The fight to regain the Illawarra name for the region's National Basketball League club began the moment it was taken away.
June 17, 2020, should have been a momentous day in the life of the only remaining foundation club in the National Basketball League as the league announced the club's new era and ownership following the collapse of the disastrous ownership of Simon Stratford.
Amid much fanfare and secrecy, the NBL announced a new ownership and a new direction of the club under former part-owner of the Sydney Kings, Dorry Kordahi, former NBA Executive Bryan Colangelo and American businessman Michael Proctor.
Yet buried amongst the press release was the detail the NBL had made the decision to remove the name of the region "Illawarra" from the franchise.
It was not until the eighth par of the press release issued by the league that NBL Commissioner Jeremy Loeliger mentioned the removal of the name, the release stating "the team would go by the name of the 'Hawks' as they looked to expand their footprint across New South Wales and beyond".
There was a lot of speculation about the name removal and possible legal reasons for its demise but none of it was true. The league had simply chosen to remove it under the belief it wasn't working, completely ignoring the fact the league had itself overseen the period of ownership which had left the club's loyal fanbase feeling disenfranchised and disgruntled in the first place. So what should have been a celebration of a new era, quickly became a fight to regain our club's name.
Instead of heralding a triumphant resurgence, the Illawarra Mercury front page of June 18 screamed "Put it Back". Whitlam MP Stephen Jones, a proud and passionate club member, labelled the decision "complete bulls--t".
Deputy Mayor (and long-time Hawks fan) Tania Brown was more understanding, but said she would like to think fans could help to reinstate the Illawarra name.
"It's been bittersweet, because at least now we know we have a team in the competition," she said.
"But it is disappointing, because what makes the Illawarra Hawks is our regional identity. Us and Cairns are the only two regional teams left, so it's very disappointing to lose that name."
At the time, league owner Larry Kestelman defiantly defended the decision to the Mercury.
"The league has moved a long way in its professionalism and global presence. We want the Hawks to widen the footprint and stand for all of NSW," he said. "But we also need the Hawks to be commercially viable and supported. If that's not happening, then we will look at the situation again."
Yet what the new ownership quickly came to understand was, in the removal of the name, the league had alienated the club's existing supporter base, a supporter base they would need through a COVID-impacted season. With political pressure being applied to the club and therefore the league, it became obvious sponsorship and membership would be impacted.
Just days later, on June 22, the new-look Hawks would make another milestone announcement with the appointment of one of the league's greatest ever coaches in Brian Goorjian. Both the league and the club hoped the appointment would temper the backlash about the name removal and for a little while it did. Yet, ironically, it was Goorjian who would provide one of the most critical moments in the fight to have the name Illawarra returned to the Hawks.
Over the second half of last year, club part-owner and president Dorry Kordahi, the public face of the new ownership, was true to his word and spent a lot of time in the region meeting with various business and community leaders. The ownership hatched a plan to entice the NBL to allow the club to reinstate the name based on a membership target.
The club and NBL then announced in November it hoped to gain 4379 members for the 2021 season, the number symbolic target based on the club's 43 seasons in the NBL, starting in '79 (1979). The target was always aspirational. In fact it's double what has been the club's usual member base and without any schedule for games to be played in Wollongong, memberships were always going to be a hard sell.
Instead Kordahi crafted a plan, behind the scenes, which would involve sponsors purchasing community, or Hawks Huddle, memberships in a way to reach the target and win NBL approval for the return of the name. Then Goorjian happened.
On January 21 this year, after his side sealed a 3-0 blistering start to the new NBL season, Brian Goorjian sat down to a press conference in Brisbane.
Nearing the end of the press conference Goorjian would ask, unprompted, if the Mercury was in attendance. He would then launch into an impassioned plea about why the Illawarra name should be returned to the club.
"I'm getting older and I've been around the block and that [Illawarra] community's special. It's been around longer, we've been around longer, than [Perth's] Red Army. It's time. We want to come back, we want them to fill that stadium and we want to hear 'Illawarra, Illawarra'," an emotional Goorjian pleaded.
League headquarters, which had already approved of the club's membership push, was less than impressed. Instead of supporting Goorjian's stance, the league issued a somewhat bizarre statement to try and hose down the national interest Goorjian's plea had received.
History shows the only narrative the NBL likes is the one it can control.
Nevertheless, with the membership target reached on the back of 1500 community memberships purchased by club major sponsor Pepper Money last week, Kordahi flew to Melbourne late last week to meet with the NBL and secure the final approval for the return of the ... Illawarra Hawks.
Finally, after six months of sweat and tears, the Illawarra Hawks are home.
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