The Adelaide 36ers used to be an NBL powerhouse, boasting multiple championship titles under head coach Phil Smyth, and inspired on the court by the likes of acclaimed captain Brett Maher.

But in the two decades that have elapsed since those glory years, the club’s fortunes have waned — at one time debt-laden and now better known for sacking players and coaches, the 36ers have too often struggled on the court as well as off.

So where has it all gone so wrong?

Former Adelaide 36ers championship player Rupert Sapwell often catches up with ex-teammates to reflect on the good old days.

“A lot of us guys get together and muse about those type of things,” he said.

Sapwell with son Koen after the 1999 title triumph.(Getty Images)

But the conversation doesn’t just focus on the past — Sapwell also has thoughts on the 36ers’ future, and on how the side might seek to make improvements.

“I think in recent years Adelaide’s developed a mercenary culture, a lot of players change over, a lot of coaches change over,” he said.

“They haven’t had that undercurrent of soul within the groups, they’ve lost a little bit of connection with Adelaide basketball.

“You ask a lot of the other old players and it feels like there hasn’t been the same passion for the club and place and the singlet that there was.”

Sapwell says the club has to recover its “soul” to again be an NBL force. (ABC News: Marco Catalano)

Sapwell is still very much embedded in South Australian basketball — he is coach of the NBL1 side Central District Lions, and director of sport at Trinity College, which has a strong basketball program.

Robust culture is often identified as being critical to successful Australian sporting programs, but Sapwell believes it is lacking at the 36ers.

“It’s like a garden, you’ve just got to maintain it and you’ve got to prune it, you’ve got to make sure that you’re watering it every day and putting all the right ingredients in,” he said.

Phil Smyth was the man who steered the 36ers to three titles in 1998, 1999 and 2002.

But in the past 18 seasons, the side has made the finals just five times.

Phil Smyth coached the Adelaide 36ers to three championships.(ABC News: Marco Catalano)

Smyth said critical mistakes have been made in appointments to key positions.

“Where they’ve failed I think in the last seven or eight years is they haven’t done their due diligence around a whole range of things,” he said.

Smyth said that while the club could “hypothetically go out and get the best coach”, it would amount to little if the candidate “doesn’t understand the culture”.

So, how to fix it?

Adelaide is currently being coached by former title winning player Scott Ninnis, after CJ Bruton was sacked mid-season.

He had been in charge for two-and-a-half seasons, finishing with a 27-40 win-loss record.

The 36ers parted ways with CJ Bruton last year.(ABC News)

That followed the appointment of former NBA assistant coach Connor Henry in 2020, who had in turn been chosen to replace Joey Wright, who had taken Adelaide to two grand final series.

But those finals were a blip amongst two decades of underachieving.

“It’s been 20-odd years since our last title — we won three in five years and sometimes you take for granted just how hard it is,” Sapwell said.

The 36ers are holding off on the appointment of a new head coach until the end of the current season, after Sunday’s game against New Zealand.

The main three candidates at this stage appear to be Ninnis, current Boomers boss Brian Goorjian and NBA assistant coach Trevor Gleeson.

Sapwell and Smyth believe Ninnis — who was alongside them during the championship era — is the man for the job.

“I personally think he deserves the job, he’s done an outstanding job so far,” Sapwell said.

“People in SA understand him, he understands the nuances of basketball culture in SA and he understands what the culture of the Adelaide 36ers is.

“He’s been part of it forever and part of championships.”

The Adelaide 36ers after winning the championship in 1999.(Getty Images)

Smyth has in the past been sounded out to return to coaching his beloved 36ers.

But he is currently employed to provide leadership mentoring for AFL club the Brisbane Lions and South Australian cricket coach Jason Gillespie, and is not a candidate for the coaching job.

Smyth believes Goorjian will take a job elsewhere, potentially in Asia, while Gleeson will remain in the NBA, clearing the decks for the 36ers to appoint Ninnis, possibly on a one-year deal.

“Based on what we’ve seen since the new year, if the other two weren’t in the equation, he’s probably next in line,” he said.

Scott Ninnis was appointed interim coach after Bruton’s sacking.(ABC News)

Whoever gets the job will need to put together a new playing roster, with some current squad members to be cut, others to be offered reduced deals and new imports considered.

During his career, Sapwell gained a reputation for physicality and attracted a cult following by successfully playing a set role in the 36ers’ championship teams.

He said the club needed to go local to fill similar roles.

“Getting young South Australian players in as those role players I think is really important because it re-establishes the fabric and soul of the state, connects it back to the elite basketball team,” he said.

There are already signs Adelaide is bouncing back, with the 36ers now regularly selling out home games.

But for Sapwell, it is game day results that are critical, and a revival of the glory days is more than overdue.