Basketball: A blond high on ambition

Derrick Whyte talks to a man who rejected the NBA for the city of steel
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UNTIL THREE months ago, all that the American college graduate Travis Conlan knew about Sheffield concerned the locals' propensity for stripping and a passing reference in the Canterbury Tales.

Now, after opting to start his basketball career in England rather than entering the rat-race of attempting to find a spot in America's NBA, Conlan is a key member of a Sheffield Sharks team who start this afternoon's National Cup final against the London Leopards as hot favourites.

As a steady, if unspectacular player on a well-regarded Michigan college team, Conlan, 21, would have had an outside chance of securing one of the spots on the end of an NBA bench, usually reserved for the sport's model and hard- working citizens. But the labour dispute between owners and the players' union, which was settled last week after six bitter months which cost players $500m in salaries, convinced Conlan that his future lay elsewhere. "My girlfriend Jennifer Taylor found the Sheffield Sharks site on the Internet and I thought it sounded like a good situation," Conlan said.

"All I knew about Sheffield was the Full Monty and I remember reading the Canterbury Tales where there was a character from Sheffield. That's about all I knew. But I was looking forward to going some place I didn't know and, with the way things have transpired in the NBA, it turned out to be a fantastic decision."

The labour dispute polarised opinion in America although, understandably, it was ultimately categorised as an internal squabble between a group of spoiled millionaires (the players) and a group of spoiled multi-millionaires (the owners).

"I think the situation is sad," Conlan said. "There are probably only 25 or 30 players in the NBA who were really bothered by the issues, the rest just wanted to play. The majority are making normal money, $500,000 to $600,000, whereas it's the guys who are making millions and millions - and want to keep salary clauses that help them - who were driving the strike. I feel for the average guys. If I had made the league I would have been on the minimum this season, $300,000 or so, and I would just be desperate to play right now, like most of the guys are. The superstars are running the league."

Conlan's socialist instincts and disillusion with the NBA would not prevent him from joining the ranks of the millionaires should the call come. "If I had the opportunity to do that I would," Conlan said. "It has been my dream to play in the NBA since I started playing. My old college coach, Steve Fisher, is now an assistant at the Sacramento Kings and it always helps to know someone on the inside. On NBA teams, they like the 11th or 12th men on the bench to be good people, who stay out of trouble, go with the flow and always practise hard."

Conlan fits that bill perfectly, as well as answering the need that many NBA teams privately harbour for blond, good-looking all-Americans on their bench to boost ticket sales among the more red-necked members of society.

"That's a factor as well," admitted Conlan. "But if someone wants me to be a cheerleader, I'll be the best one in America, probably the best- paid, too."

In the meantime, Conlan is enjoying life among Sheffield's multi-racial and extremely enthusiastic sporting community.

The spell in England has allowed him to pursue his other sporting love, football, and four visits to Hillsborough have transformed him into a confirmed Wednesday fan. "Growing up, all I played was football and basketball. I did well enough to be offered a couple of soccer scholarships," he explained.

"But I had decided basketball was the direction I wanted to go and, unfortunately, that meant I couldn't play any competitive football at college. Earlier this season I had the chance to practise with Wednesday and I even took penalties against Kevin Pressman. It was amazing. Then my girlfriend Jennifer, who played soccer at college, came over and we watched the game when Wednesday beat Manchester United 3-1. It was one of the highlights of my time here."

Conlan may have more opportunities to watch next season, should his NBA aspirations fail. Although he could attract reasonable attention, and more money, in Europe he has already expressed strong interest in re-signing for the Sharks.

"If everything works out and the money is right, I would definitely return," Conlan said. "If all the players give it a shot I want to be part of it. I've had nothing but a good time here and the guys on the team play extremely well together. That is a real rarity."

Conlan should celebrate his first season in Britain with a first medal against the Leopards although the London team's cause was aided considerably last week with the signing of the American Rashod Johnson.

The 6ft 2in guard played for Western Michigan, coached by Bob Donewald whose son, Bob junior, coaches the Derby Storm. "He's a heck of a player and will probably be the best guard in Britain," said Donewald Jnr. "Without him, Leopards had little chance. Now? It's interesting."