Drained but euphoric. It has been the longest of seasons for Mersey Tigers but who could blame Tony Garbelotto for savouring the joy of lifting the BBL Championship for the first time in his coaching career?

Pacing up and down the sideline on Wednesday night in his familiar fashion as the minutes, then seconds, ticked down, the realisation that, finally, Newcastle Eagles had been slain brought untold joy but also relief.

Financial troubles, the threat of a player exodus, temporary homelessness, defeats claimed from the jaws of triumph. Here, on the floor of British basketball’s long-time powerhouse, he could at last relish securing the championship that had previously eluded him by such small margins.

“Two years ago, I felt we were unlucky with Richard Midgley getting injured,” the Londoner observed.

“We had an old team. Tony Dorsey was coming back. Maybe this was the team of destiny. We’ve had a lot of luck along the way. We’ve survived having players injured. We didn’t have Perry (Lawson) here – having him allows us to rotate players and rest them in a way that makes us totally different.

“What does it mean? I can’t put it into words at the moment. It’s definitely the biggest accomplishment of my career. But let’s just view it as a combined effort.”

It took everything to repel what Newcastle could throw in their faces. His former side, so long invincible, have lost their impregnability for now. They retain, Garbelotto states, the heart of a champion, after pulling off two narrow wins last weekend to keep this enthralling title race alive for a few days longer.

“But what can you say about my guys? There wasn’t much coaching going on today. There was a lot yesterday against Sheffield but not here. They were just immense. It helped that Fab (Flournoy) and Darius (Defoe) fouled out. With them on the court, we might not have got any of those key rebounds in the fourth quarter.

“But Andy (Thomson) and Nate (Reinking) made big plays. And from here back to the start of the season, everyone’s had their moment.”

Mersey's players were invested, individually and collectively, in their own cause. Lessons were learnt from their Cup final humiliation at Sheffield’s hands. The wheels were coming off, we thought. Wages were going unpaid, uncertainty ruled and the doubts had crept in.

Garbelotto, his captain declared, picked his team up and held it together in the darkest moments.

“What a lot of Newcastle fans don’t remember is that Newcastle went through what we're going through when they first started,” Drew Sullivan noted.

“Tony knows what that was like. He’s said to us that, sometimes, these things happen when a new team starts or there is new management. When you’re trying to get in new investors. There’ll always be some rocky moments. He just asked us to trust in him and come out with the best effort. And the guys have responded.

“We all have a ton of respect for Tony. James (Jones) and Thommo (Andy Thomson) have played for him for a few years. I‘ve known him since I was 13. Nate and Tap (Toney) know him through Great Britain. So when he asks you to trust him, you do.”

Now, here they stand, league champions, Trophy victors. The play-offs still beckon but Garbelotto says the greatest success may be the manner in which the Tigers refused to relent, come what may.

.“With what we’ve had to go through as a group, I don’t know any team who would have gone through that,” he asserts.

“I thought that multiple people would have said: 'we’re leaving, I’m going home.' I’ve never coached a group of players, ever, who I’ve loved coaching so much and enjoyed working with. We go to work every day and regardless of what happens, it’s a pleasure. And I think they’ve enjoyed the experience as much as I have.”

Enjoyment is not the first phrase which springs to Sullivan’s lips. Challenge, perhaps. Battle, maybe.

Yet, for now all that matters for the GB forward is the present. And the silver trophy which he lifted above his head and did not want to let go.           

“This is what we’ve been working for all season long,” he stated. “Everyone knows about the stuff that’s been happening off the court. The good thing is that we’ve come to the end of the season and things are starting to straighten themselves out.

“The most important thing is how this team stuck together. The players. The coaching staff, the trainers. Everyone has gone through this together. But when we meet up for games or for practice every morning, all that off-court stays off-court. I feel like this trophy is a tribute to all the hard work that’s been going on all season long.”

It has paid dividends, not just on the floor. Gradually, solutions have been found and a future for Mersey mapped out beyond the play-offs, into the summer and beyond.

Next season, the club is set to move to the Huyton Sports Centre, capacity 1000, before switching to Toxteth, (capacity: 1500) in 2012. Having attracted over 2000 to the Echo Arena on Tuesday, it is a downgrade, albeit driven by necessity. Who knows if any of the current squad will stick around? Who could blame them for seeking security elsewhere? Not the coach, you suspect.

With one more prize to chase, Garbelotto will bind his charges together for a little longer to attempt to defend their post-season crown. Then he can exhale and, perhaps, properly reflect on the enormity of the Tigers’ accomplishment.

“It’s been a unique situation,” he says, offering a weary smile.

“I don’t think it will ever get repeated again.” 

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