By Paul Shirley
Professional Basketball In Europe: Thrown Chairs, Missed Payments, And A Plane Called The Mosquito
This summer and fall, as threats of an NBA lockout changed to confirmation of an NBA lockout, players and agents began casting their eyes toward Europe. There was talk of this season as an opportunity for the amalgamate that is the European leagues to chip away at the NBA’s stranglehold on the world’s top basketball talent.
This didn’t happen quite as expected, in part because Europe is anywhere from one-eighth to one-half of its way through a slow-motion financial swoon, and in part because most European teams only allow a few (in many cases, two) Americans per team.
But there’s another reason there was no great migration to Europe: Playing there is far different than playing in the NBA. Players used to being treated like Habsburg dukes find themselves schlepping bags from an underheated bus to a shared room in a mid-level hotel. Guys accustomed to returning a coach’s rhetorical fire watch from the bench while a crew-cutted dude with –ic at the end of his name takes the game-winner. Undersized power forwards who can’t shoot get on airplanes that take them back to their homes in the U.S. (Welcome home, DeJuan Blair!)
The good news, for the players who do survive, is that they will accumulate a treasure trove of stories of the bizarre occurrences that remind one that, while playing professional basketball in Europe is still playing professional basketball, it’s not quite like playing professional basketball anywhere else.
The following are three of my favorite such stories, from a European career in which I played for five teams scattered across Greece, Russia, and Spain.
The first stop in the lurchy wooden rollercoaster that was my basketball career was in Athens, Greece, where I played for a team called Panionios and where I learned, 10 years before the rest of the world, how little respect many Greeks have for contract law. (I signed up to play for $105,000. I received $52,000. My agent and I sued the team for the remainder. We won. They appealed. We won again. The Greek government then changed the law, forgave teams like mine that were in arrears, and let them all start over, as long as they PROMISED TO NEVER DO IT AGAIN.)
Fiduciary difficulties aside, I loved my time in Greece. The food was great, the weather was (mostly) wonderful, and the people…my god, the people. They’re as friendly and passionate as any group I’ve met. (They just don’t to pay their taxes. Or their basketball players.) Nowhere was this passion more evident than during basketball games, where fans were known to aim leftover drachma coins at opposing players and where, during games between the two largest teams in the country – Olympiacos and Panathinaikos – fans would bring Roman candles into the arena and shoot them at their counterparts across the court.
In a home game against the juggernaut that was Panathinaikos, my underbudgeted team carried a lead into the final 2.4 seconds, at which point the legendary Dejan Bodiroga took an inbounds pass at the free throw line opposite his team’s basket. As he moved upcourt, he dribbled several times, switching directions and hands at midcourt. Here, I rotated over to cover him. With the clock in my head screaming that there couldn’t be much time left – it takes around four seconds just to sprint the length of the court – I shadowed Bodiroga as he dribbled three more times toward the top of the key. There, he had time to stop, set his feet, pump fake, watch me (because I couldn’t imagine there was any time left) go sailing by, set his feet again, and make a three-pointer.
The referees threw up their hands to signal that the shot counted and then sprinted out of the building.
In order to demonstrate their displeasure, our fans began showering the floor with all manner of food and beverage. Then, as it became clear that logic was on a (probably paid) vacation, and that the call was not going to be overturned, the attitude in the stands turned nasty.
If there had been more than our usual home contingent of 500 people there, it might have gotten ugly. But, as was often the case, the riot gear-clad police (their Kevlar in place thanks to their familiarity with fights breaking out at Greek basketball and soccer games) nearly outnumbered the fans, and the nastiness settled quickly. It wasn’t long before the few remaining fans started filing out of the gym.
As most of the crowd left, I turned my attention to two men who were three rows up from the home bench. In plain sight, the two were wrenching on a row of four seats. After three or four minutes of heaving, jerking, and cursing, they managed to wrest the seats from the clutches of the steel bolts that had previously anchored them to the concrete underneath.
By now, of course, they were the only ones left in the gym; they’d been so busy taking apart the arena that they’d failed to notice their isolation. The two men looked around, deflated by the realization that their grand gesture was probably going to go unappreciated.
But, in the same stubborn way that Greek youths throw protests without knowing what they’re protesting – that is, because they don’t really know what else to do – they mustered just enough enthusiasm to launch the row of four plastic seats onto the court, where those seats clattered sadly toward the free throw line, coming to rest at the feet of the wizened man who was giving the floor its once-monthly sweep with a broom leftover from the first modern Olympics.
In this, a metaphor, I suppose, for the Greek attitude toward life: sometimes, it doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is going to have any affect on the outcome. What matters is that you do something. (Unless, again, that something is paying your taxes. Or your basketball players.)
After college, in which my movements were scrutinized as if they were stars and my coaches were 16th century mariners, I looked forward to the pros, where I assumed I would have more freedom. This was certainly true whenever I made one of my pit stops in the NBA; I was often amazed when we would arrive in a new city and my only responsibility was feeding myself that night and showing up in time for the bus to the morning walkthrough the next day.
But then, along came European basketball to quash my anarchic tendencies.
Most European teams practice twice a day. This sounds reasonable to the average nine-to-fiver; he, rightly, would say that he has to spend eight hours a day in a place. Why should basketball players complain about having to spend five or six? This nine-to-fiver forgets two important parts to the story: that basketball practice, during which the player is subjected to physical abuse usually reserved for prisoners of war, is really hard on one’s body and thus, difficult to do all day, and that basketball players are a whiny lot.
In addition, there is the fact that these practices are often colossal wastes of time spent perfecting (or trying to perfect) one set play that the coach dreamed up while knocking back too many bottles of Rioja.
