Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The 1996-1997 Season: Three countries, three teams, and 22,544 miles flown...

This one's for my girls...and may prove relevant as we plan to visit Malta in October 2019!

To properly tell this story, I need to begin with a step back to 1995-96 for some important background.


As the first in-depth story I have taken on regarding my European basketball experience, I should disclose an important fact from the outset:  My overseas experience should in no way be confused with that of current- and ex-NBA'ers who enjoy salaries in the millions playing in Greece, Spain, France, Israel, et. al.  Mine was probably something closer to Triple-A baseball (actually...Double-A) in this country.  Or the professional lacrosse league.  In other words:  I played in the mid- to low-level European leagues, and not the top-flight leagues producing many of today's foreign NBA players.

So the leagues stunk, yes.  But it was also probably about the best I could do.  I set out not to become famous, nor to make lots of money...but to hopefully succeed in the attempt to push my own boundaries and to maximize my own potential.  To live life.  In my view, this is the promise of Sport:  To achieve the absolute maximum result that one can, given one's opportunity-set and one's talent.

Despite the lack of big-name talent, bright lights or big arenas during my basketball experience, I should also note that I am proud to have even received a paycheck at all.  I feel strongly that receiving pay - however small - does correlate my mid-level experience in some way to the "big league" basketball experience.  After all, the mindset is the same, even if the arenas and practice facilities are smaller:  a paycheck is a paycheck.  Also, consider that at any given time, there are roughly 5,000 American players receiving pay for basketball somewhere in the world.  I'd argue that being in the top 5,000 people in the world at doing anything is fairly impressive and I take my once-professional status (as meager as it may have been) as a point of pride.  Moreover, as not much more more than a 6-foot, not-especially-fast-nor-athletic guy, you might recognize the themes of mental toughness and resiliency (along with lots of good luck!) as paramount throughout this story. 

"Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming."  --Coach John Wooden


As I write, I plan to shift between fictitious names and actual names, depending on the circumstance.  For example, I may protect certain people by tagging them with a pseudo-fictitious name.  Others, depending on my experience with them, may not deserve such protection.  And those people who deserve all the praise and accolades in the world (in my opinion) will be named truthfully in recognition of that fact.  To simplify - if they were a saint or a sinner, I will probably use their real name.  And if they were somewhere in between, or relatively inconsequential to the story and don't need the unwarranted Google-hit, I will use a made-up name...unless they are guys I played against and there's no need to obfuscate.  Confused?  I am too...but let's just see how it goes...

Ireland 1995-96, The Short Version.  

In September 1995, I found myself on a $350 flight from Toronto to Dublin, Ireland to join the Dungannon Basketball Club in Northern Ireland.  Dungannon's GM, Frankie O'Loane, had gotten a hold of my VHS highlight tape and my player resume, and had looked beyond my stature and small-school background to note that I had had a brief professional experience in Costa Rica.  As a result, he extended an invitation for me to join the team, but noted the tight budget constraints and added that the travel expense had to be on my own dime.  I was a bit disappointed in that, and this was perhaps the first small moment when my romanticized version of "professional basketball" would be deflated.  Yet given my limited prospects at that time, I felt that $350 was a small price to pay for a jaunt across the pond, and I went for it.  I bought a round-trip ticket with the longest possible return flight, which was roughly six weeks (mid-October) from my September 5th departure date.  Obviously, I hoped the return could be changed, or - better yet - altogether scrapped as unnecessary after Frankie had also noted the names and numbers of his two recent American imports, and they were both upstate NY guys with whom I had good conversations.  One was their current American, a guy from central New York who had played at Colgate University.  Let's call him Jonathan Rock for the sake of anonymity.  As I considered my options and prepared for the trip over, I felt great about Dungannon.  I believed that I fit the player/personality profile Frankie was after and would easily mesh with an American teammate from New York.  In short, I felt I would be in very good hands.

