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A bond like no other

The relationship between a team’s head coach and its star player is always intriguing. At the Cairns Taipans this year, it’s absolutely fascinating. Aaron Fearne and Nathan Jawai. Mentor and protégé… like father and son… The descriptions vary depending on who is talking. What is certain is that their relationship helped alter the NBL landscape this off-season and has the potential to drive the Taipans to their first ever NBL championship. It’s a connection between two of the most misunderstood personalities in Australian basketball. Fearne, the tough nut with the gruff exterior; as loyal as a German Shephard. And Jawai, the gentle giant from Bamaga whose dominant on-court persona hides internal struggles. Despite their differences, Fearne and Jawai understand each other. They share a mutual respect. The bottom line: nobody can get Jawai to work harder than Fearne can. “I think psychologically, he just knows how to read me like a book,” Jawai told NBL Media during a sit down chat. “He knows when I'm tired or knows when I'm pissed off, knows when I'm messing around… It's kind of mutual the way we get along, I think that's why we have that close bond.” That bond helped entice Jawai back home this off-season after a championship campaign with the Perth Wildcats. “He was a huge part of Perth's success,” Fearne said. “They can say whatever they want, but at the end of the day, when you've got a big dude like that sitting in the middle, he is a game changer… he is a problem.” So after the championship celebrations subsided out West and free agency rolled around, Fearne delivered his pitch. “He called me up and said ‘Nate, I'm not happy with where you're at, I think you need to come back and play for me and be the best that you can be’,” Jawai explained. Fearne also talked about life after basketball. The indigenous communities up here need you, he told Jawai. They need to hear about health, education and wellbeing from one of their own. It worked and now Jawai, one of the league’s most dominant players, is back home in Cairns. Back with his people. Back with his coach. Working harder than ever. It all started about a dozen years ago when Jawai, an indigenous Australian of Torres Strait Islander descent, first arrived on the doorstep of the Taipans’ feeder team, the Cairns Marlins. Just a teenager, Jawai had only recently been introduced to basketball and was playing for the Kuiyam Pride, an indigenous team out of far north Queensland. “Here is this big kid that you're just like, ‘wow, he is interesting’. He was very big and very raw, but had some natural feel for the game,” Fearne recalls. So it began. Working alongside current Detroit Pistons centre Aron Baynes in the Marlins junior program, Jawai started soaking up everything his new coach had to teach him. “From day one we pretty much sat down and he told me that nothing is going to be easy with him, expect it to be hard,” Jawai said. “I grew up in a rough environment, with two older brothers, so coming in and hearing him talking crap to me all the time, I'm used to it you know.” Jawai was literally learning the game from the ground up, and Fearne was the man teaching him how it worked. On and off the court. “I’m a little bit hardheaded,” Jawai said. “I have a kind nature when you look at me, but I also have anger inside and sometimes I go off the rails a little bit. So coming to Fearney, he channeled that with me.” Fearne, meanwhile, was still transitioning from the court to the sidelines. One minute he was barking instructions at Jawai and Baynes in the juniors and the next he was their teammate with the Marlins in the QABL. “I remember playing in the ABA National Final against North West Tassie – against Shawn Redhage’s team – and Nate came in off the bench as a 17-year-old kid and just made an immediate impact on the game, just turned the whole thing,” Fearne recalled. “Nate just walked into the game and his size just changed it. We went on to win and then it all happened very quickly for him from there.” Next stop: the Institute. Like a square peg squeezing into a round hole. A long way from home, separated from his community, the burgeoning star leaned heavily on his mentor back in Cairns. “That was tough but Fearney was always in my ear, you know, teaching me to do the right thing,” Jawai said. “I’d mess up, like getting angry at (head coach) Marty Clark or something, and because Fearney had already pushed me to that barrier, he knew what I was capable to hold with my anger. “He would teach me those ways where I would say ‘stuff this’ and walk out of practice. I would call him up and he would say, ‘No Nate, it's wrong’. “Then when I said, ‘I want to leave now, I think it's time for me to go back to Cairns’, he was the guy that told me to stay at the AIS.” Fearne understood where Jawai had come from. That was important. But he was also realistic about the road ahead. “We all come from different backgrounds and cultures, but he's going into the basketball world and that world operates a certain way and you've got to be able to do these things if you want to be successful,” Fearne explained. “I didn't care where he was from, because where he wanted to go and what he wanted to integrate into, he needed to integrate into that. The basketball world wasn't going to integrate around him.” Straight-shooting is one of Fearne’s