Passionate Illawarra newsman left mark

Barry Benjamin wasn't like the other, impartial sports journalists - not when the Hawks were playing.

Sitting courtside to cover the games for the Mercury, he could be spotted punching the air at triumphant moments and abusing the referee when things were going less swimmingly, his flaming red beard seeming a beacon of his fury, and allegiance.

The award-winning basketball writer and political reporter died on Tuesday, aged 81.

He had lived most of his later years at Robertson and - being an adventurous sort - would ride down Macquarie Pass on a 750cc Suzuki motorcycle when work or play brought him to Wollongong.

He began his working life as an apprentice fitter and turner with BHP, then retrained at the Gladstone Avenue Technical School and took a cadetship with the Illawarra Mercury.

He had stints working in news and current affairs at WIN4 and piloted a current affairs show called Comment in the early 1960s.

He was editor of the Cumberland Express - where he wrote many editorials opposing conscription and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War.

Former Illawarra Mercury police reporter Barry Benjamin broke many stories.

For the Mercury, he won the Malcolm Muggeridge award for best news story and best feature multiple times, including in 1974, 1982, 1984 and 1985.

Upstanding on paper, he had some eccentric ways in the flesh.

In the smoky Keira Street offices where the Mercury operated in the 1970s, he contributed to the cigarette haze with a pipe, which he rested in a ceramic bird bath on his desk when not in use.

Then-editor Peter Newell remembers waging a "never-ending quest" to stop Mr Benjamin wearing ugg boots to work in winter.

He also liked to slip on a garbage bag, with a cut-out for the head, so he would sweat more when playing squash.

Mr Benjamin was an accomplished sportsman. This part of his life, like the others, benefited from his unbridled passion and he was a junior tennis and senior squash champion.

But basketball was his favourite game.

He was among the founders of the Illawarra Basketball Association and helped to build and fund-raise for the league's home court at Beaton Park.

His interview, in the early 1970s, with visiting Newcastle captain Dennis Kibble is where the Snakepit got its name.

The crowd had hissed at the visitors and afterwards Mr Benjamin asked Kibble what it was like to be playing out there.

Kibble told him it was "like being in a snakepit".

In 2001, in the lead-up to the Hawks' first NBL grand final appearance, a retired Mr Benjamin wrote one last time for the Mercury.

He addressed his words to the Hawks, telling them to "realise the dream born long ago in the searing heat of outdoor asphalt courts and in tin sheds so small the foul line marked half-way ... ".

"Tomorrow there will be people you have never met, never spoken to, never perhaps thought of at the WEC and in homes and in clubs and pubs watching and cheering from more than three generations back.

"They have cared about you behind the scenes for most of their lives, helping to smooth the way then for your remarkable ascendancy now ... Connect with them, tap the collective will and turn it to your advantage and you will win because you deserve more than any other team to be the national champions.

"And if we all pull together, nobody will deny us."

And nobody did - the Hawks were champions that year.

Mr Benjamin leaves behind his two children, Kim and Mark, his grandson Tel, partner Mary, and other family.

He will be farewelled at a service for family and friends at the chapel of Rankins Funeral Home, Warrawong, at midday on Monday.

Barry Benjamin, Dennis Penzo and Phil Murphy at work in the Mercury newsroom.

Barry Benjamin, Dennis Penzo and Phil Murphy at work in the Mercury newsroom.


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