He may be nudging 83, but for basketball legend Evan Bennett the place on the court is “still as fierce” as it was when he played his first game as a five-year-old at king George V playground in The Rocks.
The 1.8 metre (6ft in the old money) octogenarian, and NSW Basketball Hall of Fame Inductee, has been playing and coaching for decades, and was part of the team that took the Australian men’s wheelchair basketball team to gold at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games.
Evan is now based on the NSW Central Coast and recently returned from Espoo, near Helsinki in Finland, where he played in the Federal International Maxibasketball Association tournament with Australia’s Myths and Legends over 75’s. The biennial masters tournament attracts more than 3500 players from 35-80 plus from all over the world.
“They were short a few players so they rang me and asked if I could play,” said Evan, who at the time was recovering from treatment for bowel cancer. He stepped up to the challenge, training in his backyard. “I ended up coaching too, as I was the oldest one in the team!”
Despite losing to the USA and Lithuania, the team still came home with medals. “I loved the atmosphere,” he said of his Finnish adventure. “Special things happen out there on the court.”
And like the pace on the court, his enthusiasm hasn’t waned since he first picked up a basketball in Sydney in 1942.
“Back then there wasn’t much in the way of sports grounds,” he said. “Playgrounds were where the kids played and basketball was new. We’d pick up tips from the US navy men who would play there.”
He recalls playing his first game against a Coronation Playground team. “They beat us by 100 points. I couldn’t understand why my teammates were crying. My mum said, ‘it’s because the boys don’t like losing by 100 points’. I didn’t know what the score was! Three years later we beat them.”
From playground teams, Evan went on to join Association teams including North Sydney, Maroubra and Leichhardt as well as playing for the City of Sydney. At the same time, he was passing on his skills to a younger generation of basketballers, turning to coaching as a teenager in the early 1950’s.
“My way of coaching is that everyone does the same thing – man, boy, girl, woman,” said Evan. “You’ve got to work at your craft and got to be in an environment where you want to get better.”
Evan’s hugely successful coaching career has seen him lead teams at Representative, State and National level, from NSW and Queensland women’s teams to men’s wheelchair basketball in the 90’s.
He coached the Australian men’s B team to a win in China in 1994, and as assistant coach to the Australian men’s A team he not only guided them to gold at the Paralympics but also to wins in Japan, Canada, Spain and England. He also mentored Paralympian and now Gosford MP Liesl Tesch for eight years.
Asked why he loves basketball, his reply is quick: “The competition, the friendships you make, the different places you go, and you can never learn all there is to know about it.”
Evan is still involved with the Central Coast Waves. He was coaxed out of retirement to coach his grandson’s basketball team and has been with the team ever since. And he’s looking forward to the next Federal International Maxibasketball tournament in Orlando in 2021.
“Time will tell” if he’ll be signing up for that one.