The weeks leading up to my departure, were a blur of workouts, goodbyes, and butterflies.  On the workout front, I was killing it...but still not too far off a severe ankle injury my senior year of college which - in my opinion - may have prevented my team (Amherst College) from hoisting the 1994 DIII National Basketball Championship.  Yes, I truly believe that.  First, it was one of the best, most-balanced teams I had ever been a part of.  Second, the team was hitting a whole new gear as the post-season approached, which was the first in which academic-oriented NESCAC schools would be allowed to participate.  And third, I achieved a personal second-wind towards the end of that season that I just knew would propel us to the title in storybook fashion.  (Storybook in part because the Final Four that season was to be held in Buffalo, NY...about a mile from my high school!)  It all came crashing down with a shredded right ankle, and I was destroyed.  We ended up losing in the Elite Eight to the eventual national champs Lebanon Valley, who were led by stellar point guard (and former summer camp teammate) Mike Rhoades and one-hell-of-a-coach Pat Flannery (who went on to fame as Bucknell's NCAA-Cinderella-giant-killing leader).  We lost by 9, and I scored 8 points while wearing an air cast over my torn ankle ligaments...and I actually chipped the ankle bone trying to force myself to play.  The reason all this is relevant is how it solidified my love of "injury rehabilitation."  I embraced rehab like a man possessed, and for the first time in my basketball career began to understand the value of sprint-work and physical therapy.  I realized that I could use the time to get better and I ran sprint after sprint after sprint.  My injury had left me with something to prove - and unfinished business - as a player.  (I should send a shout out to Amherst coach Dave Hixon here, for introducing me to the grueling "20 suicides in 20 minutes" workout.  Basically you'd run a suicide plus one length in any time under a minute - full speed is about 32 seconds and a jog is 45-50 seconds - and you use the time until the next minute as rest before starting again as that next minute starts.  I latched onto this as a daily exercise because I could not round corners because of my ankle, and the straight-up-and-back nature of the suicide was perfect for me.  I did these every which way possible...5 of them with a 35 second limit with 25 seconds rest, then 5 at 40 seconds with 20 seconds rest, back to 5 at 35 with 25 seconds rest, and then a final blast of 5 at 32 seconds or better...or sometimes a slow jog of all 20 in 50 seconds with 10 seconds rest.  Either way, it got me into crazy good shape.  And with the stop-start sprint to w

[Sidebar:  While I truly believe that were it not for that ankle injury, we'd have won the National Championship, I also realize that I may never have tapped in to the inner desire, anger, and hunger necessary to drive me to become a true professional.  Looking back, it's such an interesting hypothetical:  Would I rather have won that title, and never gone to Europe?  Or played in Europe as I did and forgone the title?  Let's just say that I am a little nostalgic at times, but Amherst's basketball program has exploded since than and garnered not only a national title (2008) but much-deserved accolades as a national power, and I am quite happy with exactly how things turned out for me in the end.]

So, in short, the heart-breaking ankle injury I suffered in 1994 served to teach me another series of immensely valuable, sports-related lessons:  work hard to improve yourself, deal with - and maybe even embrace - pain and frustration as a means to get better both mentally and physically, rise to the challenge, and remember that every door that swings closed might also - it's really just a matter of perspective - be swinging open to a new opportunity.  And by the time the opportunity to play in Ireland came around (after a brief experience in the *top notch* Costa Rica League), I was leaner, trimmer, faster, and more explosive than I had ever been.  It was a subtle change, but a critical one that is best illustrated by young Steve Nash and trimmed-down MVP Steve Nash.

What followed during the end of that 1995 Summer, however, was just another reminder of that "Murphy's Law, roll-with-the-punches, keep grinding, if-it-doesn't-kill-you-it-just-makes-you-stronger" aspect of sports noted above:  playing in a summer league game with the Colt 45 All-Stars (yeah, you read that right, see pic below from an earlier summer on that team), I stepped on my defenders foot while driving to the basket and subsequently rolled my left ankle.  WTF!  This was late August...Ireland was days away, and I now had an ankle the size of a grapefruit.

