I read that the Big Baller Boys — LaMelo Ball and LiAngelo Ball — would be playing overseas, for a club in Lithuania this season. Their teams coach doesn’t speak English. I’ll tell you what my experiences were, in both Lithuania and with no-English coaches. If you want to learn more about overseas basketball in general, see my full Pro Basketball Guides & Help Page.
Twice, I played for coaches who didn’t speak English. The first time was in Kaunas, Lithuania.
It was 2005. I was 23 and it was my first time out of the USA. I don’t remember the coach’s face, probably because A) I was there for only 6 weeks and B) he and I never communicated directly.
My team was smaller than the Ball kids’ club, and being in Kaunas, only one team mattered: Zalgiris. At the time they had signed Reggie Freeman, a sharpshooting wing player from New York who’d played his college ball at Texas. Zalgiris also had an American named Tonaka Beard who’d been there for years. I’d see his face on busses and billboards around town.
My American agent had connected with a Lithuanian agent named Tomas who would be my contact person in Kaunas. Tomas showed how much he valued my body and career by goading my into practicing the same day I’d arrived in town off of a transcontinental flight and hour-long taxi ride from Vilnius (Lithuania’s capital city where the airport is). Despite being an agent, Tomas didn’t seem like much of a basketball guy to me. My intuition was proven right soon enough.
Tomas came to every practice and translated what the coach said for me (and the two other Americans who were there for less time than me). Tomas’ translations sounded pretty close to what my girlfriend (who doesn’t know what pick and roll or box out mean, for reference) would say if she spoke Lithuanian and had Tomas’ job. Luckily, a couple players — and I literally mean a couple, like two — spoke broken English. They would roughly explain what coach wanted. I replied the same way every time: nod vigorously and run another pick and roll play. That’s pretty much all we did on the court.
After practices, we’d file into a locker room that was actually a dark, wet, moldy and dirty room with rotted benches. Oh, there was a shower in there that that was just screaming “bacterial infection.” Some players used the shower daily. I walked in the locker room once — the day of my first practice — and never set foot in there again.
I was never clear what my role was on the team. I also didn’t know what the coach thought of or expected of me, probably because he never said anything to me. My lack of high-level playing experience, coming from an NCAA D3 school where I hadn’t even played as a senior, contributed to my not-understanding of much of what happened on the court.
Off-court life in Lithuania was interesting. Since Kaunas is a big city, there were always people walking about, many of them young and blonde. An American teammate of mine (a New Yorker, for what it’s worth) would gather women’s phone numbers as if he were aiming to reach a quota. It was really impressive. I learned from him that the Lithuanian women were pretty good with texting, even if their English speaking wasn’t the best. Women in Lithuania, at least in 20005, were very open to talking to American basketball players. They all knew enough English for us to communicate smoothly.
During my time in Kaunas, talking to females was a sport in itself.
The Second Time Around
The second no-English-coach experience was in Montenegro. A few things were better this time, one being that 5-6 teammates spoke English; a couple of them spoke fluently. Having players who both understood and actually played basketball translating made a big difference in my playing-scheme comprehension.
To his credit, this coach in Montenegro made an effort to use English, often tossing out words like, “good.” When I had questions or any interaction with the coach in Montenegro, I grabbed a teammate, who would take 250-300 of the coach’s words and condense that into a translation of 15-20 words. This slightly frustrated the information sponge in me.
After seeing my abilities — I’d made myself into a really good outside shooter by this point — I had a clear understanding of my role from the coach: shoot 3s. And shoot some more.
Personally, I was older and had more experience under my belt by the time I got to Herceg Novi. Also, I had gotten this contract from my own hustling, acting as my own agent this time. Having spent the previous season out of basketball, selling gym memberships in Philadelphia, I valued the situation more than 23-year-old me had valued Lithuania. Younger me, starting my career in the Baltic League, believed my career would be a long line of getting contract after contract. I had learned how wrong I was and was ready to maximize this chance.
Off the court, the female club manager’s husband was fluent in English. He owned the flat I lived in, and the Internet cafe downstairs that I spent a lot of time in. My living in Montenegro was very convenient.
