My professional career officially began in the summer of 2005, after a one-year detour in which I worked as a Foot Locker assistant manager and as a membership salesperson/ personal trainer at Bally Total Fitness. I attended a couple of exposure camps/combines, and basically hustled my way into pro bball, which was the goal all along.
My agent at the time, a Virginia- based attorney named Dondrae Maiden, had contacted me in late August and told me a team in Lithuania was interested. Great, I said- let’s get it done as soon as possible. Dondrae was in back- and- forth negotiations with the team for about a week, updating me daily via email. This was around the same time Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans. The deal became official on Labor Day, 2005, and I was on a plane within 48 hours.
Being that I was new to this overseas thing, and the agent I had was also new to the situation, we did a terrible job of hammering out the details of the arrangement. I was told via email that if the team manager was not at the airport when I arrived in Vilnius (the capital of and largest city in the country), I was to take a taxi to the local bus station, the take the bus- an hour long ride to Kaunas. Naturally, the team manager wasn’t present when I arrived at the airport. Having no idea how the whole bus thing worked, I just bypassed that part and had the taxi driver take me all the way to Kaunas- a ride that cost me about $50 USD (Lithuania’s currency- the Lita– was about 3 Lita:1 Dollar at the time). I waited for about 30 minutes before Thomas- the team manager- showed up, and after he made some errand stops, we drove out to where I would be staying.
(Let me interject here to say that if you sign a deal to play for a pro team and the team’s contact person isn’t present to meet you when you get there- off the plane, bus or what have you- RED FLAG.)
The place they put me in was basically a college dormitory building, my room “furnished” with skeevy bed sheets and a small TV (Thomas: “We will be moving you guys into an apartment in a week or two.” I have yet to see that apartment.) The bathroom in there was one of the most disgusting things I have ever seen. I mean, don’t-let-your-skin-touch-the-toilet-seat grimy, and a rusty, dusty shower. I get a chill just writing about it.
As far as the bball went, when the team manager and I were riding up to the dorm, he asked me if I was ready to practice that day. Being young, dumb, and eager to impress, I said I was (note: NEVER do this! you are owed 24 hours to rest your legs and allow your body to catch up from the travel and time change- playing the day you arrive will only cost you in the long run.) The jet lag actually didn’t even bother me that day- it was the next day’s practice in which I felt like my legs were made of wood and/ or stone.
Further details of the practices are murky- this was 2005, remember, and I wasn’t writing about my bball experiences the way I do now- but I do recall the coach playing me at point guard. The coach spoke no English, so Thomas had to attend all of our gatherings and translate the coach’s orders. Thing is- and his seems to be uniform in all the places I’ve been internationally- many team managers don’t know much about basketball. Thomas’ translations didn’t always translate to even rudimentary basketball speak, though he seemed quite confident in his words.
The city of Kaunas is a beautiful place, with a long strip of town that we (I had 3 American and 1 African teammate over the course of my stay) called “The Center,” which featured hundreds of shops and stores, all facing each other in a wide walkway which didn’t allow vehicles. Sorry, I had no camera in 2005. (UPDATE: This street’s official name is Laisves aleja– “place of caffes.”)
The women in Lithuania were beautiful in general- I don’t recall seeing a single overweight female. Thin, confident, with nice curves, and not at all afraid to approach an American in the street. Many of them were surprisingly good at basic English communication.
The sad ending to the Lithuania chapter was that the team had made ambitious plans for that particular season- we were the first foreigners ever signed in the club’s history. Many locals that I’d met were surprised to hear about me joining that particular club; they were known for not having much financial power. The sponsors the club hoped to attract with their personnel moves didn’t bite, so the club had no choice but to let the Americans go during the preseason (though I think the 7-foot African dude stuck around). So, after 6 weeks, $800 in cell phone international roaming fees, and two transcontinental flights, my first taste of professional basketball was done.
Music of the Moment:
“Late Registration”, Kanye West
My first day out there. I was sunny and warm, and as I walked the center in Kaunas, taking in all the stores and restaurants, all the tall, thin, model- type women walking around- there were a lot of them- and meeting up with the other American hoopers who were in the same city. A memory in gold.
The 20 consecutive days of completely grey skies. I did not catch one glimpse of the sun during this period. And I got absolutely DRENCHED one night walking back to my dorm sans umbrella.