THE Illawarra Hawks are used to being the underdog, but this title charge really is against all odds.
Everything points to Perth winning the NBL crown.
The only glimmer of hope comes from the Hawks ending the Wildcats curse earlier this season and – without a Damon Lowery moment to define them – the extraordinary character they will be remembered for.
While Perth splashed the cash and signed US import Bryce Cotton, to save their remarkable streak of making the NBL playoffs, the Hawks simply persevered.
When Rotnei Clarke was struggling early on, amid calls for his sacking and that he was no longer up to NBL standard, Rob Beveridge blew up the game plan, rather than send him packing.
Without the budget to make major changes, the Hawks showed patience and have been handsomely rewarded.
Clarke plunged the final dagger into Adelaide hearts on Thursday night, when his three-point shot from in front of the 36ers bench dropped sweetly.
Randle’s words, calling the Hawks ‘dirty’, had come back to haunt him, as he left the court in defeat and spent much of the game visibly frustrated.
And yet, after the blur of celebration in an extremely hostile Adelaide atmosphere, the Hawks must quickly move on.
While the Wildcats rested, Illawarra do not even have the chance to return home first, with the first game played on Sunday.
But the real scale of what the Hawks are up against in this five-game grand final series is reflected off the court. Perth have 20 staff, including a commercial and marketing team of six and a media department of three.
The Hawks, in contrast, are effectively run by general manager Kim Welch, the savvy commercial manager Jason Saladino, formerly with the Dragons, and the hard-working corporate sales executive Tim Fares.
The rest is all on the shoulders of Beveridge, as well as long-time Hawks assistant coaches Matt Flinn and Eric Cooks.
Perth have 10,394 members, according to the website and a venue with a capacity of 15,500.
The Hawks can’t even fit that many into WIN Entertainment Centre and only attracted 3400 to the must-win semi-final against Adelaide on a Sunday afternoon.
In last season’s losing semi-final campaign against Perth, the Hawks struggled with MVP Kevin Lisch out injured.
This time it’s AJ Ogilvy with an ankle problem, as Marvelle Harris rushes home to the US to be with his ill father.
For any criticism of Harris’s form, he was outstanding on Thursday night, especially when you consider his difficult personal circumstances.
It is with courage Harris has committed to return in time to play in game two in Wollongong.
The Hawks success has come at a time where, while the new NBL ‘soft’ salary cap has attempted to maintain balance, it has allowed cashed-up rivals to chase top US talent.
It also allowed the Sydney Kings the chance to throw the kitchen sink at Kevin Lisch, before completing a bizarrely unbalanced roster and miss out on the playoffs.
Through it all, the Hawks have defied the trend and made the NBL grand final series, surely a cautionary tale for others, including the Kings.
Still, after a year of fairytales, where Leicester City won the English Premier League and Cronulla won the NRL premiership, among others, the Hawks can dare to dream.
Basketball’s profile – albeit growing – and the Illawarra’s standing may deny the Hawks the credit they deserve, but if Beveridge can pull this off, it would be one of the great Australian sporting success stories.
The Hawks have spent so much time teetering on the edge of collapse in the past 10 years, but a second NBL title could secure Illawarra’s place in the competition for a generation to come.
Against all odds.