The preacher says Amen.
The congregation mingles its way out the big wooden doors. I was already getting the Sunday afternoon stomach grumbles.
I am waving here, saying hi to them over there, accepting quick hugs of congratulations.
“So where exactly are you going?”
“Romania, the Transylvania region.”
“Isn’t that where Dracula is from… You must not be too scared of vampires?”
In 2014, my college eligibility was up. I had been fortunate enough to play on some elite college teams (Memphis Tigers and Gonzaga Bulldogs). In 2013, we were the number 1 team in the country and making history with each game. The media swarmed us day in and day out. But like all good stories… they all come to an end. And this was me a couple years later after we were upset in the NCAA tournament. My college career was officially over.
It has always been my dream to be a sharp shooter in the NBA – but in the 2014 NBA draft, I wasn’t drafted.
In reality, only 0.03 % of high school basketball players ever get to play a game in the NBA. In my mind, there’s a chance!
Just because I did not make it that year, doesn’t mean I lost my love and passion for the game. It fueled it.
Can you imagine working to be an accountant or a dentist since you were 8, and at 23 (before your peak) you give it up completely?
Players in my situation have two choices:
- Get a real job.
- Pack your bags, and go play overseas for a few years to see where it can take you.
Considering I don’t have a family of my own, and sitting behind a desk sounds frightening…. the second option began to sound really good.
Now I am sure your heads are already spinning with the sound of that. Google images of the heart of Spain, the Alps of Switzerland, or even the Amalfi Coast of Italy look much better than a square fabric cubical stuck in the back of a warehouse behind the local McDonalds.
[In case you are still confused how playing abroad is possible… Most countries have professional basketball leagues of their own, full of teams that compete the same way the NBA does… just in their own country. And if you are fortunate enough to be able to play the game well, a country’s team will recruit you to play for them. The same ways we (in America) steal players like Dirk Nowitzki from Germany and Marc Gasol from Spain and have them play in our league – the NBA.]
So… I start doing what any normal young person would do. Spend time daydreaming and thinking about all the wonderful places I might play.
That would be lovely. Beaches on beaches, white buildings, and great food.
Then I get a phone call.
It’s my agent.
“I have a really good opportunity for you to play in Japan. I think you should take it.”
“Like the Asian island?”
“They have people over 5 feet tall?”
“Yes, they have a real good league.”
So let me quickly summarize the rest of this story.
I’m a kid from Memphis, Tennessee who boarded a plane to Fukuoka, Japan. Lived for 9 months in a strange place, a world away from my normality. Playing a game I love, in a culture that is opposite from my own, with a language that is harder to understand than my 1 year old nephew’s babbles. Eating strange delicacies I would rather not know about. And playing under a coach who would scream Japanese for 5 min, to be translated into five words, “ Wake de **** up Da-rue!”
Now at this point you might be thinking, I am culturally insensitive. But just hang with me.
This life of crazy, sometimes brutal, yet amazing experiences has changed my outlook on this sport, life, and this world.
Season one was completed, and I am sitting at home enjoying mom’s homemade Mac n’ Cheese, fried okra, and cornbread.
Now let’s pause for a minute and take in how nice and easy and delicious you have it in America: If for nothing else, you should go live in a foreign country for 9 months purely to experience the raw joy and happiness of the first week back home in the States.
The phone rings.
“I have a team in Czech Republic that has offered you.”
Days later I touch down in Prague before being driven 115 mph (no exaggeration) through vineyards and groves of trees till I reach a small city outside Prague, Usti nad Labem – my next home for 9 months.
Just when I thought I had this overseas thing figured out, I land in a completely opposite cultural environment from what I had grown embrace in Asia.
You mean I don’t have to eat the shrimp with the shell and legs still attached… I don’t have to slide off my shoes 155 times a day? Czech was cold and so were some of the people (probably fallout from living under the rule of Communism for awhile), but the experiences were unforgettable. Here, I met good friends in Usti and another family in Prague, which made life sweeter. And one of the most beautiful cities in the world (Prague) was only a short train ride away. (I would put it on the must visit list before you kick the bucket)
It’s 8 pm at night, and I just landed in Bucharest, Romania. My eyes are stinging from my dried-out contacts. I had been traveling since yesterday morning.
I stand still in a daze as I watch the luggage carousel go round and round.
Round and round.
I glance down at my now useless phone (due to no cellular service) and try to count up the minutes I have been standing, waiting for my luggage.
This can’t be happening.
Everything I own, for the next 9 months, is stuffed into those two bags.
The belt slowly eeks to a stop. Concurrently, my positive outlook gets dunked into the garbage.
I rush over to baggage counter.
The lady scuffles me to another counter across the room. Only to find out the man doesn’t speak English and sends me elsewhere.
Only to be ushered back to the first counter.
Language barrier is a real thing, people!
Time is ticking away, and I have no idea who is in the lobby to great me and drive me to my new city 5 hours away. At this point in time, I conclude the “mystery” person waiting for me outside the airport gates has given up and believes I must have missed my flight. I’m in a foreign airport, with no bags, no cell service, no Romanian money, and have no idea where the city I am supposed to live is located.
My thoughts are abruptly stopped as the lady at the counter raises her voice.
“Please tell me address for where you live to bags send?”
My eyes widen.
Thoughts race around in my head like they are in the Indy 500. I have nothing. Yet alone, I don’t even know how to pronounce the name of the city I am supposed to be going to.
With a blank stare, I murmur, “I don’t know.”
I then proceed to tell her Mures. Pronounced in my best Romanian accent I can come up with “MYOURS.”
Her nostrils began to flare and she looks at me with disgust, as if she were my mother scolding me on how I traveled to a different country and don’t even know where I am going.
“This is no a city.”
