Quest to name the 12 greatest Illawarra Hawks launched

FINAL COUNTDOWN:  Hawks captain Mat Campbell celebrates after what he thought was the the Hawks final game at the WEC in 2009.Picture: Sylvia Liber
FINAL COUNTDOWN: Hawks captain Mat Campbell celebrates after what he thought was the the Hawks final game at the WEC in 2009.Picture: Sylvia Liber

IT’S a distinction that no other NBL club can claim.

As Australia’s National Basketball League celebrates it’s 40th season, only the Illawarra Hawks have been involved in every one of them.

Incredible though it seems, the NBL’s perennial battlers haven’t missed a season since the new league tipped off in 1979.

Since then, 24 teams have come and gone. Others have come and stayed, but none longer than the Hawks. It’s an achievement, and a milestone, worthy of celebration.

To do that, The Mercury, has set out to name the 12 greatest Hawks players of all time. The tough task is made slightly easier, with the names on the five singlets that hang from the WEC rafters automatically included.

Those men, Glen Saville, Mat Campbell, Chuck Harmison, Gordie McLeod and Melvin Thomas will have a say in the seven names that will join them in the all-time Hawks team.

They, along with fellow panel members John Trivellion Scott, Tim Fares and Peter Brettell, have put together a shortlist of 40 worthy names – 10 from each decade. From that list seven players will be named alongside the singlet retirees at halftime of the Hawks January 13 clash with New Zealand.

Each week, The Mercury, will release the 10 names, starting with those from the current decade. They will be accompanied by the stories that built the NBL’s only surviving foundation club.

It’s club for whom the wolf has always been lurking at the door, but there’s no doubt the closest it came to extinction came this decade at the end of the 2009 season when the club was mere hours away from death. 

It was a year Basketball Australia implemented a rigorous financial standard for inclusion in what it dubbed the ‘NewNBL’. It stipulated that each club must have $500,000 in working capital and a $1 million bank guarantee to be considered.

It was enough to price the club’s ownership group, led by then chairman Richard Clifford, out of the new league and appeared the death knell for the Hawks.

Their penultimate game of the season against Adelaide, their last at the WEC, was pitched as the club’s farewell. The Mercury’s February 13 addition featured 10 pages of goodbyes.

5624 fans packed the Sandpit for what looked certain to be Illawarra’s last home game. Little did they know, then skipper Campbell had other plans.

"I'd spoken to some people behind the scenes before the last game of the season to come up with some sort of plan to try and save the team,” Campbell recalls.

"We didn't want to go ahead and launch Save the Hawks until after that final game had happened just in case it didn't get up. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to come and say goodbye to the Hawks and celebrate it for what it was.

"Even for me, I treated that game as the farewell game. I had some ideas about how to move it forward in that community model but it was a bit of a pipe dream at that stage.

"I was in season still concentrating on playing, I thought it could be my last game ever. I didn't want to spoil that occasion and give people hope when I didn't know there was hope.

“I wanted to enjoy it for what it potentially was, which was the Hawks last game.”

At the conclusion of the season, Campbell and a dedicated band of staff went to work looking for ways to climb the mountain the league had put in front of them.

“When the previous ownership withdrew there wasn’t really anyone banging down the door to take the reins,” Campbell said.

"I had some sort of idea that Save the Hawks was going to be launched after the season, it was just about getting the right people in right room to come up with a plan and then we launched it at the end of season dinner.

"We came up with a model to hand in to Basketball Australia and we were happy with that document and the plan we had going forward.

“The one real big thing we didn't have was the million-dollar bank guarantee that was non-negotiable for all teams.

“I went around asking companies and people with that sort of stature if they could do bits and pieces here and there but nothing eventuated.”

With the NBL’s deadline looming, Campbell made an 11th hour pitch to mining magnate Arun Jagatramka of Gujarat NRE, who miraculously came through with the all-important guarantee.

It was lodged a mere two hours before the NBL deadline, bringing the club back from oblivion, something Campbell hadn’t let himself consider until he had the signed documents in his hand.

"We were given a [Monday] deadline to be able to get the guarantee and it wasn't until the Friday before that that I got in contact with Gujarat and Arun Jagatramka. 

“Within three or four days we were able to get a bank guarantee which was remarkable. There was a one o'clock deadline on the Monday and the paper wasn't signed until 11.30. It was really edge of your seat last minute stuff.

"I remember ringing the NBL as soon as it was done to tell them we had it in place. They were in total disbelief. I don't think they believed it until we sent through the signed documentation.

“We are obviously a battlers club and probably the last club they expected to get that guarantee in place given some of the bigger clubs were struggling as well. It really epitomised exactly the way the Hawks have played over the years –  the scrapper and the underdog.”  

The story continued the following season, with club great McLeod returning as coach and taking the Hawks to within one win of a championship. That team featured Rhys Martin, Larry Davidson and Tim Coenraad, who all appear on the  2009-17 list.

Ironically, they were brought undone by a Perth outfit coached by current Hawks mentor Rob Beveridge and spearheaded by Kevin Lisch, with the latter also appearing on this decade’s list.

"That year was a phenomenal year,” Campbell said.

“To come out of being nothing to making the grand final a year later on a budget that was publicly known to be three quarters of what the other teams were spending was incredible.

“We lost [import] Ty McKee halfway through the season as well but we manged to get there and sneak a game to give ourselves a chance. We were up in the third game to before Kevin Lisch went a bit nuts on us but we were so close to winning a championship.”

Campbell retired two seasons later, but his name will always hang from the rafters at the Sandpit for his kids to see – the greatest reward.

“[Save the Hawks] is truly one of the remarkable sporting stories and something I was honoured to contribute to on and off the court to give the club the chance to survive,” Campbell said.

"We worked hard to keep the dream alive and one of the big goals I really had was to be able to sit in the stands with my kids and watch the Hawks as a fan. To get to do that now is really special.”

Illawarra Hawks class of 2009-17:

Tim Coenraad

Oscar Forman

Rhys Martin

Larry Davidson

Rotnei Clarke

AJ Ogilvy

Gary Ervin

Kevin Lisch

Nick Kay

Kirk Penney