BY MATT MCQUADE
In professional sports, fairytales are very much the exception, not the rule.
Not everyone gets to finish their career on the sweetest note, like Michael Jordan holding that follow through in Utah as the ball ripped the twine – and no, his stint in Washington doesn’t count in my eyes.
Not everyone gets to be a champion in the final game of what has been a magnificent career like Ray Lewis did this week as a member of the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens when they won a thrilling Superbowl over the San Francisco 49ers.
And not everyone gets to even play, let alone win their final game and be feted by a city because of what they meant to a club and a local community, like the Wollongong Hawks’ Mathew Campbell experienced last season at the conclusion of a career that meant so much to so many people.
It just doesn’t happen like that in sports on a regular basis, as much as we might like it to.
No, the rule is that boxers have one too many fights. That football players break down physically towards the end after years of physical abuse. And that in basketball, there’s always a younger athlete, a quicker player, a time where your own body just betrays you.
It just doesn’t seem fair. But such are the vagaries of sport.
And last week we saw yet another example of the inherent lack of fairness for many of sport’s true legends when Wollongong’s Glen Saville walked to the podium, cracked an inevitable joke, then dissolved into tears as he announced his retirement from the game at an emotional press conference.
Sure, he admitted that this season was to be his swansong anyway. But having to give it away early due to a devastating knee injury he suffered against New Zealand; to deny him a final send-off game like his great mate Campbell got to play in 2012 – for a guy who has given so much to the sport, and will leave it as one of the greatest players this country has ever seen, that was ridiculously unfair.
If anyone deserved a marvellous send-off, it was ‘Sav’, who in any discussion of the best Australian small forwards in NBL history sits at the very least as 1B to Sam Mackinnon’s 1A, if not vice versa – with apologies to Martin Cattalini. He represented his country with great distinction at two Olympic Games, won a famous championship for his beloved Hawks in 2001 and showed incredible consistency in playing the game at a high level at both ends of the floor for an amazing 19 seasons.
And as SEN’s Cameron Luke pointed out in his ‘Hoopin Around’ show last Sunday – Sav was a bloody good bloke as well, almost as beloved by the Wollongong community as was Mat Campbell. Remember, he left the Hawks for what would be a one season stint with their mortal enemy the Sydney Kings in 2007 – think of how Boston Celtics’ fans treated the news of Ray Allen departing for the Miami Heat. But such was Glen Saville’s legacy, such was the respect and admiration with which he was held by the entire Wollongong community that he was welcomed back with open arms when the Kings collapsed and he needed to come home. For Hawk fans, it’s as though that season in Sydney doesn’t even exist.
He leaves the NBL as the fourth highest all-time in total games played in the league, and for the Hawks he retires as the all-time leader in an astounding 10 categories, with his points and rebounding numbers unlikely to ever be approached, considering his remarkable longevity.
And he deserved a final game, a chance to say goodbye playing the sport he so loved for the team with which he will always be connected, in front of the fans who adored him for his skill, his toughness and his intelligence.
But when it comes to a triumphant conclusion for a great athlete – damnit, pro sports is so often unfair. So we are left with tears, with a heavy heart, with a hole that can never be adequately filled.
There’s no doubt the Hawks – a great organisation who just ‘get it’ thanks to outstanding people like their GM Mili Simic – will pull out all the stops at the final home game in Wollongong this season to honour Sav for his tremendous contribution, not just to the club and the community, but to the sport of basketball as a whole. But it just won’t be the same without number 12 on the floor playing his last game with the passion, the pride and the absolute commitment that he always has had.
This week I spoke to Glen’s final coach in the National Basketball League, a legend in his own right, the great Gordie McLeod, whose connection with Sav stretches way back to when Glen was a callow 15 year old at the Australian Institute of Sport. Gordie – who was a foundation member of the NBL way back in 1979 – discussed Sav’s retirement, the season from hell his Hawks have had to endure, and also gave his thoughts on the NBL and the state of the game in this country.
With all that’s happened recently, you had to be pleased with a split on the Doomsday Double.
Yeah, very pleased. Obviously it’s a tough double...every team has a lot to play for this time of year and everyone is trying to finish as high as possible, and there’s not that many games left to get where you want to be. All that aside, and considering all the issues we’ve had over the last month and getting a new member in the team, I was very pleased with what happened over the weekend.
You’ve been a player and a coach since the league started in 1979. Have you ever experienced anything like the horrific injury toll your team has suffered this season?
