by: Ian Johnson
“Europe was as abstract as college had become familiar.” From Davidson to the shores of Spain: A Basketball Tale…
I imagined Spain before I ever got there. I did this most notably on a sticky summer night in 2006, two months after graduating college and four months removed from the final buzzer sounding the end of my four years of NCAA basketball. In the kitchen at my parents’ place, I unrolled across the table a laminated world map. I found Europe, then zoomed in on Spain. From thirty-nine hundred miles away, I put my finger on the northern coast, on a little black dot, where, nuzzled against the southern arc of the Bay of Biscay, and flanked by Santander to the east and the Basque capital of Bilbao to the west, sat the city of Gijon. I mouthed the names. I liked the alliteration and rhyme in Bay of Biscay, the Lord-of-the-Rings-like adventurism evoked in Bilbao, the drum-roll exoticism of Santander. I wasn’t as keen on the loogie-hocking effort required to properly say Gijon: “Hghee-hon.”
Still, the city was new geography, a new destination. It was far away. It lay beneath my finger, pregnant and fertile with possibility, and that was good enough.
Minutes before I’d been on the phone with my agent, a New Yorker named Mike. This was a new thing, too, having an agent, someone working for me. I’d signed with Mike’s agency a few months prior, while still in school, over a breakfast of French toast at a cafe near campus. My classmates had had meetings like this too, with recruiters from investment banks and grad schools and whatever else. Only a few of us met with sports agents. While I chomped bacon, Mike presented me with a binder. Inside, neatly laid out in color-coordinated sections, were pages highlighting my college career, plus more that showcased his agency and its successful stable of clients. The last section was a hypothetical forecast of where and how my basketball career might play out. The NBA was too far off my horizon, and Mike didn’t even address it. Europe, however, was wide open. He showed me bios of his agency’s contacts across the continent. Adrian in Spain. Miklos in Hungary. Pierre in France. It was like he was letting me in on a spy network. It felt like I could point to a map and go and play anywhere. A few minutes later the waitress brought us the check. Mike signed the bill, and I signed with Mike.
I spent the summer after graduation waiting for the right offer from the right team. I was excited, yet unsure of what, exactly, I should be excited about. Europe was as abstract as college had become familiar. Accepting a new life in Europe would mean bidding goodbye to the one I’d leave behind. I wasn’t ready. My senior year I’d come into my own. I’d averaged career highs across the board, earned a slew of postseason awards, and got to see myself on the cover of the March 20, 2006 NCAA Tournament preview issue of Sports Illustrated. My picture on it is small; it was part of a larger collage, one player from each team in the tournament, but still. In it I’m lunging for a rebound, my mouth reminiscent of the guy in Munch’s The Scream. If you look closely, you can see half of my left nipple. All that was over now. I considered my teammates brothers, and now we’d live in different countries on different continents. We’d never be so proximate, so intimate, ever again. I looked forward to a contract in Europe as much to replace the grief of losing them as I did anything else.
In July Mike called and told me he had a good deal in place. A team in Gijon had requested my services. It played in a super solid league, the LEB Gold (one step down from the Spanish ACB, usually the best overall league in Europe). The team would pay me a monthly salary (tax-free), would lavish me with an apartment, a car, satellite TV, and a meal a day at a local restaurant, all gratis. They’d pay all my bills. Plus two round-trip flights. All I had to do was walk in the gym and ball out.
While Mike waited expectantly over the line from his office on Long Island, I talked it out, as if considering my options, feigning some autonomy in the matter. I’d had a number of other, mostly middling offers throughout the summer, from Sweden, Poland, and the Czech Republic, but turned them down in the same manner I considered the current one: on Mike’s advice. He more or less dictated those nascent stages of my career. Eventually I told Mike, as coolly as I could, like I’d long been in the business, that I accepted the offer. He said he’d get started on the paperwork and would call me in the morning.
And that was when I pulled out my world map, laid it across the kitchen table, and pointed my finger at the places I’d go.
Each country on the map was a different color, Espana a shade of orange, the color of a basketball. The map was big enough to include lesser-known cities like Gijon, and I rested my finger on the tiny black circle that marked the spot where I would soon launch my career. Just like you don’t have to be religious to imagine heaven, you don’t have to be in Spain, or know anything about it, to imagine Gijon. I could imagine it any way I wanted, and I imagined it as validation. Going on fifteen years of my life had been dedicated to basketball. It was time I got paid for it.
As I set my digit down, practicing the pronunciation, I constructed in a few short seconds the entire experience of my professional athletic career. I fantasized in sweeping arcs how I would live out the next five, eight, ten or dozen years. Here is what I generated in the suddenly revved-up theater of my horoscopic mind: I would become worldly and cultured, channeling Hemingway; he’d enjoyed the northern coast of Spain, too. I would dominate the Spanish league, diplomacize Spanish women, master the Spanish language. I’d make money. Lots of it. Envy would run rampant in the veins of anyone who’d ever doubted me. Admiration would drip harder than the sweat of my workouts. I would average 17 and 8, or maybe 18 and 9; the details were vague if the themes weren’t.
Right there at the kitchen table, only minutes after I’d first realized Gijon even existed, before I could stop myself, I’d attached myself to a vast tapestry of expectations–achievable expectations maybe, but still premature. I was too naive and lacking in the right kind of self-awareness to realize what a mistake this was. Mixed in with these ebullient expectations were, I’m sure, healthy (or unhealthy) doses of nerves and skepticism, perhaps even a dollop (or two) of outright fright, but any undercurrents of angst could not compete with the overarching idea that I was, in a just a couple weeks time, to become a basketball player at a professional level, and that, I really wanted to believe, could only be the greatest thing, and so only in golden hues could I imagine it.
Agent Mike faxed me the multilingual contract the next day. It felt like he was late. By then I’d already mentally mapped out everything that Spain could only be.
