There’s only a few people in the Illawarra Hawks organisation old enough – or for that matter brave enough – to refer to Dave Andersen as ‘puppy’.
General manager Mat Campbell is one of them. Club legend Glen Saville’s another. It goes back two decades to when a raw-boned 18-year-old rocked up for his first professional preseason.
He got a lift that day, but for the bulk of the season turned up in a brand new Holden Berlina, complete with customised ‘PUPPY’ number plates.
“That was his nickname, I believe Mark Dalton gave it to him," Campbell said.
“Not many people know that but I still call him that now.”
It’s one of several recollections Campbell has of that skinny kid who would go on to become one of our country’s best ever.
“This 6 ft 11 skinny kid, he’s not much thicker now than he was then, rocked into training and I thought ‘wow look at this kid’,” Campbell recalls.
“He split my lip open and gave me seven stitches with his big sharp elbows. He probably doesn’t remember that but I do.
“There was a bit of hype about him at the junior level and, with what he was able to achieve straight away, I always knew he was going to go on to bigger and better things.
“As it was he only lasted one year in Australia and went over and dominated in Europe.”
He’s certainly not a puppy anymore but Andersen remembers the Berlina well. He still has the plates.
“That was my first car,” he recalls.
“I’m pretty thrifty with my money so I’m not one to go and splurge big time on the cars or anything but I was lucky enough to get a nice new Holden Berlina from Holden here in Wollongong.
“I decided to go with customised plates and went with PUPPY because it was my nickname at the time.
“Sav and Campbell called me puppy because I was the young fella in the team and I used to leave stuff lying around everywhere.
“It was a bit of fun. I’ve still got those license plates at home hanging on the wall as a reminder so I always remember where I came from.”
His memory’s a little hazier when it comes to that errant elbow, though he admits he threw a few.
“I can’t remember that, obviously Matty does,” Andersen said.
“I have been known to throw the odd elbow and get into a little scuffle on the floor here and there.
“I definitely remember copping a few in my rookie year so I’ve definitely given them and taken them.”
That preseason culminated in his NBL debut on October 9, 1998, scoring nine points and grabbing six rebounds in what was the Hawks first game at the WEC.
It says all you need to hear about his longevity that he’ll take to the floor on Friday for the club’s 311th game at the Sandpit, 20 years and three days later.
“I saw the NBL tweeted that out the other day,” Andersen said.
“It’s amazing, I look back and see the young fella out there running around and doing the same sort of things that I do now.
“Playing a long illustrious career is what I dreamed about and I’ve been lucky enough to do it and to come back here.
“It’s a bit nostalgic, I’m excited and rapt to be back here playing. It makes me feel young again which is a good thing.”
It’s a full circle that’s seen him play in the NBA and throughout Europe, represent the Boomers at four Olympics, claim 13 championships and 21 major Cups.
It includes last year’s NBL crown with Melbourne United and, when it became clear he was no longer part of their long-term plans, most expected him to draw the curtain on one of the best careers in Australian basketball history.
Campbell admits he was in that camp, with the thought of luring Andersen back to Wollongong starting as only a half-serious chat with Saville.
“It started out as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke from our point of view,” Campbell said.
“When we lost Mitch Norton and Nick Kay at the start of the year we started to look around for the quality Australian players left in the league.
“I spoke to Sav and said ‘do you reckon Andersen would be interested?’ He said he’d reach out and try and that’s where the ball started rolling from there.
“Until I got the signature on the contract I was a bit nervous. He didn’t have anything else to prove in his basketball career but that was our conversation early in the piece.
“He’s had 20 years as a professional but he wasn’t satisfied, from a personal standpoint, with how it finished last year.
“His body felt great, he was working out with [Andrew] Bogut when he was down in Melbourne and he still had the itch to keep playing.”
It may have been what Campbell describes as a “long courtship” but Andersen said he didn’t need much convincing when his old mates came calling.
“A big part of it was Saville and Campbell, they both called me and I spoke to them at the end of [last] season,” Andersen said.
“Melbourne and I parted ways, they wanted to go in a different direction and I felt like I had more left in the tank and I still wanted to test myself.
“When you get to this stage of you career a lot of people people ask what are you going to do, when are you going to retire? You never really know, it’s a daunting thing, but I didn’t really feel it was that time.
“The NBL season’s not a long season, it goes over summer and I wanted to test the legs out again and see if I could push my body back to a higher level.
“I still enjoy the grind, coming to practice each day and coming up against the best players and the challenges around it.
“When opportunities arise I try and seize them. This came up and here I am training and playing with the boys and I’m loving it.”
It shows on and off the floor, with coach Rob Beveridge saying the veteran has even taken some weight off his shoulders in the coaching realm.
“When he first came up I asked him: why do you really want to do this?” Beveridge said.
“He’s achieved everything you can possibly achieve, he’s a four-time Olympian, he’s won championships all over the world, he’s played in the NBA.
“The guy’s a flat out winner and when someone of his calibre comes and says ‘I know my body, I’ve been doing this for 20 years’ you believe him.
“Physically he’s in great shape, mentally he’s even sharper. I call him uncle Dave because he’s looking after everyone in the team. It’s like having another coach there.
“I don’t look at him as a 38-year-old anymore. Everyone’s probably thinking it’s his last year but he hasn’t spoken about retirement. He’ll go out when he’s ready to go out and he might surprise us all.”
And so it’s settled, Andersen has nothing left to prove – but he might just do it anyway. With 13 championships to his name, he’s never played for the sake of it.
Like they were when he arrived as a fresh-faced 18-year-old, the Hawks remain the NBL’s battlers, but he’s seen battlers excel before.
“One of the key factors throughout all those [championship-winning] groups is the camaraderie and the chemistry between the guys,” he said.
“I’ve been on teams where we’ve had more talent, bigger budgets and higher paid players and we’ve lost.
“I’ve been on teams where we’ve had lower budgets but really good harmony within the team and we’ve won everything.
“I’ve seen it all around the way, been up against more talented teams and beaten them and also been on the flip-side.
“At the end of the day a team with more character and more chemistry will beat a more talented and more loaded team.
“I think that’s what we’re building here.”