Shaping Warrnambool basketball across 40 years

Lee Primmer in familiar territory, coaching basketball.

Lee Primmer in familiar territory, coaching basketball.

LEE Primmer can reel off the names and highlights of Warrnambool basketballers over a 40-year period.

Many of them he’s coached, either at junior, state, Big V level or individually. 

Some have gone on to represent the south-west at a higher standard.

There’s Trevor Gleeson, a member of Primmer’s Warrnambool under 14 team which finished third at the Australian championships, who is now celebrating his maiden NBL coaching title.

Add Nicole Hunt, a zippy point guard who represented the Mermaids at under 12 level at national championships before progressing to the WNBL,  and Nathan Sobey who is striving for a professional opening after a strong US College career.

Some have carved careers in other sports, including Essendon footballer Martin Gleeson, who dazzled Primmer with his basketball skills in Koroit, and Hawthorn premiership midfielder Jordan Lewis.

American import Bobby Cunningham, Matt Alexander, Tommy Greene, Greg Smith, Katie O’Keefe, Maddy White and Jeremy Bolden are others Primmer has watched excel. And the list goes on. 

Primmer’s dedication to the sport was rewarded with a Basketball Australia services award earlier this month.

It was recognition for a coaching career which started at 15 and has spanned four decades.

The inaugural Warrnambool Seahawks’ Big V coach has two championships to show for his 10-year tenure.

Primmer, who has coached countless junior sides, also led Warrnambool Mermaids for a season and was an assistant coach at Vic Country under 16 and under 18 level.

“I have enjoyed it all,” he said.

“There have been ups and downs but you just sit back and look at the achievements and the players you have had something to do with and you can be satisfied with your contribution to Warrnambool basketball.

“It goes back a long way. I am 55 years old. I coached my first squad when I was 15 years old — it was pretty young to coach a squad.

“Last year would have been the first year in a long time I hadn’t coached a Warrnambool team.”

Primmer was appointed Seahawks coach in 1989.

“I coached that team for half a season and then I was sacked,” he said. “Real politics. I continued to coach juniors and I went back in 1996 as an assistant coach.

“We played the grand final and lost to Werribee.

“I got the coaching job in ’97 and we won in ’97 and ’98. We were third in ’99 and runner-up in 2000.”

Primmer said the Seahawks’ professionalism was renowned.

“I was fortunate enough to have pretty good friends who were very good coaches in basketball in Australia,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with the Hobart Devils and Sydney Kings at the time.

“It’s like (Koroit coach) Adam Dowie or (Warrnambool coach) Scott Carter spending a week at Collingwood or the like.”

A thirst for knowledge encouraged Primmer, along with Tony Gall, Lester Pickett, Peter Davis and Gleeson, to visit multiple coaching clinics. 

“As coaches we learnt lots and lots that were taught at clinics and brought it back to Warrnambool,” he said.

“We were so much more professional than anyone in the league and that had to do with me spending time with the Hobart Devils and Sydney Kings and bringing it back to Warrnambool.

“Players felt comfortable and knew what was going to happen week-to-week.”

Primmer said the Seahawks and Mermaids  had “outstanding administration” during his involvement who “left no stone unturned”.

The father of three has fond memories of his Australian championships teams.

“I have had three squads from Warrnambool make it to the Australian championships and finish second, third and fourth,” he said.

“That is huge. To finish second, third and fourth was a huge achievement for a town of 35,000. 

“The under 12 girls, we were Victorian champs. 

“To know how good the team was, you have no idea until years later — you had someone who played for Australia and for quite a few years in the WNBL in Nicole Hunt and my daughter Courtney had a scholarship in America for basketball.

“My under 14 boys finished third and fourth. The team didn’t change a lot. 

“The first group I had three people play AFL (Richie Umbers, Chris Stacey and Terry Board), one in Trevor Gleeson coached an NBL championship this year and Michael O’Keefe played state cricket.”

Nowadays Primmer and Pickett keep in regular contact with Gleeson, who guided Perth Wildcats to their sixth title last month. 

He hopes Sobey, now playing with SEABL club Ballarat Miners, will get an NBL call-up next season. 

Primmer said it was evident Warrnambool’s imprint on basketball stretched further than the south-west.

He believes its history and success on local, state, national and international levels needs to be recognised.

“There is very little memorabilia,” he said. “At Warrnambool there is nothing.

“I have an incredibly good memory of players I have seen play over 40 years and what we’ve done is second to none in country Victoria or even metropolitan (areas) for that matter.

“We don’t give recognition that is deserved to some of the kids and teams.”

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