JOE FARRUGIA has made a name for himself in Australian basketball. The former Malta Basketball Association president left his mark in the game Down Under as the first head coach of the Illawarra Hawks, the only side to remain from the original ten teams to play when the National Basketball League began in 1979. Kurt Aquilina spoke to Farrugia about his time with the Hawks and what they have become…
Joe Farrugia moved to Melbourne in 1974, getting his first coaching job with the then-called Nunawading Demons, but moved to Wollongong in Illawarra and joined the Hawks’ junior and women’s teams while assisting headcoach Adrian Hurley, two years later.
When the NBL was initiated in 1979, he was then offered the position as headcoach by Hurley.
“Adrian Hurley had his eye on other things and said ‘Joe, you coach the team’, and they were happy to let me start the ball rolling as headcoach,” Farrugia told The Sunday Times of Malta.
“Our very first game in what we call the Snakepit – because of the environment and the way the supporters get onto the opposition – was against St Kilda. This was a narrow victory for us, and it was quite an achievement.
“We were a regional team but quite strong – state champions three years in a row – but that’s how it began for the Hawks.”
The former Hawks coach explained that back then, the NBL was mostly amateur.
“We would not be able to live off the wage that we had so we were part-timers, except for the imports – the American players were full-timers. But we made other arrangements. I was a stadium manager and it was my way of earning an income while coaching. It’s very different from how it is now,” Farrugia, who was president of the Malta Basketball Federation in 1994, said.
This difference showed when the Hawks, under his mentorship, beat fully professional Partizan Belgrade back in 1979.
“Personally, that was my highest achievement; and the fact that I had an 18-year-old kid, Tim Morrissey, who I had started off in the junior ranks and who I played quite a bit because we needed his contribution.
“He eventually became one of the best players in the NBL and went to Sydney as they always had more money than us, becoming one of their star players. His uniform is hanging in their stadium whenever they play,” Farrugia said.
Now retired, Farrugia is no longer an employed member of the Hawks, describing himself as an “enthusiastic spectator”, but he said he is still on good terms with the present administration and regularly interacts with owner Dorry Kordahi.
Kordahi and the new administration had swooped in last year to save the Hawks with the side struggling financially.
“I knew firsthand that the Hawks had been struggling financially, knowing coaches and some people who were in the mix,” Farrugia admitted.
“The reason they weren’t performing well financially was deep down because the local community loves them but doesn’t really back them up financially. We don’t have a huge stadium – 4,500 is our capacity – and this is not enough and basically, the administration went bust.
“The situation then was either you lose the team and the franchise license goes to some other organisation, or else survive in a different format. The NBL had decided to keep the Hawks name but the business idea was to try and get a bigger footprint rather than just Illawarra to have more support and eventually more finances. It didn’t really work out.
“Local people such as myself are very sentimental – We’re the Illawarra Hawks. So I personally sent messages and talked to people and they reckoned it was the best argument to have the word Illawarra back and eventually, the push from a lot of supporters, media and politicians, I think helped sway. But more than that, the footprint didn’t grow so much.”
Now a changed side, the Illawarra Hawks are in sixth place so far this season in the NBL and Farrugia believes they’ll make the finals.
“They have the potential to win the whole thing but it’s a very hard league,” Farrugia said.
Asked about the level of players in the NBL at the moment, Farrugia showed praise for the Australian players who “are of the same level if not better” than the American imports. However, he referred to an initiative called the Next Star, which brought the likes of LaMelo Ball, who now plays in the NBA with the Charlotte Hornets.
Ball, 19 had taken a different route than many other American players, leaving for Lithuania and then Australia to join the Hawks before getting drafted in this season’s NBA draft as the third pick overall, in November.
“Personally, I think (Next Star) is a great idea and I’m quoting (Hawks coach) Brian Goorjian but I would say exactly the same thing: LaMelo Ball was great for the NBL, not so good for the Hawks,” Farrugia admitted.
“I also believe he stage-managed most of his appearances. When you look at his stats, he played what was necessary to keep him in the limelight for the ultimate aim to make the draft. As an Illawarra Hawks fan from 1979, I believe we were used and it was good for him as he got what he wanted and we went bust.
“As far as the effect he had here, he was good for the image and put the Hawks name on the basketball scene worldwide but a well-gelled team is what makes the difference – an outstanding player or two won’t win you a championship.”
While the Boomers team for the 2019 World Cup in Beijing placed fourth with a squad lacking star players like Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons, this summer’s Olympics in Tokyo feature a jam-packed Australia team.
Hawks headcoach Goorjian is leading the pack instead of former 76ers head coach Brett Brown, who stepped down from the national team after being fired by the NBA franchise before the new season.
“Knowing Brian (Goorjian), and he said it publicly, he’s not going to muck around,” Farrugia explained.
“Because of the way he plays the game, he’ll want contributions from everybody – especially Ben Simmons and all the other NBA players and those who play in Europe.”
He explained that while the men’s team has always been close, it has never actually won anything.
Conversely, despite the stiff competition for players from netball, women’s basketball in Australia is particularly strong and the national team is known to be one of the best in the world.
“The women’s team have won gold, silver, and world championships. The men are still trying and I’m hoping they break the ice and Goorjian will be the first coach to get a medal for the Boomers,” Farrugia said.
“If he can get the best out of the talent that we have, I’m sure we can be very competitive and there’s a chance they can win a medal.”