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R.I.P. Magdi Nenni

MICHAEL Ahmatt was laughing again as “Mrs Nagy” showed him a few more dance steps from her Hungarian folk dancing repertoire, Barry Hannaford and Phil Yuill splitting their sides watching their antics as the affable Aboriginal basketball star tried to emulate her technique.

This was long before Magdolna Nagy was ever known as “Mama”, when the family comprised her husband, seven sons and a daughter, long before a laundry list of spouses for her kids, 16 grandchildren, 20 great grandchildren and a holy host of others gathered around her.

A family friend, Lojzi Ugody, was heavily involved with the Budapest Basketball Club, comprised mostly of displaced Hungarian migrants, and lured most of Magda’s tall sons (and daughter) down the path of this sport called basketball.

My father ultimately wound up as president of the club and because our family over time managed to buy adjacent houses in Hyde Park, we had a combined backyard that comfortably fit a basketball halfcourt, ringed by fruit trees and open space.

In summer, we picked the grapes that filled the vines down the driveways, and made wine, Lojzi an expert at that too.

Clubs were much closer in those days. Most, if not all, had an annual ball or dinner-dance of some description, which pretty much everyone from rival clubs also attended.

Budapest had a semi-regular “basketball barbecue” in our massive backyard, my brother Csaba monitoring potential gate-crashers as the sport’s fraternity poured into our colourful home.

The Latvians and Lithuanians were always represented in force, but there was no shortage of referees, South Adelaide, West Adelaide, West Torrens, North Adelaide players with their partners mingling, dancing and just generally having a wonderful social time.

Ahmatt was my favourite. The lanky, lean young man from the Northern Territory was always ready with an easy smile, up for some fun and immensely lovable.

On this particular evening though, as Alf Switajewski was cooking the barbecue and United Church’s Albert Leslie in deep conversation with Phil Bauer and one of my brothers, Michael was learning steps from my mum, and loving it.

Frank Angove was milling through the crowd, lighting people’s cigarettes with a fancy lighter he could not draw from his pocket quickly enough. Renowned as an Olympic team manager and one of the sport’s finest administrators, Hall of Famer Frank didn’t actually smoke himself.

He just enjoyed beating smokers to the punch before their cigarettes were lit. It was a funny old time but the sport had a genuine sense of community about it, everyone striving to see it grow, flourish and prosper.

Those were grand old days at Forestville, when the battle cry of “Hi Rah Budapest” would ring around the stadium and mum would wince as those brutal Dancis brothers George and Mike – or was it Juris and Maik? – and the devilish Latvian Zarins twins were crashing for rebounds against her not-really-so-placid sons.

Les and John Hody, Andras Eiler, George Ujvary – Hungarian players bee-lined to our place, and my mother could always find a way to stretch the family dinner to accommodate one more displaced soul.

SOME NAGY BACKYARD REGULARS: SA's 1963 Australian champs - Back: Michael Ahmatt, Alf Switajewski, Mal Heard, Mike Dancis, John Heard, Les Hody, Geza Nagy. Front: Frank Angove (manager), Alan Dawe, Scott Davie, Jeffrey Baylis, Keith Miller (coach).

I wouldn’t say our home was a soup kitchen for Hungarian sportsmen and migrants, but I also never saw her turn anyone away. And with that many of our own mouths to feed, I’m amazed at how often mum “just wasn’t that hungry” so her meals would spread a little further.

When I moved out - the last to go – it never ceased to amuse me how often stray Hungarians would arrive at our home, right around dinner time.

Dad worked tirelessly to get the Hungarian Club going in Norwood as what once was a house became a house and an adjacent hall for compatriots to gather in.

On stage in that hall, he was often accompanying mum on the piano as she sang the national anthem and a series of stirring songs at balls and functions which had her fellow migrants thundering in their applause, equally often in tears.

TRAINING DAILY: My sister shooting in our backyard halfcourt, circa 1963ish.

She moved people. She choreographed the folk dancing at Elder Park for the Festival of Arts, women in colourful dresses and petticoats impossibly swirling with bottles on their heads, men leaping and thigh-slapping in high-energy performances.

As a physical education teacher, she was a positive influence in the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of young people, not to mention the many student teachers and co-workers she helped with her insight, wisdom and compassion.

She and dad were married 66 years before he passed away. They were resilient and resolute – they don’t make them like that anymore.

But then, if you have been forced to flee war-torn Hungary into Germany as a 26-year-old mum, with three young boys and a fourth well on the way, yet you manage to keep them well fed, protected and loved, you already are a special person.

Her war stories were spellbinding, the family making it all the way to Australia a Godsend.

Lozji lured us all into basketball and what a joy that turned into for all of us. Woollacott, St George, Halls Medals, national representations, one of us a dancer, another one a singer/performer.

Dad was busy working three jobs for a while there – a wife, eight kids and his own mother to feed - so it was mostly mum who raised us. It's amazing she made it to 99 before leaving us this week.

At those Pearly Gates, you just know this loyal Royalist would have been just a bit miffed she didn't make it to 100 and a telegram from the Queen.

“Say you love each other every day,” she implored us. It was good advice. Even better than the moves she taught Michael. I'm sure they're twirling in Heaven right now.

Jun 7

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