He was captain of his club and the reigning NBL MVP before being unceremoniously dumped in his last season in the league. Brian Conklin deserved better and is proving just why he’s one of the great warriors of the league on return with the Illawarra Hawks.
Conklin couldn’t have done any more with the Townsville Crocodiles in his first two seasons in the NBL and that’s why he was appointed captain for the 2015-16 season on the back of winning the league’s MVP award for the previous campaign.
On top of that, he and his wife were ready to settle their life in Townsville and he was in the process of attaining his citizenship, but then bang.
He was shockingly cut by the Crocodiles on November 30, 2015, and then six months later the club folded altogether and it looks unlikely it is going to return to the NBL anytime soon.
That also meant that Conklin’s time in Australia came to an end and he’s gone on to play impressively in France. But it was with a return to the NBL that he was always wanted to make right what happened to him in Townsville.
The former league MVP signed with the Hawks coming into the 2018-19 campaign and after three games, the 29-year-old is proving that while the NBL has continued to thrive in his absence, he is more than deserving of playing a role in it.
Despite fighting through some niggling injuries, Conklin has averaged 18.3 points and 5.3 rebounds over those opening three games but it’s always about much more than numbers.
Conklin is as tough as they come, his competitive drive is as high as it gets and he is the ultimate teammate which has already endeared him to his teammates and fan-base at the Hawks.
It was a tough start to the season for Illawarra with a quadruple-overtime loss at home to Melbourne and then 40-point defeat in Perth, but Conklin and the Hawks responded with great heart to win in Cairns last Sunday.
They now have a fascinating double-header in Round 3 starting at home to the Brisbane Bullets on Saturday before a rematch with Melbourne at Melbourne Arena on Monday night.
The NBL is better for having Conklin back part of it and while he enjoyed his time in Europe, it was getting back to Australia that was always something he just had to do for his own peace of mind.
“I was in the process in that last year in Townsville of going down the citizenship route and had just had my son when we were living there, and my wife and I love everything about Australia,” Conklin said.
“My agent is based in Australia too and after three years you fall in love with the place and we wanted to stay here. So it was always a goal to come back but I did want to go over to Europe and experience what that was like.
“I wanted to go figure that out for myself and I got my own lay of the land over there, and then for us it was right timing to come back to Australia because it’s something we always wanted to do.”
After the way things ended for him midway through his third season in Townsville, for the Hawks and coach Rob Beveridge to be so keen about signing Conklin made him feel wanted – and really that’s all any player wants to feel at the end of the day.
“Definitely coming back to Australia in general was a big factor and once I put that out there that I wanted to come back I think Bevo and the Hawks were the first ones to show a genuine excitement,” Conklin said.
“That makes you feel good as a player to see a team that really wants you and wants to build around you. So the excitement they had to bring me in and the fact that I wanted to come back all made it a good fit.
“Wollongong was also one of my favourite places in the league to come to and I think it is for a lot of the guys in the league. It is so beautiful especially when you get to summer and the ocean is just there, and the weather is just right.
“I always had good time here and loved playing at the WEC and Bevo as a coach is someone I wanted to play for. Kevin Lisch is a good friend of mine so I checked with him about what Bevo was like as a coach and he sounded like someone I wanted to play under.
“He gives his players a lot of freedom and as a basketball player you love to be able to play with some freedom, and try out the stuff you’ve been working on so to have a coach supporting you in that is big. A big reason he’s been so successful is because he just lets his players play and he trusts them to get him over the line.”
While he was hurt at the time by being cut by the Crocs, Conklin now looks back on it philosophically and feels it might have been for the best in the bigger picture as he got to experience life and basketball in Europe because of it.
He was also able to use it as motivation and to play with a chip on his shoulder and that’s still there as he returns to the NBL for his second stint. But he does feel disappointed that Townsville no longer has a team in the league.
“I was disappointed and sad because there has been so many great people that fought with every spare moment they had, and every spare cent they had to keep that club ticking over, and keep that excitement,” Conklin said.
“There are some great people in Townsville so to know they weren’t going to have an NBL team in the near future and potentially in the long-term future, all those kids don’t have that to aspire to anymore.
“I met a lot of families when I was there with young kids who just loved basketball and they’ll grow up now without that presence of the Crocs there. That was probably the most upsetting part just that the community wasn’t to go have an NBL team.
“And then for the Cowboys to have a rough year too, it hits that community hard because it’s part of the country that loves sport. Maybe ultimately it just isn’t big enough to fund two clubs.”
Conklin is now a father of two on return to Australia as well but on the court, he feels he is a better player too and so far three games into the season and it’s hard to argue.
“I think I am a better player now and for many different reasons. I am a couple of years older but I’d like to think I’m still the same athlete even though I know I’m not and my body tells me that every day,” Conklin said.
“As far as basketball IQ and knowing the game, and having the game slow down for me, that’s something I’ve learned so many nuances by being in Europe. I always knew it, but there’s a couple of tricks of the trade you learn over there by them slowing it down.
“I learned a lot passing-wise and being able to move the ball and what I’m looking for in certain situations. It’s a developed basketball IQ whereas I felt like when I was younger it was about getting the ball and scoring no matter the situation through my athleticism and brutal strength.
“I probably made it harder on myself and obviously it worked, but now I’ve learned there can be an easier way to score and have an effect on the game.
“I think my defence is better too because when you go to Europe, you have to find your own way to make an impression on the game and mine was defensively. I hope I can bring that re-engineered defence back here with me.”
Brisbane Bullets 100 defeated Perth Wildcats 96
Cairns Taipans 83 lost to Adelaide 36ers 91
Perth Wildcats v Melbourne United – RAC Arena 3.00pm
Illawarra Hawks v Brisbane Bullets – WIN Entertainment Centre 7.50pm
New Zealand Breakers v Adelaide 36ers – Spark Arena 12.20pm
Sydney Kings v Cairns Taipans – Qudos Bank Arena 2.50pm
Melbourne United v Illawarra Hawks – Melbourne Arena 7.50pm