It took stepping onto the court at Wollongong Entertainment Centre for Ian Clark to fully appreciate the ferocity of the Kings/Hawks rivalry.
The ferocity of the rivalry between the Illawarra Hawks and Sydney Kings has been enough to make an impression even on NBA champion Ian Clark, who is itching for the sides’ playoff series to get under way on Friday night.
Clark has played elite basketball in America, Asia and now Australia and was Steph Curry’s partner-in-crime during the Golden State Warriors’ run to the 2017 NBA title.
But when he stepped onto the court at Wollongong Entertainment Centre earlier this month, the NBA veteran knew he was now part of a rivalry like few others in world basketball.
“I didn’t know how big it was until the game actually started,” Clark said of the Kings’ rivalry with the Hawks.
“The crowd was going wild and you see how intense it is, being in that environment.”
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A self-described competitor, the American King is eager for his side’s trip to Wollongong for the first of at least two playoffs games.
“It’s going to be fun. Everyone has been looking forward to seeing us go against them in the playoffs,” he said.
“I love these kinds of moments, when it’s do-or-die, when you know that these are the steps and the things that you have to do and it’s non-negotiable.”
In Clark, the Kings have something that can be hard to come by in the NBL – big-game NBA experience.
Kings coach Chase Buford said Clark had inspired the young Kings side since joining and would continue to do so in the playoffs.
“Ever since he came in, even in the first game against Brisbane when he didn’t play and had just gotten off his flight, he was in there in huddles, coaching guys, being vocal,” Buford said.
“He’s done that every single practice, every single game since.
“He’s a huge vocal leader for us, he’s an emotional leader for us. I think the guys feed off his energy.”
Incredibly, this year’s playoffs mark the first time Sydney and Illawarra have met in a semi-final series.
Raised in Wollongong, Kings big man Xavier Cooks said it was “really special” to be a part of the historic match-up.
“Especially being from Wollongong and seeing the history of both teams. I’m excited for it. It’s going to add a little bit more tension to it,” he said.
Jaylen Adams, unveiled as the league’s MVP on Wednesday night, has recovered from a bout of illness and will line up in the first match of the series.
Cooks is tipping Adams will take his game to another level now that it’s do-or-die.
“Jaylen has shown time and time again when things get hard, he steps up,” Cooks said.
“One thing about Jaylen is he makes everybody around him better. I’ve become a better player just playing around Jaylen.
“I’m really happy he’s my teammate.”