Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Basketball: Import thriving at Breakers

Gary Wilkinson is already considered one of the best imports recruited by the club. Photo / Richard Robinson
Gary Wilkinson is already considered one of the best imports recruited by the club. Photo / Richard Robinson

Some might call him the Stormin' Mormon. Breakers' American forward Gary Wilkinson has been one of the stars of their table-topping season, already considered one of the best imports recruited by the club.

The 28-year-old has posted double-digit scores for the last 13 straight matches and clocked up more game time than any other Breaker. He adds a real presence at both ends of the court and combines his talent with a team focus.

Wilkinson is thriving in Auckland, playing some of the best basketball of his career, but has endured some tough times. He dropped out of high school at the age of 18 and stopped playing basketball altogether for about five years as he "went off the rails".

The Utah native turned his life around through a commitment to the Church of Latter Day Saints, and was then posted on a two-year mission to Calgary. These young men - with name badges, crisp white shirts and impeccable haircuts - are a common sight on New Zealand streets and work uncommonly hard.

Wilkinson says they had bible study from 6.30am-9.30am every day before hitting the streets of Calgary from 10am until well into the evening. There was no television, cinema visits were not permitted and phone calls home were allowed twice a year.

It was tough enough putting up with the regular slammed doors, even harder in winter temperatures that could plunge to -30 deg Celsius.

"Sometimes it was so cold I actually couldn't speak because my jaw was frozen," recalls Wilkinson. "We had to write with pencils as the ink in the pens would freeze."

The tough experience instilled a level of self-discipline and focus that has been invaluable since in his life on and off the court.

"Obviously he can play," says Breakers coach Andrej Lemanis, "his talent at ANBL level is unquestionable. But he also has a willingness - not always apparent with imports - to sacrifice for the good of the team. Gary is happy to be one piece of the puzzle."

Along with fellow American Kevin Braswell, the duo have been called the best tandem act in the entire league.

Lemanis explains that it can be a tricky balance with imports, pointing out that the Sydney Kings once went through 17 in three years.

"It is the unfortunate reality of the situation - for imports it is a job and they feel they need to [try to] put up numbers to secure their next job but sometimes that can be to the detriment of the team."

For his part Wilkinson has thrived within the Breakers culture, saying he doubts he will ever experience such a harmonious dressing room atmosphere again in his career.

"I guess I fit in well to the environment here and the up-tempo style of the ANBL suits my game," explains Wilkinson. "We are friends off the court and all have the same goal. Everyone is willing to sacrifice and we all work hard".

Wilkinson also appreciates the front office approach in Takapuna, a contrast to his previous experiences abroad.

"At other clubs the player was just a product brought in to do a job and that was how it felt. Here there is a service-oriented mindset; where they put the players first."

A typical have-hoop, will-travel pro basketballer, Wilkinson played in Greece and South Korea before joining the Breakers.

He loved living in Athens and soaking up the history, but on court experiences were mixed. He found it difficult to trust his coach, and playing time would vary wildly from week to week. He once had to rescue his wife from a riot inside the stadium, as rival supporters clashed and police emerged with tear gas - the players' families were strangely seated between the two sets of fans.

Korea was all about the adjustment to a distinct culture, and coping with the fact that all exchanges with the coach were through a translator. He was also surprised by the prevalence of cigarettes - the coach and officials would puff away during training sessions and games while many of the local players smoked when not on court.

The Breakers are flying high as the season heads to a climax, as Lemanis is sure Wilkinson will play a key role.

"He has got great basketball intelligence and good game understanding," says Lemanis. "He is a solid shooter, agile for his position and a strong defender. He plays hard and he works hard."

Next stop for Wilkinson and the Breakers (17 wins-three losses) is a two-game series against the Gold Coast Blaze (10 wins-11 losses), with the first match tonight at Broadbeach.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a2 at 23 Jul 2014 10:56:13 Processing Time: 596ms