Michael Collins’ Sports Writing Portfolio

Michael Collins’ Best Work:

 “Mika” (Basketball)

Appeared on Downtown (http://downtownball.net/2015/03/mika/)

The final minute of a seesawing championship clincher is a moment that nearly every player covets. The most unsettling thing about it though is the sudden realization that every dribble, swinging pass, rebound and basket will be forever embedded in basketball law, like the coins you sometimes see in the hot asphalt of city streets.

With 21 seconds left on the clock, there was no doubt what Mika Vukona would do next if Cedric Jackson clanked the second free throw. The Cairns Taipans were determined to swing the Grand Final series back home, and of course, Scottie Wilbekin was there at the top of the arc neatly aligning his daggers across the hardwood. The Inevitable, former teammate and current rival Mark Worthington thought as Vukona swallowed Cedric Jackson’s put-back floater off his own missed free throw.

“That is Mika Vukona down to the T,” shared Worthington. “Even when I was watching the game, as the play went on I said, ‘Mika’s going to get a rebound here’ as you just know what he is going to be like. Sure enough they missed and there’s Mika going after it. It’s just what he does.”

Explain how he made that ridiculous hustle play in the tightest of clutches for seemingly the hundredth time in his career? He can’t. Better you interview his heart and creaky knees. Or, better yet, ask any of his championship teammates.

“You spend every day with him and it’s every training and game you see it,” said Rhys Carter. “If you were going into battle for your life, Mika would be the first guy you’d pick to fight alongside you. He’s tough, both mentally and physically. He’s just relentless and never gives up and will do anything to win.”

But wait! What about those two free throws that awaited him after the Matt Burston foul? Opponents used to embrace the idea of the human pit bull walking to the line. Yet, as Cairns can now attest, that’s a distant memory.

“I just remember thinking when that foul was called and it ended up being Mika on the free throw line, ‘Oh, I’m glad it’s Mika,’” said New Zealand Breakers Assistant Coach Paul Henare. “Like of all five guys on the floor I had the most confidence in Mika.”

So often, a big man boasts a career of choking at the line, almost accepting the pending clank. But that’s not Vukona.

“Beforehand, there was no way in the world you would want him to step up to the line, but for the last couple of years he has worked relentlessly on his shot,” said Worthington. “For him to knock down those two shots in a pressure situation just shows how far he’s come with his shooting touch.”

Vukona wasn’t fazed at the line despite the game being on the line with 14 seconds left on the clock. He never is, especially when he’s drawing upon his children, Gia and Noah, as a sort of calming, peaceful influence before every free throw.

“He has a nice little routine where, I don’t know the exact words he says to himself, but again, it involves his kids,” reveals Henare. “He puts himself in a happy place when he’s on the free throw line and he never looks like missing.”

Talk to enough of his teammates and two words keep reappearing: Relentless and quiet. He’s not one of those athletes who must thump the chest and dominate every room to justify their greatness. Usually such an imposing and intimidating figure on the court is the loudest personality off it.

He leads but he doesn’t yell. And he almost always leads by example, whether accepting the challenge from South Dragons coach Brian Goorjian to corral point guard Corey ‘Homicide’ Williams, or swiftly fronting Chris Anstey (a few headlocks might have been exchanged!) in response to the Melbourne Tiger flattening Rhys Carter in game three of the ‘09 Grand Final series.

“When it got down to the nitty-gritty and where this team went, it always fell with how Mika was going, and what he would say and how he was leading the group,” said Henare.

It’s an intense aggression on the court cut with humility that renders the Kiwi a kind of paradox. After 40 minutes of banging bodies with Vukona on the court, most feel like they’ve boxed for 10 rounds, run a marathon and rammed their head repeatedly through a plywood wall. On the other hand, if you track him down for a chat, he may stun you with his gentle, unassuming approach.

Of course, the challenge here is wrestling Mika away from his aversion to self-promotion. In many ways, that’s him, slipping away from the spotlight, handballing the praise to his teammates. So much of basketball has become hype that it’s become a challenge to recognise something good and true when we see it.

“Off the court he is literally nothing like the Mika Vukona people love or hate on the court. He is the most humble and quiet guy, very loyal and a family guy. He loves his kids and spends as much time with them as one can,” said Henare. “You’ve got to be around the guy every day to really understand the real Mika.”