A few weeks later I sat snugly in economy class on an Iberia Airlines 777. We bumped up off the sweltering August tarmac at Dulles International Airport and ascended into twilight. Below the blue of the fading Atlantic stretched towards Europe, towards Spain, towards Gijon. When we landed, it would not be on a map.
I fell briefly in love with the flight attendant on the way over. Because of my height, I was allowed a spot at the bulkhead, directly across from the little flap-down seat where the attendants buckle in for take-offs and landings. She and I chatted amicably in Spanish for bits of the flight. She didn’t, but I imagined her telling me she lived in Gijon. We’d date. She’d come to my games. Maybe I’d marry a Spanish girl.
As the plane touched down in Madrid, and as we the passengers stood up, ready to shuffle onto the jetway, I noticed her yawning. We’d stopped talking by then (we hadn’t talked much at all, actually, at least not outside my head; flight attendants, apparently, can be busy people). To revive the conversation, after catching her yawn a second time, I planned to ask her if she was tired (stimulating, I know), but being tired myself I confused the Spanish words for “tired” and “sad,” and so my last words to her, spoken hand-over-mouth to mask my morning breath, were “Are you sad?” to which she made an exhausted face that could’ve been a smile, but maybe not. She didn’t otherwise respond. Before I stepped off the plane, I turned around once more to see if I could catch her eye. I can’t remember if she was looking back.
I cruised towards customs with a little bounce in my step. My European adventure was off to a solid start. An entire romantic relationship and I still had a connecting flight.
It was a Saturday night two weeks into my tenure in Gijon. Twenty-some practices completed. Six or so weightlifting sessions down the hatch. Countless laps and sprints huffed and dashed around the track. There was nothing on the schedule for Sunday, which would be our first day off since preseason began. To celebrate (some days off are definitely worth celebrating), and to get to know each other away from the gym, the team gathered at a swank restaurant just a couple blocks from the bay.
We’d rented out the back room. No coaches or staff members sat among us. It was only us players and a smattering of wives and girlfriends, if we had them. Spaniards eat late. It was almost midnight by the time the tapas were brought out – very thinly sliced salted cod, olives stuffed with red peppers, some type of shrimp scampi, chorizo. Bottle after bottle of a hard cider native to northern Spain, sidra, was brought to our table as if on conveyor belt with the apple orchard. Sidra is drunk in a very particular fashion. The pourer holds the bottle high above the head, as if trying to water ceiling plants, and the receiving glass low by one’s waist. With a wing span’s distance between bottle and glass, the pourer attempts to direct an ounce or so of the cider into the cup, at which point the uber-effervescent bubbly is quickly downed by the drinker before the bubbles dissipate.
I sat near the end of the table. To my right sat a teammate named Jesus (pronounced Hay-Zeus, a popular name in Spain), who tutored me in Sidra Pouring 101 (“Just keep practicing.”). My first few attempts I poured like a four-year old first-timing the big bowl, but eventually some hit the target, and Jesus and I toasted and drank and dug into a plate of shrimp. All around us guys were eating and drinking and unwinding and uncorking. Amidst the din of imbibement Jesus leaned over and asked me, softly, “You’ve been here a couple of weeks now. What do you think?”
“About the team?”
“Yeah, your experience so far.”
I dropped a shrimp into my mouth and chewed slowly, stalling as I considered the data points up to then. It was a good question. What did I think?
- There was nobody waiting to pick me up when my connecting flight landed. El Aeropuerto de Asturias, the regional airport serving Gijon, is not the biggest, and the baggage claim area is small. With my brand new L.L. Bean suitcase stacked on my stuffed university gym bag, I stood as erect as possible near the whispering sliding doors, groping for a look of recognition in the eyes of someone I did not yet know.
“Somebody will be there to pick you up when you land,” Agent Mike had told me.
But nobody came. As late morning shifted into early afternoon, it was hard not to panic. Whenever those sliding doors opened and someone walked in or out, I could see Spain, but Spain, apparently, was not ready for me, not without an escort. The panic made me have to pee, but, fearing the moment I went would be the exact moment my ride showed up, I decided to hold it. The more time passed, the more it felt my whole career was already one big mistake. I imagined calling my parents to tell them the news. I wouldn’t be a professional basketball player after all. And what would my haters think, the ones that were all set to envy my adventure, if they found out I couldn’t even make it to the taxi stand. Eventually the GM, Raul, middle-aged with thick brown hair and trailing a whiff of woody cologne, showed up, full of “ha ha, sorry-i’m-two-hours-late” grins. I didn’t tell him I’d been panicking. I pretended to be calm. I told him it was no big deal. To offset any guilt he might have felt, I profusely thanked him for coming all the way to get me.
- On our way into Gijon, Raul dished about the team and the city. I wanted to seem excited and interested but all hands were on deck just to keep me awake. Raul was to take me to my new apartment to rest up before a scheduled practice later that evening, but we pit-stopped at the arena on the way. We didn’t go inside. We parked at the curb and stood fifty or so yards away from some windowless back entrance, through which a small, boyish-looking man emerged.
“The assistant coach,” Raul told me with a hint of reverence, as if we were celebrity-spotting. “Marcos.”
Marcos approached, looking vague and oblivious, like he was considering obscure algorithms. He stopped some ten feet away from the car. He peered upon me almost cautiously, as if I might any second challenge him to a duel. Raul didn’t step forward to greet him, so neither did I. Marcos extracted from his pocket a pack of cigarettes and lit up. Taking a long drag, he engaged Raul in a back-and-forth. They spoke too fast for me to keep up, but I caught a thread and soon it was clear the subject was ya boy. Marcos kept his gaze trained in my direction, like I might run away. He kept running his eyes up and down my body, as if in some kind of antebellum assessment. I tried to stand straighter and look tougher, like a basketball player was supposed to, while simultaneously trying to ignore the urge to walk up to Marcos and punch him in the face. A minute later Marcos bent over, stabbed the butt of his cigarette into the concrete, nodded at Raul, and retreated back into the arena. No handshake, nary a word to me.
