THERE are few people Illawarra coach Matt Flinn respects more than Professor Justin Yerbury - but there was a time he was pretty dirty on the Hawks new No. 1 ticket holder.
A former Hawk, Yerbury quit basketball in the late 90s to turn his attention to researching motor neurone diseases after losing his mother an sister to a genetic form of the disease.
He earned his PhD from UOW in 2008 and has since earned worldwide recognition as a molecular biologist. He was diagnosed with the disease himself in 2016 but continues his research efforts.
It's a hell of a journey but Flinn can recall when a young Yerbury was just another basketball-mad kid at the Snakepit, where they were sometimes teammates and more often rivals.
Their NBL careers with the Hawks also overlapped, something Flinn recalled on Thursday.
"I left [the Hawks] in 95, I effectively got cut and Justin was the guy who took my spot so I'm still a little pissed at him about that," Flinn joked.
Tongue-in-cheek remarks aside, Flinn is dead serious when talking about the esteem in which he holds Professor Yerbury.
"The journey's Justin's been on is well documented, I've known him for a large part of my life," Flinn said.
"We were fierce rivals as juniors but we also played together as juniors. We had a healthy rivalry but the whole time we've stayed great mates to this day.
"When I approached him and asked if he'd be our No. 1 ticket-holder he said yes on the spot which is a huge thrill for me because he's internationally renowned for his research into MND.
"When you look at his background, he was just a baller at the Snakepit like all of us. He didn't even do that well in science at school.
"To see what he's done now is amazing and when I look back at this [coaching] journey, regardless of results on the floor, and I'll think 'that was pretty special'."
Yerbury himself admits he remains that same baller from the pit at heart, fondly recalling his days at the venue.
"Playing at the Snakepit was like wearing a comfortable old shoe," he said.
"I grew up on that court and couldn't tell you how many hours I spent on the hardwood floors. There was nowhere else like it.
"It only held 2000 people but it felt like 20,000. The crowd was so close to the game you could physically feel the court move when they got excited. It was a great place to play."
Having fought his own share of fierce battles with Flinn, Yerbury is confident he can instill an old-school Hawks mentality in a young roster next season.
"I am excited about this year's team," Professor Yerbury said.
"I can see we're building a team with some great young up and coming talent and some experienced veterans.
"I think the toughest part of [coaching] is not the x's and o's but building a culture that has all the players playing together.
The Hawks were always seen as the underdog but this made the team hardworking and close-knit.
"These days I think that the club is one of the most respected in the league because it's kept those values and built upon it.
"The Illawarra community have always been linked to the club and we have an amazing community that supports us through the good and bad times. I can attest to that."