Colt 45 All-Stars, ~1990 Summer League
Front:  Bernard, Cubby w/ Summer League Champs trophy
Back:  Jim Ewing, Hutch Jones, Brian Smith, me, Darryl, Chris Roosevelt
I tried to shrug it off, but the injury was actually a bit worse than I thought.  You develop a sense for these things after a while, and the more times it happens, the more perfectly calm you can be during and after the injury as logic separates from pain receptors while you assess the damage.  Anyone who remembers the second time they had the wind knocked out of them (and how ridiculously scary was the first?  wow...) will be able to relate:  you can calmly count out the seconds and you know your breathing will ultimately return to normal.  Same thing with an ankle injury.  I went down and immediately thought "not bad, no crutches, I will walk outta here, one week."  Yet as I sat on the transatlantic flight to Dublin and felt my foot throbbing against the seams of my sneaker in the pressurized cabin, I thought "uh-oh." 

Upon landing in Dublin, I took a bus to the City Centre, then caught the train north to Belfast.  I remember the sweeping green landscape passing by, and the old-time feel of the rickety train with it's uncomfortable seats, noisy clacking, and venerable sandwich cart vendors.  At the agreed upon stop, I disembarked to meet 6'6" Jon Rock and the cherubic, leprechaun-like Frankie O'Loane.  Remember when John Belushi played a drunken version of a bumblebee?  That was kinda like Frankie's version of the leprechaun, which was really something more like an Eeyore-Leprechaun cross. 

Things in Dungannon started off as well as could be expected.  I was hobbled by my ankle, but masked it well, and just told myself I needed a couple weeks to get through it.  It certainly held me back, but my job - as dictated by Frankie and Jon (who had been there a few years and was well-entrenched in the community and was actually dating an Irish girl in town pretty seriously) was "18 points and 10 assists" - and I thought that would not be a problem.  Looking back, the injury hugely impacted my Dungannon experience, because I underwhelmed on the court and was largely inconsistent in those first couple of weeks.  Had someone given me the skinny on Irish basketball (Hint: Americans are looked on to do everything, and even if you lose, at least outscore the Americans on the other team!), I would perhaps have approached things differently.  Instead, I looked to follow Jon's community-entrenchment angle and never even looked over my shoulder, thinking all the while that his job was to score points, and mine was to play a classic supporting point-guard role.  I figured that 18ppg and 10apg was well within my ability and not much to ask for anyway.  As it turns out, no one - from "fellow American" Jon Rock to Frankie to anyone in town - was straight with me, so let me state it clearly here for any aspiring mid-level European ballers:  As one of two Americans per team, if you don't score 30 with 10 rebounds or 10 assists, you will be run out of town, quick!  Call this "Lesson #2" in terms of my discovery of the truth behind my romanticized, idealized expectations of Euro-ball. 

Looking back, my Dungannon experience was a perfect storm of injury, naivete, and denial (on my part) and less-than-straightforward management from the Club's part.  So after a subpar outing or two (one during a scrimmage and courtesy of UPenn's Barry Pierce, one of the strongest guards I have ever played against and one during a game courtesy of Hilliary Scott, a very talented and tall lead guard), GM/Coach Frankie O'Loane had his excuse and I was summarily called into his office and dismissed from the team.

[Sidebar:  I remember walking to the gym that day, and I recall seeing my American compatriot Jon Rock leaving the gym just as I crossed the street...and he didn't see me seeing him...and he didn't see me noticing him quickly head in the other direction.  Clearly he knew was what coming, and signed off on it...as he should have.  After all, he was an All-Star, had been with the club for several years, and was averaging 40ppg!  But, having said all that, I would like to think if it were me, I might have manned up, approached the "rookie" in the European leagues, and said "hey look, something is about to go down, and that sucks and I'm sorry...but it happens. But you keep your head up and you keep plugging away and good things will happen."  Instead, he ducked around the building.  Weak.  There is more to life than basketball...especially when you are young guys overseas, away from family and friends, and just looking to make it in some mediocre, mid-level leagues.]

