Editor's Note: Blazer's Edge staff writer Brian Freeman played high school basketball in Albany, then played collegiately at Clackamas Community College and Long Beach State University before graduating in 2009. Since, he's played professionally overseas in Poland, Austria, Holland and now France for the past six seasons. This is the first in a three-part series detailing Brian's personal journey as a professional basketball player.
I had just turned 14, and as a freshman in high school I finally was old enough to go upstairs and lift weights at my hometown gym. Nowadays, 16 years later, I still workout at that same gym during the offseason. Even today, I still do my basketball workouts on the same court at the Albany Boys and Girls Club that I used to play on when I was a little kid. As a current professional basketball player in France, I spend the majority of the year outside of American borders, in different weight rooms, and on different courts. But for a month and a half every year, I come back to where my career first started.
This upcoming season will be my eighth year as a professional ball player overseas and will also be my first full year as a writer for Blazer's Edge. I have played in Poland, Holland, Austria, and am now entering my sixth season in France. I may have never reached my ultimate goal of being one of the very select few to be able to wear the pinwheel in front of the fans at the Moda Center, but I've still been able to make a career out of playing the game I love.
The Early Years
My passion for basketball started with my father. He played collegiately at Oregon State and was then drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1970. After one year in the NBA he finished his career in Europe before moving back to Oregon. His love for basketball rubbed off on me right away. It was a huge advantage growing up around his knowledge of the game and his NBA experience. My father played just one season in the NBA, but the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks team that drafted him not only won the NBA championship that year (unfortunately he was traded mid-season so he never got a ring) but the Bucks also employed two of the greatest players of all time: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
Hearing stories of what it was like to play and practice with and against two NBA greats was constant motivation. I listened to my father's stories about trying to guard Kareem in practice. He talked about what it was like to try and anticipate Kareem's sky hook and not let him get his lead foot planted or else, in his words, "it was already over." Any time anyone on the television would ever mention Oscar Robertson, my father would talk all about how Oscar "is the best point guard ever! Hands down! He could do it all, but his passing doesn't get enough credit, it's second to no one!" It was like clockwork; I could almost mouth the words as my father spoke.
As a kid, I spent the bulk of my free time watching any NBA games that were on television, collecting trading cards, and studying stats and rosters that came out in the Sunday newspapers -- remember life before the internet? But more than anything, I spent countless hours with a ball in the driveway. I was learning to shoot left-handed lay-ins correctly at the same time most of my peers were still learning to read. My neighbors still talk about having to listen to "that darn bouncing ball" while they tried to go to sleep at nights. I watched every game I could, NBA or collegiate, with my father both critiquing and explaining the game as it went along. The commercials during games were my time to practice the moves I just got done watching. I would go out to shoot and my father would yell to me when the game was back on. I would come running back in.
As much basketball as I watched, there were two NBA players I watched as a kid who had the biggest influence on my basketball career. As the 1993-94 Playoffs began, I had my eyes glued on the television, ready to root on my Blazers. I was around seven years old at the time, and I was as overwhelmed with whom the Blazers faced in the first round as the team itself.
His name was Hakeem Olajuwon.
I watched him completely dismantle my favorite team, and he instantly became my idol. To this day, my go-to post move is still the baseline spin move Hakeem made famous. I spent hours trying to get it right. Hakeem's agility, activity, and footwork were mesmerizing. My mom still loves to tell the story of when I was eight years old and I asked her to officially change my name to Hakeem.
As much as I loved Olajuwon's game, I tried even harder to mimic the same player everyone my age in both Oregon and Europe tried to mimic: Arvydas Sabonis. His ability to pass the basketball as a big man had a major impact in how I saw the game. His vision and passing created so many easy baskets for his teammates that every bad shot I watched the Blazers take was immediately followed by my thinking that Sabonis could have found us a better shot. Consequently, every coach I have ever played for has complained about me, at least once, looking too often to find a great pass instead of looking for my own shot. One of my collegiate coaches went as far as calling me "selfless to a fault." All of my coaches had Arvydas to blame. I was the only kid I knew who would practice bounce passes to imaginary cutters in the driveway, hitting targets on the garage door.
Entering High School as an Undersized Freshman
At age five I started playing organized basketball. My parents put me in the league for seven and eight-year-olds because I was bigger and taller than most of the other kids my age at that time. I continued to play in the older age groups throughout my elementary years. That continued until I was about 10, when the other kids started catching up to me. I was young for my grade and a very late developer. Physically, I started to fall behind as middle school came around. I was still good enough to play on a few regional select teams but was hardly one of the better players around. While I heard rumors of college coaches taking note of some of my peers, I was starting high school as a rail-thin, 5-foot-8 guard who got absolutely no college attention. I had a father who was a 6-foot-9 ex-NBA player and I had a knack for the game, so I was constantly associated with the word, "potential." I was always told that my best years were ahead of me. Unfortunately, "potential" just means that you could one day be a very good player, but currently, you are not.
As high school approached, the dream of playing in the NBA already seemed less like a goal and more like a dream. I was not even a dominant player in the small town of Albany. How was I going to be able to compete with some of the best players in the world?
I, however, rarely dwelled on that thought. As soon as I was of age, I went to my local weight room, starting working out hard, and spent hours in the gym. At that point it had nothing to do with chasing my dream of going pro. I loved the game of basketball and wanted to play as often as I could and improve my game and get ready for high school ball.
Tune in next Thursday as Brian explains how he navigated his way through the Central Willamette Valley high school ranks and eventually found himself on the roster at Long Beach State University in southern California.