Basketball: Wildcats awarded Australian title after Kings withdrawal

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The Perth Wildcats were awarded Australia’s National Basketball League title on Thursday, two days after the Sydney Kings pulled out of the championship series due to coronavirus concerns.

The Wildcats led 2-1 after winning the third game of the best-of-five Grand Final series in Sydney before the Kings announced their withdrawal on Tuesday.

The league spent two days deliberating before awarding the defending champion Wildcats their 10th national title.

The coronavirus pandemic has infected more than 212,000 people globally and killed 8,700 and brought the sports world to a virtual standstill.

Officials said the league’s rules were clear with regard to “unforeseen circumstances” and that awarding the title to Perth was the only possible outcome.

“Obviously (Sydney were) disappointed but very graceful in accepting it,” NBL owner and executive chairman Larry Kestelman told reporters at a media conference in Melbourne on Thursday.

“It’s an extraordinarily harsh position for them to be in and I think their fans and their players would have loved to see through the five-game series.

“They were confident they could win it. But rules are rules and unless we decided to change the rules, that was the only decision we could have made.”

Wildcats guard Bryce Cotton was named Most Valuable Player of the truncated series.

Games Two and Three were played in closed stadiums after Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week his government would advise the cancellation of all non-essential gatherings of 500 or more people to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The Kings withdrew citing health risks and concerns of overseas-based players and staff wanting to return home amid global travel restrictions.

Kings center Andrew Bogut congratulated the Wildcats but fired a broadside at the NBL for their handling of the championship amid the unfolding coronavirus crisis.

“I want to go on record to say I am beyond embarrassed and disappointed in regards to how this was handled by our league from the week leading up to the Grand Final series,” the outspoken former NBA player said on social media.

“More to come at a later date re: that.”

The aborted series was a disappointing end to a largely successful season for Australia’s top flight championship, which enjoyed packed crowds and renewed fan interest.

“Our sport is very important to us and our fans, but we have a clear perspective on where we sit in the pecking order of priorities right now,” said Kestelman.

Reporting by Ian Ransom; Editing by Peter Rutherford