I can't say I was completely shocked that Frankie cut me...but it still hurt.  I had never been cut before.  Additionally, as a 23-year old, one of my first thoughts was "what will people think" if I headed home just six weeks into my season, tail-between-legs, maybe not so good of a player after all?  To make matters worse - and to this day I don't know if Frankie legitimately did this on purpose or not because he knew about my mid-October return ticket - he had cut me just a few days after that return fare expired!  What quickly followed was a second level of "reality" over being cut.  The first layer was just pride.  But the second layer was the stark, harsh reality of "professional" life and logistics:  this team had no need for me and they owed me nothing.  I now had no place to live (it was team provided), obviously no paycheck, and no plane ticket home.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is a truly harsh reality to face 3,000 miles from home at age twenty-three...and with a wounded pride, shaky confidence, and a bad ankle to boot.

Now, what happened next is equal parts magic, luck, and just being a good person and recognizing the same in others.  Let's start with the latter:  From my first days in Dungannon I connected with Paddy Gross, who served as something between team manager, supporter, and landlord.  In fact, Jon Rock had a room in Paddy's apartment, while I had a room with Breda and Paul Quinn (Paddy's mom and step-dad) down the road.  Paddy was the first to alert me on the subtleties of the Irish vernacular: 

"never say you root for a team...say you barrack"
"it's not a sidewalk...it's a footpath"
"do not call that thing a fanny-pack...fanny doesn't mean what you think it means here" 
[and yes, you snicker at fanny pack - but recall this is 1995!]
"the front of a car is the bonnet...the back of the car is the boot"
"want to go to the pub for some craic?" 

We became fast friends, and remain so to this day.  (Paddy's visit to NYC in 2000-2001 with his wife Helen is a story that must be told...but is also for another time.)  And his mom - Breda - immediately reminded me of my own Irish grandmother and became a confidant, friend, and mother-figure to me during those six weeks in Dungannon.  And it was Breda - my savior! - who as landlord, stood up to the Club and Frankie O'Loane and refused to kick me out of my room in her flat.  In essence, she risked her cash flow (the team paid my rent) and risked her relationship with the Club in order to allow me to stay "as long as I needed."  Ultimately, I stayed about two weeks, and here's the magic part:  during that time Breda produced some "holy water" and proceeded to incant "the cure" over my injured ankle.  Now, I told Breda that despite Jesuit-schooling, Catholicism wasn't really my thing...but she claimed it would work anyway.  And in fairness, the two-week rest certainly helped, although it was probably more of a four-week recovery.  Either way, when I next stepped on the court a couple weeks later, I felt great!  Now the luck:  remember that expired ticket?  Well...if I had been cut before the ticket expired, I'd have already been home.  But without it, and obviously with the help of others, I was forced to stay.  And in staying, that "door swinging closed" just happened to "swing back open" to a whole other opportunity.

Here's how:   At some point during my six weeks in Northern Ireland, Frankie O'Loane probably discussed me with his good friend, American Jerome Eastbrooks.  Jerome is from Chicago, and had been in Ireland since the early 80's.  He was based in Dublin, partnered with Frankie on basketball camps and such, and was a player/coach for the Mid-Sutton Baldoyle Club and at the tail end of his long playing career.  (Jerome also looms large in the story of 1996-1997...so stay tuned.)  A couple weeks after I was cut, and probably figuring he had little to lose, Jerome reached out and invited me down to Dublin to "work out" with MSB.  (Note that many low-budget clubs are happy to try out Americans released by other clubs in order to avoid $500-$1000 travel costs per ticket.)  At that point, I also met Ed Randolph, another long-time American player from Florida and from Roger Williams University.  Ed and Jerome had teamed up on MSB, and with Jerome stepping back to coach, were free to add another American to the mix.  So...I trained down to Dublin and stayed a couple weeks with both Jerome and Ed.  Notably, Ed lived in Bray, a gorgeous sea-front town in County Wicklow, just south of Dublin proper.  Ed and his wife Anne had just bought the equivalent of a Manhattan brownstone, and they were in the midst of restoring the home themselves.  Ed, Anne, and their two little boys Darren and Neil (who went on to become...this and this!) lived in a room or two upstairs, while downstairs boasted a mostly-finished kitchen and living room with a dirt floor.  On my first night with Ed, he tossed me a sleeping bag, included a hot water bottle for the overnight cold, and pointed to a spot on that floor!  (Ladies & Gentlemen:  Irish Pro Basketball!)  No fault of Ed or Anne's whatsoever - they were gracious enough to allow a complete stranger to share what little space they had - but imagine how that felt for me as a player:  From Amherst College to InterAmericana Costa Rica to the Dungannon Club to...a sleeping bag on the dirt in the suburbs of Dublin, Ireland.

