the Cook Group pulling out and the Arena proving too big a drain on the the club’s finances.
They moved to the Manchester Velodrome, towards the end of the 2000/01 season but, after an abortive rebirth in the hands of the Montgomery Sports Group – creators of the Sheffield Sharks – the Giants folded nine games into the 2001–02 season.
Over a decade passed before the Giants were to spring back into life.
In the meantime, Jeff Jones coached Manchester Magic in England Basketball League Division One, helping the club win trophies and become the nation’s leading centre in developing youth talent.
Jones was back at the helm of the Giants again for the first time in 14 years when the club confirmed their return for the 2012-13 BBL campaign.
A statement from the league read: “We are delighted to announce that the Manchester Giants are back in the ranks of the British Basketball League for the 2012/13 season.
“The move marks a rebirth of a sporting team with a successful and long history in Manchester. The new franchise has been 18 months in the making and the people behind the club hope that success on the court will be reflected in a successful, sustainable, community-based organisation off the court.”
Jones said: “I am absolutely delighted to be back coaching the Manchester Giants.
“It has been a long-term ambition of mine to bring a professional basketball franchise back to Manchester and we’re aiming to hit the ground running and introduce a competitive team to the league, with a good balance of home-grown talent with more experienced players.”
And Giants chief executive Steve Mansfield added: “We are delighted that we have been able to resurrect such an iconic Manchester sports brand as the Manchester Giants.
“It has taken a lot of hard work to get to this stage but we are only a months away from the first match of the new season and a new era for basketball in Manchester and a new force in the BBL.”
Manchester Evening News