Article written by GABBA President John Goncalves
John Gonçalves MBE (born 18 December 1946 in Funchal, Madeira, Portugal) has been President of GABBA since 1984, and involved in basketball since it was founded in 1964. The following are some of his recollections of the very early days.
I have never been able to find any concrete evidence as to when basketball was first played in Gibraltar but I guess it probably happened during the Second World War (1939-1945), particularly at the time when members of the armed forces had to share the limited facilities available for sporting activities. As opposed to football, cricket and hockey, basketball can be played in a much smaller area and, of course, the Garrison Gymnasium had been in use since its construction in 1900. Basketball had sprung to life in 1891, when Dr. James Naismith, a Canadian physical education professor, placed two peach baskets up on the balcony overlooking the college gymnasium in Springfield (Mass.), USA, declared the rules and his pupils could engage in physical activity away from the howling blizzard. This new, dynamic sport grew in popularity in North America but did not reach Europe until well after the First World War (1914-1918) and only became institutionalised when FIBA was founded in 1932. There were, from time to time, US and Canadian servicemen on the Rock during WW2, which strengthens my educated guess.
My first personal recollection dates back to late 1957, just over a year after I arrived in Gibraltar. I remember playing in the covered “top playground” of the Grammar School, where the Sacred Heart School now is. I was, at the time, in the Catholic Private School, somewhere in the Sacred Heart Church priest’s quarters, next door. I moved to the Grammar School in 1958 and continued playing basketball, although sporadically, as football, hockey and road-racing were the main sports.
In my years in basketball there have been players, coaches, administrators and even referees who made an impression on me, both locally and internationally. I still recall, in my first year in the Grammar School, Willie Scott, later to make his mark as one of the Rock’s top cricketers, opting for a sport which was organised and extremely competitive.
During my time in the Grammar School, which I left in December 1964 to start work in the Government Audit Department, a number of things were happening which were to lead to the start of organised civilian basketball in Gibraltar. It must be remembered that the armed services presence was substantial and their competitions had been in place for a number of years. The Gibraltar Police, with the late David “Taffy” Smith and Ernest “Tito” Figueras as their leading lights, were invited to play in these competitions, and the Gibraltar Regiment included reservists in their team, such as Antonio Dellipiani and Danny Gabay. Two young boys’ teams were formed in 1962, Shadows and Blue Stars. Names such as Jaime Blackshaw and Arturo Isola from the former, and Pepe Cassaglia and Daniel Gonçalves, from the latter, spring readily to mind. Shadows disappeared some time ago but Blue Stars are still going strong, and celebrate its Golden Jubilee this year, but more about these two later.
Two significant events were happening at about this time. The television set was entering practically every living room and TVE began to show Real Madrid’s games in the European Cup. Those were the days of Emiliano, Sevillano, Clifford Luyk and others. This fuelled the growing popularity of basketball in Gibraltar and the newly-built John Mackintosh Hall opened its doors to the public on 15 April 1964.
The Mac Hall, as it became known, had, among its facilities, a small gymnasium. This was the catalyst.
A bunch of enthusiasts, led by Joe Lara and Stanley Flower, called a meeting to discuss the formation of an association. The response from, potentially 30 teams, was so positive that the Gibraltar Amateur Basket Ball Association was founded there and then, and a caretaker committee elected. It was the 6th May 1964. Coaching and training sessions were arranged and the first Annual General Meeting was called for the 10th June 1964, where registration of teams for the first season would be held.
At the AGM, GABBA’s historical first committee was elected, as follows:-
Chairman – JE (Joe) Lara
General Secretary – S (Stanley) Flower
Treasurer – JL (Pepe) Yome
League Secretary – J (John) Azzopardi
Committee Members – A (Arturo) Isola, A (Alfredo) Duo, L (Leslie) Rocca, J (Jaime) Felice, J (Johnny) Golt.
A total of 32 teams – 26 senior and 6 junior – registered, training and coaching sessions continued throughout the summer, led by those who knew (Flower, Lara and his late brother Jimmy, John Senior, the best player on the Rock at the time, Junior Technician Ken Hough (RAF), and others). Hough, a cheerful young man, was a great inspiration to the dozens of enthusiastic beginners, especially the juniors, and fully integrated with the fledgling Association. He signed for Astoria but left the Rock soon after. A series of ranking matches were organised in order to determine which teams would make up the 12 –team First Division and the 14-team Second Division!