With females, Montenegro was in some ways similar to Lithuania. There aren’t a lot of tall Black guys walking the streets, so I stood out. Everywhere I went and everything I did, people knew. Anyone I talked to, any store I patronized. I couldn’t hide except for in my apartment. Herceg Novi being a smaller town, women would look, but were less forward about their interest. Some were wary of the fact that everyone would know them as the American’s girl.
What Lamelo And Liangelo Should Expect Playing Overseas
Now, for the Big Ballers LaMelo Ball and LiAngelo. Here’s what they — and you, should you have overseas ambitions — should expect.
- A more physical game. Yeah, the athletes in the USA are faster and jump higher. But European ball, especially when it comes to American players, allows more contact with no whistles. The stuff you’re used to being called a foul won’t be a foul over there. You’re expected to play through it. Which is why you should…
- Never address a referee. In my experience, referees don’t respond well to an American player telling them they missed a call. A ref Overseas will get revenge on you by whistling the next possible violation — foul, travelling, etc — against you. You don’t want to be on the bad side of a referee overseas. They can be blatantly biased, and no one’s gonna do anything about it. Just shut up and play. My perception is, European players, fans, refs, and coaches seem to expect you, the (supposedly) bigger, stronger, faster, better American player, to be able to lay through what the local guys cannot play through, like getting hit on the arm when going for a layup. Expect it and deal with it. On that same note…
- Fit in and don’t be a diva. Eat what everyone else eats. Don’t complain about the travel, the meals or housing if they’re not so great. Don’t pout if you’re unfairly benched or don’t get calls from the referees. Any of that could cause your teammates to dislike you, at which point you’re pretty much done there.
- Opposing import players to want to embarrass you. “Import” players are any player who’s playing in a country other that where his passport is from. In Lithuania, for example, an American, Spaniard and Brazilian would all be imports. This point is a normal thing for all American players abroad. Other Americans want to show you up to prove they’re the best, and everyone is watching the matchup. For the Big Ballers, this will be especially true. They’re already (in)famous; outplaying them is a career highlight for any relatively anonymous American playing overseas.
- To fit into a system that’s team-oriented and isn’t as “wide open” as American hoops. Save for Germany, everywhere I went in Europe frowned on the one-On-one style we American players are raised on. The European style favors passing, ball and man movement, screening and very little isolation. This can be a tough adjustment when you’re used to taking defenders off the dribble and you know you can take the defender in front of you. But as I like to say, a good player will be a good player in any system — as long as the good player is on the court.
What to Expect Playing for a No-English-Speaking Coach:
- No leeway to play through mistakes. Maybe it’ll be different for the young Ballers, but I’ve seen coaches have short leashes with inexperienced players. Every team I played on, the “young guys” who weren’t ready to play had comfortable seats on the bench during games. Get in the game and make a mistake? There’s a quick hook coming for you.
- A strictly business relationship with coaching staff and management. Animals build relationships by communication. Humans do it best by talking. It’s easier to have leeway and understanding from a person when you can speak their language — literally and figuratively. If you can’t talk to the coach though, neither of you can explain yourself or your actions. A lot gets lost in translation and never said.
- To build relationships with teammates in lieu of the coach. Being that they can’t talk to the coach, LaMelo and LiAngelo should make friends with their Lithuanian (or otherwise) teammates. Teammates can translate instructions, help with the On- and off-court acclimation, and act as go-betweens for coaches. Lose that teammate relationship, and the Ballers will have a hard time getting along in Lithuania.
- Any verbal attack from anyone in the Ball camp will make things worse. LaVar Ball has made a name for himself by speaking up and drawing attention. As we can see, America loves people like LaVar, because he gives us something to watch and talk about. But, Lithuania ain’t America. Any griping about the Ball Boys’ situation — playing time, accommodations, travel, food, teammates, system — will only make their situation worse. Europeans, in my experience, don’t have the fame-at-any-costs appetite America has, either for being that person or watching that person. LaVar would be wise to keep his criticisms focused stateside, to the Lakers.
It’s anyone’s guess — though I’m sure LaVar is certain — how the young Big Ballers LaMelo Ball and LiAngelo Ball will do in Lithuania. One thing I’m 100% sure of, we’ll all be paying attention.
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