Shawn Dennis’ opponent in one of his first Ovens and Murray games was a wispy-haired winger from Myrtleford. It was mid-way through the 1983 season and Dennis came off the ground convinced that if this was the type of player he was going to encounter in senior footy, he’d be up against it.
Six years later, he watched the bloke who towelled him up that day, Gary Ablett, produce one of the greatest–ever AFL finals performances, as he booted 9 goals in Geelong’s narrow Grand Final loss to Hawthorn.
Dennis, himself, was a youngster of prodigious sporting talent. After just 6 Thirds games the 16-year old had been elevated into the Wangaratta Rovers senior side. He combined football with his first-love, basketball, where he had been best-on-court in Pacers’ WDBA basketball flag. In the summer months cricket took his fancy and he was a quick and fiery bowler with United.
Shawn’s family had moved to Wangaratta from Swan Hill and operated the mixed store at the junction of Rowan and Swan Streets. He found work at K-Mart after completing his VCE, but sport was his ‘go’.
He had been persuaded to have a few games with North Melbourne Under 19’s, under the coaching of Denis Pagan in 1984 but homesickness and his love of basketball saw him return home and play out the season with the Rovers. He took his tally of senior appearances to 10 and in his last game with the Hawks, played in their 1984 Reserves premiership team. Football often wins out when a young basketballer has to choose between the two sports. But with Shawn Dennis it was a ‘no-brainer’. He hung up the boots and only played one more game of football beyond the age of 18.
He was totally devoted to the round-ball game and, two years after winning the WDBA M.V.P award, was playing with NBL club, Newcastle Falcons. He was spotted whilst playing for Albury in the SEABL.
In the 29 years or so that have elapsed since he came into the game at its highest level, Dennis has become the ultimate journeyman, travelling the length and breadth of the country – and beyond – in pursuit of his dream.
“Basketball has taken me all around the world and I’ve made lifelong friends. But the biggest highlight is that I wake up every morning knowing no matter how good or bad I feel I’m going to work to do a job I love and wouldn’t change for the world. Teaching people to play the game I love is very satisfying”, Dennis said.
This season he took over as Head Coach of the Townsville Crocodiles, a franchise popularly tipped to finish at the tail of the NBL ladder. He has been applauded for the job that he has done and, despite their poor financial status and lingering doubts about their future, it is a tribute to the regard in which he is held.
But that is getting ahead of the story. It is pertinent to reflect on the Shawn Dennis basketball career.
A guard, he played 197 games with Newcastle Falcons between 1987 and 1996 and a further 26 with Hobart Devils, with whom he spent the 1990 season. In his last three playing seasons with the Falcons, he took on a role as an assistant-coach.
It was a huge responsibility to assume the coaching position at 30 years of age, being in control of players with whom you’d been sharing the court only two years earlier. But that was Dennis’ situation when he succeeded Tom Wiseman as Head Coach in 1997. Adding to his predicament was that the Falcons were in diabolical financial trouble.
He was almost a ‘one-man operation’, doing his own video edits, doing individual sessions as well as team practice. If there was no-one available to fill the water bottles, he would do that as well.
“Like all young coaches I thought I was ready, but the cold hard facts were that I wasn’t. I did as good a job as I could, But I was far too inexperienced”, he recalls.
The Newcastle Falcons closed their doors in 1999 and he moved to Woollongong Hawks to be an assistant-coach. In a common basketball theme in those times, financial constraints meant that he didn’t stay for long and he returned to Newcastle, coaching juniors and a couple of local clubs.
In 2003 he moved to New Zealand and coached the Hawkes Bay Hawks for 7 seasons, winning one title, as well as assisting the national women’s team. Then he had two seasons as an assistant at West Sydney Razorbacks, followed by another year in New Zealand as coach of the Tall Ferns, the national team.
But it was time to return to Australia, he reckoned, and he took on the job as assistant-coach to an old mate, Rob Beveridge, at the Perth Wildcats for three seasons; further enhancing his credentials with an outstanding club.
Dennis knew that he was ready to take on his greatest challenge when he was appointed to the Head Coach role with Townsville Crocodiles this year. He knew that he would be rebuilding a club from the ground up, after the Crocs had been saved from extinction.
“If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work and I’ll lose my job, but I don’t care. I know if we do what I want we will be successful”, he said.
Whatever happens, it’s odds-on that Shawn Dennis will continue to be in demand for his vast experience, man-management skills and general enthusiasm for the game.