For every NBA draft crystalized in HD on ESPN, with players dressing like The Bachelor, and commentators remembering their favourite David Kahn moments, there’s a static Gamecast presentation of a different basketball draft.
To be clear, we’re talking about the NBA D-League Draft night. Although it’s not so much a ‘night’, rather a marathon of staring into a laptop yearning for your name to dribble across the screen and drop into a team’s cache on the left side of the screen.
It’s possible that Brian Conklin had lost faith in his NBA dream after enduring seven hours and eight rounds of hopeless name-spotting on a computer screen. After all, he’d already tasted rejection in the 2012 NBA draft while watching fellow rivals and friends shake David Stern’s hand.
But why not Conklin? Why not the guy who outworked and even outplayed some of the NBA draftees during his senior year at St. Louis? Heck, surely he had the inside track in the D-League with his former coach Alex Jensen leading the Canton Charge?
“Even he didn’t draft me,” laughed Conklin. “So that was finally when I was like, ‘damn, if an old coach of mine didn’t even want to draft me on the team then you know…’ And that’s what led to the depression even more. I’ve got an entry into the D-League and I still can’t get in!”
It helps that he embraces a ‘realist’ approach to basketball. He knew the NBA was a long shot after working out for only one team – the Denver Nuggets – a week before the draft.
“I was a realist in that I knew I was probably not going to make the league because I only had the one workout and not a whole lot came from that,” said Conklin.
And yes, he knew he had a wedding to prepare for immediately after going undrafted. Indeed, 2012 wasn’t all that bad!
Even still, rejection can be brutal, particularly for a second time, when 200 player names grace the D-League draft screen, and you’re left with just the clichéd ‘We’re Letting You Down Softly’ phone call.
Going undrafted in the NBA Draft isn’t the end of the line, but missing out on the D-League can feel like it for some athletes. These are the moments that often capture a player’s personality, grit and their intense love for the sport.
Conklin, of course, knows about toughness. Townsville Coach Shawn Dennis describes him as an “old fashioned man’s man”.
He often adheres to his father’s lessons that were inspired from a young age.
“I’ve always been told to not quit on anything,” said Conklin. “Growing up, my dad always said that once you’ve committed to something you’re going to keep going until it’s over with. And I’ve taken that to my professional life.”
To find a basketball home, Conklin had to walk that tightrope between being realistic and cocksure.
Do you seek hoops refuge in Europe or do you accept an athlete’s most dreaded reality – a nine-to-five desk job?
“Screw this. Is basketball really the thing?” Conklin was pondering after two fruitless drafts. “I didn’t really workout for a while aside from just lifting. I still wanted to go to Europe but nothing was coming up. I just wanted to know if there was something else or are we done.”
He waited for offers from Europe, but the silence ultimately led him to his father-in-law’s mortgage lending company, where he worked the phones and “just plugging the gaps”. It wasn’t exactly performing under the fire of a Euroleague championship game. But this was Conklin’s life for eight months; dishing calls in the morning, lifting weights in the afternoon and scrimmaging with the Oregon Ducks in the evening.
“I just realised how much I hated that and I just wanted to play basketball. The working world is super overrated!” said Conklin. “I didn’t think the NBA, but for sure, I would get something as there’s like a million leagues overseas. And now that I’m in the industry, I realised there isn’t a whole lot of jobs out there, which is pretty crazy.”
This is the side that everyone forgets in a professional basketball player’s career. The waiting and the hallowing rejection aren’t championed on billboards or talkback radio. We seem to care only about the winners.
We like to describe success as the result of talent and hard work. But that neglects the importance of luck. If you look hard enough, you can find guys in almost every team and league around the world that flourished from a stroke of fortune.
The NBA stereotype suggests that you need to lead your team in scoring and play above the ring to earn a call up to basketball’s grandest stage. But Conklin learnt from a young age that finding a niche, or in the words of Liam Neeson, a very particular set of skills, would elevate him above his peers.
Conklin will never be a human highlight reel – and that fixed athlete ceiling is part of what keeps him at the back end of fans and scouts’ minds rather than at the forefront – but he does just about everything you’d want a player in your team to do. He’s a maniac who is driven to win, to get better and to drag others along for the ride. He’ll set good picks, swallow rebounds and score efficiently.
Even as Conklin has flourished, and indeed, only experienced three losing seasons (including this year with Townsville) in his basketball life, he remains underrated.
It’s true that things come in two. After the double draft disappointment, and only really just beginning his desk-job life, Conklin received two offers in a space of two hours from the New Zealand basketball league.
“When I got that first one I was like, ‘finally… An offer!’ I had never had one before, so I was like, ‘shit I’ll jump on this straight away.’ And then two hours later, I got another offer and I was like, ‘wow, I’ve got decisions to make.’”
Yep, luck can be a slippery thing.
Choosing Southland (NZNBL) and eventually Townsville meant that he was no longer bouncing around basketball no-man’s-land. It also meant a chance to mature, travel and experience a different culture.
He would capture a championship with Southland in his first season as a pro, and follow it up with team MVP honours with Townsville last season.
So why are we talking about Brian Conklin?
In many ways, talent on the NBA periphery has come to define this NBL season. James Ennis’ journey from Perth to Miami has set the table for the NBL becoming a genuine pathway to greater professional deeds, including the NBA. This matters for players like Brock Motum, DeAndre Daniels, Jordan McRae and Scottie Wilbekin.
And yet, hearing Conklin’s story reminds us that you can do all the right things – train furiously, be the team man, craft an NBA-appealing skillset in a well-respected collegiate program, and kick the ass of future NBA prospects – and you might still get overlooked.
Joining the big smoke is timing, luck and circumstance, especially if you went undrafted.
“You play against guys like Brock Motum these days, Gladness who played in the league, and different guys you come up against, and you’re like, ‘maybe I can have a shot. These guys had shots,’” reflected Conklin.
Even if his shot never arrives, that’s fine, as basketball has truly evolved into a global game.
“It’s funny, my wife always tells me, ‘oh, you can be in the NBA.’ But I’ve always been a realist. I always knew it was a long shot. I’m the undersized and unassuming player that nobody thinks about,” said Conklin. “Your playing career is so short, you might as well take what’s right there in front of you. I would rather play a few years overseas, get the cultural experience, be able to play ball and travel around a country I wouldn’t have been able to travel around in.”
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