Quite often in the basketball world I hear other athletes say, “I will just go overseas and hoop”. Some say it like they are talking about casually going to their local rec center to play pick up games on the weekend. Playing basketball abroad is not a walk in the park and believe me, it’s not for everybody.
After going undrafted in the 2005 NBA Draft, then signing a training camp deal with the San Antonio Spurs, I was faced with two options as I was officially beginning my pro career. Option one was to play in the NBA Developmental now known as the G League, or explore my options playing abroad. I chose to kick off my career abroad. I signed to play in the Spanish ACB league, which is arguably the best league outside of the NBA. Fresh out of college having only been out of the country once, to having to live in a foreign country alone was tough. Imagine this, I was picked up at the airport, given a gift bag with money and a cell phone in it, dropped off at my hotel and told see you for practice six o’clock. I was completely lost. Nobody told me about siesta. Siesta is when the city shut down for a nap break… no really naptime throughout the entire city. My Spanish was super rusty. I had to lean on my high school Spanish class days. That night I had my first practice, a solid three-hour practice. After practice, I was told I could eat in the restaurant of the hotel for free. Cool so, that’s what I did, but that language barrier got me. My waiter was trying to communicate with me what they were serving. He kept pointing at his ribs, so I said “ribs” he replied with a confident “yes”. I waited for about fifteen minutes hungry from the long day of travel, and tough practice. When my food came out it was liver, one of my least favorite foods. I forced fed myself that night.
The next day after practice my team gave me a car and said see you in the morning. Remember at this point I may have actually been to the gym twice, with someone else driving. I was almost clueless on how to get back to my apartment. I kept telling myself, just find the pharmacy, and my apartment would be around the corner. To my surprise there was literally a pharmacy ever two blocks. I called the team manage to tell him that I was lost. He replied, “sorry I can’t understand you, I don’t speak English call someone else”, he said that very clearly. Two hours later I found my apartment and had Doritos for dinner, because all the restaurants were closed. I cried every night for about two weeks. I was making the most money I had ever seen in my life, but the situation was difficult. At his moment God gave me a great life lesson. This is when I fully realized that money didn’t equal happiness. It wasn’t until my cousin told me I couldn’t quit and come back home. Instead he quit his job and came to live with me in Spain. I remember him saying “man if we make it in our hood, we can definitely make it together in a foreign country”.
I shared those brief stories to make a point. The point being, playing abroad is a lot more than just playing basketball. The obstacles you face vary depending on what country you are in, what city and what type of organization you play for. Can you handle being away from everything that you once considered normal? Can you handle not seeing your loved ones for extended periods of time? Is the organization you signed with professional about handling business? There are horror stories about athletes not getting paid either on time or at all, I even had some issues arise, but I will save those stories for my autobiography.
Even the basketball is different. Some rules are different The game is more physical in some countries. In most cases I would say playing overseas is very similar to playing in college, because rarely does one guy dominate the ball, it’s more of team game most places. After a three year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers the 2011 lockout hit. No one knew exactly when the lockout would end, which led to a lot of NBA guys going to play abroad. A lot of those guys were in for a rude awakening. Being that I had played overseas before I made a NBA roster, prepared me for heading back across the water, I already knew what to expect and what to prepare for on and off the court. I knew about the small crowds, the drums being played in the crowd. I seen flares being shot across the court. I experienced opposing team fans cursing me and throwing objects like coins and firecrackers on the court. I was ready. Talent is not always what determines who plays overseas and who plays in NBA. There are guys who can play in the NBA, but can’t play abroad and vice versa. The 2011 NBA lockout exposed that truth.
Just recently I have read that Lamelo and Liangelo Ball have signed their first pro contracts in Lithuania. A lot of people think that Melo Ball is too young to be a pro. That is false. First of all, in Europe especially, their kids turn pro very early. My first game in Spain there was a fifteen-year-old kid on the opposing team, he didn’t play a whole lot, but everyone talked about how good he was going to be. That kid they were talking about was Ricky Rubio. Currently there is a kid name Luka Dončić playing for European powerhouse club Real Madrid of the Spanish ACB league, he just turned eighteen and is dominating. He for sure will be a top 5 NBA draft pick if he decides he wants to play in the NBA. If the Ball brothers play well in Europe, just call Lavar Ball a genius, because once again he will have open another door that most athletes would have never thought existed. Not even finishing high school to turn pro.
Hopefully I shed a little light on playing abroad. I have been fortunate to play in the NBA as well as in seven different countries across the world. I have seen both ends of the spectrum. I would encourage those to think that playing abroad is a paid vacation, to rethink that, and do your homework because this game will humble you quickly.
- Till next time… STRIVE TO EXCEL!