NPH Trailblazers: Mike Brkovich, The Canadian Golden Arm
NPH Trailblazers is a segment being introduced to Canada that will illustrate the careers of influential figures of the past, who have paved the way for the present and future of Canadian basketball.
Mike Brkovich is basketball. His resume proves it. He’s been a multiple time winner at both the High School and College levels. Rubbed elbows playing against and alongside two of the greatest basketball players of all-time; was the first Canadian to start in an NCAA Championship Game and represented his country on the international stage. He is without a doubt one of the greatest Canadian basketball players, and he took a moment to sit down with NPH to tell his story.
Ladies and gentlemen let us introduce you to the legend that is the “Canadian Golden Arm.”
NPH: Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, you were a dominant force during your High School days winning a couple of provincial championships and being named to the Windsor All-City team twice. Tell us about those days.
MB: I grew up in downtown Windsor. Ended up going to W.D. Lowe High School where Coach (Gerry) Brumpton coached for 30 or 35-years and had a number of Provincial Championships. I was very lucky during my High School career to have played against a lot of great players including Jay Triano who was at A.N. Myer (Niagara Falls) and Leo Rautins who was at St. Mike’s (Toronto). Oakwood in Toronto had great teams. I was very fortunate in my last two years of High School to win two Provincial Championships. My brother was a teammate and I was very fortunate to have been a part of that.
NPH: You get recruited by Michigan State, but things didn’t go very well for you at first. Why was that?
MB: Honestly, I wasn’t recruited very heavily out of High School. The University of Detroit recruited me as did Eastern Michigan. I got a scholarship from Michigan State and Coach (Jud) Heathcote, but they already had a great recruiting class. They had Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Jay Vincent, who eventually lead the Big Ten in scoring for two-years and had a great 10 or 12-year pro career. But I had to make a big transition. I was a High School centre and had to transition into a guard at the college level. I still ended up playing quite a bit my freshman year. We lost to Kentucky, a great Kentucky team that won a National Championship with Kyle Macy and Jack Givens. Rick Robey was also on that team with Joe Hall as the Head Coach. In my sophomore year I ended up starting most of the year and of course played in the National Championship game against Larry Bird.
NPH: You mentioned you faced Larry Bird and Indiana State in the National Championship and you had to guard him in that game. Was that a surreal moment for you?
MB: Yeah, it was surreal, but at the time you know Larry Bird’s team was undefeated and we had five or six losses that year. We lost to a great North Carolina team at North Carolina. The Big Ten Conference had a lot of great teams with a lot of great players. We played a zone defense that was kind of based on man-to-man principles. So Earvin (Johnson) was 6’8” and I was 6’5”, so he would always line up on the floor against the oppositions best forward. Carl Nicks was with Indiana State and of course Larry was College Player of the Year, so Earvin and I had the task of guarding Larry most of the game. It was a surreal moment, but if you’re on a team that is pursuing a National Championship and we had been rated number one in the country during the year, I guess you don’t realize what you’re participating in at that moment, you know? You’re getting caught up in all the hoopla. I was going into my second NCAA Tournament, so I had one tournament under my belt as a freshman. We were really looking forward to the matchup. Personally we had felt the Notre Dame team was better than the Indiana State team. That year Notre Dame had five really good NBA type players. They had Bill Laimbeer and a guy named Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Woolridge played 12 or 13-years in the NBA and Bill Handlik was a first round draft pick of the Seattle SuperSonics and Tracey Jackson was a second round pick of the Boston Celtics. We beat Notre Dame in the Midwest Regional, so I always thought that was our National Championship game because Notre Dame had a tougher schedule and there was a big rivalry between Notre Dame and Michigan State because of football. But I think once we saw Indiana State play in the Semi-Final, we really looked forward to the matchup. Of course Larry (Bird), I would have to say is arguably one of the 10 best players in NBA history, so it was a surreal moment for sure. Larry was a great player; great competitor and I always tell people that he was a really great guy too.
NPH: You played at Michigan State with your brother Don. How was that experience for you, especially with the success those Spartans teams had?
MB: It was fun because growing up in Windsor, in downtown Windsor, Ontario, my home wasn’t far from downtown Detroit, where the Pistons used to play. As kids we grew up being big Pistons fans. We were so into the basketball culture of Michigan. We always wanted to play for either Michigan or Michigan State. It was terrific playing on two Provincial Championship teams with him and then eventually Big 10 Championships and also a National Championship. It really was great.
NPH: You got drafted in the NBA Draft in 1981 in the 8th round by the Milwaukee Bucks. How come you never played for them?
MB: My senior year at Michigan State, I severely sprained and almost broke my left ankle against the University of Michigan. I was lucky enough after the season to have played in a lot of those All-Star Games, where I was M.V.P. in one or two of those games. I injured my knee again that summer. I got the handle of being injury prone. Milwaukee, the year before, had won 60 games. They had a very good team at the time. The NBA only had 23 teams back 1981. A smaller league, with less of a chance of making it, I think. For me, it was an accomplishment just getting drafted.
NPH: How come you never thought about playing in Europe?
MB: It wasn’t on my radar. I tried out for the (Detroit) Pistons in a mini-camp and never made it. I signed with the Wisconsin Flyers of the CBA. At the time the Continental League was just starting. I never had the desire to play in Europe, although I was approached by many European teams. I always wanted to either play in the NBA or I guess if you don’t play in the NBA, you played in the Continental League.
NPH: You spent some time playing with the Canadian National team. You were on the team that if had qualified, would have boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Do you regret not having played in an Olympic Games?
MB: I think we would have had a hard time even qualifying for the Olympics. The U.S. had a strong team. Brazil had a strong team, so we still had to qualify. I thought our 1979 Pan-American Games team was great. We had Leo (Rautins); we had Jay (Triano). We had a lot of great players on that team. I really don’t have a lot of regrets. I played on a couple of Provincial Championship teams, on two Big Ten Championship teams. I played on a (NCAA) National Championship team. I played against Larry Bird and with Magic Johnson for two seasons. I was the captain of the Michigan State basketball team in my senior year. I got drafted by an NBA team. Played in the Pan-American Games and played in the CBA. Looking back, I guess you always have some regrets, but like Frank Sinatra said “too few to mention.”
NPH: When did you decide that it was time to hang up the kicks?
MB: You keep chasing the dream. You keep wanting to play basketball because that’s all you’ve ever done, but by the time I reached I think 26 or 27 I kind of knew. What was I going to do, stick around another five years until I’m 30? Or say “hey, I’ve had a great basketball career” and move on. I think so many guys, whether you’re a basketball, baseball, football, whatever sport you are at a college level, you’re trying to make it into a professional league. You got to give it a good shot. I think sometimes guys hang in there too long. I was one of those guys that probably hung around a year or two too much. However, I learned a lot of the experience.