Hawks not prepared for ‘LaMelo show’ – Andersen

The Illawarra Hawks’ 2019-20 NBL season began with unprecedented hype and ended with a $2.4 million debt as the league commits to saving the foundation franchise.

What transpired in between was a LaMelo Ball-driven rollercoaster ride that projected the league into the worldwide spotlight as hoops fans from across the globe tuned in to watch the 18-year-old, blue chip NBA prospect.

Wherever the Hawks travelled, the cameras followed, as Ball jerseys filled arenas across the country, with the result often feeling secondary to the spectacle that was ‘the LaMelo show’.

Veteran big man David Andersen caught up with ESPN to discuss an unforgettable season in Wollongong.

“I have seen it worse. I’ve had police escorts going through downtown Madrid, I’ve been in final fours where you fly into Israel where they have snipers on the planes and you’re flying down under police escort and security details all around you, so it wasn’t crazy in that sense,” Andersen responds with a laugh when asked about the spotlight the Hawks operated under.

While the 39-year-old didn’t feel any added personal pressure, he revealed the attention likely effected the group.

“The Hawks probably weren’t prepared for that and we did suffer a little bit,” he told ESPN.

“It was weird because you had ‘Melo’ who was like a rock star and just followed so heavily online and with the social media stuff it made it interesting.”

Ball’s season would ultimately last just 12 games, with a foot injury ending his campaign with averages of 17 points, 7.5 rebounds and seven assists per game across 31 minutes per appearance. He was awarded the league’s Rookie of the Year award.

Despite Ball’s shorter-than-expected season, Andersen was glowing in his praise for the point guard’s ability to adjust to professional basketball in a major role that was created through necessity more than design.

“It probably wasn’t planned to be that way, it kind of evolved in that sense with a young coach and team he could step up and have a bigger role quicker than other teams,” he said.

“I thought defensively and even offensively he was a bit lost at the start, running a team, and then he started to get his feet under him. He looked like he was starting to get rolling and then he had the foot problem and that put a halt to everything, but it was an evolving thing.

“I think it was great for his growth as a player and great for the league to see him out there and throwing up triple-doubles, it was amazing.”

Adding to the challenge of handing the keys of the offence to a teenage prodigy was a rookie head coach, as Matt Flinn was charged with the job of keeping the team together as the losses began to mount.

“I think he came in with a good mindset and good intentions and he did a good job managing the egos that came into the team,” Anderson said. “He wasn’t a hard ass with those guys, but he would call them out and was confrontational at times which is what you need.

“He was thrust into a real difficult situation to have that as your first year as a head coach and given all these pieces, it was really tough, particularly in Illawarra which is a budget team, a community team – it’s no easy task.”

Andersen admits the players knew the club was struggling financially, pointing to the tenuous landscape of Australian basketball combined with the small Wollongong market as contributing factors.

“There’s always the underlying issues with the Hawks – they are always skimping on budget things and trying to make ends meet,” he said.

“Trying to capitalise on Melo’s stardom was a factor and they were trying to do that but at the end of the day, basketball in Australia is a tough ask. Even for the big teams like Perth and Melbourne it’s hard to make a dollar so for the Hawks to have issues like that is probably kind of normal.

“To their defence, they are the one foundation team, they’ve been here since the start and that’s a credit to the area of Wollongong and Illawarra.”

Despite their 5-23 season, in finishing at the bottom of the NBL standings, the Hawks completed one of the more memorable seasons in the league’s history. For Andersen, a man whose basketball journey has taken him to all corners of the globe, it was one he won’t soon forget.

“There were positives and negatives, but I actually feel like I grew as a person as well. The young guys made it very enjoyable and kept me young at the same time and there were moments like that that made it all worthwhile,” he said.

“I don’t look at it as a failure of a season, it was quite enjoyable. Living in Wollongong is great, it’s a great place and I really like being there. For me, it was nice to be around it and I won’t look back at it as a season to forget about. It was growing, evolution and all the good things that came from it.”

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