When The Ball Stops Bouncing

For as long as I can remember, sports have always been my life. Not just a part of it, but all of my life. Every goal, every dream, everything I ever wanted to be, involved sports. Whether it be basketball, football or baseball, I was always driven to be good in sports.

When I was growing up, for a long time I wanted to play in the NFL and play college football. Eventually, those dreams faded away and hoop dreams began. When I was 17, basketball became everything I wanted to do. I was 6'6 and still growing, I had a natural ability and wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

I began putting in work to make my dreams a reality. I wanted to play in the NBA- at the highest levels the world has to offer. I wanted to buy my mom a house and take care of my family. Every day, I was at a court shooting, practicing my ball handling and playing pick up games. In the summer I was spending 8 hours a day, physically playing basketball. My friends at the time also played so we would play in Hightstown, get in the car, drive to a local court where people from other towns played, and sometimes at night would head to another court where there were lights to get a few more games in. When I wasn't playing, I was watching basketball on TV, talking about it or thinking about it. It quite literally, consumed my life.

At Stony Brook, those habits are built in to your daily schedule. You have practices for up to 3 hours a day, an hour of weight room, an hour plus in the training room rehabbing or getting treatment, meetings with coaches and if you went to Stony Brook, an hour or so of film (depending on whose scout it was, you could be in there for days.) Also, you have the expectation to get in the gym on your own time to get extra shots either in the mornings or at night. This of course, is all on top of being a full time student.

I was at Stony Brook for five years, and between those five years, a year of prep school and a passionate young kid from Hightstown, I had been a pro since I was 17. My bank account certainly didn't say that, but I was training like a pro to become one. I signed my first pro deal in 2014, but this was nothing new in terms of regiment or mindset, I was just finally making some money doing it (for those of you who say a scholarship is payment, while I am grateful for that, I will gladly discuss that in another post for you.)

The difference with being an actual professionally paid player and an athlete in college? You have to do the work yourself. There's no one watching over you anymore. There are no coaches forcing you to lift weights and work on your game. If you don't do the work it will show, and when it shows that team will show you the door and you'll be on the first plane back to the US. My first year I played against a guy early on, who was a standout college player. I mean an extremely accomplished player with awards and accolades of every kind. He was a couple years ahead of me and when I saw his name on the scout I thought I was going to be in for a battle. When we showed up to the game he put on an easy 50 lbs from his college days- was out of shape and unmotivated. We kicked their heads in and he played poorly. He was sent home two weeks later.

For me though, I enjoyed working out. At Stony Brook, I can proudly say every minute I played in my career was earned. I didn't have a big name, I wasn't a highly touted recruit and when I stepped on campus I was way behind the rest of my teammates. I played very few minutes my first two years, a few minutes my junior year and a lot of minutes my senior year. All that was done through hard work. My summers were my favorite time, I was in the gym early each day. I learned to love lifting weights, I learned to love getting shots up and doing drills on my own. I was happy to skip out on social outings to wake up early and work out for hours. It's cliche, but I fell in love with the process.

When I turned pro, each year presented a new country to experience, a new set of sights to see, new teammates and new connections to make. In 2017, when I collapsed mid game, I thought it was all over. Fortunately, I got one more call and I came out to Australia with the intention to play that one final season and be done with it. I didn't think I would be healthy enough to go back to high level basketball.

Now, when I told Carlie that, she told me there was no way in hell I was quitting and that I had too much to give still. I am grateful for that. So I started working to get back to the levels I was playing at (the State League in Australia is a much lower level compared to my European experience.) I would receive a dozen or so offers from European clubs the past two years, but turned them down in favour of staying here in Australia with Carlie. My sights were no longer on Europe, but the NBL here in Australia.

For those unaware, the NBL is one of the best leagues in the world outside of the NBA. Extremely high level basketball, where most imports were NBA players at one point and Australians have NBA experience or on the radar to be picked up. I had the opportunity to practice with some of the NBL teams over the past two years. Nearly being signed twice for the season and offers for when my residency comes through and I will count as an Australian rather than an import.

