Special Photo. Berkmar grad Mike Konanec, left, helped coach a team of young Aborigines to a championship while in Australia to pursue his own pro playing career.
To pursue and fulfill a lifelong dream is something few people get to experience. For some, dreams can come true easily, for others, such as myself, they require hard work, dedication and sacrificing everything and everyone.
From the beginning of my basketball career, I have been fortunate to be in the company of the best in Georgia. I was coached at Berkmar by David Boyd, and played with guys like Tony Akins, Wayne Arnold, Adrien Borders and all three Witherspoons. I played on Team Georgia, coached by Al Outlaw. I earned a basketball scholarship to Life University in Georgia, before transferring to Widener University in Pennsylvania.
One would think a 6-foot-9 basketball player who loved to play defense might stand out. I was never really a standout player, but I loved to play. I was not approached by any scouts, and I did not have an agent, so when I came out of college I tried out for every random league that would have me.
I even had the opportunity to meet with such great players as Gerald Wilkins, Toni Kukoc and Earl Boykins, who took the time to coach and educate me regarding the politics and general knowledge of how professional basketball works. I also trained with Scott Patterson, a 16-year veteran of international basketball, as well as Bruce Kreutzer, the shooting consultant of the NBDL. Though all of these experiences helped me become a better player, they did not afford me the opportunity to try out for the NBA or any other teams overseas. Even though I was only 27 at the time, I was told my age was one of the reasons no one showed interest in me.
It was not until playing with the Buford Majic (now the Gwinnett Majic) that my big break came. Despite being plagued by injuries all season -- two minor shoulder tears, a broken nose and a calf injury -- by playing with this great group of guys, while being coached by David Akin (also a Berkmar grad and one of my oldest friends) and Brandon Williams (another close friend and the owner of the Majic), it gave me the exact exposure needed to advance to the next level. Having a WBA championship on my resume finally caught the attention of several people in the basketball community, which led to my receiving an offer to play in Australia.
As you might imagine, the decision to play overseas, despite it being a lifelong dream, was not an easy one to make. The salary was low and the competition was going to be less than anything I had encountered before. Though I was being given the chance to play basketball, I would make little money and have to leave behind the place that allowed me to become the player I was. There would not be any serious practice sessions or coaching, no individualized training, only what I was able to do on my own. In order to leave the states, I would have to face financial ruin and file for bankruptcy. My dad's roofing company, which I helped him run, would also be strained with my leaving. In order to pursue my dream, everything I had ever achieved up to that point in my life would have to be sacrificed -- all for a chance to perhaps be seen by someone while playing basketball overseas -- not even for a contract, just for a chance.
My family and close friends, as well as all my friends who had played overseas -- mainly Adrian Penland, (Dacula grad) B.J. Puckett and (Brookwood grad) Robby Bostain -- were there for me to talk to and after much soul-searching, the decision was made to take this opportunity and start my life over again at the age of 29.
Have you ever felt like a dinosaur? Well, I have. Compared to everyone else on this Australian team and league, I was a definite dinosaur.
Despite all obstacles, I played to the best of my ability and took the main league team from 5-5 and in fifth place to 15-6 and winning the championship, averaging 10 points, 17 rebounds and 7 blocks per game. Almost all of my points came from offensive rebounds, as I was told that the team was already set for scoring, that rebounding and defense were my only concerns. In the League Reserve, which was a step down league, I had the same effect, and that team also went on to win the championship. I had always been told that I would have to shine overseas in order to get the attention necessary to make it to higher levels, but in order for me to fit in and win here, I had to do the exact opposite. I was required to be a role player, and despite it being contrary to everything I had been led to believe and a possible hindrance in achieving my dream, it is what I did.
But do you know what the most startling and memorable achievement was for me? Coaching.
While in Australia, the DBA (Darwin Basketball Association) was able to find work for me at a few coaching clinics so I could earn extra money. St. John's College (a boarding school for Aborigines) took notice and hired me to not only be their head basketball coach, but their weight-training and life coach as well. These students had been exposed to terrible things in their communities and several had drug and alcohol-related problems as well prior to their coming to the school. They needed a positive influence in their lives as many of their relatives had fallen victim to alcoholism and drug abuse. They needed someone to show them how hard work and dedication could improve their lives.
They needed me, and I needed them. This job was very rewarding to me personally.
The students were quite raw, but very athletic and willing to work hard and learn. Although our time was limited to only two to three practices and one weight-training session per week, they made huge strides and quickly became a very competitive team. As much as they had improved on the court, they had also grown in maturity and self-respect because of the structure and accountability infused into their practice sessions. This also allowed them to accept me and helped them communicate with me about their troubled histories and current problems.
Here in Australia there are Aboriginal communities scattered through the country. Three times a year they have festivals to allow the villages to compete against each other in a variety of ways, including basketball. I was lucky enough to be invited to coach my St. John's team at two of these festival games, the first being the Merrepen Sports Festival at the Daly River Aboriginal Community. As this was my first true coaching experience, I was a bit nervous, but my kids played their hearts out and did amazingly well. We won the championship. It was a phenomenal experience to be among these people and see them all embrace not only the game of basketball, but me as well.
The second game was the Barunga Sports and Cultural Festival, the largest of the three. The only problem I would have with attending this festival was that during this time I had my own two championship, or grand final, games set to play in Darwin, a six-hour drive away. So I had a huge conflict, but St. John's understood this and organized transportation for me immediately following my two grand final games.
In this situation, I am allowed to be not only the coach, but a player as well, so I was permitted to play in the playoffs with my team. In the first game, we played the top team in the competition and pulled out a stunning victory. The championship game was against a team from the Nooka village that had a genuine Division I 19-year-old player on their team. But, in one of the most memorable games of my career, we won the championship by one point in the closing seconds of the game.
So in the span of eight days, I played and coached teams to four championships. This was quite an experience and it opened my eyes to a culture I knew very little about, and a profession I had never given any serious consideration to before -- coaching. Due to my success, St. John's offered me the coaching position for the duration of my stay in Australia, while asking me to move on-site and become a house parent and a positive role model for the students. Through friendships made here, I have potential offers for jobs in South America and Eastern Europe. All of this was made possible because of one simple thing -- I never gave up on my dreams. There are no words to describe what it feels like to finally achieve your lifelong goal.
Especially for a 29-year-old man, beaten up and with no real professional resume, who sacrificed it all to pursue a lifelong dream.
Berkmar grad Mike Konanec, 29, put his energy into his family roofing business before taking a risk in his pursuit of a basketball career. He played locally for the Gwinnett Majic, which led to playing professionally this past season in Australia.