“Marty Conlon….I made up the rule, and I’m talking stuff at practice, if anybody goes for his pump fake it’s a $100 fine. I went for every pump fake, he gave me about 25! I just remember being there thinking I know his game he can’t get by me, he gave me the business many times, Marty, he was the man.” 5 x NBA All Star Chris Webber speaking about Irish International Marty Conlon
Marty Conlon didn’t play for Ireland because of the Bosman rule or anything like it. He played because of his love for the country and a desire to be associated with the birth country of all four of his grandparents. Conlon’s sacrifices to play for Ireland ultimately helped legitimize the National Team for other high level players and gave Ireland immediate respect on the international scene.
For the Conlon family in New York, Ireland was never far from their thoughts. Marty was a second-generation Irish American who’s four grandparents had all come from Ireland. His closest connection to the country came through his maternal grandmother who had a big personality and always ensured that the family stayed connected to Donegal and Ireland. Marty visited the country as a child but more importantly at home Irishness was deeply instilled through an appreciation of history and for what had come before them “For Irish Americans, we knew quite a bit of Irish history, more than the average. We understood everything they went through in the early 20th century. A lot of Irish Americans are not caught up on the minutia of Irish history but we knew all that. Especially my mum and dad they kept up on daily news in Ireland and they were very knowledgeable about Northern Ireland and the situation there. I would say they were more nuanced than many in that area… A lot of Irish Americans are proud to be Irish but they may not know the exact historical figures and where they fit in, but we always caught up on all that kind of stuff”.
Growing up in New York, Conlon became a major talent in the Catholic Schools Leagues and was on the radar of a number of high profile colleges. He also landed on the radar of Enda Byrt who was searching for talent to join the Junior Men’s squad at the time in the mid 1980s. Byrt met with the Conlon’s and discussed the opportunity of coming to play for Ireland. What made the conversation more interesting at the time was that Enda also met with Conlon’s fiercest rival in the Bronx school leagues James O’Boyle. O’Boyle took the step and played for Ireland at Junior Men’s level but never progressed to the Senior team. For Conlon unfortunately the timing made the Junior Men’s team impossible as Ireland needed a commitment for the entire summer and Marty was just after committing to college and had to attend summer school before his Freshman season. As It turned out it took almost twenty years before he Conlon finally got the opportunity to play in the green jersey.
For any basketball person the world over, the name Rick Pitino is a famous one. Pitino’s coaching career has seen him two NCAA Championships, coach in the NBA for the Boston Celtics and take control of the famous Greek powerhouse Panathinikos amongst others. In 1985, Pitino was serving as an assistant to Hubie Brown in the New York Knicks when the call came to take over the head coaching job at Providence College. Providence at the time were struggling and needed someone to turn the programme around. The school had a top young talent in Billy Donovan, but more strength was needed. Pitino took to the recruiting trail and in Conlon found the big man he was looking for. At 6’10, the big man had already made a name for himself at Archbishop Stepinac and as he arrived in Providence, he was ready to help. As a freshman he averaged 4.4 points a game to go with 2.9 rebounds. On the face of it nothing special, but behind the numbers were the overall transformation of Providence under Pitino. Despite losing in the Big East tournament to Georgetown, the Friars 21-8 record was good enough to secure them a sixth seed in the NCAA tournament. Wins over UAB and Austin Peay over the first weekend saw the Friars head to the Sweet 16 weekend. An upset of the South East regions Alabama in the Sweet 16 set up a rematch with Georgetown in the Elite 8 and they were able to reverse their Big East result by beating Georgetown 88-73 to bring Providence to the Final Four. At the Final Four, Conlon played 10 minutes In front of 64,959 people in the Louisiana Superdome, scoring two points and matching up with future NBA players Rony Seikaly and Derrick Coleman of Syracuse. Unfortunately for Providence their star guard Billy Donovan was held to just eight points and their Cinderella run was over.
The success helped Pitino jump to the NBA as a head coach for the first time as he took over the New York Knicks as head coach. His replacement in Providence was one of Pitino’s assistants Gordon Chiesa. In his sophomore year, Conlon looked to break out as he averaged 13 points and almost six rebounds, but his season was cut short to just eleven games. With the Friars going from a Final Four team to having a losing record of 11-17 under Chiesa, a change was made quickly and Rick Barnes a relative newcomer at the time was appointed. In his junior year Conlon came back stronger than ever and led the team in rebounding with 7 a game and was the second top scorer with 14.3 points a game. With Conlon back playing a full season the record improved again, and Providence were back to a winning team. His senior season showed much of the same consistency as he 14.7 points and 7.6 boards in the Big East as he closed out his Providence career with 1,135 career points and 584 rebounds.
As the 1990 NBA draft came Conlon was hopeful to hear his name but it disappointingly wasn’t to be. Derrick Coleman, who he had battled in the Final Four years earlier was selected as the top pick in the draft. Outside of Coleman, Gary Payton, Toni Kukoc and Chris Jackson there was a lack of major impact NBA players in the draft but still there was no room for the 6’10 Irishman. Instead Marty began what looked to be a typical under the radar pro career as in his first year he spent time with Le Mans in France and the Rockford Lightning in the CBA. When a former CBA coach of the year got the job as the Seattle Supersonics it opened an opportunity for Conlon, and the man he would have to thank for it would have an Irish connection although neither would know it. George Karl was a teammate of John O’Donnell’s in North Carolina and now he was giving a chance in the NBA to Marty.
