The Illawarra Hawks are the strongest they’ve ever been after a miraculous season turnaround that fast-tracked them from the bottom end of the ladder to possibly securing an NBL playoffs berth, according to Hawks great Chuck Harmison.
Earlier in the season, the Hawks had lost seven of their first nine games, resulting in coach Jacob Jackomas being replaced by Justin Tatum.
Before Friday’s (9 February) game against the New Zealand Breakers, the change meant the Hawks had won 10 of their past 15 games, putting them in good stead for finals and resulting in one of the league’s greatest ever recoveries in a season.
For German-born and Iowa-raised Harmison, who played for the Hawks from 1987-96 before becoming Hawks general manager and later NBL general manager, the games have been “back to the good old days”.
“It’s been fun to watch,” Harmison said.
“It didn’t come as a huge surprise when they let Jacob go early in the season.
“I felt sorry for him. I thought he was doing a good job, but sometimes all it takes is a different voice and clearly Justin’s provided that and things have turned around quickly.
“I think the fact that he played at a pretty high level commands a certain amount of respect from the players.”
Tatum is an American professional basketball coach and former player, who had a 16-year high school coaching career, where he won three state championships.
He’s also father to NBA star Jayson Tatum, one of the best players in the world right now.
“They can look at him and say, ‘Yeah, well, he did it. Now he’s asking us to do the same thing, so let’s pull for him,’” he said.
“I’m not a real student of the game, so I can’t sit here and tell you they’re running a different offense or playing a different defense.
“But I think he was changing his defenses up a little bit.
“He went to his own defense against Perth the first time we really smashed them here and that seemed to be really effective against Bryce Cotton, so I think he’s trying some different things with the group and they’re paying off.”
Many are tipping the rapid rise that Tatum has been able to achieve as putting him in good stead for Coach of the Year.
“He’s really got to be in the mix,” Harmison said.
“To go from where we were to the top four now, it’s a heck of an effort.”
Harmison said it had been one of the most remarkable turnarounds in history.
“I can’t think of another one off the top of my head where a team has gone from pretty despondent, bottom of the ladder, to all of a sudden top four,” he said.
“It’s been a great result.
“The games have been so exciting down the stretch.
“It’s just great being able to walk out with a win.”
As a foundation team, the Hawks have only won one championship in that time, which was 20 years ago, and the last time the team made the grand final was under Rob Beveridge in 2017.
They also made the semi-final series and lost to Sydney three years ago under Brian Goorjian.
With the stadium packed out the past two months and the Illawarra chant deafening in the stadium, the energy from those series has returned.
“It may even have come back stronger,” he said.
“In the stadium and even around town it’s pretty strong – people are talking about the Hawks again and how well they’ve done.”
Ahead of Friday’s game against the New Zealand Breakers and Sunday’s match against the Sydney Kings, he said while it was too early to talk about grand finals, with four “extremely tough” games to go, he felt they should do well.
“If we make the finals, which we should do and then, as they say, in the classics, anything can happen,” he said.
“The good thing is we’ve won enough games to put ourselves in a position where we can at least compete for one of those top four or six spots.
“They’ve done really well to get in this position.”
For Harmison, the joy has come in seeing the Wollongong Entertainment Centre packed again.
“Oh, it’s great,” he said.
“I mean, I sit right behind (club legend and director of Hawks basketball operations) Mat Campbell, and I pat him on the back.
“Him, Stu [CEO Stu Taggart], and the management team, they’re all doing a great job filling it up while the players are putting on a good show.
“It really gives you just a sense of pride that they’re doing a great job, people are embracing the team again, and enjoying coming out and watching them play good basketball.”
Off court, Harmison said things were just as strong.
“I think in terms of stability in the club, it probably hasn’t ever been stronger to be honest,” he said.
“The current ownership under Jared Novelly is about as strong as it’s ever been.
“You probably have to go back to the John Carson days where we had stability, so it’s a credit to him and to everything he’s done, as well as what Larry Kestelman has done from the league level.”
Now, he hopes it continues to build on the strengths that it’s now got.