Sports

Another Down Under

Glacier grad Bryan Michaels is playing professional basketball in Australia, wearing the same uniform his dad, Dewey, did 20 years earlier

With his surfer-blond hair, the number 40 on his back and his words tumbling out of his mouth in an exotic foreign accent, one could be forgiven for doing a double take.

It was 2018, after all, and the glory days of Dwayne “Dewey” Michaels, the exuberant, charismatic fan favorite for the Perth (Australia) Wildcats were fading memories, but darn if it didn’t look like the 6-foot-9 American who once inspired a cheering section known as Dewey’s Angels had returned to don the uniform he last wore during a league championship season in 2000.

There was good reason for the confusion.

The young man with the blond hair and the American accent, posing for a series of promotional photos after his recent signing, had chosen the number 40 as an homage to Dewey Michaels, a player he knew little about but a man about whom he knew plenty.

“I was at dinner with one of his teammates and we’re just talking about the good old days, I guess, and he brought up a video,” the young man says. “And (Michaels) made a play on this highlight and I’m like ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know he could do that!’”

“We’ve actually had this conversation in my house multiple times,” Michaels says. “I never wanted to put pressure on my kids to follow in my footsteps.”

Try or not, here was Bryan Michaels, Dewey’s eldest son, back in Perth, tracing those oversized footsteps all the way across the world.

In the early 1990s, Dewey Michaels starred at Montana State University, where he still holds the school’s career record for blocked shots (149), and landed a job playing professionally in Turkey shortly after college that was followed by a brief stint in France, then six years in Australia. Along the way, he and his wife, Rhonda, had three children, Bryan, Bret and Brooks, all dual citizens of the United States and Australia.

These days, Dewey is an unmistakable presence at hundreds of Flathead Valley sporting events, partly to follow his kids, partly because of his job at Universal Athletic, and partly because his buoyant persona and towering stature make him hard to miss in any crowd.

Dewey and Rhonda met at MSU, where Rhonda (nee Babcock), a basketball player herself at Flathead High School, beat Dewey in a game of H.O.R.S.E. on their first date. But continuing the family tradition on the hardwood was hardly a given for the Michaels boys, who grew up in a hyper-competitive but not basketball-centric home.

Bryan Michaels battles for a rebound during a game in 2014. Beacon File Photo

Nonetheless, Bryan played basketball from a young age but for a while it didn’t seem like it would amount to anything more than a hobby. The Michaels boys are all about 6-foot-3 — something they blame, jokingly, on their dad for marrying the 5-foot-4 Rhonda — and in high school Bryan was a good but not great player on some excellent Glacier High School teams. As a junior, despite his height, he sometimes backed up 7-foot future Gonzaga center Ryan Edwards, and as a senior he played in the backcourt alongside all-state point guard Evan Epperly, who would go on to play football at the University of Montana. Bryan earned his lone postseason accolade, a spot on the all-Western Conference second team, as a senior.

Still, Bryan had what he believed was a firm scholarship offer from a four-year, in-state school he would prefer not to name to continue his career in college. Then, the offer was pulled.

“(It was) heartbreaking,” he said. “I even went out and bought a hoodie, I was that excited. And then it didn’t happen.”

Bryan frantically called back schools who had been recruiting him previously, but everyone’s roster had been filled by the time he returned to the market. In May, just months before the start of the 2014-15 school year, Bryan attended a tryout at Wenatchee (Washington) Valley College, a two-year school more than 400 miles from home. He made the team, suffered through an injury-plagued freshman season, but broke out as a sophomore, averaging 21.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game while shooting 42 percent from 3-point range.

Then he entered the recruiting cycle once again.

“That second time was a lot better; way better,” he said. “Because I went from scrambling and ending up at a junior college that I didn’t really know anything about, and honestly wasn’t too excited about going to, and then having schools call all the way from Alaska to (Los Angeles) to Boston to Hawaii.”

Bryan may not have been excited about going the junior college route at first, but in the end he called it “the best thing“ that could have happened. Dewey, too, went from devastated about not being able to see his son regularly to thrilled about the maturation he witnessed.

“He grew up as a man, on his own,” Dewey said

After sorting through his offers, Bryan picked NCAA Division II Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, a place where he could travel around the West as part of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and where he could purse his two other passions: painting and shoes. And when he wasn’t designing custom shoes for players in the NBA and NFL, Bryan was honing his game on the court, developing into a fundamentally sound defensive stalwart with a sweet shooting stroke. He averaged a modest 12.6 points per game during his final college year at Concordia but had been impressive when an Australian scout came to watch him play, and during an Athletes in Action tour earlier in his career, and was offered a job with a state league team in Perth, a beachfront town on Australia’s western coast.

It was, coincidentally, the same level where his dad began his Aussie hoops career.

Glacier’s Bryan Michaels pressures Flathead’s Matt Quist during a game in 2013. Beacon File Photo

Australian professional basketball consists of smaller state leagues operating beneath the hoops-loving country’s main circuit, the National Basketball League (NBL). Rosters in the NBL are comprised of players just a tick below the world’s elite, and include former NBA players and Olympians. To get there is to have enough talent to belong on the court with the best players anywhere.

But when Bryan got to Australia, there was no guarantee he would even stick at the state level.

“When I talked to the (state coach), I was like, ‘Can he play at this level?’” Dewey said. “And he was like, ‘We’ll see.’ Well, he tears it up when he first gets there.”

Bryan’s state league team was the Lakeside Lightning and he immediately proved he belonged, scoring 25 points in just his second game and topping 30 points twice, including a 37-point explosion on July 8, just three months after he graduated from Concordia. A short time later the Perth Wildcats of the NBL came calling, invited Bryan to a tryout, and offered him a one-year contract. The once unwanted middling high school player had worked his way to the big time, even if he still has a long way to go to join the Wildcats regular rotation once he returns from a knee injury in February.

“It’s unreal,” Bryan said of the talent level on his current team. “They’re so smart, athletically they’re unbelievable, and physically they’re so gifted.”

Dewey, who knows as well as anyone what it takes to play in the NBL, isn’t about to doubt his son’s prospects.

“One thing about this whole journey that he’s been on is every time he was told ‘no,’ my wife and I just saw more determination in him,” Dewey said. “And he has always played with a chip on his shoulder … every time a setback happened we just saw more and more determination in him, which was cool to see.”

Until his return from injury, Bryan is, to quote his dad, “living his best life” in Australia. He lives a five-minute walk from the beach, just surprised his parents by making the 35-hour journey back home for Christmas, and hopes to play professionally for the next decade. After the Wildcats season ends, in fact, he has his next basketball job lined up in Tasmania, where he will spend the NBL offseason with the Southern Huskies.

“I had a lot of people tell me, here on my path, that I wasn’t good enough to do this,” Bryan said. “But I just put my head down and worked my butt off and had a passion for it, and through that I achieved a lot of my goals and dreams, and I’m playing at a level I never even imagined.”

“We couldn’t be prouder,” Dewey said. “Not many of us can say that their kid is able to walk in (their) footsteps.”

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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