Riley Broadhead takes a shot as Wollongong Hawk Rhys Martin looks on during a coaching clinic at the Snakepit. Picture: ADAM McLEANMike Driscoll covered the Hawks for the Mercury for seven seasons in the 1990s. After also watching the team for 30 years, he gives his view of the current crisis.
The Hawks are the only foundation team still in the NBL. But for how long?
Six years ago they stood on the brink of extinction and were rescued by their own fans and an Indian mining magnate who knew nothing about basketball but put his name as a $1million guarantor to the club’s future.
Arun Jagatramka went from unknown mining wannabe to the city’s most loved entrepreneur – all in a few months.
The love affair wasn’t to last: Jagatramka’s coal company Gujarat NRE was exposed to realities of the global financial crisis – his employees lost their jobs, while Arun was embroiled in a string of legal battles.
The rescue mission of 2008-09 in which many rank-and-file basketball fans dug deep into their pockets to raise about $450,000 had just a few short years later left the Hawks again on the precipice.
Enter James Spenceley. The self-made millionaire knew little about basketball and less about the Hawks but was swept in as the new owner.
The telecommunications nerd now owned a national sporting franchise.
Just like a teenage romance, there was passion aplenty, lots of noble words initially and grand promises but, even from day one, a hint that things were moving way too fast.
Before anyone knew who Spenceley was, he was the new Hawks owner – perched courtside for the season’s opening game against Townsville.
Ironically, the Hawks kicked off the NBL season with a 92-83 victory over the Suns at WIN Entertainment Centre, but enjoyed just five more wins – an average of one win for every month of the season. They lost 22 games, with just their second wooden spoon in 36 years all they could take from a disastrous season.
On Spenceley’s instructions, after just a handful of losses, the popular Dave Gruber was effectively sacked and in came NBL journeyman Luke Nevill.
The heart and soul of the Hawks was out the door and the team never recovered.
It wasn’t Nevill’s fault – he just accepted a contract as any professional basketballer would – but throw in the unpopular, under-achieving import Jahii Carson, who has already signed for a Serbian club – and the chemistry within the playing group never recovered.
The Hawks haven’t the biggest fan base in the competition and though they remain the only founding team from its debut season in 1979, if truth be told Wollongong is not a huge basketball town.
Even in our great seasons of the early 2000s we only averaged about 4500 fans per home game, while this season Perth raised the ‘full house’ sign with 12,000-plus paying customers.
With no lucrative TV sponsorship to drip feed the revenue of the eight NBL clubs, survival is tough for virtually every team.
In recent seasons teams from Sydney, Gold Coast, Brisbane and Melbourne have gone under.
In Wollongong, basketball remains a third-tier sport behind league and soccer and, generally, everyone knows that.
But the great characteristic of Hawks fans – even those with just a passing interest – is they want to keep their team alive.
They showed that in 2008-09 pledging close to $500,000 to keep the club afloat.
Head down to the Snakepit on a week night and you’ll see hundreds of kids, with the parents sitting courtside – enjoying basketball.
Wollongong is one of the great junior nurseries and we have some of the nation’s best young players.
The Snakepit is bulging on a Saturday morning with five to nine year-olds enjoying rookie hoops for a gold coin or two donation.
Throw in 30 years of the Hawks’ school holiday clinics, the club’s outstanding community work and it’s a team that loves its city.
The Hawks brand is something no millionaire can buy.
That’s the part James Spenceley has never seen.
Sydney-based, he hasn’t bought into the reality that the Hawks’ greatest strength is their community roots.
The Mercury has been told Spenceley has hardly spoken with the Hawks front office for weeks and missed the club’s end of season dinner last week.
Let’s hope it is just a busy man working hard and nothing more.
Let’s hope it’s not the case of a white knight turned fly-by-night.
The Wollongong Hawks have been saved once, and now it seems they need saving again.
But with our city having already lost its national soccer team, the Wolves, seen its league team the Steelers merge with St George Dragons and now play just four meaningful games in Wollongong – let’s hope the Hawks don’t go under.
Because once we lose our team, there’s no getting it
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