Solent Stars - The Start of Solent Stars

by Mick Byrne

In the 1977/78 season, I was the promoter, secretary and assistant coach to the Scandinavian Homes Solent women's team that played in the National League Division 2.

The driving force behind that team was Sally Clarkson. We approached a very successful local businessman called Harry Smith, a retired Army Officer and basketball player from the Pay Corps at Worthy Down in order to secure sponsorship for her team the Shrimps. We negotiated a very good deal and were accepted into the League in 1977. The first National League team in the South or as it became that year the Solent Area.

That team was very successful only losing to Sheffield, the team that has dominated England Women's Basketball for the last decade at least. We won the Division 2 and The National Trophy and reached the last 8 of the National Cup before losing to Turnford Tigers at St Mary's Sports Hall. They had just about all of the GB and England Team at that time. The present Eurosport Basketball commentator Roy Birch was their Coach.

Harry Smith was very keen to produce a men's team for the league and he approached me with that in mind at the end of that season. He took over the running and coaching of the SHS team himself and brought in some top American Women including Eileen Dunn.

He also took over the running of the Solent Basketball Association and this brought us into contact with the man who had run basketball in Southampton, Jim Rumsey. Although I had played against Jim in the Portsmouth League I had not met him much off the court. Jim has proved to be the life and soul of The Stars ever since.


A local league team from before the start of Solent Stars

We had two men's teams in the Area who were playing in the Southern League - as were our rivals over the years, Plymouth. The first was a Southampton based team run by Pete Sandford and included former England Under 20 players Trevor Denny and John Day (who had played for the Doncaster Panthers in the NBL) along with Ian Day, John's twin brother, and Ian Redford who all travelled up to Doncaster to play each weekend.

This team was AMH Giants and their sponsor Tony Hodgson who ran a scaffolding firm. Their bitter rivals from the East were Schroder Pirates and they were always to the fore in deciding the Southern League. Pirates included several players including Steve Fitzsimons, Alan Boniface, Dave Wilson and Steve Bowden who travelled to Guildford Pirates in the NBL. The team started in Portsmouth but moved to Guildford with their coach Brian Naysmith who was appointed Director of Sport at the University of Surrey.

The story was that players who wanted to play good class ball had to travel outside the Area or indeed the region.

So in 1980 three of us travelled to Leeds and the infamous Calomax House (the HQ in those days) for the interview. The three were Steve Fitzsimons, Chris Campbell and myself. We were given the go ahead but in those days we were required to put on an exhibition game to prove we were suitable for NBL. We were to play in the Mountbatten Centre in Portsmouth but the building of this prestigious project had been delayed by the steel strike and so it was decided to play the game against Brighton - who were already in Division 2 - at Waterlooville Football Club in the early summer of 1980. We recruited two Americans from Guildford for the game.

The newly-built 350 capacity hall was packed to the rafters andthe game was a huge success. We were accepted into the NBL even though we lost the game and then the hard work began. Peter Ray - who at that time was the Brighton Coach - was also on the Executive Committee, and he gave us the go ahead.

The first thing that happened was the formation of the company at a meeting at the Solent Motel where Tesco's now stands at Windover, Bursledon. The board was duly elected and included Jim Rumsey, Ken Butcher and Don House and myself as directors. Harry Smith took on the Chairman's role with me as Secretary.

Next we met at my house in Gosport with Harry to decide on the budget needed to run such a team and which players we needed. Steve Fitzsimons was appointed coach and I was given an extra role of his assistant. We decided that £30,000 was a good figure to start with and Harry started negotiating a sponsorship deal with a local firm Wadham Stringer, car dealers in Waterlooville. We were about to be called Wadham Stringer Stings when it was decided to play in Eastleigh because the Mountbatten Centre couldn't be ready at least until 1982. We just stayed at Fleming Park mainly because we were made so welcome.

