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 third in a three-part series detailing Brian's personal journey as a professional basketball player. Check out Pt. 1 here and Pt. 2 here.
When I am asked what I do for work, and I say that I play professional basketball in Europe, the response is usually a combination of interest and perplexity. Sure, everyone knows that professional basketball exists in other parts of the world and we, as NBA fans, hear about players coming or going "overseas" all the time. But most people have no idea what that actually entails. What are we actually doing out here?
After graduating college at Long Beach State and signing my first professional contract in the top league in Poland, that was a question I was unable to answer. My agent called me and told me about the offer, and I then signed, sent in my contract, and boarded the plane to Poland all within about five days. I could not even pronounce the name of the team I was about to play for: Kotwica Kołobrzeg. Google told me it was in the northwest of Poland, on the water, and it was very cold in the winter time. I packed basketball gear, warm clothes, and was on my way.
It started to hit me as I took my seat on the plane that I had no idea what I was getting into. I had not directly talked with anyone from the club at this point nor did I have any of their phone numbers or email addresses. My agent had done everything. In spite of that, I was nothing but excited. I had never been to Europe before, and even though my trip was over 24 hours long and had three layovers, I could not wait to start my next adventure.
When I arrived, the language barrier and culture differences were big obstacles from the get-go. In high school and college, my relationships with my coaches were instrumental, but both my head coach and assistant coach did not speak a word of English. Everything had to be translated through the Polish players. That made a relationship with the coaches impossible. Some of the Polish players spoke English while a few spoke little to none. On the court, some of the basketball language is universal so simple things were easy to communicate, while more advanced conversations proved difficult.
The league itself was very strong. I was no longer playing against college kids. Players were much older and more developed than in the NCAA. Many Americans in the league had NBA experience. At one point, I asked a Polish player who the best player in their country was at the time. He called him the "LeBron James of Poland."
Turns out it was former Trail Blazers first-round pick, Qyntel Woods. He won the Polish league MVP that year.
Our team struggled early in the season and had cut a few players and signed a few new ones. Unfortunately, we could not afford the new signees. One of those players never got paid and the rest of us were late to get our money every month. Apparently this is common in a lot of countries. It did not make our season any easier. Some players refused to practice, and even the agents were not getting paid and telling players to sit out games. My agent never got paid but he told me to keep playing anyway.
As a rookie, I just wanted to continue to progress. One of the new players we had signed, Adam Harrington, had played professional basketball for awhile and had some NBA experience and is now the head of player development for the Brooklyn Nets. I attached myself to him right away. The best advice I ever got in my career was from him. It had been advice passed on to him as an NBA rookie -- you're a professional, so do everything like a professional. Those words stuck with me. To me, being a professional meant a variety of things. I had to be the first one in the gym every day and I would stay and shoot after everyone left. I lifted weights on my days off. I learned how to eat right, how to recover properly, read books on the mental aspects of the game, and learned to meditate to increase my focus. I tried to always keep a good attitude, never complain, and stay positive. It took a lot of work sometimes, but I tried to be as professional as I could be. My team had an unsuccessful season, but I was growing as a player every day.
Struggling in Holland and Moving on to Austria
The following year, I signed a three-month contract to play in the top league in Holland. It was a difficult few months, as the team struggled and I was not able to find my place. So when my contract expired, I signed another in Austria for the rest of the season. After my unsuccessful stint in Holland, my career was on the line. I needed to have a good year.
Austria proved to be the turning point in my career. The team was the perfect situation for me and I thrived. I was averaging close to 18 points and 11 rebounds while maintaining passing and defense as my greatest skills. After our team suffered a few injuries, I even spent some time playing small forward for the first time since high school. I had a great team and great management, and we finished in second place. I finally felt like I was seeing the potential in myself that I had heard about my whole life.
After the season, my agent had quite a few proposals for me. Every offer I had was for a team I had never heard of and with coaches and teammates I had never met. At the time, this was one of the things that bothered me most about life overseas. Most foreign players come to a team, try to win and make stats, and then move on to another team. There is very little emotional attachment to or from the teams. Foreign players become like basketball mercenaries. I disliked that feeling. I wanted to be a part of something more important, like I felt in college -- something bigger than just a paycheck.
I did have one other offer on the table. My roommate at Long Beach State and one of my best friends had just played for a newly-created organization in France. The team was a union of two small southwestern cities, Tarbes and Lourdes, and had a lot of ambition.
