Life as a Pro isn't quite what you think

When I first started playing basketball, I didn't know where it would take me. I knew I wanted to go to the top, to play in the NBA, to take care of my family and everything that comes with being a professional athlete. I remember the first time I ever came across a pro. His name was Christian Burns. Burns was 6'8, 250 lbs, built like an action figure. He was a freak of an athlete, I mean how many people at 6'8 and built the way he was, are the fastest people on the court? We played in a summer league together, and I remember walking away from that game thinking, that's what you need to become. You have to be able to dominate the game in every facet, and you have to make it look easy, because that's exactly what I just witnessed.

So at 17 years old, I set out to become a pro. I was at the courts every single day, anywhere I could in the summer time, playing pick up for six, seven, eight hours a day. I started playing in the summer leagues in the area, playing against men, trying to prove what I could do. People started to say I was "Baby Burns," which meant that I was doing something right, but also meant that I needed to do more.

I went to college at Stony Brook, a small Division I school, but a program on the rise. What I learned right away at Stony Brook, you need to play like a man, because everyone wants to become a pro. There are ~365 Division I basketball programs, 13 full scholarship players per program for 4,745 Division I college basketball players per year that were being funded to become the best player they can be. It means 4,745 players with aspirations of going to the professional level. That doesn't include Div II and III players, or JUCO, or NAIA players. Ten's of thousands of players with one goal - get paid to play the game. Everyone at Stony Brook was all conference, or region or state in High School, and so was everyone else in our conference. My point is, you aren't getting past college if you don't work. Plain and simple.

I learned what hard work was. I worked and worked and worked. Sometimes, that hard work doesn't pay off in the first week, or month, or for me 2-3 years. But at some point, it all comes together for you. Thankfully, my senior season paid off for me, granting me the opportunity to play professionally.

After my senior season, I chose one of the agents who pitched to me, an Italian guy with quite a few clients. Within the first month, I was given a deal in England, but ended up signing that summer to head to Denmark. I had done it, I was a pro. I remember how proud my mom was, she was telling everyone and to be honest it felt good.

The next thing you need to know about professional basketball is the money. There is GOOD money out there around the world, millions outside of the NBA. But just because you're a pro, doesn't mean you are going to make the big money, especially at first. My first contract wasn't for much, but it was enough to get me through the year and come home and have enough money through the summer. In Europe, your contract is for cash, the club pays for your housing, and in most cases a car as well. Sometimes they'll have a restaurant sponsor you as well, and you can get lunch or dinner there throughout the week. So really, you don't have many expenses during the season.

That summer, I worked every day, because I knew the pressure it takes to be a pro, an American import at that. Well that's what I thought. For those of you who don't know, each league has a limit on how many players can be from America and/or outside of their own country, etc. Most leagues have a maximum of 2 or 3 imports. The higher up the league, as a whole, the more imports they allow. So the point being- many Americans, few American opportunities. If you don't play well, they will bring in another import who will.

I got to Denmark in August, got off the plane and headed straight to practice. Not even joking, I took an 8 hour flight, got off delirious and these guys bring me straight to the gym for practice. Our coach, Bogdan, was Serbian. Now for those of you who don't know what that means, you will very soon.

We get in this meeting and he lays down the law, discussing all sorts of rules, culture, systems and everything in between (another thing to note, is no coach speaks perfect English, and I have played for coaches that spoke no English at all, so understanding what is expected isn't always the smoothest transition.) We headed downstairs after the meeting and he has us warm up and stretch, then he tells us to get on the baseline. This guy makes us run up and backs for literally an hour. Just running back and forth, back and forth, and this dude is YELLING, I mean cursing us out, the whole time. After 15 minutes I realize this dude is pretty much only yelling at me. In my head, I'm like okay, just run, ignore it and do what you do. After the up and backs, we get a 60 second water break.

When the break is over he gives us a ball, has us pair up and we go down and back, full speed layups, for an hour again. Each player had to do 75 up and back sprints with the ball this time. After we all hit 75, I am thinking, "okay, practice has to be over, right? No shot there is more to this." Nope we go another 45 minutes running through our offenses. Again, I am getting screamed at, like nothing I have ever experienced before. We finish with suicide sprints after the offenses and my whole word was shaken up.

After practice, I am shot, my legs are dead, my feet hurt, I haven't slept in 15 hours, I am hungry and I am seriously rethinking my decision to play in Europe. I pack my bag and on my way out this dude comes over, looks me dead in my eye, and says, "I thought you were taller." I'm looking at him like what the hell do I even say to that?

"I'm sorry you thought that, but I told you how tall I am."

"Yeah but I thought you were like 6'10."

"Yeah right, so what does that mean."

"Well it's a business we are going to look for someone else."

