Rod Baker – 50 Years of the Cougar Family

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As part of the Cockburn Basketball Association celebrating its 50-year anniversary in 2022, we have caught up with another of the longest serving and most dedicated Cougars of all-time – Rod Baker.

Baker, along with wife Marilyn and their children Ryan, Rhett and Clint, and now their grandchildren, have been part of the furniture of Wally Hagan Stadium throughout its existence and we left it to him to tell the story of his and his family’s lifetime involvement.

To start with, what things come to mind when you think about your lifetime in basketball and at Cockburn?

There were a few years I hadn’t been involved and my grandkids started to play down there, and I bumped into Simon Peterson and he asked how many junior teams I had after building it up from nothing. I said 181 and he was very proud to say he had beaten me. Then some months later Tyrone asked me how many sides and I told him 181, and he said we had moved passed that with 232. I told him I thought that was amazing and fantastic, but I told him I’ve spent most of my life down at Cockburn and as long as Cockburn is alive and kicking, then if you beat my record 10 times over I’ll be a very happy man. Cockburn is such a huge part of our lives. My wife and I met there, our kids grew up there and I’m actually about to turn 70 and a number of the guys, probably eight or 10 of them who are coming, also came to my 30th, 40th, 50th and 60th. We all met through basketball so it’s played a huge part of our lives although probably not quite as much over say the past 15 as we’ve got older and other people come in and take over, and run it differently. That’s just the natural transition, but to see Cockburn booming the way it is now is just fantastic. There’s such a good feeling down there now similar to what we had back in the 80s and 90s. It’s back again and it’s just great to see. You’ve got no idea when I walk in and see the place, it’s really good. It’s excellent.

What if we trace back, talk to me about setting up the Spearwood Hawks?

I coached my sister’s team at Cockburn for a few years and I played a season at Pacers and then the Hawks, and then in 1974 Hawks joined together with a team called United Packages. That’s how the club was formed in April 1974. A little while later the association decided they wanted to have clubs linked to different suburbs so because Steve Millard was our president of the time and lived in Spearwood, it was named Spearwood Hawks. The club became the biggest senior wise as well and then when we built the stadium in 1979, they started the juniors and that’s when we started building those up. Spearwood Hawks is one of the original teams and it would be pretty close to the longest running club down there now I’d say. Eventually I took over the junior comp and it was really struggling, and in 1987 we had nine teams nominated and didn’t run a comp at all. The following October a few of us got together and we managed to get 29 teams to restart the comp. Then with the Wildcats going nutso at the same time with Cal Bruton and his funny hats, and it boomed. We had been struggling to find coaches and everything, but then that soon changed and I was able to build up a bunch of kids over the years to help me with the coaching. One year I had to coach 12 teams just to try and keep the comp going because I refused to allow a kid not to get the chance to play basketball. I felt like once they leave they will never come back. So that’s how Hawks got so big because other clubs just didn’t have the facilities to take them on where as Spearwood Hawks did. I was on the board from the time Hawks was formed in April 1974 and ran juniors starting with mini-ball which was huge with the Connolly boys. They were real little shits, but I loved them all the same. Then basically the juniors just boomed and we started getting more people in the office to take some of the pressure off us because we were doing it all for nothing. It was all voluntary work, but that’s how Spearwood Hawks started and now Nathan Benn is running it and he’s doing a marvellous job with the club.

How did that transition into being involved at Cockburn and did you want to run through the different ways you were involved over the years?

I firstly got involved when my sister was trying to put a team in and she didn’t have any luck at Perry Lakes. So she told me about this new comp starting down at Cockburn and asked me to coach, and that’s how I started along with playing down there as well. I continued to play until I blew my knees out when I was about 42, 43. I was secretary at Hawks and secretary of the Hawks juniors and a representative on the board. Then they got me to take on the juniors and then we changed everything because in those days we set up a board where each person had individual responsibilities. Mine was juniors and that was my role, but every second Saturday night we were down there for SBL. Because we were a board everyone got involved in different aspects except they left me alone to run the juniors. When i got Dave and Macca on board, the club was teetering and just about insolvent, but they did a marvellous job of running the club as president and treasurer to drag it back in out of the abyss. The juniors were the catalyst of that club booming as it did. Then in 1994, I went arse over tits with an Angina attack which came out of left field. They shovelled me sideways and wouldn’t let me get involved too heavily, and I took over sponsorship for a couple of years. Then in the last year I took over as president for 12 months and after that, I left the board and that was 1998. You get to a stage where you get worn out and you do so much because I was spending 30 hours down there just about every week. You do get burnt out and it was time to move on. I did help out with WABL when my sons were playing, I actually ran the WABL for some time there and coached there for a few years. By the time it got to 1997 or 98, it was time to take a break.

