Robyn Maher on her incredible career

Robyn Maher Credit: FIBA
September 22, 2023 | WNBL news

From Ballarat to bronze medals: Robyn Maher on her incredible career

By Daniel Herborn | The Pick and Roll

When Robyn Maher started playing basketball, her hometown, Ballarat, didn’t even have a stadium. By the time she retired, she was an Olympic medal winner, and Australia were firmly on the world basketball map.

Maher has recently has been named as one of three 2023 inductees to the Basketball NSW Hall of Fame. “It’s an exciting thing,” she tells The Pick and Roll of the honour, which comes after being named to FIBA’s version in 2022. “Not too many people get to be in a Hall of Fame. Now, I’m in a few of them, but it’s always an exciting feeling, to be welcomed and honoured.”

The daughter of VFL footballer Jim Gull, Maher started out playing tennis and netball but switched to basketball when some enterprising teachers from the Macarthur Street Primary School in Ballarat decided to recruit netballers to the somewhat obscure sport of basketball. The team played out of the local YMCA, and Maher had to compete up an age group, but it didn’t matter. One of the great careers in Australian basketball was underway.

Spectres of success

Maher went on to play 369 WNBL games and featured in a barely believable 10 championships and 13 grand finals. Early in her career, she was part of an extraordinary stretch of success with the Nunawading Spectres, where she won six titles in seven years between 1983 and 1989. So, what was behind the team’s incredible run?

“Well, we had good players,” Maher laughs.

“We’d started as the (Melbourne) Telstars and sort of merged into Nunawading. It was an exciting adventure because we got to play in our own stadium. We had a strong base with Sharon Deacon (nee Amiet), who played for Australia, and myself. We had good support and attracted players that way; we were able to select players from the Nunawading area and to recruit the likes of Shelley Gorman and Michele Timms.”

If star players are a must for a basketball dynasty, a great coach is also pretty handy. The Spectres had a cracker: Robyn’s husband, Tom Maher, who would become the most successful coach in league history.

Maher says Tom was a “revolutionary” coach. “He brought into the WNBL and the local comps a whole different style of play; it was like, who’d ever heard of defence before? Or pressing, running traps, running jumps. He’d instigated that style of play and we could get by with not a lot of talent because we were so dynamic in other areas, like defence and pressing.”

The Spectres would often run a ‘lows’ play, which Maher describes as a simple but highly effective set that would create isolation’s for Nunawading’s talented scorers: “It’s just a one-on-one, where everyone (but the ball-handler) went to the baseline, and off you go. It was something Tom picked up, and he thought we had the players capable of doing it. I don’t know why people still don’t run it; it’s a great play – even if (opponents) zone it, you’ve always got the outside shot.”

Winning time: WNBL titles at Hobart, Perth and Sydney

After the Nunawading dynasty, success kept coming; in 1991, Robyn was grand final MVP as she led the Hobart Islanders to a victory over her old Spectres team. Tom had also relocated to the island state to coach the NBL side Hobart Devils. Maher remembers it as a special year.

“I love Tasmania, so I have no regrets whatsoever about going there. The lifestyle and support were great, and the fan base was excellent; we had full houses every week. The support from the media and the papers was all super.”

Yet more success followed, as Robyn and Tom reunited as a player/coach duo at the Perth Breakers in 1992. The team had assembled a stacked squad including Tanya Fisher and Michele Timms. The Breakers swept through the season with a dominant 17-3 season before defeating Dandenong in the grand final.

Maher then moved to the Sydney Flames for another near-perfect season; her team finished the regular season 17-1, and she completed a hat-trick of WNBL championships. Off the court, Maher remembers that season as a breakthrough in terms of the sport looking after players who were mothers – like Maher, teammates Gail Henderson, Annie LaFleur (nee Burgess) and Trish Fallon all had young kids. “The Sydney Flames organisation was very professional and very welcoming with kids. You could take your kids to train, and they had a babysitter there. The organisation accepted that’s the way it should be, and it was an easy transition – they had their own court and their own physios; it was so much better.”

That year, Maher won her second WNBL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Had it been introduced before 1990, she may have picked up a couple more accolades. These days, the league has recognised her defensive prowess by naming the award after her.

Maher, who won her tenth WNBL title with Sydney in 1997, had been a true two-way terror. Before scouts dreamed up the term ‘multi-position defender’, she embodied it. “I defended everybody; I could guard a five, and I could guard a one,” she recalls. “I was five foot ten, which is not big, but back in those days, it wasn’t small either. I’d guard a Lauren Jackson; well, I’d try. You know you’re going to mess them up a little bit, but you do what you can. And those assignments I got, I got because I was tenacious. I got in their face and bothered people.”

Australia’s first Olympic basketball medal

When the WNBL named its 25th anniversary team, Maher got more votes than anyone except Lauren Jackson. But there’s a whole other branch of her career at the international level, where Maher played a pivotal role in establishing the Opals as one of the world’s best.

Maher’s first Olympics was at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. Australia won just one of its five games, and their manager, Lorraine Langdon, later reflected the team had “more of a sense of relief that we’d made it” than ambitions of winning a medal. But just four years later, at the Seoul 1988 Olympics, the Opals stunned the basketball world by beating the Soviet Union 60-48.

She says the development of the WNBL had plenty to do with Australia’s rise in world basketball. “Each WNBL team was getting more and more professional. It only started in 1981, so by 1988, it was up and running; everyone’s got fitness people and video, professionalism was coming into the game. It was a different league to what it was when it started or even what it was in 1984; it was a huge transition.”

In that upset win over the Soviet Union, Maher had been utterly dominant, playing every second of the game and leading all players in points, rebounds, assists and steals. But it wasn’t to be for Australia; a painful one-point loss to Yugoslavia knocked the Opals out of gold medal contention, and the Soviet Union got their revenge in the bronze medal game. Still, the team had announced themselves as contenders and Maher, whose 3.4 assists per game was equal best across the tournament, had become an elite player at this level.

Amazingly, the 1988 games were the first Olympics to implement the three-point rule, and Maher says teams were somewhat slow to adjust. In one game, Australia attempted just three long-range shots, an unimaginable stat these days. “I’m not going to say the shooting was great from the three-point line back in those days from any team,” Maher says. “But it’s changed the game a lot, and it’s a great rule.”

Australia missed out on qualifying for the 1992 Olympics, but returned to the 1996 event in Atlanta hungrier than ever. The Opals went down to the unassailable United States in the semi-final, setting up a clash with Ukraine, who had got the better of Australia in the group stage, for the bronze.

“We knew we had a shot at it, and we knew we had them well-scouted,” Maher recalls of the bronze medal clash. “It was just a matter of getting the business done. We won by 10, and there were a few altercations – they weren’t happy. They expected the bronze, but there was no way we were going to give it to them. It was such a great game, though, really exciting.”

Exciting for sure, but also a fitting reward for one of Australian basketball’s great winners and a most worthy addition to the Basketball New South Wales Hall of Fame.