- Imagine a three-story brick building on a claustrophobic city street. You’re shown through a door on the second floor. You assumed this was your apartment building, but once inside you’re not so sure it’s residential. Raul is carrying your computer bag, the contents of which will be useless for a while because, as you’re about to find out, this place has no internet. Next imagine a long corridor and rooms spaced liked offices down each side. There’s a kitchen near the front and a small bathroom at the end of the hall. Imagine all the rooms are empty, the walls bare – no furniture, not even curtains – save for one room, in which lies a double bed with faintly odorous, bemusingly mismatched sheets, sheets intended for you to sleep on but sheets so wrinkled it’s impossible to think they’re clean, a suspicion soon confirmed when you hear one of your Spanish teammates and his wife shared the bed for weeks prior to your arrival. This is the bed in the apartment Raul is showing you, maybe thinking you’re too scared to ask for a fresh set. He’s right. He puts your bag down near the door and waves you back out into the hall. He takes you back to the kitchen, which is, just like every other room, similarly bare and empty. There is no table and there are no chairs. There’s a refrigerator and a microwave, but no cutlery. No dishes. No pots and pans. Oh wait, Raul wants to show you something. He seems excited. He beckons you from the kitchen and into one of the side rooms, where, on a little nightstand, there’s a television, the kind with wooden trim around the screen and a dial to manually change the channel. This is absolutely worthy of excitement, but there’s no couch or chair on which to sit and watch. Raul takes you to the bathroom and flips on the light. The bathroom sink is crusty, the mirror smudged. There’s no shower curtain. The toilet seat is some kind of flimsy plastic. It looks like you could ball it up, rear back, and hurl it at whom? Why are you angry? Why are you confused? Did someone need to be right on time to pick you up? Do you need to live in luxury? Are you even going to watch Spanish television? Aren’t you a rookie? Who says Marcos should’ve shaken your hand? Could you not have stepped forward and shaken his? Is this not an apartment, with a bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and television, exactly what was specified in your contract? Aren’t you here to play basketball? Unclench your fists, young man.
“This place is just temporary,” Raul says, as if reading your mind. “Give us a week or so and you’ll be in your new flat.”
“No, it’s OK,” you say with enthusiasm, as if you’ve lived in the woods your whole life. “Esta bien.”
Again, to assuage any guilt he might have at putting you up in a place like this, you thank him enthusiastically, but even Raul doesn’t pretend to believe you when you say this. He tells you some guy named Jesus will be by to pick you up for practice in an hour.
- An hour. The day was zipping along yet somehow barely creeping by. Time was a confusing thing, but maybe I was just jet lagged, homesick or hungry, or all three. I wanted to spend that hour napping, but was sure I’d oversleep my alarm, so I changed into some b-ball gear and went outside to wait. Jesus was on time, the relief at such immeasurable.
Like most European cities, Gijon’s roads weren’t laid out with vehicular mass production in mind. We bumped and honked our way through congestion. The prospect of being late for my first practice was enough to boil up something serious in my gut, but Jesus was friendly and wanted to speak English, and I immediately latched onto him like an older brother. For a few minutes I almost didn’t feel alone. He could’ve suggested we play hooky from practice and I might’ve agreed. As we drove he told me about the team. I listened intently, not because I was all that curious what he was jabbering about, but because I hoped somewhere in there he’d add something like, “Don’t worry. It’ll all be OK.”
We showed up about forty-five seconds before practice began (technically on-time, but if you’re on time, you’re late). We laced up our kicks and hustled out onto the court. The first drill was some standard lay-up shuffle. I gripped the ball, took a couple of dribbles towards the hoop and laid it up off the backboard. It felt like invigorating, like an IV. Probably the first shot I ever made was a lay-up, back in grade school. I’d made tens of thousands since. Lay-ups were familiar, reflexive. I knew exactly what to do. I felt myself loosening up, my fatigue lifting.
But, like any drug, the high fades. We set off on more complicated drills, ones that required focus, and no matter how hard I executed, I felt increasingly slouchy and droopy and detached. I felt both cooperative and uncooperative at the same time. Halfway through practice, the team president, Alberto, arrived, trailed by fellow team brass. They stood with their arms crossed on the sideline, surely immersed in evaluation of their new American import. I smiled like I was happy to be there.
- After practice Raul dropped me back at my apartment. Before he left, I asked him where I could get some dinner. He pointed vaguely in a few different directions, then nodded rapidly as if to say, “It’s okay? Good enough?” Not knowing what else to do, I nodded rapidly back. Then he told me he had somewhere to be, slid back into his little hatchback, and sped away. It had been in the back of my mind to ask Raul where the restaurant was, the one that supposedly was to feed me a meal a day, but, just like with the sheets, I was too timid to inquire. I didn’t want to hear him say, “We give someone as scared as you a free meal? I don’t think so.” Or maybe I didn’t ask because I didn’t want to seem like a burden; I wanted to keep my footprint small.
On my own, famished, I wandered towards what I thought was a central area, in search of sustenance. I passed a few restaurants, ones with menus propped on lecterns on the sidewalk, but for some reason I didn’t venture inside. I don’t know why. Eventually I found a fast-food-ish joint where I ordered a trove of chicken sandwiches, quickly devoured them, then ordered a few more for breakfast. On the way out, by the ketchup dispenser, I grabbed handfuls of plastic silverware from little bins, which would serve as my utensils for the next month.
Exiting the restaurant, desperate to get back and to bed, I realized I had only the vaguest idea where my apartment was. I’d neglected to note the street name before I set off. A familiar panic, now constant, tingled in my toes and fingers. I gripped harder my to-go bag. I could feel the heat of the sandwiches through the paper. The night itself was muggy and still hot. I started walking. I was already lost, but I was soon more lost. What I’d hoped would be an early night (even nasty sheets can be appetizing when you’re fucking beat) turned into an hour-long (time is relative, could’ve been a lifetime), speed-walking, panic-laced jaunt, down random alleys and across buzzing intersections, suppressing urges to cry and/or scream, my first day in Spain gone utterly to shits.
