“FROM WANG TO NAGOYA…….THE BASKETBALL ODYSSEY OF SHAWN DENNIS …..…”

Shawn Dennis’s 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 sort of player he was going to have to contend with 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 nine goals in Geelong’s narrow Grand Final loss to Hawthorn……….

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Dennis, himself, possessed prodigious sporting talent……After just 6 Thirds games the 16 year-old was elevated into the Wangaratta Rovers senior side.

He combined football with his first love, basketball, where he had been best-on court in a Pacers’ WDBA flag…..In the summer months cricket took his fancy; he was a slippery, fiery bowler with local club United.

Shawn’s family had moved to Wangaratta from Swan Hill and operated a 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‘d been persuaded to have a few games with North Melbourne Under 19’s, under the guidance of Denis Pagan in 1984, but homesickness – and his love of basketball – saw him return home and play out the footy season with the Rovers.

In his 10th senior game he was one of the key figures in the Hawks’ one-point First Semi-Final win over Myrtleford – a nail-biting encounter which had ebbed and flowed throughout the day……..

A fortnight later, in his last appearance with the Hawks, he shared in their 1984 Reserves premiership.

Football often wins out when a young basketballer is obliged to choose between the two sports……But with Shawn It was a ‘no-brainer’…..

He hung up his boots and only played one more game of footy beyond the age of 18.

He became totally immersed in the round-ball game and, two years after winning the Wangaratta Basketball Association M.V.P award, was playing with NBL club Newcastle Falcons………having been spotted by observant Falcons talent-scouts whilst playing for Albury in the SEABL……..

In the 35 years or so years that have elapsed since he was introduced to the game at its highest level, Shawn Dennis has become the ultimate journeyman, traversing the length and breadth of Australia – and beyond – in pursuit of his dream.

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But back to the start……

As a feisty guard, he played 197 games with Newcastle Falcons between 1987 and 1996, and a further 26 with the Hobart Devils, with whom he spent the 1990 season…..

In his last three playing seasons with the Falcons he also took on a role as an assistant-coach.

It was a huge responsibility when he assumed the coaching position at the age of 30, suddenly being in charge of players with whom you’d shared the court only two years earlier.

But that was the situation that Shawn found himself in when he succeeded Tom Wisman as Head Coach in 1997……To add to his predicament, the Falcons were in diabolical financial trouble.

He was almost a ‘one-man band’……doing his own video edits, taking players for individual sessions , besides team practice……If there was nobody available to fill the water bottles, he’d do that as well……

“Like all keen young coaches I thought I was ready, but the cold, hard facts were that I wasn’t,” he recalled.

Inevitably, the Newcastle Falcons closed their doors in 1999 and he moved to the Wollongong Hawks as an assistant-coach ……In what seemed to be a common basketball theme in those precarious times, financial constraints meant that he was squeezed out……So he returned to Newcastle, coaching a couple of local clubs and lending support to promising juniors.

In 2003 he moved to New Zealand and coached the Hawke’s Bay Hawks for seven seasons, winning one title, and being voted the NZBL Coach of the Year.

Then followed two seasons as an assistant at the West Sydney Razorbacks, and another in New Zealand, coaching their national woman’s team, The Tall Ferns.

But it was time to head back to Australia, he reckoned, so he took on the job as assistant-coach to an old mate, Rob Beveridge, with the Perth Wildcats……His three seasons with a highly-successful and superbly-run club further enhanced his credentials.

Shawn knew he was more than ready to take on his greatest challenge in 2013 – as Head Coach of Townsville Crocodiles.

He was well aware that he’d be rebuilding the club from the ground up, as the Crocs had been saved from extinction earlier that year.

He said, upon accepting the appointment: “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and I’ll lose my job, but I don’t care…….I know that if we do what I want, we’ll be successful…….”

And that’s the way it was panning out……By 2016 he’d developed a young team, bursting with potential. Despite an undercurrent of financial troubles which had beset the club since his arrival, they showed immense promise on the back of stars Mitch Norton, Nick Kay and brilliant American import Brian Conklin.

It was generally acknowledged that Dennis was the mastermind behind the resurrection of the Croc’s fortunes, and he was voted the NBL’s Coach of the Year………

A month after he’d been re-appointed as Head Coach, the doors finally closed on the Crocs, in April 2016.

“We were devastated, because we felt we were building a really talented team” he said……..”After that I had nothing…….there were no jobs available…..”

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So he hit the phones and made contact with a few of his old basketball mates …..It led to him landing a job as an assistant at Japanese club Tochigo Brex, under his former Newcastle Falcons coach Tom Wisman.

After Tochigo took out the championship he was appointed Head Coach of Otsu-based Shiga Lakestars in 2017.

Otsu (population 343,000) is half an hour from the city of Kyoto, and Shawn says that, along with trying to acquaint himself with coaching a new group, amidst a different culture, he was confronted with the language barrier.

“Otsu is off the beaten path, and I’d go for a month without seeing another foreigner……So the language barrier was a real problem at times……And it was difficult during games, because you had to say things on the run….”.

“Going from English to Japanese can be really difficult to interpret, and when you have to get a message across quickly, sometimes important details get missed…..And that’s a situation where you have to come up with simple phrases…..dumb things down a bit……”

And he also had to re-think his image as a coach……

“I was quite animated and passionate on the sidelines in Australia……But in Japan you can’t be like that…….They confuse that passion for anger, so they think you’re getting cranky….They don’t realise that you’re actually in full control….”

“ I think my experience with Shiga Lakestars helped to mould me into a better coach….. I had to educate myself more, and find ways to better teach the guys what we were trying to do….”

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Shawn moved on to Nagoya (population 2.3 million) in 2021, where he’s now into his second season as Head Coach of Japanese Basketball League First Division club, the Diamond Dolphins.

Earlier this year he was seconded into the Australian camp, as an assistant to the stand-in coach Rob Beveridge, for the Boomers’ FIBA World Cup qualifiers against Japan and Chinese Taipei.

For the 56 year-old it was an opportunity to re-unite with his old coaching mate Beveridge…….

And to possibly reflect on an amazing journey which has taken him from the Barr Reserve in Wangaratta to the spacious Dolphins’ Arena in Nagoya………

“Basketball has taken me around the globe and I’ve made lifelong friends,” he says……..“But the biggest highlight is that I wake up every morning, looking forward to doing a job that I love…… I wouldn’t change it for the world……..Teaching people to play the game I love is very satisfying……”

(Shawn Dennis was the subject of one of On Reflection’s early posts, going on nine years ago. We felt it was high time for an update on his outstanding sporting career.)

P.S: With help from Oliver Kay.

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One thought on ““FROM WANG TO NAGOYA…….THE BASKETBALL ODYSSEY OF SHAWN DENNIS …..…”

  1. Greg Rosser

    Good yarn Kev…fantastic career, remember taking the kids down to see Shawn play for Newcastle against Melbourne Tigers, at the old Olympic Pool, just behind Rosey’s statue…Julian Murray organised a great deal for us to stay at a flash joint on Queens Road, Regards Greg

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