You met your wife Marilyn through Cockburn too and how big of a part in your life did it play for both of you but also your sons Ryan, Rhett and Clint?
First of all, Maz was playing for a club called Cubs and she had long legs and dark hair so I eyed her up straight away. The following year I played for Pacers and she was actually going out with Adrian Morrell, who is also a life member down at Cockburn. We used to get to talk and on June 1, 1974 I asked her out on our first date. Then two and-a-half years later we were married. Put it this way, if Maz hadn’t been Maz, I couldn’t have done any of the things I did down at Cockburn. It was amazing we could share everything together as a family too. I got to spend one season playing with our oldest boy when he was 16 and all the kids grew up there, and it’s hard not to get emotional thinking about it.

They would just come and play, and we had an under-18 competition there for a couple of years that was the best I’ve ever seen. We would have people come in and pay to watch them play on a Friday night. A lot of those kids are back down there now and I’ve seen them grown up as we have gone back to watch our grandchildren play. A lot of them are there with their own kids and it’s just so good to see. Cockburn had this hold on them almost and as they got older they had to come back because that’s where they played their basketball, and grew up.

It’s had a huge impact on my life and having my wife along for everything was amazing. I was working shift work up to 80 hours a week in those days and having her back me all the way with what I wanted to do, it was amazing. That meant she basically brought the kids up herself too because I never was bloody home, but she was amazing.

Then on the SBL a little bit, the first years that we ran that and Dave Nugent and Gary McKay got on board, the girls used to cook all the food and we’d donate that because Macca was the tight arse prick that he is wouldn’t let us spend any money. Those ladies, Paula, Leanne and Maz did a marvellous job with the catering. They would come down on Saturday nights and serve the food too so that was an extension of what we did. Then after a game on a Saturday night, I’d throw out 30 or 40 balls on Court 1 and everyone’s kids would keep playing out there while we were all up in the bar having a beer. You’d sit there and watch these kids go nutso on the court, and it was just amazing. It’s been a huge part of my life.

Even just basketball in general, when you started in the 1970s it was more a niche sport, you must take great satisfaction in seeing how far it’s come?

When you go back to when I first started playing for the Salvation Army when I was 10 at the Perth Modern School when there were four or five sides, and then going to play in the Church of Christ competition at McFarlane’s Pavilion and go to Cockburn and see it build up and build up, it’s just such a good sport for kids. It teaches them lots of things and as I tried to tell parents when they would come down to dump them at mini-ball, the fact that these kids learn to bounce a ball with both hands, shoot the ball and we’d pick them up so they could dunk it. To see them develop over the years into the fine young women and men they are today, I really believe basketball played a huge part in that. The discipline they learned and friendships they made was huge in that, and to see how Cockburn is booming now is just great. I love it. I love going down there now to watch and I occasionally get called up to coach but not too much these days.

To have watched your sons come through playing and to watch your grandchildren, what does that mean for you and Marilyn?

It’s amazingly special. When all three of the grandchildren started playing I got to coach them the first couple of seasons they played and to see them playing now, and not having to coach, I can just kick back and really enjoy watching them play. It’s just amazing, it really is and I love it. I do miss the coaching part of it at times after having coached hundreds and hundreds of kids, but I’m an old crotchety bastard now.

When you think about the lifetime you and your family have spent in basketball and at Cockburn, what are the things that immediately spring to mind?

I think it’s all about seeing kids develop. I quite readily took on teams that were basically useless but six months later after a season finished and they’d win one or two games, and the joy on their face when they won games was just amazing. And as a family our three boys all grew up at Cockburn, and we were there with them and it became our second home basically. I just think back to all the other kids that have gone through and the ones I see now have turned into such fine young men and women. It makes you feel good, it really does make you feel good to think that perhaps you’ve done something to help them grow into the people they are today. So many stories come to mind and we had some great times. There was one kid down there who had a sister with spina bifida and her parents would bring her along, and dress beautifully. She would see me and all through my life with the Salvos and all that I’d only dealt with healthy kids and I did struggle a little with kids who had physical issues. But this little girl whenever she saw me she’d throw her arms in the air and kick out her legs and I had to hold her. That’s not a basketball story, that’s just a little girl who was down watching her brother play basketball and that will always stick in my mind. It’s stories like that which make you feel good I might add when you think back to them.