Standing on the curb that night–any curb, I stood on many–under pale yellow European streetlights, crashing after a meal of oily fried chicken sandwiches, sucking in exhaust, fatigued to heights I hadn’t known existed, with whatever endorphins I’d roused up with exercise long faded–I’ve never felt so alone, before or since.
I eventually found my apartment. I recognized a basketball court dug out underneath a parking garage, and somehow I knew where I was from there.
- There were spurts of hope those first couple weeks. I was finally shown the restaurant, an Italian spot, where I could procure my daily meal. Because I didn’t have any kitchenware, I ended up eating there, most days, for both lunch and dinner. To supplement, I found a small grocery store not far from my apartment, where I bought yogurts for breakfast and boxes of muesli to snack on between meals. I found an internet cafe where I could check in on happenings back home. I conducted a flawless press conference, where I said all the right things, dazzling the media with my Spanish. Jesus and I became friends. We chatted for a few minutes each day. He was curious about America, I about his country.
- And then there was basketball. For the first time in my life, after a decade and a half of school teams and AAU, of driveway workouts and road trips to podunk backwoods cities, I was getting paid to play ball. Paid to play a game. Paid to make lay-ups and jump shots and jump hooks. Paid to body my man on defense. In case you’re missing the point here, the emphasis is on paid. It was a confusing feeling, those first couple of weeks, knowing I was getting paid (a feeling that lingered throughout my career, although later for different reasons). I did not feel like an asset worth financial compensation. I felt scared, lonely, and, worst of all, like a bit of a fraud. I didn’t want to go to practice. Maybe I didn’t want to be in Spain. I don’t think I even liked basketball. Who should get money feeling like that?
The head coach, Joaquin, was a super-thin man with extra-long limbs and an unfortunate gait that earned him the nickname El Penguino. When I first met him, he was in the first weeks of his first year as a head coach. He was hard to get a read on, in that he was, for lack of a more sensitive term, somewhat bipolar in his moods. He’d huddle us up to introduce a drill, grinning like he’d just invented the three-man weave, jabbing his foot and flapping his arms real seal-like while he talked, and then he’d step back and allow us to execute. Invariably, for one or many of a multitude of reasons, we would mess up the drill, and when we did he would swiftly waddle out onto the court (the way a thin man waddles) and flail and flash us his empty palms, fingers pointed down, like the bankrupt guy on the Community Chest card, whining like an angry professor.
Then later in practice we’d do another drill (or maybe the very same drill in the very same way) and he’d praise us like we were the Dream Team. His outbursts (of either anger or acclaim) were random, our performances in the drills that preceded them of no seeming influence. Or so I say, because, as a team, from my perspective, we were pretty consistently lackadaisical.
It’s hard to blame Joaquin. He was in his first year at the helm of a team at a respectable professional level, a level where even successful, seasoned coaches often sit squarely on the chopping block. In this anxiety-simmering, show-me-your-onions, What-have-you-won-for-me-lately atmosphere, every drill, every shot, every dribble, by any player at any time, is a reflection of how well the coach is imparting his authority. Or so some coaches, particularly first-year coaches, perceive things to be, particularly when GMs and team presidents watch practice from the sidelines, arms crossed and stone faced. The pressure exacts an understandable toll, physically and mentally, on these first-year coaches, who, after years of assistantship and muttering Oh I can do a better job, are starting to think Maybe it’s a lot harder to manage a dozen egotistical professional athlete man-boys than I realized. And so they micro-manage and try to control every tiny thing. This was Joaquin.
I don’t think I ever respected him. I don’t know if any of us did. I remember a day early on in which the drill was to try to bank three three-pointers in a row. Off the backboard. First guy to do so wins. And so you have twelve guys running around the court trying to bank in threes, but there are only two baskets and we’re all shooting at the same time and our balls are hitting each other and they’re flying all over the place and a lot of us are having trouble just banking in one, let alone three in a row, and then this is kind of funny because, come on, they’re paying us to do this kind of shit? And soon guys are giggling and grinning and Joaquin can’t tell us to stop because it’s his baby of a drill (I never in 20 plus years of basketball attempted to bank in a three) and so he starts blasting us from the sideline and the more red-faced he gets the more amused we all get and the situation eats itself up.
At the end of practices he’d gather us at mid-court. He’d look around and squint, eyes darting this way and that, as if someone was about to shoot him with a water gun, and then, some indeterminate number of seconds later, he’d raise an arm, drop it like a gavel, and say, “Suficiente.” And then practice was over. Sometimes it’s amazing what sticks with you. I still today, upon completing certain tasks, will step back in assessment to declare, with Joaquin’s piquant face and floppy limbs poking up in the peripherals of my consciousness, that very same word in that very same tone.
And what about Marcos, the assistant coach who greeted me but didn’t greet me that first day? He showed up for practices but I can’t remember him ever saying anything. Whether this was because he was shy or uninterested, or because Joaquin talked too much, I don’t know. Though one day he did do some work. Marcos was assigned to work with us post players. He took us down to an open basket to teach us a move. Somehow he did this while speaking quietly to an imaginary audience somewhere off in the stands. The move went like this: Post up on the block. Palm the ball in front of your stomach, making sure to use only one hand. Glance towards the top of the key to suppose misdirection upon your defender, then, with a quick snap of the neck, spin baseline. Of note is the execution of the spin. Imagine the extravagant hand motion a bourgeois Frenchman, in a 19th century Versailles court, might’ve made as he bowed to the king and queen, a loop and a swirl, from top to bottom. Now imagine this Frenchman had a ball in his hand and was spinning as if the King and Queen sat on opposite sides of the room and he wanted to cover both their highnesses in one go. This was the move (embellished here, perhaps). Just like with Joaquin and his suficiente, I still sometimes today, when I’m having a bad day (or when I’m having a good day, it doesn’t matter), will pretend to execute this move. I’ll think, somebody paid me to learn that. Some people think life is unfair. I cannot disagree.
