Welcome to our column, The Debate, where the Mercury sport team discuss the big issues in Illawarra, national and international sport. This week sports editor TIM BARROW and sports writer CAMERON MEE address the big question about the Illawarra Hawks. Is LaMelo Ball the answer?
Barrow: A teenager with a controlling interest in our NBL club, who played 12 games and left without saying goodbye to his Hawks teammates, what could possibly go wrong, Cameron?
Mee: LaMelo may be the new public face of the Hawks, but the influence of Jermaine Jackson will likely minimise some of the risks you have mentioned. Having Ball on board will open up the club to opportunities for experienced NBA players, coaches and general managers to join the club and that's where Illawarra will hopefully see the benefits of his involvement. If you look at a coach like Will Weaver, could someone like that turn the team around on the court?
Barrow: It's a fair point. Having the Ball family involved will undoubtedly open up doors in the US the Hawks have never previously even knocked on. So even if we have to turn the Hawks into one of their social media reality shows, it can't be any worse than finishing 5-23 this season. What the Hawks really need is proper investment into their off-court structure. The club needs to re-employ Mat Campbell as chief executive, now they've stood down the staff at the end of Simon Stratford's time, and provide the structure, resources and personnel in the office to build up the club to be properly sustainable, before LaMelo starts head hunting imports or coaches. Do you think the LaMelo interest is just too tempting for the NBL?
Mee: It definitely is, the NBL chased LaMelo hard when it first emerged he could be part of their Next Stars program, so it's not too surprising they're chasing him hard again for a continued involvement in the league. But maybe they're also leaning towards the best option. Paul Smith has been great for the league and would be a great owner of the Hawks, but it's probably not ideal for him to be owning two clubs. We still don't know much about this third bid, other than the likely involvement of a former Boomers star. With the Ball bid, they get his star power and they get the backing of Tory Lavalle. If you look at what he's done with the Wolves, it's likely he'll be able to provide the structure and resources you identified the club needs.
Are you confident Lavalle's success with a football club can translate to a basketball team playing in a national competition?
Barrow: Lavalle holds the key to all of this. It might be fun to have LaMelo involved and bring the US connections he has along for the ride, but the more important factor is keeping the Hawks as the Illawarra's club. The foundation club. So we've heard commentators in Melbourne playing fantasy basketball and wanting to take the team to Campbelltown - which can't happen due to the Sydney Kings exclusivity clause in the metropolitan market - or Canberra, but it's our team. And whether it's next season or three season from now, we need a team which is playing in Wollongong, not as a travelling circus touring the ACT and regional areas at the NBL's whim. We need to keep our identity as a community, especially at a time when the COVID-19 crisis has shutdown sport globally. Which brings me to the timeline of how this plays out. The NBL have flagged May 1 as the date for free agency to open, but with doubt over the NBA season and the Hawks future, what does it mean for them?
Mee: There's plenty of uncertainty for all clubs at the moment, but at least the eight other NBL teams can start mapping out their plans for free agency, whenever that takes place. With Campbell still stood down, the Hawks can't even do that. With that in mind, the league can't possibly open free agency before they settle the Illawarra ownership situation. It would place the side at a significant disadvantage if the other teams were signing players while the Hawks are sitting on the sidelines waiting for the NBL to decide who they will hand the licence to. Do we have a timeframe for when the ownership situation will be resolved?
Barrow: It's been framed around a two-week window, to allow the legal and financial issues to be resolved, but even if the LaMelo-Lavalle bid, or another party, is announced straight away, you still have to employ people to take on the roles of running the club, they have to find their feet and be up and running for May 1. So the Hawks will be at a disadvantage regardless, unless the NBL pushes the free agency time-frame back further. It's an absolute mess and the NBL needs to step up and ensure the Hawks have an equal footing, given the expectations the season will be up and running on time. There is a chance though, that if the NBA season is cancelled, we could have Ball back in Wollongong playing again. What a sensation that would be.
Mee: If his performances on the court last season are anything to go by, that would be quite the sight. It would be great to have Ball scoring triple-doubles, attracting crowds and driving corporate revenue. Hopefully, if we get it, LaMelo round two will lead to a bit more success on the court for the Hawks. And that is ultimately how we will judge Ball's involvement in the club moving forward. Last season was undoubtedly a success for Ball, but it was a calamity for the Hawks as a whole. If he's back on the court, can Ball convert triple-doubles into wins and if he's not playing, can the 18-year-old translate his ownership into off-court stability and effective recruitment of players that can achieve results?
Barrow: He has to. The Hawks cannot continue to rely on corporate and community goodwill to stay in the competition, or picking up Next Stars signings fully-funded by the NBL. Even a cat only has nine lives. The Hawks have used up a few of theirs. Lavalle has a proven record with the Wollongong Wolves, a club which has had more internal politics than just about any sporting organisation in Australia. So if and when this deal is approved, the Hawks and the NBL have to map out a sustainable future to see the club not only survive, but thrive for decades to come.