On the road, the attention paid to time management borders on the absurd. Lunch at 1. Ankle-taping at 2:15. Bus at 3:00. Practice from 3:30 to 5:00. Shower from 5:30 to 6:00. Team game of Soggy Biscuit at 6:30. Dinner at 7:30. Film at 8:45. Curfew at 10:30.
If this seems a little like prison, well, it wasn’t quite that. We were getting paid, after all. It’s just that the lifestyle wasn’t as carefree as that found in the NBA.
Or that’s what I told myself, until I got to the island of Menorca, where I spent a year and a half playing for one of the worst teams in the best European league in the world, the Spanish ACB.
The correct thing to do, when writing about one of one’s former homes, is to qualify any criticisms of that place with several pleasantries about it. The problem, with regard to Menorca, is that I don’t have a lot of great things to say about the place. The people were wonderful, but it does have Spain’s highest suicide rate for a reason.
Nonetheless, I approached my time in Menorca like all of my European jobs – with a wary eye and a plan to do my best to keep my mouth shut. I’d seen it all at that point in my career, I thought: the two-a-days, the to-the-minute daily agendas, the crazy flight itineraries built with frugality in mind.
But then I was told, two-thirds of the way through the year, that I was no longer allowed to leave.
Menorca is an island about the size of the county in which I grew up in Kansas. There are 55,000 people on the island, and approximately four of them are between the ages of 18 and 30. It is a beautiful place in the summer, but in the winter it brings to mind the scene from Great Expectations in which Pip meets the convict: windy, rainy and generally shitty. No surprise, then, that prior to the travel ban I caught the 45-minute flight to Barcelona whenever I had the chance.
Flights to Barcelona sound glamorous until you recall that there was no other potential method of travel (boat rides excepted), meaning that anyone on the island thought of a flight from Menorca to Barcelona like Don Draper thinks of a train ride from Connecticut into The City. That is, not a particularly big deal, and the only way to escape.
My travel ban was probably put in place in large part because the team was somewhat tired of having me around (I know! Imagine growing tired of my sunny disposition!) and, like a prison guard who keeps tossing my bunk every two days, was hoping that I’d give the team cause to send me home.
I continue with the prison references because by the end of my time in Menorca, I had taken to calling it Alcatraz. It was on an island. The weather was awful. And it was really close to a very nice place.
There was one main difference: no one could shoot me when I ignored the ban on my travel.
What they could do – and what they did – was not give me my last paycheck, which means that I still wake up some days hoping, foolishly, that today might be the day that ViveMenorca Basketball Club sends me the $13,000 it owes me.
Most travel in the NBA takes place on chartered jets that whisk players from one NBA city to the next immediately after the game. These planes are the epitome of luxury. The seats are massive and comfortable. Entertainment options abound. There is food and drink and, sometimes, the world’s worst games of poker, played by humans with the same grasp on probability as a coral snake.
Most travel in European basketball leagues does not take place on chartered jets that whisk players from one city to the next immediately after the game. Instead, trips are long slogs through commercial airports, as twelve tall men and their coaches grumble about whatever money-saving measures have just been put in by the team. (In Menorca, we switched to an all-carry-on policy. Ostensibly, this was to speed up our trip from the airport to the hotel. But it also happened to coincide with the initiation of baggage fee policies on most Spanish airlines, so a more likely explanation is that the team wanted to save as much money as possible.)
These commercial flights are hardly worth complaining about, even if they did result in several claustrophobia-based panic attacks and more than one bruised kneecap. After all, we were getting paid to fly to interesting places in order to pursue efforts to put one geometrical shape inside another.
It is, however, worth complaining when one’s life seemed at risk.
My second foreign basketball stop was in Barcelona, where I played for DKV Joventut, the club that spawned Rudy Fernandez and Ricky Rubio. Remember the above, when I couldn’t find very many nice things to say about Menorca? My time with Joventut engenders the exact opposite reaction: I can’t find anything negative to say about my time with that team. The four months I spent there were among the best four-month stretches of my life.
With the notable exception of my time on The Mosquito.
During my stint with Joventut, the team played in one of the European competitions just below the more well-known Euroleague. (This in addition to weekend ACB games. The better teams in Europe compete in their own domestic leagues AND in international leagues, a fact that is confusing to 93 percent of Americans and 56 percent of American basketball writers.)
The teams in our pool were as far-flung as Shawn Kemp’s children; my first international trip with Joventut was to Slovenia. Because, we have to assume, the Barcelona-Ljubjiana itinerary proved too difficult to crack using commercial flights, it was decided that we would charter an airplane.
Enter The Mosquito, a twenty-passenger prop plane that looked like it had been built with the Korean War in mind.
At the airport, I was handed a tiny piece of paper. On it, my seat assignment. “That’s strange,” I thought. “I mean, I’m used to the constant micromanaging, but why does it matter where I sit, especially when we’re all going to die anyway?”
I found out the answer when I asked why I was being told to get on right after seven-foot Zan Tabak, who was in the first seat. It seemed to me that it would make more sense for the people who were assigned seats in the back of the plane to get on first. And anyway, why were all the big guys being jammed in the front together?
“Because, Paul,” someone said. “If we let anyone get into the back of the plane without the weight of our biggest players in front, the plane will tip over backwards.”
And with that, my eyes went wide and my mouth went shut. I got on the plane, sat exactly where I was told, and hoped that, someday, I’d make it back to the NBA.
Paul Shirley played for fifteen professional basketball teams during an eight-year career. His first book, Can I Keep My Jersey?, was published by Random House in 2007. He is now the chief editor of a Website for writers called FlipCollective. Follow his journeys on Twitter at @paulthenshirley.