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 second in a three-part series detailing Brian's personal journey as a professional basketball player. Check out Part 1 here.
As an incoming freshman entering West Albany High School, I was a late developer who was physically behind most of my peers. I had two older sisters who were both great basketball players at my high school, and a 6-foot-9 father who had played in the NBA. I entered into the high school basketball world with high expectations but being young and a bit naive, I never felt or realized any pressure. I just loved the game of basketball, played as often as I could, and wanted to get better.
For most high school students, appearance was everything. I was not that guy. Every day I wore basketball shorts, and kept an extra pair of basketball shoes in my locker. At lunch when my friends would get together to socialize, I was in the gym where I had an hour to play pick-up games before class started. Lunch-time ball was not the best basketball nor did it have the best players, but it was basketball, and that's all I wanted to do.
High School Ball in the Central Willamette Valley
That freshman season was when I finally started growing and passing all of my peers. From the start of ninth grade to the start of my sophomore year I had grown nine inches, from 5-foot-8 to 6-foot-5. Luckily I had very few growing pains and was able to maintain at least some of my coordination. Over the next two years, I would grow to 6-foot-7 as a junior and added another two inches as a senior, making me 6-foot-10 in shoes.
Growing that much so fast was life-changing, and not just on the basketball court. Even at my own house, I was turning corners and hitting my head on things that just weeks before I could easily clear. Shelves, lights, cabinets and low door frames were all new adversaries that I had never had to worry about before.
I actually had to learn how to be tall.
On the court, the extra inches made a huge difference. After being a guard or a wing my whole life, I was now playing the center position. A player transitioning from the perimeter to the inside is almost always an easier adjustment than the opposite -- I could shoot, pass, and move well for my size.
As I started to find some success as a player, my focus on basketball grew. I planned my free periods in school around times the gym was open and I would take the bus that dropped me off at a weight room near my house. My high school coach, Coach Hartman, once got mad at me because he heard that I had played in a city league game following one of our team practices. Little did he know, I was actually playing in three other leagues at the time. I just always wanted to play.
As I progressed, so did my aspirations. I began to realize that I may have a chance to play at a Division-1 school in college, and that became my objective. I knew it was possible, but I also knew it would take a lot of work.
Before my junior and senior seasons, I played on an AAU traveling team in Portland called Oregon I.C.E., coached by the head coach at Clackamas Community College, Clif Wegner. We travelled to play in a few of the biggest national high school tournaments in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, hoping to gain recognition from some top-division college coaches. I tried to stay focused on my game and tune out all the pressure.
At the start of my senior year, and after completing my second tour of AAU ball, I now had five top-division schools that were staying in contact with me and were going to follow my progress as a senior. I did not have an offer, but I at least had their attention. Now I just needed to have a good year.
Like many high school kids, I thought I had things figured out. I put in the time, I was in the gym, I was in the weight room, but I wanted to do everything on my own. Unfortunately, I did not know what a real basketball workout entailed or how to lift correctly in a weight room. I learned that just being in the gym does not make you a better player and that being in the weight room does not always make you stronger. I graduated high school as a rail-thin 6-foot-9 post, weighing only 180 pounds. I thought I knew what I was doing, but looking back now, I had no idea. I had a great coach in Coach Hartman and lots of resources available, but I never took advantage of them. The hours I put in did not equate to more success on the court and I never was able to make the jump my senior year. My high school team failed to even make the playoffs.
Even after my disappointing senior season, one college decided I was a project worth the gamble. They offered me a full-ride scholarship. They liked my skillset, but said I had a long way to go and maybe I should redshirt my freshman year. I had my dream, a D-1 offer, but it did not feel right. They didn't even seem excited to have me. After receiving some interesting offers from some other D-2 schools and some smaller local schools, I decided that I had more in me. I knew I could play at a good D-1 school, but I needed more time. The best option for me was to go to a community college for two ears and then try to transfer to a D-1 school from there. My AAU coach, Coach Wegner, had extended an offer for me to play junior college ball at Clackamas and I graciously accepted. It was not the glamorous choice -- it didn't even make the Albany newspapers -- but looking back to this day, it was the right choice.
Clackamas Community College
My first season at Clackamas was a great learning experience. With the help of the coaches and some older players, I began to find some consistency in my game. I also learned how to correctly use a weight room. I added some muscle to my frame and started seeing all my hard work produce results on the court. When my sophomore season came around, I felt that I was ready to make the jump.
I lifted and played nearly every day that summer. When the season came around, I was in great shape, I had a great team and I was motivated. A week before our first preseason game, I was finishing up practice with some shooting drills when I landed and I heard a pop. The pain shot down my whole leg. I tried to walk it off but it became apparent right away I had injured something in my hip. The doctor confirmed that I had torn the cartilage in my hip joint. I could walk around but playing was out of the question.
It would require surgery and I would miss the entire season.
After a few weeks of prep work and meetings with the doctor, it was time to go under. The operation required the surgeon to pop the femur out of the hip joint, reconnect the torn cartilage, and then put the hip back into the socket.
I will never forget the feeling that came next. My doctor slightly shook me, waking me up from my anesthesia. He explained that he tried everything he could to remove my hip from the joint, but the machine he used was not able to dislodge the hip
. Apparently my hips were too tight and I was so tall that if he pressed any more, he would break the table. That's when I asked what my other options were. He suggested that I may never play basketball again.
