Shane Heal outside court (file image)
A judge has found the Sydney Flames suspended Shane Heal as head coach because of player complaints. Image by Bianca De Marchi/AAP PHOTOS
  • crime, law and justice

Heal’s ‘conspiracy’ claim against Flames no slam dunk

Jack Gramenz April 19, 2024

An Australian basketball great and former Olympian has had the bulk of his lawsuit against a team he once coached dismissed.

Shane Heal, 53, sued the Women’s National Basketball League club Sydney Flames after multiple players came forward with claims against the former coach, leading to his suspension in January 2023 amid an external investigation.

Heal sued in February 2023 when told he would not receive the investigation’s report and asked to show why his employment should not be terminated.

Shane Heal (L) lights Olympic Cauldron in 2004 (file image)
 Heal was a four-time Olympian in a 21-year playing career before his coaching ended with the Flames. Image by Torsten Blackwood/AAP PHOTOS 

But the Flames suspended him in response to the players’ complaints, Federal Court Justice John Halley ruled on Friday.

There was a breach of contract when Heal was not paid commissions for procuring sponsorships and the Flames made a separate admission it failed to promptly provide payslips.

Justice Halley dismissed the rest of the lawsuit, ordering both parties negotiate a penalty before another hearing in May.

Heal claimed the complaints were a “smoke screen” to get rid of him.

That suggested a conspiracy, which would also have to involve the independent investigator.

“I am satisfied there was no plausible evidence from which I could find that such a conspiracy existed,” Justice Halley said.

Tiana Mangakahia (file image)
 Tiana Mangakahia said Heal regularly singled her out. Image by Darren England/AAP PHOTOS 

Ex-player Tiana Mangakahia told the court Heal regularly singled her out and it was a running joke in the team that herself and American Hannah Sjerven were “roasted” regularly.

During hearings in 2023, the court was told 22-year-old Shyla Heal, the marquee player on the team her father coached, was “harassed” and “manhandled” by another coach as she shot hoops away from the team the day Heal was suspended. 

That complaint “disappeared into the ether,” despite the Flames acting quickly on other complaints “when it suits them”, Heal’s barrister Glenn Fredericks said.

Following a loss to the Perth Lynx on January 7, 2023, a players-only dinner, excluding coaching staff and the head coach’s daughter, decided to inform management players were upset by Heal’s conduct.

Flames president Victoria Denholm noticed Mangakahia looked upset at training two days later, before captain Keely Froling informed her about the team’s terrible morale.

Shane Heal (file image)
 The court ruled Heal was not asserting workplace rights, but criticising the club president. Image by Dean Lewins/AAP PHOTOS 

Heal claimed he was targeted after exercising his workplace rights, alleging he complained when not consulted regarding the playing schedule, when he had been.

He also argued a player he wanted to recruit was not offered a contract, but they already received a higher offer than the club could table and rejected an offer six months earlier.

Heal alleged Ms Denholm undermined him, making comments indicating she did not support a man coaching the team after becoming president in December 2022, before allegedly using an aggressive tone with him a week before his suspension.

The court ruled it was more likely an exasperated and frustrated tone and Heal accepted Ms Denholm had not raised her voice or physically intimidated him.

“She’s just emotional mate. She just wants to win,” Heal recounted Flames chief executive Christopher Pongrass responding when he told him about their interaction.

Shyla Heal (file image)
 Shyla Heal has been named in the Opals squad for the upcoming Olympics. Image by Mark Evans/AAP PHOTOS 

Mr Pongrass said he instead described Ms Denholm as “passionate”.

She denied making the alleged comments about the team having a middle-aged man coaching.

The court ruled Heal was not asserting workplace rights, but criticising Ms Denholm, having not requested any action to protect him.

Heal’s 21-year playing career took him around the world, playing in the NBA and European leagues in addition to a storied NBL career in Australia, a league he also coached in.

He played for the Boomers at four Olympics.

Shyla Heal has been named, alongside Froling, in the Opals squad for the upcoming Olympics after debuting in the WNBL aged 14 and winning a championship with the Townsville Fire in 2023.