25 years of Leopards – the Ware connection

British basketball history is complicated. There’s plenty of mergers, even a few demergers, name changes and clubs moving from venue to venue and town to town.
Leopards can manage all of those situations. And the Herts town of Ware, sitting neatly between Brentwood and Oaklands, played an important – though complicated – part in the Big Cats’ history.
Obviously at this point I had to consider Kingston/Guildford Kings, who Leopards bought the franchise from in 1994, and whether they should be included in this history. There’s several reasons I’ve decided not to, the first is that one I may have to return to work and covering another 21 years of a club who were massively successful in Britain, played in Europe and had a crazy year in Glasgow means I might never finish. And Leopards never claimed part of that history or even mentioned them, it was a clean break. The Big Cats quickly started their own rivalry with London Towers – coached by former Kings’ play-caller Kevin Cadle – leaving Kingston’s rivals Thames Valley Tigers desperately searching for someone to hate. Given that Kings had left London, there’s also every chance the BBL would have sold Leopards a franchise anyway.

In contrast, it’s highly likely that Leopards wouldn’t have got into Division One immediately without taking over/merging with Ware Rebels, there was certainly no way of buying a place. There were real doubts as to whether fans of the Big Cats would’ve been interested in starting in Division Three, whether it would have even been finically feasible to play at such a level at Brentwood, and it’s safe to say we wouldn’t have won the National Cup in 2005/6 – we may never have even reached Division One. Add to the fact that we continued to play some games at Wodson Pak for several years, adopted the club’s junior section, and kept the same coach (Jon Burnell) and director of coaching (Mark Clark – who had links with both the old and new Big Cats), it seems logical to include Ware basketball as part of Leopards’ history.

Naturally, it’s not that simple!

Watford Rebels entered the National League Division Three in 1989 as a breakaway from Hemel Royals, now London Lions – I said it was complicated! Unfortunately there appear to be no records of how they got on but they and obviously did pretty well as they appeared in Division Two as Ware Rebels the following season. While Watford isn’t exactly around the corner from Ware, the building of a shiny new venue at Wodson Park obviously had something to do with the decision and explains how a town that even today has a population of just 19,000 supported high-level basketball for so long but also explains why they always struggled to get crowds that would support a semi-pro team.

Rebels’ first season in Division Two (the third tier of English basketball) proved relatively successful with a fourth place finish, one place below neighbours Broxbourne Badgers who had moved from Stevenage. With Clark taking over as coach, 1991/2 saw Rebels leapfrog their neighbours to third place with a 16-6 record – four of their losses coming against Bury and Oldham who each finished with 21 wins from 22 games.

Division One didn’t appear to faze the Rebels as finished fourth in table, ahead of Bury and Oldham, with Crystal Palace winning the title. Rebels slipped down to seventh in 1993/94, a season which saw current BBL side Plymouth Raiders finish bottom. But despite that, the summer of 1994 proved to be the start of a golden era for the Rebels. The next two seasons saw Rebels finish third with a 17-5 record on each occasion (despite having a point deducted in 1995/96), behind a Crystal Palace team who won back-to-back titles with a 43-1 record. That 1995/6 season saw Palace beat the original Leopards on their way to a National Cup semi-final place, and the summer of 1996 saw the London side depart to the BBL paving the way for Rebels’ most successful season. The first 11 league games were won, including a key 93-89 home win against eventual runners-up Plymouth Raiders. The West Country side gained revenge by ending that run with a 90-88 victory to open 1997, but crucially Rebels had the head-to-head decider, and despite losing three of their final four league games they finished the season a win clear of the Raiders. Home wins against Cardiff and Oxford saw Rebels reach the Division One play-off at Wembley where, inevitably, they faced Plymouth. The game was played immediately before the BBL final between Leopards and Towers, and it proved to be a disappointing day for Mark Clark (then Leopards’ assistant coach), his son Dan who did a fine job as water boy before going on to captain England and everyone else who had a foot in both camp (yep, me and my wife included) as Rebels went down 118-106 and Leopards lost a heart-breaker 89-88 to their cross-town rivals. Among the players in that Rebels’ team were Burnell – who captained the side – Duncan Ogilvie who went on to play for England as well having a spell with the new Leopards along with Mat Collins and Matt Clarkson who also played for the post 2004 Big Cats.

