Last time Gary Wilkinson was in Perth, the Wildcats faithful were baying for his blood after he emerged as public enemy No during a heated 2011-12 grand finals matchup.
The best part of two years on, the 31-year-old Breakers big man is anticipating a pretty heated welcome when he makes his first return to the wild west since that memorable finals series.
"Yeah, they love to hate me over there," smiled the second-time-round Breaker before jetting out for Perth yesterday. "But that's the type of atmosphere that gets me energised. I've had some really good games and a lot of fun playing over there, so bring it on."
Wilkinson was fabulous in that 2011-12 grand final that went to a memorable three games. He averaged 21 points and six rebounds through a tense and terrific series which saw the Breakers, and Wilkinson, seal their second straight championship.
He was especially prominent in the agonising 86-87 defeat in Perth where he responded to some heavy treatment from the Cats home crowd (he'd been criticised for "over-celebrating" earlier victories) by delivering 28 points, seven boards and five assists in a typically emotional display.
Wilkinson is not quite the same player second time around, niggling back and hip injuries and a late callup contributing to a less than stellar reintroduction. His numbers reflect that: 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds a game, at just 43 per cent from the floor and 32 from deep.
The big redhead from Utah hopes the return to enemy territory, and a big reception from the 10,000-plus Perth Arena faithful, can help kick-start his season.
"I'm a competitor, and I love big games," he said. "When games like this come along I get energised. I love playing Perth."
Wilkinson is well aware he isn't quite firing yet for a Breakers outfit, at 4-6, that could do with his best stuff. The next fortnight before the Christmas break is pivotal too, with this road trip (Perth late Friday night and Melbourne on Sunday) followed by a December 13 home blockbuster against the Wildcats.
"The back is getting better, and I'm trying to be as productive as I can," said Wilkinson. "I'm still finding my way in terms of where I can be most productive but I think we're on the right track."
Coach Dean Vickerman feels the injuries have held the big American back, but is playing the long game with his sharpshooting big man. "At times he feels like he's getting better and at times he feels he's staying stagnant. He's shown in a few practices it's coming."
A different role this time around, flitting between the four and five spots, is also presenting its challenges. "It's a process and, as the season progresses, hopefully I'll become more comfortable and more consistent," added Wilkinson.
His reaction to the very un-Breakers-like situation the club has found itself in this year is also notable.
"The team has handled it great," he said of the early 2-6 hole they dug for themselves. "We've reacted well, put ourselves back in playoff contention, and now it's about getting better.
"We have a huge road swing this weekend, and it's just letting go of what's happened in the past and making sure we're prepared for what's to come."
With two wins on the trot, and Mika Vukona in "beast" mode, Wilkinson says it's vital to keep that momentum going. There's no better measuring stick, either, than those Wildcats.
"They're playing phenomenal basketball and, if you want to win championships, you have to beat the best. We've got to give it all we've got."
You know that Wilkinson will be.
- © Fairfax NZ News