For as long as I have played, I have had a chip on my shoulder. I have always been doubted. A coach early in my high school days said I could never play Division I, but I did that. I had people in college say I wouldn't play professionally, but I have had the longest career of anyone in my time at Stony Brook, although I'm sure Jameel will outlast me there. When I have played professionally, people have always doubted me because my resume isn't the most extravagant, but Coach Pikiell always told me, "you're a late bloomer, your best years will come around your 30's." He couldn't have been more right, I have always earned the respect.

Now for me, I have learned to love the grind. Stony Brook showed me what hard work really was, and since, I have learned to love it. I made myself a high level player and I did it the hard way, and that's something no one will ever be able to take away from me. I was always told if I were to become a good player, I would be self made. That's something I am proud to say I accomplished.

But over the last year or so things for me have changed. For one, COVID has decimated the world. It has shut down economies everywhere, and thus clubs have less money to offer. The issue with that is Americans have been taking less money each year, to play in higher leagues, to get their foot in the door and to say they're a pro. Clubs know that, and they will take a rookie for peanuts, let him play for a couple of months and if he doesn't work out, bring in someone who they know is capable and will right the ship. The clubs don't lose out though, they just saved thousands of dollars over the first couple months of the season. If the rookie does work out, they save tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of the season. So before you sign a deal, you need to make sure it's worth what you're about to put your mind and body through and the way things are set up right now, it's nowhere close.

The second thing that has changed for me is I have lost the motivation to workout like I used to. Sure I am 30 now, but my body can handle it. To be honest, I am the healthiest I have been since I was in college and it isn't even close. Carlie has helped me so much with my diet and lifestyle to get me to this point. But my heart isn't in it like it used to be. I have to force myself to shoot, or lift weights, the pressure and toxicity of being an athlete effects me more than ever. I haven't enjoyed going to practice everyday and don't even look forward to games sometimes. As kids, we start playing sports because they're supposed to be fun. Basketball hasn't been for a few years for me now.

When COVID hit, and there was no basketball for the first time in 12 years, I

was happier than I was with basketball. Carlie noticed an enormous difference in me on a daily basis and it was something we spoke in length about.

I had the opportunity to get in with an NBL team over the past month or so with the idea that if I play well enough, I could land a deal. In that month span, I sprained my ankle on day 1, broke my toe the first practice back and sustained a rib injury the second practice. I couldn't walk, I couldn't sleep or roll over, I was stressed out trying to get myself ready for the next day's practice. After some back and forth, and the window of opportunity closing, I decided to step away. Things don't always work out how we want them to but they will ALWAYS work out how they're supposed to.

I reflected over my time, which despite the injuries, was a good experience. I was in, playing with former and future NBA players, some of the best Australians in the world today, a coaching staff that will bring a lot of success to that club and I played well through it. However, something felt off, I didn't enjoy it like I should be. At the end of the day, it's just basketball, just a game.

I kept asking myself "Why?" Why did I want to earn this contract so badly if I wasn't enjoying it? There are two reasons- first I was trying to fuel my ego. I have always tried to prove people wrong my whole career. It's what has driven me. Many people don't know what it's like to dunk a basketball. Much less dunk one in front of 15 thousand people and hear them roar in excitement or make a big shot and shut those 15 thousand people right up. The adrenaline rush is special, I'll be honest with you there. Or having a highlight posted on the internet of making a big shot, or a great play- it just fuels the ego and it makes you feel good. All those hours you put in to go watch you dominate an opponent, it's great. There's a level of status so to speak that comes with being a professional athlete, something we get lost in far too easily.

While that rush is great, so comes the nonsense of "fans." An NBL team recently signed an American import. An American who has played for Team USA, in the NBA and some of the best leagues across the world. An established, exciting player with a lot of success behind his name. The comments under his signing are crazy. I really don't know the word for it. You have people who have never picked up a ball and played any meaningful basketball just bashing this dude. Saying he'll have 4 good games all season. It's a wasted signing. He sucks. I will never understand that side of the game and people to be honest with you. This guy is one of the best players in the ENTIRE WORLD and you sit there and say how sh*t he is. I've had PLENTY of that, starting back in college. It's not easy to deal with, and a big reason I haven't been big on social media in the past.