That 1996/97 season had seen Rebels leave Ware after being offered a deal to play at Stevenage Arts & Leisure Centre (Broxbourne Badgers were long gone) and the club’s first team moved across the county mid-season, with the team being promoted as “Greene King Rebels” for the remainder of the season before becoming Stevenage Rebels. SALC and Rebels had big plans, with Purdue University and a couple of American college all-star teams visiting in the summer of 1997, playing against the Irish national team, Leopards, Newcastle, and Manchester Giants. But crowds were always disappointing at Rebels’ new home, often failing to reach the levels they’d managed at Wodson, and they team slipped back down to third place in 1997/98 before a poor 1998/99 campaign saw them finish tenth with their first losing season in five years and only their second in their decade-long history. Inevitably crowds had also decreased even further and the club appeared to be in financial trouble.

At the same time, Worthing Bears had departed the south coast town to move to Brighton (and Burgess Hill, home of fellow D1 side Mid-Sussex Magic who promptly disappeared) and a group of Worthing fans bought the ailing Rebels franchise, moving it a mere 104 miles. Curiously they took Danny Hildreth with them as they became Worthing Thunder Rebels.

Which would be the end of it and – apart from the people who’d been involved in both clubs – couldn’t be considered part of Leopards’ history.

But when Rebels became Stevenage in the summer of 1997, Rebels’ successful junior section remained at Wodson Park and launched a new senior club in Division Three. NBL rules at the time prevented clubs using the same suffix as another side in the competition (now they let teams in the same town just nick your name and pretend to be linked to you) and it would have confusing to have two Rebels within 12 miles. So Ware Fire were born.
Fire’s first few seasons were steady, if unspectacular, as they worked their way up the Division Three table. With the nattily named Worthing Thunder Rebels (predictably) dropping the third part of their title after just one, Fire became Rebels for the 2000/01 season and the “new” name, along with Clark returning from his stint with Leopards, obviously brought them a third placed finish with a 17-7 record and a place in the second tier of the NBL. The post-season saw a rematch of the previous year’s semi-final match-up against Doncaster and revenge was gained as the Yorkshire side were swept aside with a 92–54 home victory. The semi-finals proved to be the stumbling block though as Ware were defeated 86–75 to eventual winners Ealing Tornadoes
Clearly they were on a roll as the 2001/02 season campaign brought another third place finish and a second straight promotion to the NBL Conference – where they would play Worthing Thunder, a bit like playing with yourself. The play-off’ saw Rebels sweep aside Westminster Warriors 109–96 ibefore being matched up with familiar foes Ealing, who knocked out the Rebels for the second consecutive year with a 99–88 defeat
Rebels finished tenth in their first season, albeit with only four wins from 22 games, before a considerable improvement saw them move up to eighth a 9-14 record to seal a place in the play-offs where they went down against league champions. Part of the reason for the improvement was the return of American imports with the high-scoring Mike Williamson – who hit nine treys in a National Cup win against Liverpool – being joined after Christmas by Hayden Herrin. The season will be best remembered for three records broken by the Rebels, thanks in-part to the three-point shooting abilities of Williamson. In Rebels’ 117–87 National Cup first round win over Northampton Neptunes, he scored a National Cup record 13 three-pointers, scoring two within the first 10 seconds of the game, while the team broke the record for a team effort, scoring a 20 three-pointers in total.Two months later, Williamson, Herrin and Ben Wallis, combined to score 21 three-pointers in a 116–105 defeat to Worthing Thunder, setting a new NBL/EBL record.
But once again it had become apparent that crowds at Wodson wouldn’t support semi-pro basketball along with the costs of imports, and with Leopards Alive looking for a club, the two merged and the rest – as they say – is history.

Rebels juniors – honours
National Junior Champions 1997-1998
National Cadet Champions 1996-1997
Cadet Men’s Cup Winners 1996-1997
Cadet Men’s Cup Finalists 1997-1998
Junior Women’s Cup Finalists 1998-1999
Cadet Women’s Cup Finalists 1998-1999
Cadet Women’s League, 3rd place 1998-1999; 1999-2000