By Stuart Hodge
In a season already laden with historic milestones, the Caledonia Gladiators have the chance to make the biggest statement of all on Sunday by clinching the first trophy of the club’s new era when Gareth Murray’s side face the Cheshire Phoenix in the BBL Trophy Final.
It’s been 20 years since the men’s team – then the Scottish Rocks – became BBL Play-off champions beating the Brighton Bears, at the National Indoor Arena (NIA) in Birmingham and now that two-decade long wait for silverware could be about to come to an end.
This has already been a season to remember for the club, with the amalgamation of the men’s and women’s teams into one Caledonia Gladiators superpower, the announcement of a purpose-built new stadium complex to provide our coliseum of the future and big-name signings and homegrown talent providing some epic entertainment for our supporters all season long.
On that journey, there have also been some historical results – none more so, than the Gladiators’ double-conquering of the London Lions. Our women’s team ended the previously indomitable Lions’ epic unbeaten domestic run of 52 games at the Copper Box Arena, and at the Emirates Arena, an MVP performance from Aljami Durham was accompanied with magnificent defense as Caledonia claimed a quarter-final victory for the ages against the Lions in the earlier rounds of this season’s competition.
The outpouring of emotion in the immediate aftermath of that victory was the moment that you knew glory could be possible this season and so it now stands, with the team ready to step onto the hardwood on Sunday in front of a sell-out crowd of 6,000 which is set to pack the Emirates Arena.
“My job right now is to make sure these guys understand how big an opportunity this is for them as a player,” said head coach Gareth Murray, ahead of the showdown with the Phoenix.
“You might never be in this position again. This is even better, because we’re playing in Glasgow, we’re playing in front of a majority of home fans. Hopefully, 85% of them will be there supporting Caledonia, that type of thing is huge!
“We want to always be a top four team, we always want to make the runs in the cups and trophies and try to win one of those and now we have a huge opportunity to kind of fulfil that.”
To do so, the Gladiators will have to put to an end a disheartening run of finals misery.
Over the years, competing under the previous name as the Glasgow Rocks, the team have not fared well in domestic cup showpieces with seven losses in a row spanning from the 2004 National Cup final to the 2019 BBL Cup Final, as well as three BBL Play-off finals defeats.
Just one of those was in the BBL Trophy, in 2014, when the Worcester Wolves came to the Emirates and won 83-76 against a team containing both Murray – who top-scored for the losing team with 21 points – and a fresh-faced guard in his early 20s playing just his third year of professional basketball, Jonny Bunyan.
“The actual game I remember, it was pretty exciting, pretty nerve racking,” said the current club captain.
“I remember, I came in quite early doors and we were playing well and I actually hit a three close to the end of the first quarter that I think put us up by 10 but they started edging it back quarter-by-quarter.
“And then, annoyingly enough, a guy called Jamal Williams really turned the tide of the game. He was very much a role player for them but he shot the ball very well on that day and was the MVP with 26 points.
“But it was close, and it was close pretty much right up to the end. Personally, I think I played quite well for being 21-22 years old at the time, but I wasn’t I wasn’t really aware at that time that I would be waiting for another nine or 10 years to play in a BBL Trophy Final.”
Now, finally armed with the opportunity to avenge that defeat, Jonny will be looking to follow in the footsteps of brother and club legend Keith Bunyan, who was part of the squad which triumphed in the BBL Play-off Final 20 years ago.
The skipper was just a kid back then and remembers vividly going down to Birmingham to watch, as part of massive travelling support backing the Scottish team south of the border.
Now, similarly to the way his brother did for him, the younger Bunyan recognises the chance to have a similarly inspirational impact on some of the young fans who will be watching on Sunday.
“It’s a very opportunistic time to make this final,” he said. “The club is moving in an amazing direction right now but at the same time it lets us remember very much where we’ve came from.
“There’s a very strong tie to that history, still in this team, whether that’s through myself and Gareth or a couple of other people in the organisation – but at the same time, we’re very much moving forward as the Gladiators and we’ve got a lot of big plans on the horizon.
“All the people that are involved in this club, from the owners to people like Gareth and myself, if we pull off what the ambition is and the goal is, then being there on Sunday you can say you were with us at the beginning.
“If we manage to have the success we’re planning on having and become a massive name in this sport in Europe, you can say that you watched the start of it, the very first year where we took off in an amazing direction.”