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How I Started My Professional Basketball Career in Poland

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I spent a decade playing basketball overseas in four different countries, starting in Poland—where I almost didn’t get paid as a rookie.

As NBA teams start trimming down rosters, the dreams of many prospective players fade, as well. Other options present themselves, and to some, the potential of playing professional basketball overseas becomes the best option.

Experiencing a new culture is fantastic, and the competition gets better every year—and so does the money. Overseas basketball is an incredible opportunity.

I was blessed enough to spend eight years playing in Poland, Austria, Holland and France. I could babble all day about how great that time of my life was.

But not all of my stories of Europe are told like they’re straight from the mouth of Spongebob Squarepants, and there’s a lot of ugliness that goes on behind the scenes. I had one season that was particularly difficult: my rookie year in Poland.

Arriving in a Foreign Country

After five layovers and a 25-hour travel day, I stepped off the plane in Poland at the smallest airport I’d ever seen. I did not, however, find anyone waiting for me. My computer was dead, my charger didn’t work in Europe, and my phone was American so it was useless.

I had been given no number to call, anyway.

Up until this point, my agent handled all communication with the team. I was given a contract to sign and send in, and was told someone would be there for me when I got off the plane. I didn’t even know the name of the city—let alone the name of the organization that signed me—at this point.

With no better options, I got my bags, sat in the parking lot, and waited. It was pretty late at night and I landed on the last flight in. Aside from a few janitors, the place was empty.

I sat there for an hour with no maps, no English speakers, or money. I felt pretty under-prepared. Finally, a car drove into the parking lot. A short man popped out and asked, “Freeman?”

That was good enough for me, so I threw my bags in the car and away we went. It quickly became apparent that saying “Freeman” would be the closest he’d get to speaking any English. It was almost completely dark at this point, and the car was dead silent for over an hour when we pulled into a hotel parking lot and went into the lobby. The only thing weaker than the English there was the wi-fi connection (I never did get it to work).

It was the middle of the night; I had no idea where I was or what I was doing, and had no way of finding out. As I fell asleep in my room, I wondered how many people I knew back home had experienced this much confusion in a single day.

Not surprisingly, it set the stage for my entire year in Poland.

Training Camp and the Language Barrier

The next day, I was off to training camp. Most of the players hardly spoke a word of English, but basketball is universal so we got by just fine. My coach didn’t speak any English, though, which was a problem. He had clearly never played and did not have an athletic bone in his body. I found out later he’d coached 13-and-under teams before being promoted to assistant coach the year before, which somehow qualified him to run a professional team this year.

Our coach was in pretty far over his head. Luckily, he was aware of this, and gave very few boundaries—at least as far as I could understand—so the players communicated and figured things out for ourselves. It was ridiculous, but it worked. We won most of our preseason games and had a lot to be positive about.

I’d never played in a louder gym. Being a fan for our team had nothing to do with cheers, or signs, or even knowing the game of basketball. To be a good fan, you had to make noise—the more of it, the better.

Fans packed the 4,000-seat arena with the loudest things they scraped up from their houses: pots and pans, drums, every different kind of horn imaginable. It was wild. The noise didn’t interfere with the communication with the coach, however, but that’s mostly because we couldn’t effectively communicate in a quiet gym, either, due to the language barrier.

Getting Paid to Play Ball in Poland...Maybe

The early success of the season tailed off eventually. After a couple early losses to start off league play, things turned sour. After my third month in Poland, the money stopped hitting our bank accounts on time, which was an uneasy feeling. When we asked the team president about our checks, we’d hear, “It’s on it’s way,” or “Tuesday it will be here,” and “Oh, I thought I put it in there—it’ll be there tomorrow.” He spoke like a used car salesman and definitely did not put anyone at ease.

The payment issues weren’t limited to the players. After practices, agents would call and encouraged their clients to sit out games because they didn’t receive their money, either. My agent didn’t make a penny off of me that season, unfortunately. And since I was a rookie, he encouraged me to not sit.

No player ended up sitting out any games, but we got together to sit out practices as a sign of unity. After a few skipped practices, management finally paid up.

Or so we thought.

As it turned out, it was only the loudest players—myself and a few other Americans—who got paid. By the fifth month, the Polish players had still only received their first month’s salary.

About the same time, news broke that the coach hadn’t been paid at all that season—not a single dollar (or “zloty”). His demeanor reflected it, and he was clearly demoralized. How could he be so far over his head, and without anything to show for it?

Where’d Coach Go?!

