The Giants have grown to be one of the most popular sports teams in Nelson. Over its 38-year tenure, the Giants have claimed three national titles, the first of which came in 1994. Jonty Dine catches up with one of the younger members of that squad, NBL veteran Phill Jones.
A fresh faced twenty-year-old not long out of Nelson College, Phill Jones was delighted to sign his first Giants contract for $100 a week.
The young man form Reefton had made the move to the big city to live out his basketball dreams.
Phill had shown plenty of promise at college and soon went from filling water bottles for the Giants to training with the team.
After an inauspicious rookie season in which the Giants finished seventh, a number of changes were made at the franchise.
This included importing American players Darryl Johnson and Kenny Perkins as well as introducing notorious fitness task master Eddie Saxton.
The Americans were in for a rude awakening if they thought their season in Nelson was going to be easy.
It wasn’t long until Eddie had them in tears, throwing up and begging to go home.
“It was brutal, but if you didn’t like it, tough,” Phill recalls.
Father and son Trevor and Brent Wright brought an old school coaching style.
“I think those two with Nenad Vucinic as player coach changed the culture of the group and created that belief in us that we could win a title.”
Phil says there was a strong core of local players including Nick Costley, Carlo Varricchio, Tim Johnson, Brendon Bailey and Ricky Blackburn.
The side had gone reasonably close in previous years, including some heart-breaking, buzzer beater defeats.
However, the new additions and new training regime paid dividends as Nelson would go through the regular season with an impressive record of 18 wins and just four losses.
In the play-offs, Nelson upset a highly favoured Auckland side to book its spot in the final.
The big dance was to take place in New Plymouth as the Giants would meet South Island rivals the Canterbury Rams, a side featuring stars Kenny Stone, Dan Marley and Chris Tupu.
“Being involved in a finals weekend as a young guy was pretty exciting.”
Phil had limited game time in the final but vividly recalls the atmosphere inside the stadium.
The Nelson Giants championship squad from 1994 in Tasman Bay. Phot: Supplied.
“It was jam packed, I played bugger all, maybe five minutes and I missed every shot I took, I had a good warm up though,” he jokes.
Hordes of Giants fans made the trip north to watch the final.
Though at halftime it looked as though they would be made to wait a little longer for its inaugural title as Nelson trailed by 20 points.
“They were pumping us.”
However, the Giants rallied in the second and managed to close the gap.
“I don’t remember what was said in the locker room, but it must have worked, we managed to get it back to a tight game.”
The Giant’s resurgence was led by young Tim Johnson who was only called into the starting line-up through injury.
“Tim played out of his skin, one of those games where everything just went right for him.”
Phill recalls a crucial play with two minutes remaining on the clock.
“Chris Tupu made a breakaway and went to lay it up but on the final bounce, he fumbled it and the ball went out of bounds.”
He says this was the catalyst for a swing in momentum.
“We came down and scored off the next play and it put us on top.”
As the buzzer finally sounded with the Giants ahead 67-66, Nelson fans invaded the court and cut down the net as a permanent piece of memorabilia from the historic occasion.
“It was an amazing feeling.”
Phill was given the honour of walking into the Nelson Airport with the trophy in hand.
“Kids and olds, everyone was there, when I think about the Giants back then, the support was on another level. We would play games at Trafalgar where people would be hanging off the walls.”
“There were a few after parties from memory and a few sore heads the next morning.”
Phill says basketball in New Zealand was still a working man’s game, and they lived by the philosophy of play hard, party hard.
“Professionalism hadn’t really kicked in yet, Thursday trainings were usually followed by shots of vodka at the local pub.”
The Giants have gone on to win two more titles but ’94 will always hold special significance for Phil.
“1998 was more of an achievement because I had a lot more input, but ’94 was the Giants first title and it’s always nice to be involved in the first of something.”