***

Even though the Breakers finished the 2010/11 regular season with the best record in the NBL, they endured a poleaxing defeat in game one of the semi-finals against Perth. To make matters worse, Vukona tore his medial ligament – a grade two strain – early in the second quarter. This spelled season over or at least that’s what the Breakers’ squad thought when they glumly met him in the locker room after the game. And yet, there Vukona sat, deliberately looking each teammate in the eye, repeating, ‘I’ll be right boys.’

His reply jolted the team. Sure, it’s a typical macho response to an injury, but Vukona boasts an incredible ability to resist the pain threshold. The Breakers had to believe their power forward was right to go for game two.

Vukona was right.

His return in game two, which seemed as believable as Batman rising from The Pit, sparked a New Zealand revival and eventually delivered their first NBL championship.

“It’s kind of one of those things where you hear guys say it and you think that’s awesome that he thinks that,” recalled Henare. “But for him to come back in game two and the rest of the finals campaign, I’ve never really witnessed anything like that in my lifetime. He gave everyone else such a lift and that was a huge part to why we won that game and the series.”

Sometimes it seems as if Vukona is handcuffed to the big moments, fated to decide what happens next… while carrying a busted knee or smashed lip.

Sweet Jesus! Can you see the pattern? He’s played with severe migraines, where Henare notes, “He literally couldn’t see at times, especially with the bright lights.” Hell, in the second last game of this season against Perth, he clawed 6 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks in 30 minutes of playing time despite barely lifting a limb out of bed the day before due to acute stomach cramps.

“I asked him, ‘what’s wrong?’” Carter recalled. “He didn’t tell anyone and I had to drag it out of him, and he finally goes, ‘no, I can’t go to dinner. But can you hand me a drink.’ He just sat there on the bed. He hides lots of those things really well and it’s just a part of his toughness where he doesn’t complain.”

***

It ends for everybody. It ends for the athlete who has his face on billboards. It ends for the kid on the high school team who never catches a glimpse of playing time. But it’s hard to see when it’ll ever end for Mika Vukona.

He’s already a five-time NBL champion, and is merely one championship away from tying fellow Breakers legend CJ Bruton in the ring count.

“He has definitely proven that he is the ultimate glue guy to have ever played in this league. Success has followed him around,” Worthington believes.

That’s one way to put it. Here’s another way, “He is the ultimate argument for the stats don’t tell the whole story. He has won five of the last seven championships or something ridiculous like that. He’s just been a huge part of it,” adds Carter.

You can seriously picture him eight years from now with a basketball in one hand, and a box of painkillers in the other, with the New Zealand Breakers’ name still beaming across his chest. And before you know what injury he’s carrying, he’d pour the fogs of fatigue and pain onto his opponents instead. It’s difficult to name another NBL player quite like him – as a player and personality.

“He is one of the gentlest and kindest guys you’ll ever meet off the court,” Worthington said. “He loves his family. He’s just unbelievable with his two kids. I think he’s just a softy for his kids and Vanessa, but when he hops on the court, he seems to take out the frustrations he might have had in his life against the basketball. It’s like the basketball gods cheated on him with his wife, and so he just takes it out on us on the court.”

“King Conk Lives” (Basketball)

Appeared on Downtown (http://downtownball.net/2015/01/king-conk-lives/)

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.”

Ahmed Saad’s Comeback Story (AFL)

Appeared on Mailer Report (http://www.mailerreport.com/#!ahmed-saads-comeback-story/c1g7l)

As a sports culture, we slap labels on players out of laziness, because the information on who they really are or how they perform on the footy field isn’t readily available to us. Of course, we know better, but these labels are just too easy to sink into. The need to turn games and individual performances into something grander is natural and is also a lot of fun. But what happens when the conversation swirling around a player spirals away from his on-field acts, and instead, veers towards something more dark and personal? It’s ugly and often ill-informed.

When Ahmed Saad was tested positive for a banned substance, Methyl Synephrine HCL, assumptions swiftly trickled through the fan and media scrums.

“Ahmed Saad – Drug Cheat,” Saad recalls. “It hurt me at the start. No one really knew what it was when it first came out. My name was tarnished.”

Labels stick. It’s typically harder to get rid of a label than it is to gain one. Sure, the small forward was guilty of consuming a banned match day stimulant. And simply, he was at fault even if the consumption was unintentional. This much was clear. But overcoming labels are the toughest part particularly when the courts imprint “guilty” next to your name.