So...I play a little with MSB and along the way notice my ankle feels pretty good.  And my shot started to feel pretty good.  And Ed and Jerome - as solid, solid guys - gave me the pep talk or at least the perspective that was lacking from Jon Rock back in Dungannon.  "You'll be ok," they said.  "You can play.  You got this."  At some point during those 2-3 weeks I was in Dublin, another team had lobbed in a call to either Jerome or to Frankie.  I forget which, but the important part of the story is that the Marathon Basketball Club in Limerick, Ireland was looking for an American replacement player ahead of a big "Cup" game.  [Let me explain "Cup" games for a moment:  Most basketball leagues in Europe mirror soccer in structure.  There are divisions and you move up levels when you win and are relegated lower when you lose.  And there's a regular season + playoff + championship which is also concurrently interspersed with a "Cup Challenge" throughout the season.  Just like English soccer teams and Spanish soccer teams have their leagues, but also play in seemingly one-off "EuroLeague" or "EuroCup" games, the same was true of Irish basketball.  And if you're strictly a basketball fan, just imagine if the NCAA Tournament happened concurrently with the regular season.  So one weekend a month you played a Tourney game, rather than squeezing it all into March Madness.]   Marathon was scheduled to play Denny Notre Dame in a quarterfinal Cup game in about a week, and I hustled back to Dungannon, got my things, said my goodbyes to Breda, Paul, Paddy, and Helen, and headed south and east to Limerick, in County Clare.  I should note here that again "luck" played a role in my experience.  After seeing Dublin and especially Bray...and then Limerick, I was so thankful to have experienced the Republic of Ireland proper versus Northern Ireland, extension of the United Kingdom.  In truth, I wasn't really aware of the difference before arriving in Ireland, but after my time in the "drab" (sorry guys, no offense meant) north, I was more than happy to be heading south.  I arrived in Limerick to meet Coach Tommy Hehir, GM Seamus O'Connell, and American Ian Stewart.  (Ed. Note:  Ian Stewart = real name.  He won't care ;)  Ian is from the Midwest, played at Southern Illinois (Salukis!), never met a person he couldn't talk to, and never met a drink he didn't like.  And also...maybe the best big man (6'9") shooter I have ever seen.  Ian had one of those sweet "off and to the side, but just comes off the fingertips pure" Larry Bird-style strokes.  Ian could really play.