I’ll say it again. I don’t think I ever respected Joaquin. I don’t believe he ever deserved to be. The counter to that is, should he have respected me? The answer, I can admit now, is probably not. I certainly worked hard, physically. I hustled in practice. I worked strenuously in the weight room (I believe I mentioned Gijon is situated on a beach), and I generally knew how to execute our plays (as well as anyone on the team, at least). In other words, I could adequately go through the motions. I worked hard mentally, too, but the hard work I did in my head mostly took the form of sharpening and rehearsing my internal monologues, the ones in which I sandblasted Joaquin for all the shitty qualities he exhibited as a coach. I searched for his faults like loose change under car seats. When I identified one, I caricatured him for it. I catalogued the ways I thought he wasn’t as good as other coaches I’d had growing up, and I delivered these verdicts in long or short-winded speeches conducted under my breath. That nobody else seemed to like him either made things easier. When other guys on the team made fun of him, I felt good, and made sure I laughed and did what I could to encourage more. In this way, my most intangible of intangibles, my attitude, handicapped more than it helped. Attitude is contagious. Attitude affects everything. Coaches notice attitude, even shitty first-year coaches like Joaquin, and at least half of what I did was coated in the kind of attitude you never want to admit you have.
Example. One day at practice I missed a rotation on defense. Joaquin stopped the scrimmage to let me know.
“Okay, but,” I protested, “but there should’ve been…” I trailed off.
Normally quick to launch into words himself, this time Joaquin instead crossed his arms and stayed quiet.
“Que? What, Ian? Tell me.”
Everyone in the gym fell silent (coach-player conflicts are often wildly entertaining).
“No, nevermind,” I said, waving him off, as if he wouldn’t understand anyway.
“No. Tell me. What happened?”
What had happened was I’d missed a rotation, but I couldn’t say that. I couldn’t even admit that to myself.
You might’ve guessed it by now. Of each other, Joaquin and I were not the biggest fans, which was a problem, because, as an American player, I was supposedly one of his biggest assets (The team had signed two Americans, myself and another cat from Utah named Mark, but Mark’s wife was pregnant and due any day, so he got to stay in the States and miss most of preseason).
Coaches and players not liking each other is not a huge deal. There are plenty of situations where that dynamic works. The problem was that I couldn’t admit that I didn’t like him, not to any of my teammates and not even to Agent Mike. And while I didn’t quite rave about him, I still told family and friends and whomever else that he at least “runs a tight ship” and that he “had a lot of energy” and maybe even that he “had a unique feel for the game.” I remember occasions away from the court, at team meals or team events, where he and I might’ve even been pleasantly and genuinely cordial. But who knows? Maybe that’s just how I want to remember it now.
Whose fault was it? Whose fault was it that the team didn’t boast a great relationship between the head coach and his supposedly super-valuable American asset? Mine or his? Was it his responsibility to nurture me as a fresh-faced American? Or should I have, as a professional athlete earning a salary, been able to play without needing a coddling arm draped over my shoulder?
The best time of my day was the few minutes of euphoric relief I got after practice ended. I should clarify: after the second practice of the day ended. It was nice when morning practices finished, but nice in the way you feel when you finish mowing the backyard, you know you still have to mow the front. I could relax somewhat in the evenings, and it was in these brief windows of darkness that I tried to convince myself it was all worth it. They restored me, daily, these nighttime hours, enough to keep going. Practice usually let out around eight. Once stretched and showered, I’d rush through dinner at the restaurant, hurry home, climb into bed, and try to lose myself in books. Every few minutes I’d look at the clock and see how much more time I had to read. At the beginning of the night this time check was a good feeling. Four more hours. Yes! But time was always ticking towards bedtime, at which point I’d go to sleep, and when I woke up I’d have to go to practice and the cycle would restart.
Life became one big countdown. A countdown to the end of practice, then a countdown to our next practice, to our next game, to our next day off, to the end of the season. To the end of my career. That was the big one. The end of my career. My basketball career had just begun and I was already thinking of its completion. When I didn’t have to play basketball anymore. Somehow, though, it didn’t feel, at all, like I was in control of any of it. I was the marionette, and had yet to notice the strings that maneuvered me. It would be years before I peeked up to see how it all worked.
Here’s the most accurate and honest assessment of my first weeks in Spain: I hated everything. The problem, I would learn, was that I didn’t know how to say so. I didn’t know how to say how lonely I felt, to myself or to anyone else. I didn’t know how to say I had zero confidence. I didn’t know how to say my “apartment” (however temporary it was supposed to be) was a depressing place and that I wanted to be moved.
All this clashed violently with what I’d imagined back in Virginia, when I’d put my finger on my map. I desperately worked to convince myself things were better than they seemed. How was Spain not the proverbial dream? Even if it wasn’t the NBA, I was still a professional basketball player. This was the kind of thing kids stood up in third grade to formally declare as their life’s intention, the kind of thing schoolteachers and parents shrugged off with dismissive grins. I’d wished the same thing as a ten-year old, and here I was, wish fulfilled. I was twenty-two. Life was in full swing. I wanted to swing with it. I wanted my parents to be proud. I wanted to be the envy of all my friends back home. Nobody would be proud of or envy someone in my current condition. On the phone and in emails, I couldn’t tell them Spain was anything but exultant because I knew, in whatever psychologically maligned kind of way, that it would reflect poorly on me. I could not separate the situation I was in from myself in the situation. I couldn’t admit anything – my own struggles, where I thought the team struggled – to anyone, my private rants about Joaquin excluded. I had to set the tone. I had to convince myself and others that everything was okay, starting at the source. I had to lie, and I would, to myself, to my friends, to my family, to the organization, and now, at a team dinner at an oceanside restaurant two weeks into my first season, to Jesus.
What did I think so far?
‘I love it,’ I told him, reaching for another shrimp.
