Perth Wildcats: Mike Ellis and Greg Hire reflect on influence of Scott Fenton’s death


Former Perth Wildcats captain Mike Ellis and current player Greg Hire with Scott Fenton’s retired jersey. Picture: Marcus Whisson
Former Perth Wildcats captain Mike Ellis and current player Greg Hire with Scott Fenton’s retired jersey. Picture: Marcus Whisson

IT’S been a sobering sight at Perth Wildcats home games for more than 20 years; a reminder that elite athletes are just as vulnerable as the rest of us.

And it stems from a tragic night in Hillarys on August 21, 1989.

As the Wildcats celebrate their 30th anniversary, Scott Fenton’s retired No. 14 singlet remains a humbling piece of the team’s illustrious history.

His number has hung at Perth home games for 23 years – the first to be retired and the only one done so in tribute to a lost player.

It now holds a special place at Perth Arena.

Fenton was just 24 when he and fiancée Tina Christie (23) – a national basketballer with the WAIS Breakers – were the innocent victims in a horrific car crash on Marmion Avenue.

Both had moved to WA from NSW in 1988 to further their basketball careers.

They were killed instantly when a V8 Holden Commodore, which police said had been travelling at up to 200km/h while drag racing, ploughed into the driver’s side of their Honda sedan near Flinders Avenue just after midnight.

Attending police officer Chris Bender told a court hearing the car was “jammed into one massive, busted metal heap”.

A firefighter described it as one of the worst he had seen.

Such was the braking force of the Commodore that its front right tyre had melted almost to the wheel rim.

Miraculously, Fenton’s father – the late Keith Fenton – who was sitting in the back seat, survived life-threatening injuries.

Wildcats legend Mike Ellis told the Weekender it was his toughest period in 302 games as club captain.

He said all other issues he faced, including coach sackings and teammate Kendal ‘Tiny’ Pinder’s

Arrest for sexual assault, were insignificant by comparison.

“I got a phone call a about four in the morning from (coach) Allan (Black)… I just remember hanging up and sitting on the edge of the bed… it was horrific, and almost surreal,” he said.

“We had to go to training the next day, we got together as a team and everybody was just in shock.

“To lose two people who were part of the entire (basketball) program was devastating.

“Realistically, the basketball just became secondary to it all.”

The offending driver, a 24-year-old Heathridge man and his male passenger (22) escaped with minor injuries.

He pleaded not guilty to two counts of unlawful killing and one count of grievous bodily harm.

A jury found him guilty of all charges and he was sentenced to 18 months jail, eligible for parole after six.

His driver’s licence was suspended for five years.

In a stirring response to media during the four-day trial, a Fenton family friend said they “wished no harm on the other side”.

The tragedy left a lasting legacy at the Wildcats, which continues to resonate with a new generation of players.

Second-year forward Greg Hire, who was only two at the time of the crash, was not aware of the history behind the retired No. 14 jersey until he joined the Wildcats as a development player in 2010.

His first memory of Fenton was seeing him on an old basketball card as a Wildcats-mad eight-year-old.

“I had been to Wildcats games and seen his jersey retired but never actually saw an image of Scott until that moment,” he said.

More than a decade later, it would be a firm reality check when he learnt of the young guard’s fate.

“There is a sense of pride playing for the Wildcats, and looking back at that jersey, you feel obliged to cherish the life we live,” he said.

Fenton was a popular player, who thrived in 37 Wildcats games after leaving the Sydney Supersonics during the club’s merger with the Sydney Kings.

Perth had hit the top of the ladder only a day before his death, making it the first time he had been a member of the nation’s No. 1 team in 140 NBL appearances.

Former Wildcats owner Bob Williams, while speaking at the couple’s public memorial, described Fenton as a team man and genuinely nice guy.

“As a role player, he didn’t want to be a star on his own, rather a star among stars,” he said at the Claremont Superdrome (Challenge Stadium) service.

Then-WAIS Breakers (West Coast Waves) owner Steve McMahon said Christie, whose No. 4 Breakers jersey was also retired, earned respect from her counterparts through a will to succeed.

All WNBL and NBL games held a minute’s silence in the wake of the tragedy.

Bill Palmer, who was NBL general manager at the time, offered a tribute that remains a rousing reflection on sport and reality.

“The health and vigour of our sport creates the impression of invulnerability but calamitous events such as this burst the veneer of that bubble,” he said.

“As human beings we are all equally pregnable and the road toll is not just a statistic, as are the 140 NBL games young Scott Fenton played.

“Basketball is but one facet of a multihued life spectrum, but death is the terminus that we all have in common and that it can happen in the prime of these young people’s lives can but deepen the shock and outrage.”