Hall of Famer Glen Saville was 19 when he came to Wollongong. Now his son leads an Illawarra team. He tells Ben Langford why the Hawks are vital to the region punching above its weight.
Walk down the corridor to the back courts at the Snakepit, the Beaton Park stadium which is the Illawarra's home of basketball, and the faces of Hawks stars from past decades watch you pass.
The stadium is old and this ceiling is low; so low that anyone over 6'4 needs to duck ... and given this is a basketball stadium, there's a lot of people nearing that height so they stoop a little anyway, a well-practiced evasive action for the tall.
Continue past the laminated pictures of Hawks history: Gordie McLeod, Mat Campbell, Melvin Thomas and teams of unheralded servants of this club. There's a fresh-faced Glen Saville, drawing a resemblance to his son Riley, 11, who you may have just seen tearing up the court against your own kid's team.
Tonight, as the elite level Illawarra Hawks look to beat Perth at home for a spot in the NBL Finals, the youth representative teams will be hours away representing the red and white in the NSW Country Championships.
Wearing No.34, Riley will be leading the way as co-captain of the Under-12s boys' Division 1 team in Bathurst. He will be surrounded by skillful players who look up to the senior team.
Riley's path was a little different to that of most boys and girls who don't have a dad in the Basketball Australia Hall of Fame. But now, as a new boom in the popularity of the roundball game takes hold, Saville senior says it's the presence of the top-flight team which shows youngsters they have a path.
"First and foremost we have a team," Saville told Weekender. "We are a provincial town, that has its own team. When you're a young kid, like our kids, when they go to games, they aspire. I grew up in Bendigo. If I wanted to see an NBL game we had to drive to Melbourne ... our local juniors, if they want to see a game, they go down the road, see this happen every single week. And this season, see it three times a week, which is unprecedented.
"For Riley, he lives and breathes to go the games every week. And there's fans who are in the same situation, for them to wear those colours every week."
He said with Wollongong being a smaller city brought a level of closeness to the community which may not be found a larger place.
"The more time I spent in the Illawarra and Wollongong, the more I saw the few degrees of separation ... and that extended out to the basketball family as well," he said.
"As a professional athlete in Wollongong, the faces that I saw around town were the faces that I saw at the games."
When the new Hawks owners, at the behest of the NBL, took "Illawarra" out of the Illawarra Hawks' name, the basketball community had to confront the reality that the unthinkable may come to pass - after being a foundation team in the National Basketball League in 1979, the Illawarra could possibly lose the Hawks.
Saville said it was a choice between losing the place name for a while, or losing the team altogether.
The ownership company had already been liquidated and the future couldn't be taken for granted. But it would have been devastating if the region lost the team. From the lowest juniors to the elite roster, the Hawks are more than just rusted-on - the club is entwined with Wollongong and its surrounds in a way that only a creature that has grown here can be.
And the seeds grow fruit: according to long-running basketball website Aussie Hoopla's list of Australia's greatest basketball associations, the Illawarra leads the nation in NBL players produced - 56. Newcastle is next with 39. We don't have the resources of a Canberra, with its well-funded network of stadiums, or the Sydney areas, with the population pool from where to draw talent. But nor have the NBL Hawks have never had great wealth, or a well-appointed stadium, and today they're one win away from a Finals berth.
Conventional wisdom has it that basketball in Australia boomed in the early 1990s, as Michael Jordan's high-flying exploits led a boom in the sport's global popularity.
But Joe Farrugia, who coached the first Illawarra Hawks team when the NBL started in 1979, said there were huge numbers of youngsters playing in Wollongong in those early days.
Why Wollongong? Wouldn't the blue-collar steel city favour rugby league, or the migrants from eastern and southern Europe obsess over football (soccer)? Would there be room for basketball? That and more, says Farrugia, who coached the local youth rep team to multiple state championships.
"Basketball is very popular in Europe," said Farrugia, who coached at the great Serbian club Partizan Belgrade. "Here, one-third of the stadium would be Yugoslav people, Macedonians, Croatians. Basketball is a big part of the culture, as big as soccer. The basketball association had been running for quite a while and had a very good junior program, and a good schools program."
But he wished there were more thriving inter-schools competitions in the region.
Brett Denniss is what you might call a superfan. And he started before he could read the names on the shirts.
"My mother, when I was a toddler, she used to take me to games at the old Snakepit," he said. "Being so close to everything, the atmosphere ... I went back as a teenager when I started playing myself with my teammates. We'd try and get as close as we can, fire up."
This led him to start playing himself - inspired by seeing Hawks around the town.
"You'd see them at the Snakepit training, you'd see them at the mall, they're professional athletes but they're here. It's a big factor in playing, the fact the Hawks are there. You start playing rep, you have that team in the NBL ... it's a goal which makes you keep working on your own game as well."
Now he watches every game with son Landon. "He's just turned five, and he lives and breathes it. We've been taking him since the day he was born ... after the game he wanders on to the court and starts shooting. All the players know him, they say g'day to him, high fives, send him messages for his birthday. It's amazing."
When the Hawks' ownership company was liquidated in 2020 Denniss's concern was not for himself.
"I could still follow the game, the NBA ... but more so it was for Landon - we sit literally behind the Hawks' bench. Season tickets. He's already talking about Saturday night, we're going to win, we're going to the Grand Final. He's got so many jerseys - it's a process to work out which jersey he's going to wear."
"The fact that he might not have that, that we might not have that quality time, father and son together ... during the season, he comes home from school and say OK Dad, let's go one-one-one.
"If he doesn't have that, does he have the passion, if he can't go to the games and develop and grow up like I did?"
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