Solent Stars - Memories

by Graham Hiley

Graham Hiley was the local sports reporter for the Daily Echo assigned to basketball coverage in the mid to late 1980s. He had succeeded Bob Everett and was the writer of the article that announced "Stars of the court go out" as the Solent Stars club exited from the Carlsberg League at the end of the 1989/90 season after just ten years in existence.

Although over the years he has been only too pleased to acknowledge that the notice of demise was premature - indeed Graham is a spectator still at some of our home games - at the time, things did look bleak. Having reported on the club for a time, he had views as to how the present situation had come about.

"The rot began to set in for the Stars at the start of the 1984-85 season after signing Driller Killer Dan Callandrillo from Bracknell as a panic replacement for Karl Tatham. But with Saiers and TJ Robinson also in the side, Solent now had three Americans. Only two could ever play in one match which meant an extra set of very expensive wages.

The transfer generated enormous excitement among the fans. Solent beat Warrington 91 - 80 at Fleming park to claim the first British Championship. Then in December 1984 came the shock announcement that Solent would fold in a fortnight unless a major sponsor would step in with a rescue bid. While most of the players rallied to the cause and paid their own way to games, superstars Johnson and Callandrillo walked out saying, 'no pay, no play'.

A business consortium fronted by TJ Robinson outbid Portsmouth FC chairman, John Deacon, to save the club at the 11th hour - but things were never the same again. From then on it was more goodwill than hard cash that kept them going. Coach Jim Kelly left for German side Leverkusen and Steve Fitzsimons again took over once more.

Ironically his first game was at home to Telford who had that week been bought by John Deacon who moved the club to Portsmouth. With just six players sticking by the club, Kelly had predicted that the Stars would not win a game all season. In fact, the famous Stars spirit took them within a whisker of Wembley but their flu-hit side was beaten by Worthing in the Play-Off Quarter Finals.

Solent survived to start the 1985-86 season on a shoestring budget but the players continued to give their all and were rewarded with a gritty run to the Prudential Cup Final. Although they were thrashed by Kingston at the Royal Albert Hall (113 - 82) Solent had done enough to prove that they were still a force to be reckoned with.

Although money was again still in short supply, Paul Philp was installed as a player coach for the 1986 - 87 season, which it seemed that Solent might not see. Then Draper Tools came up with a deal to keep the club afloat but all they could ever hope for was to keep their heads above water even though they harboured faint hopes of making the play-offs.

And that was to be the pattern from then on as directors spent hundreds of hours of their own time desperately seeking sponsors from one season to the next. The Glory Days had gone: it was just a case of survival.

Coach Mark Saiers' knowledge of the college game in America enabled Solent to pick up the talented duo of Phil Smith and Johnny Brown on the cheap and they were able to carry the team until Brown suddenly returned home. Despite pain of a knee injury, Saiers came out of retirement and played his heart out to help the club to the quarter finals of the play offs where they lost to champions Portsmouth. His reward was the sack two months into the new season as the result of another cost-cutting exercise despite sponsorship from A&B Homes. Phil Smith took over but it was always then a question of whether Solent could scrape into the play-offs. Inevitably, they just missed out.

As usual there was a pre-season plea for cash and an anonymous backer carried them through their next season. But this season there was to be no last-minute reprieve. Maybe the people had heard it all before and thought that the club was crying wolf again. This time it was for real. There was no more money available so the only alternative was to drop down to the regional league - a long way from the heights they once reached."

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