No, not at all. Especially the season ending ones. Most teams deal with injuries throughout the year at some stage, and we’ve had our fair share, with broken ribs, plantar fasciitis, minor knee surgeries...but to have two ACLs in the one game and both players out for the season, and then Sav’s situation virtually a week and a half later – it’s obviously devastating for the players, devastating for their teammates, obviously the fans and it’s a big hit for the club as well. But, at different times, adversity gets thrown at you, and what we have to do is regroup and find a way forward. That’s what the club has endeavoured to do, and as a playing group that’s what we’re endeavouring to do. Getting (new import) Malcolm (Grant) in as quickly as possible was the first priority, especially when we lost our starting point guard and starting two guard. As a club we decided the best thing we would need was to get another guard who could play the point, but someone who also might be able to evolve and carry a bit of the scoring load so we could play Adris and Malcolm together in the same way we did with Rhys (Martin). We looked at Malcolm initially, and looked at four other guys, and we wanted to make a decision quickly. It’s been tough...Malcolm is on a steep learning curve, and as a group we need to find not necessarily a new way, but try and find what things we need to change and those we need to maintain, because Malcolm has a different skill package to what the other guys had. To play against Adelaide the way we did was very pleasing, and the Perth game was very good up to midway through the third quarter, but we just got swamped at the end by a team that was coming off a loss and their depth, their physicality and their aggressiveness on the boards just took a toll on us.
With all that’s happened to the team, what has most pleased you about the season so far?
Obviously we had a really solid preseason – we wanted to hit the ground running at the start of the season and we were able to do that. To all the guys’ credit they worked hard in the offseason, and we started well. Then we went through the patch when we lost to Sydney in overtime, then lost an overtime game to Melbourne after the All Star break, then lost to New Zealand at home. Then against Cairns when we lost Lance and Rhys in the same game and lost again in overtime, then lost to New Zealand by two when we were playing well and lost to Townsville a couple of nights later. The big thing for me is that the guys are finding a way to compete, and what’s let us down in those games in that we’ve just given up way too much possession – and that came from the boards. The rebounding has really let us down, and it’s an issue we’ve had. The guys are working hard to address that, and once we do address that we’ll be in every contest. If we want to do anything over the last eight games, we have to value the ball a lot more.
Getting to Glen Saville and his retirement last week – what does he mean to you as a player and as a person?
Well I mean, when you look at what he’s done for the club...it’s been a perfect fit for him. I can remember being involved with Sav as a 15 year old at the Institute of Sport – I coached him for a few years down there with Frank Arsego. He was just a raw, athletic boy from the country who obviously had the athleticism, but he wasn’t a great perimeter shooter. Just being involved with him in those junior programs and seeing him develop, then trying to convince NBL teams that he had a future in the league...he had a really big upside but Wollongong was the only club that ended up showing any interest. When you look back on that journey – there was only one year in those 19 in the NBL when he wasn’t a part of the Hawks. Look at what he’s achieved in the game...from being a raw country boy from Victoria, to the heights of where he went as a player and also how he developed as a person – he got married and became a parent and it’s just fantastic.
Sav’s contribution to the game has been enormous...he’s got a lot out of the game, but he’s certainly given a lot back to it, with what he did for the Hawks, winning a championship, going to two Olympics and winning a silver medal with the Australian junior team in the 1995 world junior championships. Two years ago he was the best three point shooter in the league. For me, the last four years with him after coaching him as a 15 year old...it’s been great to see him develop into a real pro. He’s someone who led by what he did, not what he said. He trained so hard, he looked after his body...he was just a real pro who had an enormous amount of pride. And it’s not just all those games that he played – you think about all the practice sessions he had, the weights sessions, all the promotional things that he’s done...I mean he’s just made a huge contribution to the community. He’s a role model for younger people in the Illawarra, and for his younger teammates you couldn’t ask for a better role model than him and Mat Campbell. To see him compete was awesome – and he did not like anyone beating him at anything, whether it was in a game, in practice, or in the weight room. He drove that team, he led by example, and he was obviously a huge contributor to what the Hawks have been able to achieve.
The thing that really cut at my heart strings was obviously how gutted he was when he found out the news about his knee. For someone that’s played 19 years in the league...he was really playing because he wanted to play. Our club is not flush with funds, and Sav was certainly not playing for the money. He was playing because he really wanted to play, and when that was taken away from him, that passion and that commitment that he had to go out and finish the year in the best way that he could was evident when he spoke to the team. That passion, that pride and commitment came out. It was a very touching moment. He let everyone know how much the game meant to him...he knows the game has been good to him but he’s certainly been fantastic for the game. You look at him as a player, but then you look at his personality – his leadership and everything else – and for me to see him grow from that 15 year old into a great parent with two kids, that’s the thing I most admire and the thing about him I’m most proud of.
