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“No One Will Ever Wear the Number 24 Again for This Club” — A Former Pro’s Bittersweet Retirement Saga

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Injuries forced Brian Freeman into unexpected retirement from professional basketball at age 30. Adapting to post-basketball life was not easy, at first. Here is his story.

It’s been eight months since I played my last professional basketball game. Waking up without any aches or pains is incredible. I honestly forgot that I was supposed to feel this good. I am also fatter than I ever have been. Not Shawn-Kemp-on-the-Blazers fat, but more fat. I forgot what it was like being a non-athlete.

My French Career

After bouncing around my first few years overseas, I found a home in a little city in southwest France. The team became like family to me almost as soon as I arrived.

On the court, I found my place quickly. When I joined, the team had only existed for a year. It quickly became my project. Every career goal I had involved helping the team move forward — I was meeting with city councilmen and sponsors, designing team merchandise, scouting, organizing extra workouts, and being a captain.

Most importantly, I was helping the team succeed on the court. We started winning games right away ...and then we started winning championships. Our attendance grew rapidly. So did our budget.

I don't believe there was a player in that league that felt as strongly about their team as I did. The reverse was true too; some of the best friends I have on this planet were my teammates in France.

After my fourth year with the team, I got married and my wife joined me in France. A year later our new born baby girl joined us. The love I felt from the community was quickly shared with my new family. My daughter was on the front page of the sports section the day she was born. So was our wedding photo the day we were married. My family was more famous than I was! We were thousands of miles away from our siblings and parents but we didn't feel far from family

I gave that team everything I had, including my health. A few torn calves, some back injuries, and hip injuries were all manageable, but a torn achilles ultimately ended my career. The tear came in February of 2015 and I was back on the court that July — probably too fast, in hindsight. I did everything I could to get back, but I never fully recovered.

My Final Game

Halfway through the 2016-17 season, it was clear to me that I was no longer the player I once was. We were losing and I was not earning my check. I can’t explain the difficulty of coming to terms with that thought. Instead of playing at half speed, I negotiated a buyout from the rest of my contract so the team could move on.

But I had one last game to play before it was over.

My final game was emotionally draining, but I played well and finished with 12 points, 17 rebounds, and 5 assists. Despite my efforts we still lost on a buzzer beating 3-pointer — a crushing, unimaginable end to what had been a stellar game for me and the team.

Only my coach and two other players knew that it was my last game before I gave a small good-bye speech in the locker room. There were a few tears shed but I just didn’t have anything left. I even forgot to take my jersey home.

Early retirement

I was 30 at this point. The majority of every day for the last 14 years of my life had been dedicated to becoming a better basketball player. The day that moment came to an abrupt halt was difficult to realize. It felt as if something was missing from me — I felt incomplete.

The disappointment in the finish to my career was not the hard part. Not being part of a team was not the hard part either. The hardest part was the feeling that it was all for nothing. It felt kind of like playing a a video game for hours and then your system catches fire and burns to ash before the last level. Except probably a little worse. All I kept thinking was, “What was that all for?”

I wasn’t sulking, I was not in a bad mood, I don't think you could see anything was wrong by being around me, but mentally I was off. I felt unmotivated for the first time in my life.

Final day with the team

After I officially retired, the team invited me to attend one, final game later in the season. My wife and I sat in the bleachers like regular fans. I did not really want to be there. It was painful watching warmups; those same players had been teammates just a week ago, and now I was an outsider.

Warmups ended and the players headed to their benches. One by one the players names were announced like they always were. After the last players name was called over the PA system, the team President grabbed the mic and turned toward where we were sitting. The team manager approached me and escorted me to center court.

Together, the president and I looked at the thousands of fans looking back at us. They were all on their feet clapping. My teammates were too. That moment felt like forever, but when it eventually passed, the President started speaking. I heard the first part of his speech but was lost in the moment for the rest of it. His words were kinder than anything I thought I deserved. It ended with him holding up my jersey and saying (in french) “No one will ever wear the number 24 again in the history of this club.”

My final time on a professional basketball court

The cheers erupted and followed me back to me seat. My wife sat there holding my 8-month old daughter in one hand and a bouquet of flowers someone had brought her in the other hand. I looked at my wife and daughter and as I sat down next to them, the reality sank in.

I had my number retired.

How could I still wonder what it was all for after an honor like that? That was the moment I officially retired from the game of basketball. We booked our tickets back to America and left a few days later. I felt whole again.

Life back home

It’s been eight months since I retired from playing and I haven't been on a basketball court since. I still have three pairs of never-worn, brand new basketball shoes sitting underneath a window in my room. I originally forced myself away for the first month that I got back to America, just to let my body heal. Now I don’t play because it’s frustrating to imagine being less of a player than I was while in France. I can’t remember the last time I went more than 3 or 4 days without a basketball in my hand before now.

I do miss playing though. I’ll get back into it at some point, but I would have never guessed that there would be a time in my life that eight months would go by without playing.

Upon returning to America, it became time to find out what to do professionally with the rest of my life. At this point, I had already coached professionally, professionally trained players, and played professional ball for eight years. My basketball resume was impressive. Getting involved in the game was the obvious choice.

I talked with an ex-NBA scout and he explained that he never once spent more than 2 days in a row with his family during the season. A few D1 college coaches had similar stories.

The draw to a career in scouting our coaching was obvious — I got to be around the game I love. But I couldn't do that at the expense of being away from my family. Had I been single, I probably would have tried the NBA scout, or the coaching route, but the jobs did not fit with what I was looking for. Unfortunately, basketball doesn't offer many other opportunities, but I knew I had to be involved in the game somehow.

A New Beginning

I did, however, have another pretty sweet basketball gig. It was writing at a website called “Blazer’s Edge.” Heard of it?

I had already been with BE for a year at this point, but my retirement coincided with a dramatic increase in my involvement. I fell for writing about the game like I did playing it. Because I had BE supporting my passion of basketball, I was also able to transition into an incredible, non-basketball related career at the same time when I returned to the U.S. My years of basketball experience would not go to waste and I still have a job that allows me to watch my daughter grow up. What more can a guy ask for?

Retirement is different for everyone. For me, it was the finality of it that was hard to accept. Even eight months later I still remember that feeling of having basketball no longer a part of me. It was tough. Luckily, because of Dave Deckard and the people at Blazer’s Edge, I don’t have that feeling now.