On the face of it an NBL coaching record of 150-108 is good but it isn’t overly special, however these figures conceal a remarkable achievement masterminded by Andrej Lemanis who has overseen three consecutive championship wins by the New Zealand Breakers and now moves on into the international arena.
Appointed as head coach in 2005 after serving a seven year apprenticeship as assistant coach with the Townsville Crocodiles, Lemanis inherited a team low on confidence, ability and support. Undeterred, he set about rebuilding the team and surprisingly jettisoned established internationals Pero Cameron and Dillon Boucher as a new team culture was sought. Nothing much changed initially as a 9-23 season was followed by a marginally improved 11-22 record.
However, the credibility of the coach and the organisation were moving in the right direction as was evidenced by the arrival of experienced Aussie Tony Ronaldson and arguably New Zealand’s best player Kirk Penney in 2007.Ronaldson instilled a winning attitude, in particular making the Breakers a tougher proposition on the road. Phill Jones was also welcomed back into the fold and although the team didn’t set the world alight they did make the play-offs for the first time and enjoy their first winning season (17-15).
A measure of the increased credibility of the coach and club was the arrival the following season of CJ Bruton, still the number one Australian point guard and importantly a winner of three Championship rings. Another championship winner Dillon Boucher was welcomed back to the fold and helped form a resolute, talented core of Ronaldson, Forman, Penney, Jones, Boucher, Bruton, Henare and Rickert. Once again the play-offs were reached but the Breakers were seen off in the semi finals by eventual champions the Melbourne Tigers.
All but Jones were retained for the 2009-2010 season but things didn’t go to plan as, despite a six game winning streak to close the regular season, the play offs were missed by a single victory. A team stacked with internationals were expected to do better and many in the media and fan base began to question the ability of Lemanis to get the best out of the squad.
Importantly for Lemanis, the Board and management at the Breakers felt otherwise and not only publically backed their man but gave him a couple of quality imports in Gary Wilkinson and Kevin Braswell to work with. Former favourite Mika Vukona replaced the retiring Tony Ronaldson and equally significantly young home grown players began to make an impression. Corey Webster and BJ Anthony had their moments but it was Tom Abercrombie who really caught the eye, the spring healed local destined to carry off the Grand Finals MVP award.
The Breakers opened the 2010-11season with five straight wins and hardly looked back as they wrapped up the regular season title with a month of the regular season still to go. However, when the opening home game of the three game semi final series against the Perth Wildcats was comprehensively lost 78-101 at the North Shore Events Centre the Breakers season appeared in tatters and once again Lemanis’ coaching was under scrutiny. The coach and his team led by inspirational performances from Penney and Vukona bounced back to beat Perth on their home court, see them off in game three and then defeat the Cairns Taipans two games to one in the Grand Final, securing a first ANBL Championship for the NZ Breakers, Lemanis becoming just the fourth person to ever win a Championship both as a coach and player.
Lemanis faced the 2011-12 season without the services of the talented Kirk Penney who decided to ply his trade in Spain. Tom Abercrombie replaced Penney in the starting line up and the unknown but talented Cedric Jackson came in for Kevin Braswell.
Jackson’s signing proved to be a coup as did that of Daryl Corletto, unwanted by the Melbourne Tigers. Once again the team got off to a fine start winning three of their first four games, all on the road but despite the start, most doubted that the feats of the previous season could be repeated. However the day by day, game by game attitude of Lemanis thought otherwise and despite various setbacks including having his 10 contracted players all fit and available for just six games the 21-7 regular season record was outstanding. This record was recognised as Lemanis received the Coach of the Year Award, arguably a year late. The play offs mirrored those of the previous year as the first semi final game was lost at home against Townsville Crocodiles before the series was won 2-1 and a ferocious Grand final series against Perth Wildcats was won by the same margin despite Tom Abercrombie playing limited minutes due to a serious ankle injury. Witnessed by a crowd of 9,280 a record for a game of basketball in New Zealand, the game three 79-73 victory was a special night for all associated with the Breakers and Andrej Lemanis in particular who became only the fifth coach to win back to back ANBL Championships.
2011-12 didn’t start too well but what followed was spectacular. An opening night mauling at the hands of the Perth Wildcats and none retention of Gary Wilkinson, the previous season’s premier big man had many followers doubting another serious title challenge could be mounted. How wrong they (and I) were proved to be.
Alex Pledger stepped up to the plate as the starting centre, Will Hudson’s blue collar game fitted the team’s needs, Corey Webster, after a slow start was terrific off the bench and Cedric Jackson took his game and that of the team to another level. Only another three games were lost all season. A sixteen game winning sequence secured the regular season title. Then a sweep of the Sydney Kings, followed by a savoured victory on enemy territory in Perth clinched the third and possibly sweetest championship.
At the time it seemed a fitting way to send off the retiring Dillon Boucher but on reflection it was a fitting way to send off not one but two of the most influential figures in the SKYCITY Breakers history.
So the150-108 may not be spectacular but the 79-21 record of the last three seasons is quite remarkable and the championship three peat is historic. Andrej Lemanis leaves with his head held high and the gratitude of Breakers and New Zealand basketball fans ringing in his ears.
Author: Mike Lacey