You’ve always been one to stress the importance of team over the individual. But how much does losing Sav impact this program?
Oh, I mean – it’s like all the other things I’ve said. You can’t replace experience, or times around the block. There’s no substitute for experience, for people who’ve been there, done that, have played at the highest level, and know what it takes to continually back up year after year and play at a certain level. Sav was someone who found a way to improve his game...especially over the last four years I’ve been involved with him, he had to find ways to stay in the game. In his early years it was all about the sheer athleticism – play above the rim, slash and get to the hole, do all that sort of stuff. He worked hard at becoming a good perimeter shooter because he knew he had to add that to his game as that explosiveness, that athleticism and that extra yard of quickness sort of went. He had to add other parts to his game, so that’s what he did...the ability to knock down the three ball allowed him to help spread the floor, and also helped his ability to post up and ability to attract attention so he could dish off for assists. He’s also been a major contributor for us at the defensive end of the floor – in the way he organises our defence and what we do. We junk up our defences a bit and Sav with a lot of other guys has been a big part of holding that together. And he’s been a great rebounder.
All those things can’t be replaced overnight. That’s probably taken 24 years or whatever to develop, so when you lose someone like that with that experience – Mat Campbell was another one in the same boat – you can’t replace those guys overnight. What the club has endeavoured to do is try and find some younger guys, and that’s what we did in the first year I was here – they are never going to be the same players, but there are things they can take from Saville and Campbell so that the mantle and that responsibility can be passed to someone else. So there’s a huge hole left, but now that it’s happened, it gives us a full offseason and preseason to get other guys ready. It’s just the reality of the situation – it’s not the way you want to do it, but this is the type of adversity that gets thrown at you and we’ve just got to find a way to compete. That load has to be spread around the team. Obviously Sav will still be part of the group, just as Rhys and Lance will, and they’ll help in a mentoring way. Sav will be with the group, and then he’ll do his rehab and get his knee ready for the next chapter in his life.
Where does Sav rank in the list of all-time great players in the National Basketball League?
Wow, that’s a tough question. I think all those players who have had longevity in the league all had different attributes, they brought their games to different levels and when their youth disappears, their skill package changes, their experience comes into play – there’s a whole lot of different players like that across the league. But for someone like Sav who was fourth all-time in games played in the league, you look at the impact he was still having in what was going to be his last year – I mean he was still competing. Guys weren’t going over the top of him or anything – he was still there. It’s very hard and you’re not comparing apples with apples, because all those great ones were all different types of players who did different things, but Sav’s record speaks for itself. What he’s done for the game has been enormous. Most people are going to talk about him as a three point shooter or his defence, this and that, but I look at all the other factors – all the promos he did, how he represented our game out in the community. How do you put a value on that? It’s just immeasurable – to see all those kids wearing Saville jerseys and all that stuff is just unbelievable. Sav is the type of person that you build the culture of a club around –a team first guy who is as important off the court as he is on it.
You’ve had an amazing career in the NBL as a player and a coach. What keeps you motivated to keep going year after year?
Competing. That’s the thing. As a young guy I loved all types of sports, but I fell in love with basketball. To me, basketball wasn’t supposed to be a game for the little guy, but the game just had so much excitement to it. I played a lot of team sports, but playing basketball was like playing those other sports on fast forward. It was just people racing around all over the place in such a confined space and you had to be multi-skilled. I just loved that whole concept. You had to be talented in a whole lot of areas, and the tactical side of the game was just unbelievable. For me it was awesome, and when I started playing the game and watched the Illawarra men’s’ teams when I was a ten year old, watching those guys back then like the Hurleys, the Brettells, on and on – that’s what I wanted to do. I was very lucky that my first coach was very passionate and went to all different lengths to learn the game, and obviously his influence played a big part in me through juniors. I’ve really had those types of coaches all along. Every time I’ve represented Wollongong, the state and then my country, I’ve been exposed to so many things – and being introduced to the world game, not just how we played in Australia, I just loved it. For me, it became my life – in the early days of the league you worked and then you played, and I’ve been through that semi-pro phase to a completely professional level. I made that decision to try and stay in the game, and the only way I could stay in the game was through coaching, and that’s how it all started.
The Hawks are the last foundation club remaining in the NBL. What is it about the Wollongong organisation that has kept it going since it all started back in 1979?