In truth, I was nervous as hell on arrival in Limerick, and more than a little shell-shocked after my experiences in Dungannon and then MSB.  Here was yet another opportunity...with all eyes on me...playing with another team...a whole new set of people to impress...another chance for...failure?  I truly wasn't sure.  Overflowing confidence isn't exactly my strong suit.  During one of my first one or two practices with the Marathon Club at their Ardscoil Ris practice gym marked my epiphany as a "pro player," but the turning point was probably less profound and honorable than it was pure panic-induced.  At some point during practice I fell into a "normal" basketball flow, which is to say "pass and move," more or less.  And as this occurred, I just noticed the slightest deflation from Tommy or Seamus or my new teammates.  Something was off.  I don't know how I knew...but I could feel it coming:  Disappointment.  It also hadn't helped that at some point between returning to Dungannon and taking the cross-country train down to Limerick, someone had shared the rumor with me - I think it was Frankie, actually.  What a pr*ck! - that Marathon was only signing me to get through this one Cup game against powerhouse Denny Notre Dame (featuring ex-Clemson stud Anthony Jenkins and ex-Northern Arizona big man Ken Bosket), just because I was an able body and better than not having a second American at all, and I'd be released shortly thereafter.  As you might imagine, with those whispers rattling around my head combined with shaky confidence coming in, I was just...playing ball.  Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing extreme.  All "game management"...all "Stockton" and no "Steph."  At some point in that practice, I just felt myself shrinking...and shrinking...and shrinking.  I literally felt my back against the wall.  And in the past, where I might have just...existed...and impressed no one, this time for some reason I just got angry.  I just thought "No, not gonna happen."  The next time I caught the ball, I forced up a deep three, the hell with it.  Swish!  The next time it was a one-dribble pull-up to my left, pushing off slightly with my right shoulder to create space, but also to exhibit some physicality.  Swish!  A steal and a drive to the bucket.  A pick and roll with Ian.  Every time I touched the ball the last 10 minutes, I made something happen.  The more I did it, the more I felt the gym "inflate" with energy alongside my own confidence.  And the more hushed it became when I got the ball.  And the more respect the defense gave me, and the more off-balance my defenders, and more room I had to operate.  And then something else clicked:  this was my job.  From that point on - from November 1995 to my last game (39 points on 9-12 from three) in April 1999 in Lucerne, Switzerland - I was a gunner, plain and simple.  Actually, I take that back.  I wasn't a gunner because I had a conscience.  But my conscience was focused on putting as much pressure on the defense as I possibly could.  I became a targeted assassin.  I touch it, I test you.  And believe me, I am not some amazing scorer by any stretch of the basketball imagination.  But simply applying the mindset of "I will go at you and will never stop" yielded major results.  It was purely mental.  But that mental shift meant everything for me as a player.

So I played well enough - leading the team with 27 points, my high for the season thus far (I scored 21 in one game for MSB) - against heavily-favored Notre Dame that the team kept me (Tommy Hehir even said at halftime...I kid you not: "See, the new American can play!  Give him the ball!  We have a chance in the second half!)

From there...well...to be honest, I just shot and shot and shot and shot.  Ian and I used to do shooting drills on a smaller "rebounding" rim and every make had to basically be dead center.  And I began to respect the "practice makes perfect" component of the game.  Sure, I had practiced before.  But to compete vs. a teammate or to impress a coach.  But not really to do something so frequently as to leave little to no doubt to the outcome.  This was the point in my career that I refer to when I say the following to the kids I coach today:  "In high school ball, you hope you make the shot.  In college ball, you are supposed to make the shot.  And in pro ball, you make the shot.  There is zero doubt."  With that work as a foundation, with fun teammates (and nightlife!), with a great American teammate in Ian, with a supportive coach, and with a healthy ankle...man, I just got hot.  I went on a real run, putting up games of 36, 42, 44, 48, 38, 23, 47, and 61 to close out the season.  Yes, sixty-one...and I still have that box score.  I closed the season averaging 35.6ppg.  (And Dungannon - for the record - closed the year virtually winless and went through some 10 Americans trying to find the right "fit.") Marathon finished in a respectable 3rd place in the league, and I was asked by Tommy and Seamus to make plans to return to Limerick the following season.

But at some point just before I left for home, Jerome Eastbrooks also reached out and invited me back to Dublin for a weekend...and he re-recruited me with a whole new pitch:  He and Ed Randolph had their Irish passports.  Gerald Kennedy (Virginia Tech) was on board as an American import that would play the wing.  Would I consider signing with MSB to play the point in 1996-1997 for...the Dublin Dream Team?

Departing NYC, September 1996

From Dublin Dream Team to Nightmare, September to December 1996

Descending on Malta, January to May 1997

"God first made Mauritius, and from it he created Paradise" - Mark Twain, June to July 1997

22,544 Miles, July 1997

working at Monness... yer a bum...
the work permit fiasco
amsterdam airport - the fly, the sleep
bethany chadwick - moving to dublin...then bray - BAELYN
the sponsorship nonsense
bad break up - FIBA license - the plane ticket withheld
connecting with Malta online - bob Kingsley had nothing available

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