I'm like, what the f*** is going on here? This guy doesn't even roll the ball out to see if I can really play and he wants to cut me.

Welcome to the cut throat life of being an American import in professional basketball - Day 1.

The next morning I came in with a fire. I was not getting back on a plane in a week's span, I was going to prove this guy wrong. That's what I did. Dunking the ball every chance I got, getting every rebound, blocking every shot. Just playing with a vengeance.

After practice the assistant coach comes over and says, "that was good, good job" and walks away. If you can't tell by now, Serbian's can be very cold to start off, but once you gain their respect, they will do anything for you.

Preseason was... well interesting. Mornings were conditioning segments with weight lifting, or on court shooting sessions. Running was 10k on the treadmill, and shooting practices were more running than shooting. Afternoon practices were contact and full of running. Bogdan was so calculated in everything he did, he even knew how many kilometres you would be running on the court at night through the course of a practice. Afternoons would be 10k as well.

Food shopping was it's own experience. I remember the first time I went in to the food store, which I preferred the LIDL shops, and was absolutely flustered. Nothing was in English, I didn't know if I was buying turkey or pork mince, pork or steak, salt or sugar, sparkling water or still. There were so many things I took for granted. The sauces and seasonings I was used to in America weren't there, instead there was "Burger Sauce" and other Danish style products. I struggled to maintain a normal playing weight normally, but even more so in that first season with a limited diet. Now, I am a big guy, at the time I was about 225lbs, I eat a lot, so when you are trying to figure out what you are eating but you're starving from all the practice, you'll eat just about anything. The other thing you have to get used to is currency exchange. In Denmark, the currency is a Krona, which at the time was roughly a 7 dkk to 1 USD exchange. So I got up to the register to pay for my groceries and the attendant points to the screen and it's like 350 DKK. I almost had a heart attack right then and there. Thinking I spent like 300 dollars at the food store for a few days of food. Now I quickly was brought back to earth when I remembered the exchange rate, but nonetheless, I

had a scare. But these are the things you have to adapt to when playing abroad and you do.

Side note: donuts at LIDL are fire. Get the zebra donuts with the vanilla filling if you're ever in Europe and thank me later.

Now here's the thing about days off while playing in Europe, there aren't many. With a Serbian coach, there are none. You are doing something every day.

When you are being paid to travel the world to play a game, naturally you would like to see what the world has to offer. When you practice every day, twice a day that becomes difficult.

Life becomes monotonous- every day becomes the same routine, wake up practice. Go home, eat, nap. Wake up, snack, practice. Eat, sleep, repeat. When you do get an off day, chances are it's because your body literally can't handle another day. So you lay in bed most of the day, sore and drained, and before you know it, you're back to work.

But preseason practices eventually end and preseason games and tournaments begin. Most teams play their preseason games in other countries. In Denmark, we played in Sweden and Germany. These are usually opportunities to see other cities and countries that you won't normally get to see and need to be taken advantage of. In preseason, I was able to see Malmo, Stockholm, Hamburg, Frankfurt and Rostock- each of which hold their own interesting caveats to experience and sights to see.

Unfortunately, preseason would begin the most frustrating year of my career in the form of injuries. In the third game of our triple header against the Swedish champion team, I injure my ankle, and bad.

I knew my job was in trouble right then and there, thankfully, I had played extremely well up to the injury which I hoped gave me some rope to keep me around. But I knew what happens to imports who get injured, you pack up and head back home because they will have your replacement on the next thing smoking. But Bogdan assured me he would give me time to heal and I was safe.

I tore three ligaments in my ankle, something that requires surgery, but I elected against it through the advice of the team doctor. I spent 6 weeks out before finally getting back on the court, although not at full strength. I missed the first game of the year but was determined to get back quickly.

I learned a lot about myself when I was hurt. When you aren't training everyday, instead going to doctor appointments, not needing as much sleep you do when you're playing, you have a lot of free time. You can't really watch TV because it's in another language, so you spend a lot of time on the internet, Netflix, reading etc. I was 7 hours ahead of New York, so for the mornings, friends and family would be asleep. You're left alone with your thoughts and that's about it. This was one of the first times, I can recognize my mental health was an issue. I HATED being in Denmark. I was away from my family and my friends. I would walk around the city center, but I wasn't able to read the signs. Not everyone spoke English (most countries are pretty good about some English, but the older generation in Denmark was lacking in English development,) so I wasn't able to really communicate with many shop owners. (Side note: want an adrenaline rush? try to explain what kind of haircut you want to someone who speaks MINIMAL English. Pictures on your phone only go so far.)

The physical battle of being a professional athlete is the one the world sees- the injuries, the bumps, the bruises, surgeries etc. But that mental battle... that's an entirely different monster.