The start date was Monday 14th September 1964, and, for the record, the line-up was:-
First Division – Astoria, Gibraltar Police A, Shadows, Falcons, Springboks, Calpeans, Grammar School, Car Sales, Pilipitropicos, Revenue, Calpe, Wellington Blues.
Second Division – Gibraltar Police B, Meteors, DSA Squares, Jewish YC, DSA/NSO, Scouts, Lourdes Gymkhana, City Council, Mediterranean RC, St Joseph’s YC, Blands, Shamrock, Triple X, Europa.
Junior League – Blue Stars, Hallowegians, Dynamos, Lourdes, St Johnners, Golden Eagles.
Before this, however, a GABBA selection were invited to a tournament in Algeciras on the weekend of 15th/16th August, where they played their first representative match against Union Africa Ceuti.
Back to the pioneer League competition which, for reasons which escape me, was played over one round, except the Junior, and was finished in 10 weeks. Gibraltar Police A won the First Division, Mediterranean RC the Second Division, and Blue Stars the Junior League. Casemates Square was the venue on a Sunday afternoon in January 1965 for the presentation matches, before large crowds, between the respective League Champions and Rest Selections. Allow me to interject with a personal, and still painful, anecdote. I had played for Hallowegians in the Junior League, and was proud to have made the Rest Selection against Blue Stars, where my brother Daniel was one of the stars. The match was hotly disputed and ended in a draw. The referee, the late “Taffy” Smith, decided on the spot to continue the match with the first to score winning it. Within seconds, I was fouled in the act of shooting and awarded 2 free-throws. To a background of merciless baiting from the opposition I missed both, and to add insult to injury, the defensive rebound went to my brother who ran the length of the court and laid up the winner. Blue Stars, with most of its players still of junior age, joined the First Division for the 1965-6 season and finished second to Shadows, whose first of 5 consecutive league titles this was.
A women’s league was started in this second season, and I will provide more details in my second contribution
Basketball had really taken off in a very short time in Gibraltar’s sporting scene as activity in every sport grew in parallel with a marked increase in restrictions at the Frontier. This kept more and more people at home, looking for things to do.
But this popularity was to give rise to the first and probably most serious ever conflict in basketball. The Mac Hall management allowed the use of the gymnasium with certain conditions. One of these was, initially, a limit to the number of spectators, which eventually worsened to no spectators at all. There was no spectator stand, so only as many as would fit, sitting on benches along the wall on either side of the entrance, were allowed. I recall that this catered for no more than about 40 as the tiny scorer’s table was also along this side, and the entrance could not, in theory, be blocked. Part of the wall, with the spectator sitting, to the right of the entrance, was just over 2 metres high, above which was an opening to the yard. This wall was just about wide enough to provide an uncomfortable but, nevertheless, excellent vantage point for spectators, but this was not allowed by the management. To complete the scenario, the team benches were on the opposite side, the boards were barely 50 cm from the walls and the end lines no more than 10 cm from the end walls.
It looked great when it all started – we had nothing else – but as players improved, the game increased in speed, and spectators were attracted to watch the matches, it was clearly far too small.
It was GABBA’s responsibility to uphold and enforce the management conditions of use. At best, it was difficult and at worst, when “big” matches were played, and this was a frequent occurrance, particularly women’s matches, it was total failure.
This attracted a series of warnings from the director, the amiable late Colonel Charles Hunt, culminating with a “red card” after a stormy match on 21st March 1967, which ended in uproar with, I am ashamed to say, myself at the centre of the storm.
By this time, I was coaching Blue Stars. We had remained unbeaten until the very last match, when the holders, Shadows, beat us to level at the top of the table and force a decider. There must have been at least 200 spectators inside the gym, all standing, and another 50 precariously perched on the wall. It was a tough match won by Shadows by 41-40, and I felt aggrieved by what I considered to be biased refereeing, notably in the last minute. The referees, both from the RAF, were John Shephard (the Chronicle’s JES) and Ross Churchward. I gave full vent to my feelings and this was echoed by my players and our many supporters. At that time, both coaches had to sign the score-sheet at the end of the match, thus indicating their agreement with proceedings. I was so incensed that instead of signing the scoresheet I ripped it in two pieces with the pen.
There was a near riot in the Hall with the referees having a hard time to leave it. My behaviour was duly reported and, to make matters worse, I was by then a GABBA committee member. I was suspended from participating in any basketball activity for 6 months.
Far worse, however, was the feeling that my actions had drawn attention to GABBA’s failure to enforce its conditions of use of the gymnasium, resulting in immediate expulsion and practical cessation of civilian basketball. I still cringe when I think about it!
Where to carry on?