Several things changed all our plans. First, Peter Sprogis, then a legend in the game and now a millionaire in sports marketing, met with Harry and Jim and the name of Jimmie Guymon came up casually in conversation. Harry was very interested in hiring Jimmie to player/coach the team and decided to travel to New Mexico in the USA to speak to him.

The meeting took place, but Jimmie - a player that had captured the imagination of the English fans during his spell at the top club in the country, Crystal Palace - decided he needed some support and brought along another Star of Crystal Palace, Mark Saiers, the huge centre. Also invited was a local real estate man and a previous coach at The Palace - Tom Wisman. To cut a long story short, Harry employed them all - Jimmie and Tom in joint coaching capacity with Jimmie and Mark forming the backbone of the team. That meant Steve Fitzsimons stepping down to assistant. My role was then limited to administration.

We were the invited to put on a GB game against Finland as part of the GB team's build up for the 1980 Olympic Qualifier. This team was coached by Norman Sloan, an American, and Vic Ambler from St Luke's College, Exeter, then the England Coach. They had been preparing in Florida and had invited plavers from US Colleges that were suitably qualified. Two players had made the final squad, one a medical student who was about the take a year out from his studies, Mike Sampson. The other was Karl Tatham. Sampson made a big impression in the game played at Fleming Park. GB lost 81-80 to Finland in front of a useful crowd of about 350 and the local TV stations. We were also treated to a civic reception by Eastleigh which started a long tradition of co-operation with the town.

Then the recruiting began, first Ken Walton and Paul Philp both in the current England and GB squads and Crystal Palace, then came big Nic Burns at 7' and 1/2" from Kingston, Fred Petty at 7'4" an Englishman who had settled in the US. Harry was very keen on Mike Sampson from the GB who was qualified for England and had starred for GB in the summer. But he settled for Team Fiat in the 1st division as he could only get one year off his studies as a doctor with the US Navy and he didn't want to play in the 2nd Division. Bob Hope who had managed the GB side and was the force behind Team Fiat then offered us another player from the GB squad - Karl Tatham. Hope thought that Karl was a dual National but it turned out that he was English and we signed him before Fiat found out and could change their mind. I don't think we ever told Hope that he could have played both players. Karl went on to play over 50 times for England and GB. We added several young English players to the team, Dave Wilson, Roger Spencer & Steve Bowden from Portsmouth, John Day from Southampton, Steve Mathias and Pete Lovatt from Andover. Off we went to try and win Division 2 and the National Cup and Trophy.

Our first game was played in Frome in Somerset against Ovaltine Hemel Hempstead, and what a game it turned out to be. We won and Saiers and Guymon were magnificent and we all joked that Saiers had ended the career of the American who was trying out for Hemel. Hemel were in the middle of a training camp - under canvas - just outside Poole. Their coach Dave Titmus went on to coach England.

Our next excursion was to Gravesend in Kent for the Qualifying Competition for the Philips, which was the big New Year's Tournament at Crystal Palace and was at that time the biggest of it's kind in Europe. North Carolina, Tennessee, Minsk from USSR, Macabi Tel Aviv, Red Star Belgrade to name but a few.

Teams queued up to compete at The Palace. Crystal Palace the hosts always raised their game at this festival and beat some great European teams.

Well we were pitched in against Kelly Girl Kingston, Team Talbot Guildford, and Ovaltine Hemel Hempstead and we beat them all, and were very pleased to be invited to Crystal Palace at The New Year. We all felt that we had arrived on the Basketball Scene.

Things did change as the season went on and we lost Fred Petty, whose American wife could not settle here, Steve Bowden who moved to Woking to work and returned to Guildford. Roger Spencer couldn't fit in a career in insurance so left the squad quite early.

Solent Stars were up and running.

The Second Division Days

We had some great games especially up north against Liverpool. This was a very tight hall and it was packed to the rafters with spectators. They had two great Americans, LeRoy Shaw and Mike Tyatt who could really play and our games against them were fantastic affairs. But Saiers and Guymon were great team players and got the best out of the English players on the Stars and soon we were beating everyone out of sight.