The eighteen-month ban from football that was handed out in 2013 began a nomadic period for Saad, who bounced around without teammates and a club, and therefore, without an identity he was growing accustomed with. How many times do we hear: play your game, do your thing? It’s a clichéd term drummed to death by coaches, analysts and teammates in nearly every damn sport. And yet, it also weirdly captures a footballer’s world, where you aren’t so influenced by what day of the week it is but by what your footy schedule dictates. The games, the change room banter, the camaraderie, the interstate trips and the ice baths, was Ahmed Saad’s thing.

“I loved being a part of something so big as a footy club and being part of something as special as that, and playing in front of the fans and for the jumper,” Saad says.

The problem with “making it” in footy is the ceiling keeps rising. And you certainly never want that ceiling to crash. The thought of what lies ahead after football can be confronting for some. And really, it’s not something that dominates the agenda if you’re still lingering in your early 20s. But Saad – a veteran of just 29 games – was forced to abruptly face what was beyond the confines of AFL football.

“As I experienced, it can go away in seconds. I was hoping it was going to be a long time, but it is a reality, and once you’ve finished footy, you get out of that structure, and they move on, and you’re kind of stuck there and you need to know what you’re doing,” Saad reflects.

Saad did as Saad does. He didn’t handball blame or depart from what made him a professional athlete. He put in the extra work while no one was looking, and when his comeback date was about seven months away, he was training five nights a week and one day over the weekends.

“Because I couldn’t train or play with anyone, not even a local footy club, everything I did was on my own and that was probably the hard part,” Saad says.

Former Northern Bullants captain Adam Lacobucci helped Saad, pledging that he’d help Ahmed gain a second chance in the AFL.

“Probably about 9-10 months before the preseason started, he just called me and said listen: ‘whenever you’re ready to train, I’m happy to train you.’ He reached out to me, which I was grateful for,” Saad recalls.

Saad’s rise back to the professional game stems in large part from his confidence. He believed in himself two years ago, when conventional wisdom viewed him as an anti-doping casualty who might not make it back in the league.

“My aim was to come back and play AFL footy,” shares Saad. “I had a taste of it – a really short taste of it – and I loved it. To be living a dream. I always wanted to be an athlete and I had that and unfortunately I had that taken away. I wanted to make sure I did everything I could to make it happen again.”

Fate intervened though when the St Kilda footy club offered him a rookie contract, inadvertently putting him in the perfect situation. In many ways, both the Saints and Saad were searching for a new start after two years of football purgatory. Alan Richardson was St Kilda’s and the club was Saad’s.

So the adversity ends here, right? The player with the up-and-down career arc, finally standing atop the mountain, returns triumphantly home to St Kilda with his name intact, and maybe enjoying an all-time F-U Reunion tour?

Not quite.

“I didn’t view it as ‘I didn’t deserve this’ or anything like that. Because what happened, happened, and I had to suffer the consequences,” Saad says.

Once again, the small forward finds his back against the wall this season. Sure, he donned the red, black and white in the season’s opening four rounds despite not playing in the constructs of a team for nearly two years. But he’s now back in the VFL playing in St Kilda’s seconds.

So who knows what will happen to Ahmed Saad? We only know what we see right now. The thought of dealing with the “what ifs” probably turns him off, if only because that mind-set would have killed his career 12 months ago. You can’t care about what your career would look like without an 18-month ban. But if you care for the right things? That’s a little different. And Ahmed Saad has always cared about being the ultimate professional even when the deck is stacked against him. He’s shown it his entire career.

***

Collins: People talk about how the game gets faster every year. What was the biggest adjustment for you coming back into the AFL system?

Saad: That question has been asked a couple of times. The speed of the game is always noticeable when you haven’t played for a year and a half and that’s something that wasn’t unexpected but you have to go through it. Other than that I felt it was pretty easy to get back into playing footy and didn’t find too much changed for me in particular.

Collins: Have you changed your approach to your training and matchday preparation?

Saad: I’ve matured a lot in those 18 months as a person and as a footballer. My preparation has always been pretty good and I like to keep myself pretty calm and confident going into games. That hasn’t changed that much. But my maturity in terms of my training and preparation has been taken to another level because I have been away from the game and had to deal with something that I don’t wish upon anyone. So it’s definitely transitioned me into a better person.

