The REDACTED Hawks: Inside Illawarra basketball’s identity crisis

Illawarra was removed from The Hawks, and it could be the fanbase that might be ultimately be removed in the process.

Credit: Michelle Couling Photography

When the 2020 NBA draft took place last November, the third name read out was LaMelo Ball, a six foot seven point guard from Chino Hills, California. He would be headed to the Charlotte Hornets, after a professional stint in Australia’s NBL with the Illawarra Hawks.

On the introduction video, Illawarra was prominently displayed alongside his playing position, in the immediate aftermath of the Hornets’ draft decision.

The problem with this is that currently, ‘Illawarra’ as a team no longer exists. The Illawarra Hawks are now simply The Hawks.

And according to ex-Illawarra Hawks General Manager (GM) and player, Mat Campbell, unless there is a substantial show of faith from the Illawarra fans, there might never be again. “The owners went ‘if we’re going to fight for the Illawarra name to come back, we want to see a bit of faith come back from the Illawarra.’”

Campbell was GM of the Hawks through arguably one of the most tumultuous periods in the team’s history. It began with the signing of teen prodigy Ball, and ended with a change in the team’s ownership, which came with the conditional removal of ‘Illawarra’ from the team's name. In a June official statement, the NBL confirmed that under the new agreement, the team “would go by the name of the ‘Hawks’ as they looked to expand their footprint across New South Wales and beyond.”

Speaking in early November, mere days after leaving the organisation, Campbell explained that the NBL had not adequately accounted for the region they were operating within.

“[The NBL] didn't see that big of a deal in it, because they didn't fully understand the market where we are, and the importance we put on the Illawarra as people living in the Illawarra,” said Campbell.

According to Campbell, the league had mandated that any new ownership group remove the city from the team’s name, but did not anticipate the visceral reaction from the fanbase. And while their goal was to broaden the support for ‘The Hawks’, and no doubt to increase revenue, the decision was one made with seemingly no foresight or understanding of the people they were trying to appeal to.

“Initially when we first took the game to Canberra, the idea was to potentially get some memberships and sponsorships, but we quickly worked out that you’re not going to get a whole lot of outside regions supporting if it was just the games in their area.

“The concept of it was what we were already trying to achieve, the delivery and the understanding of the logistics of it is totally different, we spent two years trying to understand that space and worked out that that wasn't the way to do it.

“We did a fair bit of work in that space, but because it happened so late, the ownership group were only given the approval in July, didn't leave a lot of time,” said Campbell.

“The people who have been disgruntled by this situation would naturally come back and feel a little bit united when they have the name put back into the club.”

It wasn’t just the fans who took issue with this change. Across the Illawarra, businesses began to protest the Hawks’ removal of Illawarra. Local pub ‘The Illawarra’ also removed the location from their name for a time, and The Illawarra Mercury launched a campaign calling for the NBL to ‘Put It Back’. According to Mercury editor Julian O’Brien, speaking in late October, it received a huge surge of local support, but was heavily criticised by the NBL.

“We went pretty hard on that very early, but we backed off it, purely and simply because we know [NBL Executive Director] Larry Kestelman doesn’t change his mind very often,” said O’Brien. “We made that noise, and then we backed off to give the new ownership a chance to establish themselves.”

And it seemed like the ownership did listen. On 6th November, The Hawks launched a campaign, labelled ‘Illawarra Proud’, in an attempt to gauge fan support in returning the Illawarra name. Announced on their social media platforms, The Hawks committed to returning the ‘Illawarra’ if they gained 4379 members for the 2020/21 season. This is to represent the franchise’s 43 consecutive seasons in the NBL, dating back to 1979. This will be a tough ask, as the team’s total membership for the 2019/20 season including corporate was 2090, per Campbell.

According to new Hawks part owner Dorry Kordahi in late December, the Illawarra Proud campaign exists as a barometer for the region's investment in the Hawks.

“We know the 4379 campaign is not going to deliver the results within six weeks or six months, it's a bold number, but it's also a symbolic number, and we need to strive for these sorts of numbers,” said Kordahi.

This sentiment was mirrored by NBL owner Larry Kestelman, who in a November statement via the NBL said, “As the new owners have indicated, the Club needs to build a long-term and sustainable future. They have set a bold membership target and need the local business community to get behind the Foundation Club.”

The NBL was directly approached for further comment but declined, referring to their prior statements.

Again, Campbell also understands the intent behind the initial removal and the subsequent campaign, and is confident that Illawarra fans are up to the task.

“It’s all about sustainability, trying to make sure it can stay here in the Illawarra for a long period of time. You look at the [St. George Illawarra] Dragons, they have something like 18,000 members. The NBL have said that they’re supportive if the Hawks can show that it’s got the backing, it would be outstanding to get the name back, for the region and for the club,” said Campbell.

The Hawks’ new ownership group, a syndicate composed of former Sydney Kings owner Dorry Kordahi, ex-NBA executive Bryan Colangelo and businessman Michael Proctor, purchased the Hawks following the collapse of the former ownership headed by Simon Stratford. Again, Kordahi states an understanding of the NBL’s intent to remove the ‘Illawarra’, but is also committed to working with the community to bring it back.

“What the NBL was trying to do was give us or any potential investor into the hawks the opportunity to expand its footprint, and to see whether this team could be a regional team.

“Their concerns in the past was the last ten years or so have been very turbulent for the team, very turbulent for the area. Fan base attendance has not increased, so they wanted to give an opportunity for new owners to explore that.

“I believe there is an opportunity for us to turn this club around in the region, which is why we’re pushing to the league to give us a chance to prove that The Hawks are warranted to have the name brought back,” said Kordahi.

Kordahi has been instrumental in working to revamp the struggling Hawks, and a key part of this has been the hiring of Brian Goorjian, the winningest coach in Australian basketball history, who was subsequently named as the Australian Boomers’ head coach, replacing Brett Brown.

Speaking at a press conference, Kordahi spoke about the importance of hiring Goorjian for the Hawks’ chances.

“For us, [Goorjian] being the Australian coach puts a big spotlight on the Illawarra community and on the region, and I couldn't be more proud,” Kordahi said.

According to former Hawks star player Glen Saville, as much as the fan base need to show the new ownership their support, this support must also be reciprocated, for the fans to maintain any sense of loyalty. Speaking in mid-November, he was cautious of the franchise further alienating their current loyal fan base.

“Our club went through another tumultuous time of losing an owner, owing debt to creditors locally, and then someone coming in and saving it and putting their own spin on it by taking the Illawarra out.

“What other team out there has a name, but doesn’t identify as where they’re from? Teams need an identity as far as a town,” said Saville.

With the NBL eyeing a mid-January start to the 2020-21 season, Hawks fans still have time to sign up as members. They will need to more than double their previous seasons membership total, but Saville is quite confident that local basketball fans will turn out in droves to support their local team when needed.

“I think at the end of the day, if they do put it back in that the fans and the people who have been disgruntled by this situation would naturally come back and feel a little bit united when they have the name put back into the club,” said Saville.

“I do think they just need to drop the blackmail and just put the name back now,” Hawks board member and Acting Wollongong Mayor Tania Brown said, in a November story via ABC’s Ainslie Drewitt Smith. “For corporate sponsors, why would you sign up with this ambiguity around a membership target, ‘if we get there we might put the name back’. They need to drop that nonsense now and, in a show of good faith, reinstate the Illawarra Hawks name today.”

Ultimately, The Hawks and their ownership group will rely on the fans and the area, to determine once and for all if the Illawarra wants to keep their name, and their basketball team.

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