We worked hard at our public relations and soon had the rising sports reporter from the Echo, Bob Everett, on our side and built up a good relationship with Radio Solent, Southern TV and BBC TV South.

Our crowds built up from 150 - 200 to a regular 350 - 400 and soon we had all the paraphernalia of a top team. We had a great run in the National Cup losing to Team Fiat in the semi-final with Jimmie Guymon sustaining a very bad injury to his hip. We were unbeaten in the League by Christmas with Petty, Spender and Bowden all leaving the squad early in the campaign. In those days the rules allowed twelve players on the bench and coach Wisman was very keen on Lovett and Mathias gaining experience he felt they would need on the run in at the end of the season. This meant that they got minutes in almost every game.

At the Philips we played the Austrian champions, Kloster-Neuborg, with the legendary Larry Dassie in their team. Disaster struck and Saiers broke a finger (his index) on his right hand. He took free shots to win the game but missed then both and after the game was rushed off to hospital to have his finger pinned. He was going to be out for several weeks at a crucial time. Also injured in the game was Paul Philp who turned an ankle.

We next played Murray International Metals on New Year's morning. It was us that played badly with a replacement in for Saiers. That meant that we played at a school gym for 11/12th place against a team from Windsor, Canada. We managed to finish in 11th place. We had to find a temporary substitute for Saiers. We looked all over Europe. Eventually we brought in two players, Greg Johns and Thines Robinson (known as TJ). TJ was no problem as he came from France and arrived in the country one day before the transfer deadline. Greg was due to arrive from Belgium at Leeds/Bradford airport at 3.15 on the day of the registration deadline. I was dispatched to Leeds where the HQ of the Basketball Association was to register both players. I arrived at the airport, with a very excited 5 year old son, Alex, in tow only to find that the aircraft had been diverted to Newcastle. We rushed down to the office to register TJ and explained the situation and they allowed Johns to be registered after the deadline once we had picked him up. We then took the long drive home and did not get a word out of Johns all the way down the motorway.

The net result of all that was that they each only played a few matches. The first was against Brighton in the league and it was the only match we lost in the division, played in front of a screaming crowd at Lancing Sports Centre. The next game they played in was a Colchester later in the year when Saiers and Guymon went on ahead to rest up as we were playing Sunderland in the BIBF Cup the next day.

That season we also went to Jersey in the Modern Hotels Classic and won the trophy, beating champions Sunderland in the semi-final. Then we met Ovaltine Hemel Hempstead in the final. They had beaten Kingston in the other semi-final, although it eventually came to light that a score-keeping error meant the really Kingston had won! Trevor Pountain, an up-and-coming referee at the time was attacked and had a chair thrown at him by ex-NBA player Joe Pace, playing for Hemel. Joe had a reputation as a drinker and the only way he was finally removed from the game was by the promise of a bottle of whisky. He went on to smash up the Wembley changing room later in the season in the play-offs. Trevor went onto an illustrious refereeing career and became President of England Basketball in 2000.

We went on to win Division Two and the Trophy with two epic games against Liverpool and LeRoy Shaw and Mike Tyatt. Liverpool finished second and Brighton third and all three teams were promoted.

We went on to play in the Cork tournament and reached the final only to be beaten by Murray Metals and their guest star, Alton Byrd. Steve Fitzsimons coached the team for that tournament and this was the forerunner to his taking over two years later as head coach.

2 comments:

Eileen said...

Mick Byrne, happy to see this article by you. Glad to see you are still involved in basketball!!

A lot of good memories from those days, Eileen Dunn in America!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting reading I remember those early NBA days well and all the names came flooding back .l played in the first National league in 72 for the RAF allthough we lost every game it was a great exexperience ..The following year was head hunted for Cleveland Strongarm....then Leeds Larsons lion....Exeter College and Finally finished my careerat Nottingham under Player coach Jimmy Smith .