Jesus looked at me skeptically, face twitching as if debating a follow-up question, but didn’t say anything. Our entrees arrived, and more sidra. Guys ordered exotic and not-so-exotic shots for themselves, and bottles of wine for their WAGs (Wives And Girlfriends, in global sports vernacular).
Personally I’d ordered, adventurously, a piece of grilled chicken and some fries, quite yawning given the celebratory mood, but the steaks on offer had discouraging price tags. Besides the occasional cup of cider, I wasn’t drinking much either; the alcohol was expensive too.
Money. Playing in the Spanish league was kind of a big deal, financially. Potentially. I’d landed a good gig. My rookie salary was what it was, but better opportunities lay in waiting. Working out at Davidson the summer before I left (how long ago, and how frighteningly unrelatable, that now seemed), a former teammate, an older guy who’d already played some years overseas, told me so.
‘You landed in a great spot, man,’ he said, and I felt good about the world and my still-in-the-womb career. ‘Your rookie salary is what it is,’ he continued, ‘but have a decent year and you’ll make two hundred thousand the next.’
I would ruminate on this tidbit often for the next several months: if I could just string together a decent rookie season, I’d bag a couple hundred thousand dollars worth of a contract my second year. I did some math. A couple hundred thousand dollars. Times five. A million dollars. I could be a millionaire by the time I was twenty-seven.
This, inadvertently, unwittingly, became my goal for Spain. Just have a decent year. But what constituted such? Starting as early as those first couple weeks, I began evaluating myself in terms of contract fodder for the following year. If I had a good practice, I’d think, Yeah, two hundo, baby! After a bad practice, I’d readjust. One-fifty? One twenty-five? Nothing?
No matter how I did day-to-day, earning a million dollars over the course of however many years would require a certain frugality, and ordering anything grander than chicken, fries and mineral water wasn’t being frugal. I was just a decent year away from seven digits, and I needed to save. (Or maybe I simply didn’t want the rice-tomato-pork-fried banana outing that a couple guys got. Who knows?)
Still, I enjoyed watching my teammates rack up a bill. I felt that much more savvy with my cash.
At some point in the evening talk turned to dating.
‘I could never have an athlete as a girlfriend,’ someone said.
‘Really?’ said someone else. ‘I can only date athletes. They understand.’
With semi-seriousness, the table debated the pros and cons of dating athletes and non-athletes alike. After a few minutes I was addressed.
‘And you, Ian, how do you like your women?’
The table quieted. I was on the spot.
‘Me?’ I said, as if surprised, as if I’d forgotten my name. It felt like a test, that there was a right answer, but I didn’t know it. I didn’t know what side to take. It didn’t occur to me to answer honestly. I only thought about what others were thinking, and what I thought they thought I should be thinking. My teammates waited expectantly for my answer. The WAGs, too polite to stare, eyed me furtively behind their Malbecs, curious what this quiet American might have to say.
Suddenly I lost coherence in Spanish. My sentences flopped before I could get them out. My lips twitched. How did I like my women?
‘Desnuda?’ I said, with a shrug. Naked?
I caught a few of the WAGs looking away, or looking disappointed. Maybe they’d had higher hopes.
After that the conversation shifted back into flatulent th-th-th-ing Spanish. I turned to Jesus.
‘This is great,’ I told him, and meant it, the uproarious male response to my answer greatly inflating my mood. Maybe things weren’t so bad after all. Maybe I’d have a decent year. For a second I might’ve believed I could.
‘Nights like this are so good for team chemistry,’ I stated, as if an authority.
Jesus glanced around and lifted one of his shoulders to his cheek, held it there for a second, then let it drop. European skepticism.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘Maybe. Tonight. But will it still be like this in a couple months?’
I didn’t respond.
An hour or so later, bottles and plates dripped and scraped clean, our stomachs and heads full of some kind of merry mirth, it was time to wrap things up at the restaurant and head to the bars.
‘We’ll pay up front,’ someone said, and our team shuffled en masse from the back room.
By the coat rack, one of the veterans, Ruben (accent on the second syllable), a stocky back-up point guard and de facto social leader, approached me.
‘Eighty Euros,’ he said to my face.
‘Oh no,’ I clarified. ‘I just had the chicken and some fries.’ Feeling reluctantly generous, I added, ‘I’ll pay for an appetizer, though.’
Scrunching his facial features, he gave me the slightest shake of the head, like he pitied my naivety.
‘It’s a lot easier on the waiters if we split it evenly. Eighty Euros.’ Blinking, I furiously computed the figure into dollars.
I knew better than to protest. I suppose I should’ve felt lucky. Some veterans would’ve forced rookies to pay for the whole meal. I opened my wallet and heroically coughed up the cash. A few minutes later, we stumbled out into the night, and, soon after that, into the start of our season.
Fast forward to another meal, at a different restaurant by the bay. This one four months later, in late November. It wasn’t a team dinner. There was no raucous sidra-pouring, no vodka shots, no troupe of WAGs. I was by myself, out for lunch. We’d had a game the night before and lost pathetically. Joaquin flailed on the sideline like a conductor directing a symphony of dogs. I’d started the game, played about four minutes, then was pulled and sat the rest of it on the bench, where I forced myself to cheer half-heartedly, secretly hoping we’d lose.
We had a day off before we reconvened for practice on Monday. I spent the morning of this free day down by the water walking around. The urban waterfront in Gijon is a quarter-mile slab of beach that curves inland, like a crescent moon, at the flanks of which elevate green hills, on top of which sit medieval-era stone lookouts with a propensity for great views on clear days. Leaving my apartment, I meandered up and down the shoreline–it was November and cold and therefore mostly empty–then took the paths up to hang out by the lookouts. A cold, salty spray felt like pin pricks on my face. I squatted and gazed out to where the water disappeared over the horizon. When I got hungry for lunch I found a little restaurant down a cobblestone alley, with red-and-white checkered tablecloths covering a cramped but cozy arrangement of rickety wooden tables. I ordered some fish and a pitcher of sangria. A few newspapers floated amongst the tables. I grabbed one and aligned it next to my bottle of mineral water.