I was a mess of anger, frustration, and tears. I tried to wrap my brain around retiring as an option. My mother, the saint she is, did not accept that. She and my two older sisters called all over for other options, and within the week, I was sitting in an office of a doctor who gave me his word he could get the job done. As I was awoke from my anesthesia again after the surgery, I was feeling as unconfident as I was groggy. But it turns out he got the job done, and he actually broke his table in the process.
The recovery was extremely long. After being bed-ridden for a month, I spent hours over the following few months with the physical therapist, and had to practically re-learn how to walk. As soon as I could though, I was in the weight room everyday. All the while, my sister and mom had made it their goal that during this recovery time, I was going to put on weight. Every morning they would cook stacks and stacks of pancakes -- way more than I could eat. They would plop a plate of pancakes next to me and I ate until I couldn't swallow. The thousands of calories of pancakes each day combined with the hours in the weight room, and I started the following season almost 60 pounds heavier than when I graduated high school. Although I was not able to eat a pancake for the next few years, I was finally filling out.
The first day of the season was the first day I was medically cleared to start running. I had to take ice baths after every practice for my hip and I spent a lot of the year in the training room rehabbing, but after a slow start, I was starting to find myself as a player. I played mostly on the inside, but was able to step out and shoot and pass as well. I spent hours with the coaching staff and had an amazing group of teammates, and it all started to come together. Our team ended the season on a 21-game winning streak and won the regional Junior College Championship. I was awarded the league and tournament MVP awards. The season was overwhelming, and I could not have asked for more. All I could think about was how grateful I was for all of the people who helped get me here.
After the season was over, it became decision time. I had more offers to D-1 schools that I can remember. My voicemail service and mailbox was full every day. After four official visits, two unofficial visits and hours on the phone with coaches, I had narrowed my choices down to two schools. I had a great support system, but I had decided that the choice was going to be mine and mine alone. I lost sleep and my mind was always preoccupied. The two schools both seemed to have an equal amount to offer. My visits went very well. I liked the directions of the two programs, I liked the players and both coaching staffs, and I felt I would be used well in both systems. They both were able to offer me the education and resources for a career after college, and I had no idea how to decide.
I opted to flip a coin to see which school I should attend, just for the heck of it. As the coin flipped up in the air, I found myself hoping for one over the other. Deep down I knew where I wanted to go and that was all I needed to know. I called the coaches of each school and within a week, I had officially signed with Long Beach State.
California State University, Long Beach -- Long Beach State, for short -- had just been to the NCAA tournament the season before I arrived and had graduated their top nine scorers from the year before. On top of that, they had just hired a new coach, Dan Monson. I was Coach Monson's first recruit. He and I got along great and we had very similar ambitions for myself and the program. It was like we were starting from the ground up.
We had a great coaching staff and a great group of guys, but the lack of Division-1 experience on our team proved to be too much for us to overcome. As the season rolled on, the losses piled up. We finished the season 6-25 and second to last place in the league. It was a difficult year. My senior season was much more positive. We brought in some talented players, and the returners progressed. We finished second in the Big West Division.
Basketball at the D-1 level was a whole new ball game, and I was no longer playing just for fun. This was a business and a job that was both physically and mentally demanding. I came to Long Beach to work hard and had always enjoyed school, so I had no problem with the workload, but during my time there, I really struggled to keep any weight on. Due to NCAA rules at the time, a full-ride scholarship did not offer any money to athletes and the school could only legally supply 3 free meals a day to an athlete living on campus. It was a problem for a lot of NCAA athletes at the time. I had a big appetite and high metabolism and ended up losing over 30 pounds over the course of the season. Losing that much weight was a major struggle for me.
Over my two years at Long Beach I had a lot of ups and downs but overall I really enjoyed my time there. We had a very knowledgable coaching staff and I learned more about the game of basketball than I knew there was to know. The coaches constantly pushed our limits and I found a strength and toughness in me I did not know existed. Off of the court I graduated and earned my degree, and also met some people who would turn into some of my best friends still to this day. Plus, as a Blazer fan, I will always get to say I played against Damian Lillard twice in college. I never reached the NCAA tournament and was nowhere close to playing in the NBA, but even so, I had picked the right school.
The Next Step
After my final collegiate game, a semifinals loss in our conference tournament, I struggled processing that my basketball career was over. I felt that I had more to give, more to learn, and I did not feel like it was time for me to be done playing.
Turns out it wasn't.
A professional basketball agent in Holland, who knew my father and had caught wind of my play, had asked some of his contacts in America to watch some of my games at Long Beach. They had seen that I had some skill and my game may be well-suited to play overseas. The agent reached out to me about my interest in continuing my career in Europe and I was ecstatic. After a summer of training and preparation, his next call came.
"Brian, a team in Poland would like to sign you. If you are interested, pack your bags, you leave next week."
I began preparing for the next phase of my basketball career. My journey was not over just yet.
Tune in next Thursday for the final installment of Brian's story as he explains how he went from playing Division-1 college basketball at Long Beach State to signing overseas with a professional team in Poland.