Across three Olympics and six world championships Robyn Maher AM was a pioneering inspiration who shone brightly and significantly impacted Australia’s competitiveness in women’s basketball.
As only the second female basketballer to be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame, Maher’s career will be celebrated as one of our very best at the sold out 34th Sport Australia Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala Dinner on Thursday 11th October 2018.
Membership to the Sport Australia Hall of Fame is widely considered the highest national sporting honour that can be bestowed. Maher joins fellow basketball players Phil Smyth AM (1997), former teammate Michele Timms AM (2003), Andrew Gaze AM (2005), Luc Longley (2009) and Troy Sachs OAM (2017), and coach Lindsay Gaze OAM (1989).
“I’m just unbelievably happy,” Maher said.
“It’s a great honour and a privilege. To be in there with my best mate Timmsy is fantastic as well.”
One of the most decorated, influential and admired players in Australian basketball, Maher’s brilliant career lasted almost two decades, winning an Olympic bronze in 1996, a world championship bronze in 1998 and playing a record 374 games for Australia, including 174 as captain.
Named Australia’s International Player of the Year in 1988, 1990 and 1991, Maher was a tenacious defender and team player with canny leadership and court sense abilities. Maher’s crowning moment came as she captained the Opals to Australia’s first Olympic basketball medal, a bronze in Atlanta 1996, whilst remarkably playing with a broken hand.
“I’ll never forget that moment we stood as a team up on that podium in Atlanta,” Maher said.
“When I think of everybody who was a part of that team, we knew that we were onto something great and knew that we’d achieved something really special for basketball.”
Breaking her hand in a pre-game tournament, Maher withstood the pain to lead the Australians to a momentous medal.
“Yeah that was a bit annoying,” Maher said about her near-costly injury.
“But it was my left hand and people say I can’t go left anyway, so it didn’t matter much,” she joked.
“It was okay, I bandaged it up and had about four days before our first game once we went into the village. I got through it thankfully because I would’ve hated to have missed out on that first medal.”
For Maher it was a sweet reward for more than a decade of representative basketball, in which funding and recognition was severely limited in the early days.
“The first couple of international trips we had to pay a portion ourselves. Not the Olympics, but prior to that, our trips to the US or to Europe.”
“We all had to work of course and trying to get time off was horrendous. I was really lucky, I was working at the ANZ bank who were really supportive. But some of my teammates weren’t as lucky, and had to resign, go off for a month, come back and find another job. It wasn’t easy back then.”
Despite the obvious roadblocks that existed, Maher was a part of Australia’s first women’s Olympic basketball team that was put together ahead of the Los Angeles Games in 1984. The Aussies were far from disgraced on the world’s biggest stage, losing to eventual silver medallists Spain in the quarterfinals.
Playing again four years later at Seoul 1988, the Australian team took a great leap forward. Maher sensed that it was the beginning of a great time for Australian basketball.
“I think in Seoul, we had a feeling that we were onto something good,” Maher said.
“We didn’t start the tournament that great, but we got ourselves together and being able to beat the Soviet Union in the rounds was massive.”
The victory was the first loss for the Soviet women’s team ever at an Olympic Games and it was described at the time as Australia’s greatest ever basketball performance – men or women.
“It was huge for little old Australia to be knocking down the powers of the Soviet Union, so it was fantastic. I’ve got great memories of that game.”
The Australian team was defeated in the bronze medal match by the United States and would need to wait another eight years for another Olympic experience after missing out on qualifying for Barcelona in 1992.
Maher, who assumed the captaincy in 1989, helped propel the Australian women’s basketball team into the mainstream of Australian sport with the successful branding of the ‘Australian Opals’ name in 1993.
“The Boomers already had their name and we didn’t just want to be known as the lady Boomers, so needed to brand ourselves in order to be more widely recognised during the lead-in to the women’s world championships in Australia in 1994. We put out a competition around the basketball fraternity and they came back with a lot of good and bad names. The Opals was definitely one that stuck out and we decided that was it.”
Domestically, Maher was dominant. Beginning with the Melbourne Telstars in the Women’s National Basketball League in 1981, she featured in 13 Grand Finals for an astonishing 10 championships, six in seven years with Nunawading Spectres, two with Sydney Flames and one each with Hobart Islanders and Perth Breakers. She was the competition’s most valuable player in 1983 and 1987, was named in the All Star 5 in 1988 and was awarded defensive player of the year in 1992 and 1994. She finished among the WNBL’s all-time top ten scorers and finished her career in 1999 with the first game of the Maher Cup, an annual series of international games named after her in recognition of her pioneering contribution to the sport.
For a number of years at both domestic and national level, she was coached by her husband and admired member of Australian basketball community Tom Maher, saying she thrived under his direction.
“It was great. I consider Tom to be the best coach I’ve ever had, and a lot of people would say that as well. To come home and talk about the game and how we can improve was great and we have the greatest respect for each other, so it was fun times.”
Together the pair made a great team. Robyn, a natural leader captained the team to a historic bronze medal at the 1998 world championships in Germany before passing on skipper duties to her great friend Michele Timms in 1999.
Chairman of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame Selection Committee Rob de Castella AO MBE says it was the leadership and guidance Maher showed throughout her long and distinguished career that ensured she’d be inducted.
“At both national and international levels, Robyn has dominated. Her contribution to basketball and our nation is outstanding, and for nearly two decades she has been an inspiration and a game winner, on and off the court.”
There is little doubt about Maher’s legacy on Australian basketball, and while she may not have received the recognition she probably deserved during the formative years of women’s sport, Maher’s induction into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame certainly highlight’s how valuable her contribution was.
“It was a great ride for me, and it’s great that it’s just been able to steam roll ahead like it has. I really feel it was the start of something great back during those years and there’s no doubt our league here in Australia has contributed to where we are today. It’s been a wonderful journey,” Maher said.
Robyn Maher will be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame on Australian sport’s “Night of Nights” – the sold out 34th Sport Australia Hall of Fame Induction and Awards Gala Dinner on Thursday 11th October at Palladium at Crown, Melbourne.
Established in 1985, the Sport Australia Hall of Fame plays a vital role in preserving and perpetuating Australia’s rich sporting heritage, whilst promoting the values of courage, sportsmanship, integrity, mateship, persistence, and excellence, all underpinned by generosity, modesty, pride and ambition.
2018 will mark the 34th edition of this event, with eight Australian sporting icons, from on and off the field, to be inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame.
In addition, one existing Hall of Fame member will be elevated to Legend status, becoming the 40th official Legend of Australian Sport.