Starting Over in France
My agent strongly refuted the idea of playing for the new club in France, and I understood why. It should have been a no-brainer not to go. I Skyped with the coach anyway, something I had never done when considering a potential team. He was an Oregonian from Ashland who had moved to France when he was young. He had coached at a few different levels, and he knew how things normally worked. He wanted this team to be different. He wanted to build the club together, where the players could trust the team and vice versa. With my friend vouching for the organization, he sold me on the idea of all of us building the club together. It was a risk, but I thought the potential reward could be worth it; No more bouncing around from team to team, no more new coaches, and no more unstable conditions. No more being a mercenary. To my agent's dismay, I took a gamble and signed with UTLPB, or "the Union" as we call it.
When I first arrived, it was clear that I was with a small club. The gym was small, as was the budget and the home crowds. They lacked a lot of the luxuries that other teams had, but that didn't matter. The culture was very unselfish, we had a great coach, devoted players and management that I trusted. I could tell early on we were creating something special.
Building this team immediately became my passion. My friend unfortunately retired from basketball after my first year in France, but I developed a bond for life with a few of the other teammates here as well. I tried to do whatever I could to help the club progress. I created and sold merchandise for the team to increase club popularity also while meeting with sponsors and city mayors to help increase the budget. I even coached a 19-and-under team in my spare time in my first two seasons.
My coach and I became very close and formed a great relationship. We have always had a very open dialogue about game plans, plays, strategy, and I even watched hours of players' highlight reels in the offseason to give my thoughts on potential players to bring in. He gave me a voice that only increased my feeling like this was our team.
I receive offers almost every year to go play somewhere else, usually for more money, but I rarely consider it. I had an emotional attachment to the team. I was playing well, working hard, getting better every day, and the team and city welcomed me in like family. And when the time came that I needed the team the most, they came through for me.
Dealing With Injuries
In a match with two months left in the season, I went down with one of the most devastating injuries a basketball player can have, and one with which Blazer fans are all too recently familiar -- my Achilles ruptured. I had torn my calf the year before and the other calf the year before that. After having three injuries, including a ruptured Achilles, I wondered if this would be the last time I played for this team
Rest assured, the president of the club came to me just days after the surgery to let me know not to worry and that I would be receiving another contract for the following season. They then pulled some strings to get me into the best full-time rehab center in Europe. The team couldn't have been more supportive and I couldn't have been more grateful.
I am currently starting my sixth season here with the Union. I am constantly told by players how rare it is to see a player stay with the same team for so long, and I have spent more time here in the last decade than I have back in America. We now play in one of the nicer stadiums in the league that we fill regularly with dedicated fans and our team budget is exponentially bigger than our budget when I arrived over a half-decade ago. I have been a captain or co-captain for the majority of my time here.
Most countries have different levels of leagues. France has one of the widest talent pools in the world aside from America, so their leagues are the deepest. Every time a team wins a league, they move up a division and when a team gets last place, they move down a division. When the Union was created, they started in the sixth league. We are now, after three championships, in the third league and working towards getting to the second.
My typical day involves a morning and an evening practice with weight lifting three times per week. We play a game every weekend and sometimes on Tuesdays. Being away from family was difficult at first, but two years ago, I married my best friend who I've known my entire life and she moved out to France with me. We are now also blessed with a 7-month-old, French-born baby girl.
In the meantime, when I'm not working or recovering, my family and I have tried to embrace the French culture as much as possible. We speak the language at a decent level, love exploring the region, love French food and also enjoy the French wine from time to time. Basketball really is a full-time job so we do not have any free time to travel during the season but we try to visit somewhere new every Christmas break and take another trip after the season before we head back to America for the summer.
Upcoming Retirement From Professional Basketball
For a variety of reasons, this will be my final year overseas as I plan to retire from playing basketball at the end of this season. I never made the NBA like I had always dreamed, but I feel very proud of what I helped build here. I am very thankful for the people and friends I've met, and the experience that I've gained. Every player who plays abroad has a different experience, especially on different continents. I have seen a lot of players cut, both merited and not merited. I have seen great players sit at home without any offers and I have seen less talented players get their chances. It is a very unstable life and the culture shock itself is often enough to send players back home. But at the end of the day, there are very few jobs in the world I would rather have.
I hope you have all enjoyed my series and maybe even learned something. If you have any questions about my experiences or anything basketball-related, please do not hesitate to comment or send me an email!
A special thanks goes to Blazer's Edge staff writer Brian Freeman for putting this three-part series together as he prepares for his final season playing overseas.