The sangria arrived, dark purple and submerged with citrus slices. The waiter, a portly man with a I-really-have-better-things-to-do-than-serve-you demeanor, poured me a glass. I took a sip and tried to relax. I’d been having trouble relaxing, hence the sangria. That day, though, I didn’t just want to relax. I wanted to forget, at least for an afternoon. As my sip opened into a gulp, I thought about what I hoped the sangria would temporarily help me forget.
More data points.
- Preseason was an absurdly trying seven weeks. For comparison, NBA training camps are little more than two. The NCAA allows three or four. Spain was seven weeks of monotonous two-a-days. If I had to list the ten worst weeks of my life, all seven would probably make it.
- The other American on our team, Mark, the guy with the pregnant wife, arrived five or so weeks in, a new father to a baby girl. His family would join him once the baby was okay to fly. He stayed one night in that dank, dark, abandoned apartment, the one I’d stayed in upon my arrival, before demanding to be moved. And he was.
“How in the world did you spend a month in that place?” he asked me, bewildered, in our first conversation.
“Yeah, it wasn’t that great,” I said, which was the closest I could come to admitting how awful it was. Having lasted, however, a gosh darn month in that decrepit hell-hole, I felt somehow tougher. Maybe not tougher than Mark, but just tougher in general, liked I’d truly survived something. I couldn’t have been that tough, though, because a real tough guy would’ve demanded, like Mark had, to get the fuck out of there.
- But I had been moved, eventually, to a nicer apartment across town, closer to the arena. This one had a washing machine and a couch and even silverware. I hung my clothes to dry with splintery clothespins, on lines that stretched out my ninth-floor window. With kitchenware at my disposal, I started cooking meals at home. Mark told me about a Carrefour (like a Target) a little ways out that sold some American products, including peanut butter. I remember the first time I saw it on the shelf. I picked up a jar and looked around the store, as if there’d been a mistake, as if it would suddenly disappear if I set it down. After morning practices I’d often stop at a little bakery, buy a loaf of fresh baguette, go home, slice it open right down the middle, and make myself a PB and J, Euro-style. I’d eat the whole thing in one sitting.
- I was getting paid, into a Spanish bank account, in Euros. I took to checking the exchange rate everyday, calculating my wares, constantly converting to dollars to see how much I’d gained or lost.
- I bought a couple easy novels, in Spanish, and began to allocate a few minutes of my day to studying them, working on the language.
- My Mom and my sister announced they were planning a visit at the beginning of December. This was exciting news. A different, positive kind of countdown began.
- Our first game was September 22. I still remember the date because I’d looked forward to it for so long. I thought that was when everything would change. My performances on the court, excluding the occasional day when I somehow turned it on, had steadily deteriorated over those first seven weeks. I wasn’t awful (yet) but I was definitely not living up to the standards set for American imports. Once we start playing for real, I’ll be ready, is what I frequently told myself.
We lost that first game. I scored only five points, or maybe just three. I didn’t even start. Joaquin, in the locker room afterwards, laid into us. He flailed around like one of those inflatable creatures you see outside department stores, juking and bobbing in the wind. That first game exposed us. We had little cohesion and moral sucked. Even though we practiced together every day, nobody knew who anybody else was, not really, not enough to build any sort of requisite trust or cooperative framework. We were distracted. Our Spanish center thought he was underpaid and constantly let everyone else know. There were injuries. One of our American imports was a very new first-time father. Our other American was lost in his own head.
And then, strangely, we won five straight games and vaulted to the top of the league. We pulled wins out of our asses. I played okay. Nothing spectacular, but okay. Our arena was packed for games. Our team president, Alberto, was happy. There was talk of la ascension to the ACB (ascension: at the end of every year, the bottom two teams from the top division drop down, and the two top teams from the second division move up, with understandable financial motivations). The newspapers and TV reporters loved us. Guys were doing interviews left and right. We took our egos out for long walks around town. Joaquin still flailed, but more confidently, with something like a smile on his face. Even Marcos started saying things.
And then we lost. And lost again. And kept losing. We quickly spiraled into irrelevancy. After starting 5-1, by November we were 6-10. My own play, already on the low cusp of acceptable, drooped like a dying flower. It was all mental. It often felt like I was playing with concrete in my shoes and sludge in my brain. I started forgetting plays, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t relearn them. Simple things, like lay-ups, began to require excessive concentration. I could not free myself to just go out and play. I constantly wondered what team management was thinking. I started thinking that nobody liked me, that most people involved with the team wanted me gone. The more I thought like this, the harder it was to stop, and the more true it was.
One afternoon Raul called and said that the team president, Alberto, wanted to have a meeting. Just the three of us. We met in a cafe near the stadium. Over cups of tea and espresso Alberto asked what was up, meaning, why wasn’t I playing like the kind of guy they’d signed me to be, the kind of guy I’d been at Davidson? His tone wasn’t harsh. He was just offering an ear. He was amiable, empathetic even. I told him I had no idea what was going on, that everything was great, Jaquian was great, our plays were great, my apartment was great, everything was great, great, great. Things just weren’t clicking. We shook hands when we left and I felt marginally better.
But not enough.
In the little restaurant by myself, I finished my glass of sangria and poured another. The waiter set my fish down with a clatter. I spent several minutes scraping the meat off the bones. Satisfied, I slid my plate onto the newspaper, which I’d opened to the sports section. The lead article was from our game the previous night. It began philosophically:
“Basketball is a game dictated by fairness and rules. No matter the disparity in talent, it is only fair that both teams should begin each game with an equal number of players on the court. Yet somehow Gijon miscounted and a number of minutes passed before Joaquin realized his error. Correcting, he pulled Ian from the lineup and substituted in another, at which point the game began in earnest, played as it should be, five on five.”