People will say, "you play a game for a living and get paid to travel the world! There's nothing to complain about."

As an American import, the pressure that is placed on you is unimaginable. You are always expected to carry the load for the team, dominating at your position. You are expected to be a top scorer, front court players are expected to amass high rebounding numbers and block shots while guards need assists and steals. Most importantly, you better make sure you are winning games, because at the first sign of trouble... you're done.

I have seen imports average 20 points and 10 rebounds, the staple standard for a high production, get sent home because "he wasn't the right fit." Professional basketball is highly political and at times, cruel, but this is how we decided to make our living and have to play the game as it is.

Going in to my first game, I still wasn't healthy and feeling great but I already missed the first game of the season and had to get in on this one for my own security. I spoke with Bogdan before the game and told him I wasn't feeling great, but if he needed me I was there. Three minutes in to the game both of our starters have foul trouble and he looks at me. I nod, and he grabs my head and looks at me and says, "I need you for the season. Be careful out there." This was especially comforting, knowing my coach had my back after all of the uncertainty.

I would go on to have a solid first performance, 16 points and 9 rebounds in only 16 minutes of play.

I left that game feeling good about myself. I knew I was capable of playing at this level and I just showed it. I was riding the high of the game and was feeling good.

Next we played the eventual champions, and boy did I struggle in this game. I came off the bench once again and never found a rhythm. I had early foul trouble, turnovers, didn't shoot well from the floor. It was an ugly game for me. Here come the lows. In the locker room Bogdan came up to me, "why would you play like that?"

I mean, it wasn't like I was trying to suck, but coaches and Europeans don't ever see it that way.

Throughout the first season was just roller coaster after roller coaster. Playing well in one game, playing poorly the next. The toll of being away from home was hitting me. Then came Thanksgiving.

I struggled through Thanksgiving. I found it hard to be on social media, watching everyone be with the people who mattered most to them. I would get a call from my mom, brother and the family friends we spent holidays with. I was especially down that day, struggling to get through practice but we played the next day so at least there was a distraction on the horizon.

I was lucky enough to have great teammates around though. While I was the only American citizen on the team, five of us at the time, had played college basketball in the states. They each had the experience of an American Thanksgiving, and thus, we had a group Thanksgiving together. A lot of time in Europe, your mental health can be helped greatly by the other import(s) and teammates you have. Sometimes you have great teammates that you connect with, sometimes- yeah not so much.

As we approached Christmas, my body was starting to break down again. There was a lot of wear and tear throughout the early part of the season and it was starting to come through in fatigue. When you are expected to carry a big load, you need to be operating at a peak performance, when you're not, it takes a toll on your mental well being.

My production began to drop and I felt the pressure increasing. Bogdan called me one morning after morning practice and said he was taking me to lunch. We headed into the city and sat at one of the local cafes. He asked what was wrong with me, I told him I was getting tired and I was struggling with confidence. He assured me that I needed to believe in myself because he believed in me. In college, my job was never to score the ball. In fact, I was instructed to take as few shots as possible, but instead, be a role player. I was told to rebound the ball, be a great defender and make my teammates job easy. Being unselfish, that's what I did. But as a pro, your job is actually to score the ball. He told me I needed to let old habits go, because he was getting pressure from the board to send me home because I wasn't scoring enough.

So I began to shoot the ball. In college my senior year I averaged 5 shots per game. One year later I was being asked to shoot the ball 15-20 times per game. A very steep jump, but I took the challenge on. I started playing better. I was having 25+ point games. Things were going in the right direction.

We played in the Danish Cup semi finals, against eventual champion Horsens. We started off strong, I had a couple of quick baskets, then foul trouble. By the time I got back on the floor, the game was blown wide open, a 30 point loss at the end for us.

When we got back into town later that night, Bogdan told me that a number of players were being sent home- I was not going to be one of them, but. he wanted me to know. I had to say good bye to players I had grown accustom to playing with, good guys that had families, guys that I had become friends with on the team.

We would bring in 5 new players as replacements and the second half of the season would begin. Again, it's difficult spending holidays away from loved ones. You miss out on the love and laughter, while you spend your holidays by yourself. Again, this is the mental battle that imports have to deal with, that gets over looked. But again, this is what we choose to do.

The rest of the season would be plagued with injury. I would suffer a torn meniscus and miss about 7 weeks as the season continued. Upon return, in the second game back, I would suffer another knee injury. This time, a fractured knee cap. I will save the details on that injury for you all, but, as I am sure you can imagine, it was painful, and extremely difficult to come back from.

The ups and downs of a basketball life are filled with unique battles, but they teach us invaluable lessons. This year, however, laid the ground work for my stint in Europe, so with each obstacle, I became stronger, learned a lesson and adapted. So for that, I am, as always, incredibly grateful.