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Rotnei: Older, wiser, better

Returning Illawarra Hawks import Rotnei Clarke has sent a message to NBL rivals by declaring himself a better player than he was when he captured league MVP honours three years ago. Preparing for his second tour of duty with the Hawks, Clarke spent the past two seasons playing for Belgian and German clubs before being lured back to Australia on a two-year deal with Illawarra. The Hawks won a string of late-season games against the odds to grab fourth spot in 2013-14 and Clarke’s standout performances during that run secured him the Andrew Gaze Trophy as the NBL’s top player. Aside from falling short of the championship that year, the former Butler University star has nothing but good memories of his previous stint with Illawarra and is ecstatic to be back in Australia. “This was the first place I came to my first year out of college so it’ll always be a special place for me,” Clarke said. “Just driving home from the airport, it was like wow it’s crazy that I’m back here because all the stuff looks familiar. “Obviously when I was last here we wanted to go a little further than we did, but to be able win the MVP of this league was a really cool experience. “I’m just going to have the same mindset I had coming into that first year. I’m not looking to do anything individually. I just want to do what I can to help the team win and winning takes care of everything else.” Clarke is heading into the prime of his career as a professional athlete and works as hard on his game as he ever did. He married his longtime girlfriend Patricia in 2014 and became a father to daughter Kyah Clarke last year. The couple’s second baby is due in February and will almost certainly be born as a true-blue Aussie. The combination of fatherhood and being an in-demand professional basketballer have broadened Clarke’s perspective of life on and off the court. “Year by year I’ve gotten better,” he explained. “I’ve been in different situations that have made me grow as a person and mature as a basketball player. “It’s really nice to be back. It’s just crazy how God works because he’s blessed me in a lot of ways. To come here in my first year and to be back here now with my family, it’s just really exciting. “It was good for me and my wife knowing we were coming back here. It was just a good feeling to know I was familiar with the surroundings, the club and the city. “I’ve just turned 27, I still continue to work on my game every summer and I still look at myself as being an underdog and feel like I always have something to prove. “Hopefully we can have a good year as a team - that’s the main focus. I’ve signed a two-year deal so hopefully that works out and we can really build something here.” Clarke comes from a strong family background and is smitten with his 14-month-old daughter. “It just gives you an extra motivation,” he said. “I already had motivation as a player, but just being a father with a little baby in the house, it’s just an awesome feeling. “It’s truly a blessing and it just gives me added motivation to get up every day and work for my family. “She’s a handful. She’s been walking since eight months and she’s been running around like crazy. She definitely has some energy.” Clarke and recently-signed Hawks import Michael Holyfield didn’t make it to Australia in time for last weekend’s three trial games against the Adelaide 36ers in Darwin. Illawarra won the first game before the Sixers won the next two clashes. The Hawks finalised their playing roster for 2016-17 with last week’s signing of American shooting guard Marvelle Harris - Fresno State’s all-time leading scorer. In the years since Clarke left the Hawks, the club parted ways with former coach Gordie McLeod and changed its name from Wollongong back to its original Illawarra. Clarke is relishing the prospect of playing under Illawarra coach Rob Beveridge. “Definitely. That’s what made my decision even easier coming back, being able to play for a coach of his calibre and reputation,” he said. “I’m looking forward to playing in his system and playing the way he likes to play. It’s gonna be fun. “Playing with AJ [Ogilvy] this year is going to be really exciting, having that inside-outside punch with him, Michael and Nick Kay, who I’ve heard a lot about and what he did in the league last year. “We have size and talent and I’m really looking forward to it.” Holyfield is 2.11m and forms a solid three-man front-line with Ogilvy and former Townsville centre Nick Kay. He believes his physical approach to the game is perfectly suited to the NBL. “My strengths are rebounding, defence and toughness and I think I can bring that to this team,” Holyfield said. “I felt the overseas route was the way to go to help my game. It’s a great league, a real tough, physical league, and that suits me because I have one motor and that’s to go hard. I think that’s going to help me and I’ll do good in this league.” Holyfield attended Sam Houston University in Texas and had never ventured outside of the USA before touching down in Sydney last weekend. “I love the scenery, I love this place, so it feels good to be here,” he said. “I checked out the city and the beaches and everything on the internet and it’s beautiful. “I’m looking forward to learning about a different culture, eating different kinds of food and meeting different kinds of people. “The NBL is one of the best leagues in the world and I’m really looking forward to playing here.”  
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