Gladstone's ‘Illy’ has rubbed shoulders with NBA greats

ANYBODY who stands at over two metres tall is hard to miss.

That is especially so for Illiwa Baldwin.

Big men aren't a dime a dozen in this town of ours, and one who is malleable to the description of outgoing larrikin is even easier to spot.

When big "Illy" takes to the court, it is all business, but away from the game the guy just wants to have fun, smiling his way through every situation.

"Don't look into my eyes man," the man-mountain said in his most serious face when posing for a photo, before bursting into laughter.

For those who don't know who Illiwa Baldwin is, the man is a Power basketball player, and he is happy to entertain Gladstone for quite some time to come.

Rubbing shoulders with NBA starso

Tall blokes are made for basketball, the reason is obvious.

But Illiwa Baldwin didn't start playing until he was 16, preferring rugby in his early days at Nudgee College in Brisbane and before that in his native Papua New Guinea.

"One of my high school friends, when I was 16 years old and already 6ft 9 inches, told me I would do well and he took me to a club game. It was something I could see myself being good at, and the improvement was instant," Baldwin said.

Strangely though, it was not until after playing proudly for his home country that Illy started thinking United States college, even playing the Queensland Basketball League for three years and turning 21 before finally arriving on the doorstep of a Junior College in Texas.

The Southern America experience only lasted a year, almost condemned to be a short visit with a range of issues, including a broken foot for Baldwin.

Illy found an opportunity to embed himself in the basketball fanatical Kansas and jumped at the chance, but the more northern state would have to wait the US summer before he would make it to the academic lounges and practice courts, our man returning home to train with the Melbourne Tigers.

"Working out with Chris Anstey was unbelievable. I wasn't in the Tigers squad but I got in the training squad," Illy said.

A return to the USA began well for Baldwin, who was as happy to be watching the big teams like Kansas State and Kansas University play in the flesh while competing himself, before another problem stopped his playing, resigning him to watching from the bench.

A tumour in his ankle saw court time diminished for quite some time at Kansas, but in the two years Illy was there, he obviously made an impression, fielding numerous offers for his final year of college.

"It was awesome, but I ended up signing with Nevada because they needed a big guy, they had just lost JaVale McGee."

McGee had been drafted 18th in the NBA draft by the Washington Wizards, leaving big shoes to fill for Baldwin, especially seeing as he was a different type of player.

"They tried to turn me into a vertical athlete, but that wasn't going to happen because of my injuries," Illy said.

The big Papua New Guinean was able to learn a lot from his Nevada experience, training with McGee when the star centre returned in the off-season, and playing in front of more people than ever in his career.

But the end of his final year in college, Illy was recognised as a professional by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and therefore ineligible to compete, because he had played in the QBL, despite never being paid by Northside, the Capitals or the Spartans.

"Playing in front of 12,000 people every time and they make a big deal of it, it was awesome," Illy said.

"I couldn't suit up on game night after training with the team, and being a part of that team, even though I was never paid, they still said I had played in the professional league."

Powering on in Gladstone

Leaving the United States with a free degree and Division 1 basketball now listed on his resume, Baldwin was looking to return closer to home to play ball.

A return to the QBL looked like the best option, and it was a veteran from Gladstone who lured the big man into our community.

"Blair (Smith) had been in my ear asking me what I was doing after college," Baldwin said.

Negotiations behind and a signature on the dotted line, Illy arrived in Gladstone last year, and is quick to admit it was a shock to his system following the big stakes game he was playing in Nevada.

A job at Bechtel was organised for the big fella, but Kev Broome Stadium was no Lawlor Events Centre, it took some getting used to.

These days he is content with his situation, with a degree in his pocket and a stable job and competitive basketball to play, Baldwin has taken quite a liking to his surroundings.

He even believes the town has grown in him something he may not have found anywhere else.

"Since being here I have grown as a person and learnt to appreciate the support," Baldwin said in one of his few serious moments.

He then spoke about the team, and the mission to build a winning franchise like the Gladstone women's side has been able to do, one that he wants to be a part of.

"We brought in Gleeson and Hobbs who are great to create that spark."

"It is hard bringing in fresh faces and creating that chemistry; this is the best part of the season, with the rush of earning results."

Building a team that wins the QBL is now the dream for Baldwin, having reached the peak of amateur basketball and played against some of the best. At the age of 27, Illy is settled to compete alongside work, in Gladstone for the long haul.

"I have done everything I can in basketball, to be honest, I am going to need another surgery so I am happy I got to play with those great players who are now in the NBA."

"We are not winning how people would expect, but we are learning.

"I'll be here for a while, GO POWER!"

Fast facts

  • Name: Illiwa 'Illy' Baldwin
  • Born: Port Moresby, PNG
  • Age: 27
  • Height: 208cm
  • Position: Centre
  • Team: Gladstone Phoenix Power
  • Employer: Bechtel