Kaunas, Lithuania was the location of my first professional basketball job. I was 23.
A fellow American named Mike was my roommate for my first few weeks in Kaunas. Mike was maybe 25 or 26 years of age, and had played in a few other countries before we crossed paths in Kaunas.
Mike was from New York, and he seemed to have a nose for finding back alleyways and shortcuts for anything. My first day in town, Mike showed me a back way to get from the building we were staying in to the town “Center” in Kaunas, which I now know is called Vilniaus Street. It was/is like Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, and it seemed longer.
American men, especially Black men, were a rare sight in a place like Kaunas back then. Everyone knew why we were there, and the young people treated us like celebrities in the street.
Young women smiled.
Some recognized us and would stare, but not react.
Teens and kids would ask for pictures and autographs.
Since there was nothing near our building, we’d walk to Vilniaus Street daily to eat meals, talk to girls (for someone who didn’t speak the native language, Mike was the most prolific phone-number-getter I’d ever seen), and spend hours in the Internet cafe (that was me). After Mike moved on to another basketball club in the country and I was the lone American with the club, I continued walking to Vilniaus every day for food and internet use.
On my way there was a small side street lined with houses. Almost every time I walked past this side street, I’d see the same 3 or four young kids, maybe 5-7 years old, outside playing in the street about halfway down the block.
One of the kids would see me and scream out, “HIIII!!!!” Then they would run towards me, all yelling out.
I would smile and wave, but never broke stride in my walk. The kids would sprint the half-block to get close to me before I was out of sight, still repeating, over and over, the single word of English they knew.
I figured they would eventually get used to seeing me, and one day not react at all when I passed by.
That day never came. They always reacted the same way.
I remember the day I was set to leave Kaunas and return to Philadelphia. I was not in the cheeriest of moods that day. Though the season was still going on, I was done with the club in Kaunas, and had been unsuccessful in trying to find a new team — which I felt might be easier, since I was already in Europe: bringing me in from Lithuania would be a smaller investment for a team than flying in a player from the USA. My agent, who had brokered the Kaunas deal in the first place, had also been unable to find a new home for me.
The Fall in Kaunas then — and, from what I hear, still now — meant grey skies, all day, every day, for months. It’s overcast, cool and damp. There’s daylight, but you don’t see the sun. That, plus the fact that I was returning home to an uncertain basketball future, left me feeling not-so-great.
The last time I walked past that little street, though, those kids were outside playing, as usual.
And they were excited to see me. As usual.
Even when you’re not feeling your best, you’re still a celebrity to somebody.
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