Not even a complete discount could spare our coach’s job. After an especially bad loss near the midway point of the season, he was fired. A new coach was named, and we were to meet him at the next practice. My teammates and I all showed up, but there was no coaching. We held a team-led shootaround and some scrimmages.

The next day, no one but the players showed up at either workouts or practice. None of us had any idea what was going on; there was no coach, no assistants, and no word from the team president. After a few phone calls from different players, management promised us a coach at our next practice.

I still remember the embarrassed and uncomfortable look on that “new” coach’s face when he walked in. It was awkward. He was fired two days ago, but was brought back. Apparently, he had demanded his salary and threatened to go to the media if he didn’t receive it. The team decided they’d rather keep him employed than try to get rid of him. So our original coach was back—unenergized and downtrodden as ever.

The team was in a pretty desperate state. We sat near the bottom of the league and we had difficulty staying competitive in games.

Even More Dysfunction

Management decided that even with a roster full of already-unpaid players with unpaid agents and coaches, their best option was to buy more players. They brought in three new Americans to help salvage a season that was already in the tank.

One of the new players had just finished some time on an NBA roster, and our team put a lot of money into him—a lot of money they didn’t have. After signing him, we continued losing, dropping our next three games.

This new player took a lot of heat, and the team refused to find him an apartment, forcing him to stay in a rundown hotel. He wasn’t given the car he was promised and unsurprisingly, was never paid while in uniform. He only lasted with us for three months before the team cut him and gave him a fraction of what he was owed. Tens of thousands of dollars were left on the table.

I couldn’t figure out how that was possible. He tried to sue, but his agent warned that the team could pay off the courts and he’d spend more pursuing them in court than he’d get back. That’s just an agent’s opinion, sure, but I also can’t figure out any other reason the team got away with it.

The next day the president called us in for an “emergency team meeting,” with players and management only. The president stumbled into the locker room. His screaming, cursing, and yelling was not anywhere near as bad as the smell of cheap vodka on his breath. None of us—Polish or American—could make out a word he was saying, but it didn’t really matter, anyway.

These drunken locker room tirades happened occasionally, but morale was already so low that no one really minded. We’d Just have more stories to tell later.

As bad as that team was, the players all got along well. We didn’t play with any confidence, but we gave a solid effort and kept encouraging each other, trying to remain positive. The organizational culture was just too shaky to overcome, though. Every game felt like an uphill battle. Multiple players were cut, things never really improved, and we finished one game out of last place—which somehow qualified us for the playoffs.

Tragedy Strikes

We took an eight-hour bus trip to the opposing arena before we changed in the locker room and headed onto the court. After about 10 minutes of warm-ups, a man came into the empty gym. None of us had our phones or computers at the time, so we were oblivious to the outside world.

It was April 10, 2010, a day that will live in the minds of the local population forever. The Polish Air Force Tu-154 aircraft had crashed while carrying 96 people, including the Polish president, his family, and a handful of the most important people in the Polish government. The country went into shock.

The game was rescheduled. Subsequent practices became no more than a walkthrough, and the playoffs seemed to be the same. Sports usually has a way of bringing a country together in the face of tragedy, but we didn’t feel that. We were swept in the first round, which paled in comparison to the sorrow Polish people were feeling at the time.

Getting Paid...Finally

At the end of the year, all foreign players were several months behind on payment; Polish players were even further in the hole. The team asked for our bank accounts, sent us home, and promised us our money owed.

One of the veteran American players showed us how to handle the situation. He knew none of that money would be sent, so he refused to board the plane home. Most others else left, expecting management to uphold its promise and wire the rest.

I also stayed back. When the president handed us our plane tickets, we kindly and respectfully handed them back, hanging on to our apartment keys.

The president waited, placating us for a few days with vague answers about where our money was.

Finally, as soon as the last of our fellow holdouts gave up and left, he realized he wouldn’t get rid of us without paying. We showed up to his office the next day, and our checks were waiting with not a penny less than we were owed.

We were the only two players to be compensated at all.

I wasn’t surprised when the team folded a few years later. Apparently, someone in management was embezzling the club’s money, but I never looked into the details. I didn’t need to.

Is This Real Life?

I had never dealt with a season like my rookie year in Poland, and it felt like I was on a reality TV show without knowing it. Still, I have to admit, I enjoyed the wild ride. I learned a ton, setting myself up for the next decade of my career overseas.

Poland is a beautiful country, and I met people there who are still close friends to this day. The league was incredibly talented, and my time there isn’t representative of what most foreign players experience. Other organizations displayed the utmost professionalism, respecting their players and coaches.

I guess I just got lucky.