In terms of a welcome to the NBA moment he couldn’t have asked for more as early in his first preseason, the Sonics went up against the defending champion Chicago Bulls. “As a kid I used to watch all the documentaries or shows on the Beatles, or my parents would tell me how crazy it was when they visited New York and everyone went crazy. My first year we had a preseason game, it was outside of an NBA city in Kentucky and we played the Chicago Bulls. At this time I had played against some great players and stars but we played the Bulls and they had just won their first championship. Michael Jordan came out on the court to shootaround and practice and it was utter bedlam, it took it to another level. I thought this must have been exactly what it was like for the Beatles this was going completely outside of basketball and sports this was a cultural phenomenon it was insane. The minute he came on I just remembered those Beatles documentaries.”
Playing alongside Dana Barros and Gary Payton, Conlon averaged 8.5 minutes a game in his rookie year and did enough to impress in his 45 games as the Sonics to ensure that he was seen as an NBA calibre player. What it eventually led to was an eleven-year NBA career that saw Marty represent eight different NBA teams.
Over those 11 seasons, Conlon peaked in the 1993-94 season for the Charlotte Hornets as he averaged 10 points a game alongside Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson. He was close to double digit points again two year’s later for the Milwaukee Bucks when he averaged 9.9 points and played in all 82 regular season games. In the NBA, one of the most coveted things for players is to earn the respect of their peers. The level to which Conlon was respected was highlighted by Chris Webber on an episode of NBA TVs Open Court. Webber was a former Rookie of the Year, five team All Star and an All-NBA first team selection in 2001. When the panel on the show were asked who the toughest person they had to guard was, Webber surprised everyone by picking out Conlon. Webber said that he had to introduce a team rule that any player who would fall for one of Conlon’s fakes had to pay a $100 fine. The pick of the matchups between the two came during Marty’s Bucks career when in 1995 the two both scored 20 points as the Bucks beat the Bullets. Webber went 8/20 for his 20 points while Conlon went just 7/9. It clearly impressed Webber as he described Conlon as the man.
After his NBA career ended, Conlon headed to Europe and played out five more seasons across high level leagues in Italy, Spain and Greece.
Playing for Ireland
It was during this era of his career when the Irish team came to the fore. The importance of playing for the Irish team was something that never escaped him and he was heart set on representing Ireland whenever he could “It was really an honour and I knew it would mean a lot to my parents. It would have meant a lot to my relations in Donegal and it would have meant a lot to me. I read a lot of Irish history. I understood everything Ireland had to do to get it’s freedom and become a republic. Obviously that’s a little bit separate but it was just very important for me to play for it. I knew it was going to be somewhat of a sacrifice at that time but it really was an honour to play for Ireland at that time.” The sacrifice was clear, after a decade in the NBA, putting extra miles on the clock was the last thing his body needed yet his connections to Ireland took any doubt away from the decision.
Although he contribured majorly throughout his years with the Irish team it would be a pair of early losses, while he was still playing at the highest level in Greece, that showed just what Conlon was capable of. At the start of their semi-final campaign, Ireland were given a tough schedule with an away game to Germany followed by a home matchup with Croatia three days later at the start of 2001. In Germany, Ireland feature domestic legends Adrian Fulton, Gareth Maguire and Damien Sealy amongst the team. The strength of the German team can be best shown by the fact that six of the players playing were playing again less than a year later as Germany won the bronze medal at the 2002 World Championships in Indiana. That German team added Dirk Nowitzki and more talent, but this German team had many of the same players.
Prior to the game, Conlon had never met his teammates and he flew directly to Germany from Greece. Adrian Fulton wasn’t sure about the hype “That was the first time I saw Marty Conlon in the flesh. He flew in from Greece and we flew in from Ireland. When we got there for our first practice, Marty was in the gym but was at the other end of the gym in O’Neills type shorts and a Carolina blue top that said Zimbabwe Basketball. I remember saying this dude played in the NBA for 8 years? You’ve got to be kidding me. But wow! What a performance, he was incredible. He couldn’t run at that stage in his career but wow. After the game he’d certainly earned my respect, before the game I thought this dude looks like he’s 49!”. In the game in Gottingen, Conlon led the way for Ireland with 25 points and 6 rebounds. Three days later they would return to Dublin to face Croatia in a game they lost out by just two points. Again, Conlon would lead the way with 21 points and 8 rebounds.
At the time Ireland got him, he was definitely at the tail end of his career yet despite that, he made a major contribution to the country both as a leader and as a player. His arrival gave the Irish team an even greater level of authority and he opened the door for other former NBA players to consider being part of the team.
Post Playing Career
.Post playing career Marty was an ambassador for the NBA and has travelled around the world doing clinics on behalf of the US State Department.
Often statistics don’t do justice for what a player achieves in their career and for Conlon this is definitely the case. He was far more important to teams, especially Ireland, than the numbers. That said, the numbers do a pretty great job at showing just how great he was too: One Final Four, 1,135 NCAA Division 1 points, fifteen years as a professional, 11 NBA seasons, 379 NBA games, 2,454 NBA points, 1,310 NBA rebounds, NBA career shooting percentage of 51%. Without doubt Conlon had the most impressive career of any player who represented Ireland and yet he is sometimes overlooked in the list of greats who donned the green jersey.
Chris Webber struggled to deal with him, and Europe’s best big men did too. Simply put Marty Conlon legitimised Ireland as a contender in Europe and helped ensure Ireland could compete with the elite teams of European basketball.