AB: Bernie it’s been five days since the semi-final win, have you been surprised by the reaction of the Bendigo public?
BH: It’s been bigger than Ben Hur. It’s taken everyone by surprise. It’s been amazing to see how many people who want to stop and talk to me about it.
The girls have captured the imagination of the Bendigo public and the community has got right behind us.
AB: Win or lose next week’s grand final do you think the club has finally arrived on the national sporting stage?
BH: For sure. We’ve only been in the league for six years and we’ve made a grand final. It’s put us on the map and right now we’re a power of the competition.
AB: Eight years ago the thought of Bendigo being a power in the WNBL was just a dream. In the initial planning stages you must have faced some tough times.
BH: There was enthusiasm around the town about having a WNBL side, but the disappointing thing was that some basketball people in Bendigo were against it.
It was seen as a liability and the traditionalists out there saw the club as a threat to the Bendigo Braves and Lady Braves.
We never looked at the Spirit like that. We saw the club as a progression for Bendigo basketball. I coached the Lady Braves for 13 years and we played in seven grand finals and won five of them.
The Spirit was the natural progression for women’s basketball in Bendigo. I was always confident Bendigo could have a WNBL club with the right support.
AB: How did you get things rolling?
BH: The initial idea came from Dave Lennon from ABC radio. He saw there was an opportunity for Bendigo to have a WNBL side.
I pushed for the idea through the Bendigo Basketall Association, but they saw it as a liability.
At the 2005 Sports Star of the Year function I was seated next to (prominent Bendigo sports administrator)Wendy James and told her about the idea. She loved it and with her help we set about setting up the club.
There were a lot of meetings and planning before we even thought about putting in a proposal to the WNBL about a Bendigo team.
AB: Were the WNBL and Basketball Australia receptive to the idea of a Bendigo-based team in a national competition?
BH: There were some very stringent guidelines that we had to meet before they’d even look at us.
Most of them were financial because they didn’t want a team coming in for one year and then not being able to play the next year.
They hadn’t had any new teams in the league for more than 10 years at the time, so the league was stable.
Our working party managed to get some Bendigo businesses on board for some financial backing and we put together a proposal.
I remember in 2006 I was in Melbourne getting ready for a U2 concert when I received a phone call from Wendy James (who went on to become the Spirit’s first general manager) confirming BA had accepted our proposal to join the WNBL.
That was a pretty joyful day... and the concert was great as well.
AB: That was late 2006 and you had 12 months to get the club ready for the 2007-08 season. Few people probably realise that, at the time, John Brumby’s state government played a major role in getting the team on the court.
BH: We had a commitment from the state government, we picked up Jimmy Possum as our major sponsor and the Bendigo Bank jumped on board as well. We wouldn’t be here without that support.
The state government deal was for three years, Jimmy Possum were fantastic to come on board and the Bendigo Bank have been with us ever since.
AB: Do you remember how much cash the working party needed to raise to get the Spirit started?
BH: It was somewhere around $270,000 for the first year. It was a lot of money for Bendigo. I remember I used to run the Lady Braves on $30,000 per year.
Of that $270,000 I had a budget of about $70,000 to spend on players. The second year we had to cut that back to $56,000.
There were individual players around the league earning more money per season than our entire player budget.
In that second year we were lucky that Kristi (Harrower) had been cut from her Russian team and she came back and played with us for nothing. We made the play-offs that year and we generated enough interest for us to have a bit more money to spend the year after.
AB: The Spirit’s first game in the WNBL was against Dandenong on October 6, 2007. The Spirit won 87-66 in front of about 1000 fans. What do you remember of that first game?
BH: I think it was a relief more than anything that we’d finally hit the court. Kristi played in our first game before she went to Russia and we won by 21 points. I still remember that game clearly, but I don’t remember a lot of the others that year.
AB: Particularly in those early years, how hard was it to recruit players?
BH: We’d offer a player $10,000 and another club would always outbid us by $5000 or $10,000. It was tough, but we always made the best of what we had.
Even this year it was tough to recruit, but the team has come together. This is the best team I’ve ever coached.
The way they’ve gelled together and the way the team chemistry is...I’ve never seen it any better. They’re a great team to coach.
AB: Last year was a tough year for the club. There was drama surrounding Kristi’s role as general manager and by season’s end the club’s future was in doubt. Did you ever feel like chucking it in?
BH: Yes, I did. On and off the court was poor last year. On the court we weren’t at the level we needed to be. We had too many people playing for themselves and not for the group and that really hurt us.
Off-court all the stuff that had gone on surfaced three days before the season started. We then had to start the season with a two-game road trip in Queensland. We lost both games and the whole season never got better. It wore me down and at the end of the season I was pretty much done. I was ready to take up golf.
AB: What changed your mind?
The re-structure of the club and new board was critical. I spoke with new board members Ray Wild and Chris Richards, who were coming in to save the club and were putting their own money into the club. I had a duty to those guys to put a team together and coach again. The rest is history.
AB: What would a WNBL title mean to Bernie Harrower?
BH: It would be the highlight of my career. To help build a club from nothing and then to coach the club in a grand final, on our home court, with my family involved would be very special.
AB: How long have you got left in coaching?
BH: I don’t know. If we win I might think what a great way to go out. Or I might think it’s a great opportunity to start a dynasty like we did with the Lady Braves. I’ll sit down with the board at the end of the season and see what direction they want to go in.
AB: Your daughter Kristi is coming to the end of a stellar career. What has made Kristi so successful?
BH: What Kristi brings is something very special. She is world-class in everything she does.
Her commitment to the game, her dedication to her own performance, her commitment to her body and diet and her commitment to her team is second to none.
She has white-line fever. As soon as she crosses that line to play it’s all aout winning. She has that passion and desire to win.
It’s all about her team winning. Sometimes she’s put our side on her back and carried us across the line. That’s the sign of a champion.
AB: Has she always had that white-line fever?
BH: Ever since she was playing basketball as an eight-year-old in Bendigo she wanted to win. She just had to win.
She was quick and aggressive and her skill level was so good even at that age that she’d just haunt players. I remember as a nine-year-old she scored 32 points in an under-12 grand final. She was that good.
AB: At age 37 and on the back of an Olympics campaign, has it even shocked you that Kristi has played at such a high level this year?
BH: Her performances never shock me. I’ve seen it for so long at all levels of basketball around the world.
AB: Kristi is vocal on the court and at time-outs, do you expect her to follow in your footsteps and coach?
BH: I’m hoping she does. I’ve been coaching for a long time, but I’ve learned more off her in the past five years than I learned in the previous 20 years.
Her experience around the world has helped me so much as a coach. It makes us a better team offensively and defensively.
AB: Are you comfortable that the club is on the right track as far as long-term security is concerned?
BH: No matter what happens next week I’m hoping we’ve created more than enough interest for Bendigo businesses to jump on board and join the Spirit and help us build a dynasty in the WNBL.
Bendigo is such a great place to live, a great place to work and a great place to play sport.
Players that we recruit fall in love with the place. We need the financial support to keep them in Bendigo.
My dream is to have a professional team in Bendigo. We have players that have to juggle full-time jobs with playing for the Spirit. Despite that we’re still managing to play at a high level in a national competition.