biggest coaching assets. He’ll tell you what he thinks and he’ll tell you right to your face. As a result, he connects with his players at a very human level. None more so than Jawai. “He talks to me at the right time. I'm a very emotional person and he watches that real closely,” Jawai said. “I think also, he has a close bond with my parents and he knows the culture, he knows what kind of people we are.” The next couple of years saw Jawai spend six months at a junior college in Texas, win a second national title with the Marlins and take the NBL by storm in his debut season as a pro. As Rookie of the Year in 2008, Jawai led the Taipans in scoring (17.3), rebounding (9.4), blocked shots (0.9) and FG% (56.6). His 24 and 12 in the All-Star Game earned him the MVP honour. The man was an unstoppable force and the NBA was calling. That’s when things got interesting. “I messed up,” Jawai said. “I had a great season with the Taipans and I was given a month off and I didn't do anything. I went home, 20-year-old kid; I went home going hunting, chasing pigs in bushes and stuff like that. Stupid stuff. Partying, if you want to put it that way, being with my brothers, joking around. “I came back after a month and I had put on 7 maybe 8 kilograms. Fearney looked at me and he was like, ‘you think you’re gonna get drafted?’” It was around that time that Jawai asked Fearne to guide him on his NBA journey. I’ll put in the work, he told him, and if I get drafted will you come over and mentor me? It was a massive decision – one that would involve Fearne uprooting his young family and relocating – but ultimately he said yes. Cue ridiculously intense training montage. “From there, it was everything; on court, running, lifting, swimming. I didn't go out partying, I just shut everything down and what he said, I would do,” Jawai explained. “I would even go to his house and I would do gardening. He would get me to shovel this whole heap of dirt, it was crazy. It’s like 40 degrees outside and it's pouring off me, sweat and fat and everything coming out and he's sitting in his pool out the back watching me.” Fearne says Jawai lost around 13kg in preparation for the draft, down to around 124kg. He was selected 41st overall by Indiana and immediately traded to Toronto in a multi-player deal involving Jermaine O’Neal and Roy Hibbert. “I watched them in training camp at the start of that year with him against (Andrea) Bargnani, O'Neal and Chris Bosh,” Fearne said. “Nate was out there doing some things and you see the reactions that some of them were making towards what this big dude could do. Jermaine and Chris and Bargnani, they're not small dudes and they're high-level NBA players and Nate was out there doing some things athletically that really surprised them.” Unfortunately, those workouts were short-lived. A routine medical check-up revealed a heart abnormality that would keep Jawai off the court for much of his rookie year. The inactivity put strain on the relationship. “It ultimately got to a point where it was frustrating for me and for Nate that he couldn't play, we were just kind of sitting there day after day after day,” Fearne said. “It wasn’t until after the All-Star break that he was slowly starting to come back into the thing and it just kind of got to a point where it was like, ‘I've been here long enough to help you get to where you need to get to and you if feel like you're good to go there's no point me being here’. We just made the decision that I'd go back on my path and he would go on his.” Over the next seven years, Jawai played for the Raptors, Dallas, Minnesota and many of the best teams in Europe. And at every stop, Fearne was always just a phone call away. Whether talking through pick-and-roll coverages, playing amateur psychologist or delivering financial advice, Fearne has been a source of constant support. “It's been difficult, I didn't think I'd be down this path. I thought I'd be in Bamaga going to the mines or something,” Jawai said. “I mean, I haven't been brought up to suddenly have $500,000 in my bank account and stuff like that. Everything grew for me so quickly but he's been on my step with me. Ever since then, he and I always have something in common about anything I need… It’s kind of like a father/son relationship because he's not only talking to me about basketball but about my health. “I've made some dumb choices you know and he's been great for me. I'm happy to have him in my life.” Now, with Jawai signing a three-year deal with the Taipans, ‘father and son’ have been reunited. A frustrating finger injury has kept him on the sidelines throughout the pre-season, but the workouts have been progressing nonetheless. Running, swimming, you name it. Fearne says 23kg have been shed thus far, with a further 10kg still to go. He wants Jawai playing “longer and harder” than he’s done for a very long time. “He's given up a lot to come home and he's going to have a lot more pressure on him to perform, which we’re going to have to support him with,” Fearne said. “He's so big, so athletic, so quick and he's got a great feel for the game. I know he's a game-changer, I know he can make a massive impact.” Jawai is set to have that impact both on and off the court for Cairns this year and beyond. Reunited with his community. Reunited with his team. Reunited with his coach.   By Liam Santamaria          
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