Illawarra Hawks: Saving the region's heart and soul

REMINISCING: Article author and former Illawarra Mercury editor Stuart Howie with some of the iconic front pages of the fight to save the Hawks.
REMINISCING: Article author and former Illawarra Mercury editor Stuart Howie with some of the iconic front pages of the fight to save the Hawks.

I still shake my head, amazed how the Wollongong Hawks did a Houdini two years running to survive imminent death - and go on to contest the 2010 NBL grand final. We shouldn’t be surprised. Over the 40 years of the competition, the Hawks have had a habit of turning on the extraordinary. When I moved to the Illawarra in December 2007 to become editor of the Mercury, the community faced a clear and present danger. With their major naming rights sponsorship ending, the Hawks were running out of cash.

Hawks CEO Richard Clifford made a plea through the paper. The message was clear: if they could not raise $1 million within two months the club was toast. Given the passing of the Illawarra Steelers and the Wollongong Wolves, and divided feelings about the St George Illawarra Dragons, our representation on the national sporting stage was at stake.

For me, the crisis transcended sport and was as much about civic pride. The Mercury responded by launching Operation Rebound, but the odds were against us. The Iemma Government ruled out support. The region did not have large corporations like the capital cities for sponsorship. The NBL offered little more than moral backing. And it was ambitious to think the club could raise that ridiculous amount of money in such a short period - and over the summer break. But in Clifford, club stalwart Wayne Morris and “Captain Courageous” Mat Campbell, we would not die wondering. At the time, sitting in the editor’s office with Campbell, it become evident to me the Hawks had been banking something of note for many years - an authentic community connection. It was time to cash in.

At the Mercury, we mobilised our crack team of reporters, photographers and artists. We had the best basketball writer in the country, Tim Keeble, photographer Orlando Chiodo had a wonderful connection with the team, and our graphic artists brought a creative aspect to our coverage. Vince O’Farrell (RIP), one of the nation’s preeminent cartoonists, produced a perfect call to arms, a front page “I WANT YOU” that channelled the American enlistment poster.

Morris and fellow Friends of the Hawks organiser Kyle Page raised $300,000 with another $500,000 from shareholder interests. At 4.26pm, just shy of the 5pm deadline, the club could commit to the 2008/2009 season. O’Farrell’s depiction of a Churchill-style Hawk dominated our front page of February 5, 2008. Headlined “V FOR VICTORY”, our cover declared: “We fought them in the bleachers and in the boardrooms. We never surrendered.” We were good for another couple of seasons. Or so we thought.

The following year the “new NBL” changed the rules. The Hawks needed to stump up $500,000 in working capital but also a $1 million bank guarantee. Again, the Mercury met with club officials and Mat Campbell. But there did not seem a way out. In a dramatic front page on February 4, 2009, we published a death notice, declaring that “after 31 seasons, the dream is over”. We would not play in the 2009/2010 competition. Then something remarkable happened. Campbell comes across as an unassuming bloke. But that masks an inner steeliness - akin to that of the team he led and for which he devoted his entire 17-year, 500-plus game career. Campbell did not accept it was lights out. Instead, he dug in, devised the “Save the Hawks” rescue plan and with other club faithful pounded the streets.

In a matter of weeks, they raised $500,000 in working capital. They found a major sponsor, Australian Health Management (ahm), and a bunch of $5000 pledges rolled in. But who would be willing to stump up a $1 million bank guarantee? Campbell arranged an eleventh-hour meeting with coal king, Gujarat NRE owner Arun Jagatramka. A more incongruous basketball saviour there could not be. But Campbell convinced Jagatramka to provide the guarantee with only moments to spare before the deadline in March 2009.

Incredibly, the foundation club was back in the game for the first round in late September, led by new coach, Hawks legend Gordie McLeod. Spurred by a wave of community goodwill, the story only got better when the Hawks finished second at the end of the season in February 2010. There were euphoric scenes at the Sandpit as we beat the Townsville Crocodiles in the semi-final decider and pushed through to the grand final against play-off perennials Perth in March. This was going to be a hard task. We lost the first game in Perth, but back at home secured the win, setting the scene for a grand final decider on enemy turf against Rob Beveridge’s line-up. History shows it not to be the fairytale ending we had written in our heads - the Wildcats took out the decider. After a rollercoaster ride on and off-court for almost three years, the Hawks were spent.

The cruel might assess it as an anti-climax - so much energy and emotion expended, only to miss taking the ultimate prize. However, what the Hawks did was a feat as great as winning any finals campaign. Over that turbulent period, and across 40 years, the Hawks proved themselves an exemplar of the best that sport has to give. The Hawks have delighted, entertained and inspired us. They have brought us together as a community and been magnificent ambassadors.

Fittingly, as the team returned after the 2010 playoffs to the Snakepit, their spiritual and modest home, the priority was to greet and thank fans, supporters and sponsors. We hailed them on our front page as “THE PEOPLE’S CHAMPIONS”. There are no guarantees about the future of the Hawks. It would be lovely to think the community will always be there for them just as the Hawks have been for the community. I see Mat Campbell occasionally at the Snakepit. We sit on the bench and watch our daughters play in the local competition. Today, he is just another sports dad and around the stadium he is greeted as such, in a no-nonsense Wollongong way.

That belies his true status - a legend of the game who did more than anyone to keep the Hawks afloat. But, then, that has been the typical Hawks way - mild-mannered and understated on the surface but continually converting the ordinary into extraordinary plays.

*Stuart Howie was editor of the Mercury from December 2007 to November 2011. He now runs his own communications consultancy, Flame Tree Media.