The second reason why I was chasing this contract- it's what 17 year old Eric wanted. 17 year old Eric was insecure about who he was, trying to find his path and wanted to do whatever he could to help his mom out and basketball was the avenue. For so long, I have pushed to succeed in basketball, I got lost in it. I forgot about the essence of basketball.

Life tip- once money gets involved it always gets messy, keep family and friends out of money.

Now that I stepped away, I realised, basketball isn't what I love anymore. It's not in my heart anymore and that's okay. We grow, we change and we evolve and that's what has happened.

So after you read all of that, now what? All I have ever known is basketball. I've never held a "real job." I don't know what it's like to work a 9-5 and live for the weekend. What is next for me?

Well, the first thing I know is that I don't want to live my life like that. We get one shot at this thing, and I have done a pretty good job of living it my way so far. It hasn't been conventional, but when I look back at it all, I'll smile up to this point because its been a fun ride if nothing else.

The "what's next?" The "what's after (insert sport here)?" comes sooner or later for everyone. Father Time is undefeated as we all know.

I see so many former players and teammates get lost without basketball. They go home, they sit around hoping for one more contract, if it doesn't come or if they have walked away on their own, they have no idea what they're going to do next. They try to get into coaching, using their resume and network to get them in. To be honest, it's a great idea, you're highly trained in a specialised field. But what if you don't get a college job? What if you get a high school job that pays 10k a year? This is the scary fact that professionals face. We don't have any training in any other fields, and our sport tends to forget about us a lot faster than we forget about it.

I said earlier, all I've known is basketball for 13 years now. My entire adult life it's all I've done or thought about. I haven't given myself time to learn anything else really. Yes I am educated, doing undergrad and attending grad school at Stony Brook for business. But that's not what I am passionate about. I can't imagine, in today's society, with all the ways to generate an income, allowing myself to live a life I don't want to live. A former teammate of mine headed down this road and got himself a cube sales job. He was making solid money but hated the path he was headed down. In 6 months he quit, started his own basketball coaching business and now, is in an office again, this time for an NBA team. He bet on himself and, through hard work, it's paid off.

One more thing I have going for me- I have the most incredible support from Carlie. We see things the same way and she is fully behind and supportive of everything I want to do. She pushed me to start this blog- like was on my case every day about when I would launch it. I know not everyone has that kind of support but, like me, she sees the world as our one shot in this life, so live it the way you want to.

Luckily for me, I have found what my next passion in life is. I want to help. I want to help as many people as I can. I've been through some things in my life, and I believe my experiences can help people. I have received so many supportive messages since starting this that it's really shocked me. I have gotten even more messages from people who are dealing with mental health issues and feel as though I wrote about them. I know what it's like to go through these things, and I feel comfortable putting it out to the world and be a voice for those who haven't found theirs yet. I was hoping to inspire, comfort or, at the very least, make people feel understood by starting this blog. Thus far I have accomplished it on a small scale.

As part of a professional athlete, community engagements are a big requirement. Trips to schools, camps, clinics or just media events. You come across a lot of kids. My first couple of years I wanted no part of those events. I just wanted to play basketball, play well, and make more money the next season. I failed to see the impact you can have on another person, kids in particular. I have come to realise over the past couple of years, that kids in particular really take to me. I connect well with them and I have mentored quite a few over the past couple of years, taking phone calls late at night, messages constantly with questions they have and sometimes just a conversation with them when they feel they need it.

To see these impacts has inspired me and grown a passion to help everyone I can. Carlie and I started our own basketball coaching business, right before COVID hit, focusing on individual and small group sessions. We have restructured our business plan now to have a bigger impact. We want to make a real impact in the community, to those in more unfortunate circumstances moving forward. We have some big ideas that we hope come bring to fruition in the next year. We want to have our own foundation(s) and inspire people.

I also hope, when COVID is finally under control, to begin public speaking. I have done a little bit of it in the past, but I want to get in to schools, to share my story with whoever will listen, because if I can impact and change just one life, than I will leave this world a better place than I found it. Of course, I hope to impact as many lives as I can, but you can't impact everyone without impacting the first one.

So if you are struggling, if you are an ex athlete feeling lost or if you just need a friendly ear to listen, my door is always open (and by door I mean inbox of course, but if you know where we live, that door is open too.)

Be well everyone. Much love.