That’s easy – the people. That’s what it’s all about. A lot of people today don’t really know where the game came from – it came from local associations like the IBA (Illawarra Basketball Association), the Newcastle association, the West Adelaide Bearcats, Forestville...it started with local associations. The NBL was set up in the early days to give everyone a real opportunity to play for Australia and show people they could play. In the early days it was Melbourne and Adelaide that were the hot spots and if you wanted to make it in basketball you had to go to those places, but then you had people who had that dream of wanting teams all over Australia, so they started things like the Australian Club Championships, and it went further and all started from that. In Wollongong there have always been people who wanted to compete at that national level. I mean the stadium at Beaton Park (the Snakepit) where it all started for the Hawks was built by the members. So the whole thing for the Hawks in the NBL came from the community – it came from the volunteers at the association. There was obviously that stage when the league went to a private ownership model and that happened with Wollongong, and now it’s gone back to the community, and that’s really re-invigorated the club. It’s always been tough to compete with limited resources; there have always been hurdles to overcome, but if you want to be part of something like the NBL you have to find a way to compete, and that’s what the people of Wollongong and the Illawarra region have done. That tradition continues – the Wollongong board had a vision to be a sustainable, not for profit organisation so we can try and have the Hawks involved for many years to come.
I asked a similar question of Andrej Lemanis, but you are in an even better position to answer – given you’ve been a part of this league since it started, what’s the big thing you see as having changed in the NBL over the years?
The biggest thing is that basketball in the early days was fresh. It was exciting, and we took on the traditional sports. We were a leader in that we set up a professional league that was played Australia-wide. None of those other traditional sports had that. They had the tradition of being in the major areas, but basketball went out everywhere – it was exciting and people fell in love with the game. The biggest thing that basketball had to do was educate the broader population in Australia – that this is the world game. I mean, go and play the Olympics or at the Worlds, and there’s 220 countries trying to get there. Every major country in the world competes at basketball. The things that basketball did in the early years of the NBL – there was no Super 14 in rugby, there weren’t NRL teams all over the place, there were no AFL teams all over the place, so we had a point of difference and people liked that. It was exciting – fans liked being close, they loved the athleticism of it.
But slowly, all those big sports took basketball on and now we are all competing for that dollar. So now, every sport has to find their niche. If you want to have that national competition now you have to evolve. So the NBL has evolved in a lot of different ways – the basketball world has gotten smaller as one example. The amount of Australian talent going overseas and making some very good money is broadening. So that takes people out of the playing pool, but that creates opportunities for others. You go through stages where you lose people and that’s got to be filled sometimes by players who aren’t maybe as good. You had the Andrew Gazes and the Shane Heals – now you’ve got the new breed coming through. If you look at the US colleges and whatever you’ll see there’s a lot of talent there, and given we’ve been able to compete internationally despite our small population, that’s made people sit up and take notice. The NBL is forever changing, there’s always going to be challenges, and if we want to keep functioning as a league it’s going to take passionate people who want to be involved and want to be part of it. It’s going to be difficult for the NBL because we’ll never get the mega TV deals like rugby does, like the A-League does, like the AFL and NRL does. We just have to find our niche – but we’ve got something unique, don’t worry about that. Basketball is a world game that the kids love; it’s a family sport, it’s multi-gendered, and that’s something most of those other sports just don’t have.
Finally, how do you want to be remembered when you eventually leave the game?
People remember you for the person that you were. I mean sure, you dream to win a championship, you dream to play for your country – we all have goals and dreams and ambitions. But it’s the way you go about trying to achieve that and what you do on a daily basis...what you are as a person. Everyone’s judged on the person you are...you know I work hard at what I do because I have a passion for it and I love it. I want to stay in the sport, and to stay in the sport you have to work hard and try and be the best you can be. Other people will judge that – I’m like everyone else in that I’m trying to make a living and I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve grown with the sport of basketball and I’ve been at the right place at the right time to get some opportunities. I’ve tried to do the best I can in various organisations, and if those people think you’re a good fit and you work hard then you’ll stay employed. I know there will come a day when I reach my use-by date. But mate, I’m still on that merry-go-round and I’m not getting off until someone throws me off (laughs). I’ll compete, and try and be the best I can until I get tapped on the shoulder.
Popular columnist and basketball tragic Matt McQuade has written for the National Basketball League and Basketball Australia since 2005 and was previously a regular contributor to national periodical Pro Basketball Today. He’s the play by play caller for Sydney Kings’ games on Sydney Kings Radio alongside NBL legend Bruce Bolden, and you can also hear him every Sunday night from 7:30pm with Cameron Luke on SEN 1116AM radio in Melbourne and on the web at www.sen.com.au with his weekly NBL wrap-up on the ‘Hoopin Around’ program.