I reread this opening paragraph, absently, a number of times, unsure how to process. It was undoubtedly disconcerting to read about myself in such terms, but it was also, and perhaps more so, puzzling, full of a peculiar dissonance. Here was Gijon’s most popular newspaper devoting hundreds of words to my denigration. Whoever wrote the article would’ve had to have thought about me for much of its construction. Somebody’s job had been, for a night at least, to come up with ways to relay in writing my ineptitude. It was oddly flattering.
I kept reading. There were blurbs about the game, mentions of our collapsing record, but most of the article focused on my play, even though I hadn’t played much at all.
Engrossed by the paper, I hadn’t touched my fish. Then, having read the article, I assumed the waiter had read it too. I assumed he recognized me as its principal subject. Assuming this, I could no longer eat my meal in peace. I wolfed it down and paid the bill, making sure, to cover any inconveniences I might’ve created with my presence, that I left a big tip.
The call came a week later, early December. Agent Mike.
“They’re going to make a change,” were his words, coldly transcontinental from New York. “You’re out, Ian.”
I was being cut.
My first reaction? Relief. Hanging up the phone I felt lighter, almost giddy, like I had to hold onto something to keep from skittering around like a junebug.
Someone from the team called a few minutes later and asked if I would meet with the media.
Drenched in a mysterious, almost euphoric brand of melancholy, I drove to the arena and spoke for thirty minutes, all in Spanish and nearly fluently, with a couple of radio stations and a few newspaper guys. Apparently they’d known before I had. They’d been waiting.
Then I was off to the airport to pick up my Mom and sister, who happened to have landed in Gijon that very night, ready for their visit to Spain and, supposedly, to see son and brother hoop it up. (For the record, I was on time to pick them up.)
It took me a while to get it out.
“I’ve got some good news and some bad news,” is what I finally said, accelerating on the expressway, car loaded, the twinkling lights of Gijon growing larger through the windshield.
My mother looked over, folding her hands on her lap, her way of containing worry. “What’s up?”
“Well, the good news is I’ll get to do a lot of sightseeing with you guys.”
I paused here, moving my jaw back and forth, unsure of what to say next.
“And you can still go to the game if you want. I just won’t be there.”
The team let me keep my apartment for the duration of their visit. The visit was wonderful. We toured the northern coast of Spain, spent a couple nights in Bilbao, spent a day at the Guggenheim and an afternoon at a random dinosaur museum in the middle of nowhere. We slept two nights in a small medieval village. We stopped for an afternoon in Oviedo, perhaps best known as the setting for parts of Woody Allen’s Vicky Christina Barcelona. I stopped feeling so alone and so dissonant. I no longer had to feel uneasy making money playing basketball because, for the time being at least, I would no longer be making any. The oddity of media devoting so much coverage to an insecure, confused young American elapsed. There was no more American to cover.
Agent Mike called me on the road. He told me to sit tight and wait for him to call again. “Stay in Europe as long as you can,” he said. “It’s easier to get you a job if you’re already over there.”
The details of my dismissal were worked out. In addition to all the money I’d made so far, Gijon would pay me an additional two months’ salary not to play for them anymore. I was being bought out, a bit of sly work on Agent Mike’s part. I would’ve gladly been cut for free.
When my mom and sister flew back to the U.S., I had to leave too. The team had another American coming in, my replacement, and he needed the apartment.
Before leaving Gijon, I made rounds at the arena, grabbing the rest of my stuff and saying goodbye. I stopped by Joaquin’s office, the first time I’d ever seen it. He was glowing, effervescent. I knew he blamed me for the team’s downslide, first privately and now publicly. I wanted to blame him for blaming me, but couldn’t muster up the energy.
A college buddy of mine happened to be living in Madrid at the time, and I spent a week with him before flying back home. He had a place in a phenomenal location downtown, but it was, like that first awful apartment in Gijon, not really intended for guests. I slept on the floor in the tiny living room. I had no blanket, so curled my arms up in a hoodie and wore a pair of padded compression shorts to soften the impact of my hips on the hardwood. A couch cushion served as pillow (the couch, for someone my height, being too small to sleep on).
We went out every night. We took the last possible subway, around midnight, and in the morning we’d ride back with the earliest commuters. I didn’t sleep more than three or four hours at a time. During the day, while my buddy worked, I met up with another college friend. We took long walks around the Spanish capital, touring the Prado Museum and all the plazas and whatever else. We had languorous meals at quaint little restaurants, ordering bottles of red wines like sodas. We sat on benches and just looked at people.
The flight back to the U.S. was exceptionally bumpy. The captain came on and asked the flight attendants to sit down.
My flight attendant, my muse from the way over, wasn’t one of them.
In practice one day, some weeks before I got cut, I drove to the rim and got chopped violently across the elbow. A searing pain shot up my arm. Wincing, I stumbled to the sideline. Was this an injury that could send me home? I wanted it to be. I wanted an excuse. But the pain quickly faded. I bent and unbent my elbow, wondering where it went. I walked back out onto the court, still stuck in Spain. We resumed play, but something strange happened after that. I dominated the rest of practice. Not in an extraordinary way. In a normal way, at a comfortable capacity, how I’d played my senior year at Davidson. What had happened was this: I’d been able, courtesy the elbow chop, to tap into self-confession, into reality. My elbow, it fucking hurts! I acknowledged exactly what I was feeling, and that was freeing.
So why couldn’t I acknowledge things more honestly, more regularly? What prevented me from admitting things were shitty, that I felt shitty, most of the time? It would be some years and several continents before I’d figure all that out.
Back at my parent’s house in Virginia, I was back to waiting. I watched my old high school team play. I played some pick-up with my buddies.
Agent Mike called the day after Christmas. A team in the Czech Republic wanted to give me a shot. He pushed for me to take the deal. It was less money, less upside, a lesser league. But it was that or keep waiting.
After hanging up the phone, I went upstairs to my bedroom and pulled out my map. I got down on my knees and unrolled it across the bed. I found Europe, then the Czech Republic, and stared, more suspiciously, at the places I’d go.