Collins: How did you stay ready and motivated over those 18 months? Did you adopt a kind of “F-U” approach?

Saad: I always tried to stay as positive as I could and train as hard as I could. And probably I was in the best shape of my life coming into this season because of how hard I trained. I had to do it all on my own. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still play and make sure that by the end of the year when the draft came, I was in good nick and did everything I can, ticked every box, so I’ve given myself the best chance. If no club gave me an opportunity then at least I can’t blame myself because I could happily move on knowing I did everything to get back.

Collins: Was there ever a time when it was tough facing public perception?

Saad: It hurt me at the start. When it first came out and no one really knew what it was. It was Ahmed Saad – Drug Cheat. My name was tarnished. I’ve never had a sip of alcohol in my life, little alone take drugs, so for my name to be next to that was pretty hard on my family and me. But once it came out people began to understand what it was.

Collins: I hear you can be a bit of a prankster. Is that humour something you relied on in those 18 months away from the game?

Saad: I like to have a bit of fun especially stuff that’s at my own cost. I think the best humour is when people make fun of themselves. Takes a lot to get me upset or hurt me.

Collins: Back to footy: How would you grade your progress this season?

Saad: I played the first 4 games but my form wasn’t great. I know that. Maybe I put too much expectation on myself on what I wanted to achieve when I came back in those first games. It’s just going to take a bit of time to get back into it but I was lucky enough to start in the ones and play for a month straight, and at the moment, I’m back on the rookie list, which I knew was going to happen eventually. For the time being I just have to make sure I work on my footy and play good footy in the VFL. So if the opportunity arises again, I’ll be knocking on the door really hard to play in the ones.

Collins: You guys have some serious young talent and have made some good strides. Do you guys have an identity yet? Is there something you can hang your hat on – ‘This is what we are?’

Saad: We try to go into every game being as competitive as we can and give effort. If we do that then hopefully the results will take care of its self. And if it doesn’t, well then we can hang our heads high knowing the whole team gave great effort and really competitive. That’s something we want to pride ourselves on and do every week. Give great effort.

Collins: Do you need an almost paranoia-level of vigilance of what you put in your body in today’s landscape?

Saad: It has probably come to a point where people are that paranoid because of what happened to me and the Essendon guys. Each case is very different but I think one thing I learned is just to check with your doctor because something so small, or you think is so normal, could be on the ban list and your career could go down the drain by something so small that you could have fixed by just calling the doc.

Collins: You’re a talented small forward but would you ever want to move into the midfield? Or can you because of today’s obsession with big-bodied midfielders?

Saad: For me in general I won’t go inside and play in the middle just because of my frame and size but that doesn’t mean I can’t go on the wing and play as a high half-forward and running around the midfield that way. But in terms of going inside, we’ve got so many good players on our team that are good at that so why would you take them out of there for no good reason. But I think you just try to improve as much in the position you play and then try to adapt in another position so you have more strings to your bow. That’s something I like to do – push up on the wing, which is something I’ve started to do this year.

Collins: We’re at the halfway point of the season. What are you looking to see from a team and individual perspective?

Saad: As a team we want to make sure we finish the second half of the season pretty strongly and compete and hopefully the results will take care of itself. We’re pretty excited about where the list is at and where we’re going as a club. We’ve got great sponsors on board and it’s all looking up for us. Personally, I just need to make sure I improve and play strong consistent footy in the VFL so if another opportunity arises I can play good footy in the ones.

Collins: What’s your best Nick Riewoldt story?

Saad: The first time I met Nick was before I even got drafted at the Saints. My best mate Tyson is really good mates with him, and his dad used to coach Nick. And so I met him at their holiday house. I walked in and he thought I was Andrew Lovett. So I introduced myself, said hello, and then he asked Tyson, ‘Why are you hanging around with Andrew Lovett.’ He thought I was Andrew Lovett until I introduced myself. He’s a champion of the footy club. The way he goes about it, the way he trains, the way he leads us on and off the field is amazing. Everyone looks up to him and he’s a great mentor to a lot of guys, especially for Josh Bruce.

“Loving Pakistan’s Predictable Unpredictability” (Cricket)

Featured on Mailer Report: (http://www.mailerreport.com/#!loving-pakistans-predictable-unpredicta/cmu3)

(Best read on Mailer Report)

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