Hawks owner’s long-term NBL vision

COMMUNITY CLUB: WIN Entertainment Centre before an Illawarra Hawks game. Picture: GEORGIA MATTS
COMMUNITY CLUB: WIN Entertainment Centre before an Illawarra Hawks game. Picture: GEORGIA MATTS

In the wake of a turbulent off-season, Hawks owner Simon Stratford has outlined his bold long-term vision to ensure Illawarra remains an NBL force for years to come.

Making a rare pre-season trip to Wollongong on Thursday, Stratford reaffirmed his commitment to the NBL foundation club while putting to rest any speculation about the Hawks’ future. 

It comes after the Hawks endured another tense chapter of their history over the past nine months. 

Stratford became the club’s sole owner last December when Sydney-based businessman James Spenceley opted to sell his 51 per cent share. At season’s end, general manager Kim Welch followed Spenceley out the exit door, with top tier talent Demitrius Conger, Rotnei Clarke, Mitch Norton and Nick Kay also departing the Hawks. 

Stratford admitted it was a tough period for the club, but he is now confident Illawarra is moving back in the right direction.

And he says it comes with the support of the NBL, which will expand to nine teams in the 2019-20 season. 

“They are right behind [us],” he said. “I met with [NBL owner Larry Kestelman] a couple of weeks ago and some of the vision I shared with him, he was quite surprised with where it was, to what it is now.

“He loved the direction I was taking [the club] and was really supportive. We have some big initiatives coming up, including pathways with juniors and foundations.”

Stratford stressed his plan for the club didn’t stop at the end of the 2018-19 season. 

“It’s never been a short term vision for me and never has been,” he said.

“I rallied the NBL to give me this thing for the long term. They were hesitant at the start, but I said if I want to make a go of this then I can’t turn it around in one year or one week. The investment from me is long term and I need that investment from the fans, media and everyone [in the community] for it to be long term.”

Part of the Hawks’ long term plan is engaging the community – not just in the Illawarra. 

Before the club takes on the Andrew Bogut led Sydney Kings in Wollongong on Sunday they’ll travel to Canberra to meet the Adelaide 36ers.

It’s the beginning of what Stratford hopes will be a important relationship between Illawarra and the ACT, which could potentially see a regular season fixture played in Canberra in the future. 

“They have been banging on the door for a game down there for years. We have taken that pre-season game down there which is now sold out to feed those guys,” Stratford said. 

“It is about promoting basketball and about promoting the club.

“It’s part of that whole initiative to spread our wings and draw more people into the club to build it up and get it sailing.”

The double header will see many of the revamped Hawks squad play together for the first time.

While Todd Blanchfield is on Boomers duty, new imports Cedric Jackson and Brian Conklin are poised to make their first appearances in Hawks uniforms.

Stratford was excited with the squad the club has assembled for the upcoming campaign. 

“The three imports are guys with a point to prove in the league,” he said.

“People call them rejects, but I call them opportunists. I met a couple of them today and they are good blokes.”