I panic. My eyes scramble across the counter. I see a pen and begin to write out the name of the city/club that I saw on my contract.
“Ahhh!” her eyes soften, as I take a deep breath. This conversation could determine if I live the next 9 months with one pair of underwear. “Târgu Mureș (Prounounced MOO-RESH)” she spouts. “I will give call tomorrow if bags found.”
And that was it.
My phone doesn’t work, but I didn’t seem to care. She knew the basketball club and my new city. I felt better.
The sliding doors screech behind me as I exit customs into the real Romania, hours later than I was scheduled. I proudly carry the clothes I am wearing and a piece of paper with Romanian writing and begin to stand in the center of commotion having no clue what I am doing or who I am looking for.
Moments pass into a minute or two. “Andrew?”
“YES, THAT IS ME!”
I soon realize that the man’s English doesn’t go far past “Hello, Andrew?”
At this point, I could care less. He had been waiting patiently all afternoon for me and was kind enough to not leave me stranded. We boarded his van, and I was on my way to a new life.
Five hours pass and we finally pull up to my new city – it is 3am.
You can imagine the great conversations we had along the way…
There is nothing more nerve-wracking and exciting than pulling up to your future city/home for the next year. It is like receiving a crazy big Christmas gift from a complete stranger you just met. You might hate it or you might love it? The location could be heart-wrenching or it could be paradise? The mystery just lingers over you.
My new friend stops the van outside of one of the buildings and points, I instantly look around and see nothing but random houses scattered. My stomach drops a little as the location looks as alive as a fish living out of water. How am I going to live here?
“He points again.”
After minutes of confusion, I realize all he wants me to do is to switch cars so he can park the van. We continue onward.
“OK, OK, Apartment.” He points.
Instantly a relief comes over me as the apartment looks nice and is located near the center of downtown.
My driver turns to leave and says “Meet 11 am tomorrow.”
Weary, I lay down in my new bed and stare at the ceiling. Here goes nothing. Everything will work out this year. You will meet plenty of friends. It will be a good experience. Thoughts swarm my head. My family is probably sitting around the TV watching the Olympics together.
Sure enough, at 11 am the next morning there is a knock at the door, and they speak English!
The team could not be nicer to me and they have made sure I have everything I need to feel comfortable in my new home.
(the area around my apartment in Romania)
A day later, I am sitting in the hospital for my routine physical before I am allowed to play. A nurse comes to the door and says, “Barh-haam.”
I enter the back room where I am interrogated in broken English about my first name.
“Drew, like Drew Barrymore?”
“So your name, a girl name?”
I look back confused. “Ummm, it is just my name, short for Andrew.”
Thankful, the awkward conversation quickly ends there as the head doctor walks in and comments about how Elvis and I are from the same place… Memphis, Iowa.
I raise my eyebrows a bit as I agree and proudly correct “Ten-nes-see.”
“Please lift shirt for check of heart.”
I do as I am told and lift my Under Armour shirt above my head.
Before I know it, the doctor is tugging it back down.
Are you kidding?
Now, I am just flat-out confused.
He slowly reads “Un-nde-er Ar-mour. Hmmm.” And raises it back above my head.
My heartbeat was strong and in good condition as the doctor confirms this by telling me “Do you keep sword in Under your clothes for Armour?”
I smile big with him as we conquer the language barrier and finish the rest of the tests.
Now, what you must understand is that this lifestyle is a little different from the somewhat pampered college lifestyle I once enjoyed: boarding private planes, 5-star hotels at every away game, police escorts, and fancy buses with recliners. Those days are gone for now.
Today is different. The grind becomes numbing and second nature. The adventures become stories and part of you. You love it and you hate it. You complain sometimes, but you wouldn’t trade your experiences for anything.
Some of your favorite times are sitting around a bleak locker room in the middle of a foreign place telling your fellow imports and teammates what happened to you that day. The stuff that is the hardest is the stuff that bonds you together as friends. The non-stop tough practices and travel can be grueling. But you don’t truly know someone until you have fought in the trenches with them.
It’s hard to explain.
But, that is why I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything in the world. You walk in and see a locker room full of people like you from all over the world and somehow you can relate to them.
You have one corner bumping out to a techno remix of NSYNC, while the other side is trying to make fun of each other in broken English. You are greeted with the title, “Hello Americano” and ushered into a culture that is brand new and different.
You begin to realize that you did live in a bubble in America. Life might be harder for the next 9 months, but it is worth it.
It is a raw, uncut experience that you will not soon forget. It’s real. Cultures are very different, but we are all human beings, created in God’s image. He has put me where He wants me. To see beyond America. To live for Him. To make a difference.
Playing basketball in some places sounds insane, but it brings me back to why I fell in love with the game in the first place. I play basketball for my job.
(my team in Romania – BC MURES)
One day I will wake up and be old. My playing days will be long gone. Nothing to complain about. No early morning practice or two-a-days. No foreign language to decipher. No mystery meat to eat. Maybe I will have learned to like coffee by then. Read the newspaper. Check my emails and go about my day.
That is when I anticipate it will be hard.
But I cannot think on tomorrow, all I can do is live today: across the globe in Targu Mures, Romania.
As I am stuck in the middle of my friends and family for my last day in America, I can’t help but think of what my next two days are going to entail. Only having a 24-hour notice to say good-bye is not long enough.
The questions continue to come after I hear my last home church sermon for a while.
“Romania, the Transylvania region.”
“Isn’t that where Dracula is from… You must not be too scared of vampires?”
“I do not know about vampires. Well, I hope I don’t meet Dracula.”
“Where exactly is Romania?”
“Good question. I couldn’t tell ya’ exactly. Near Hungary, I think.”
“So how do you like playing overseas?”
“It’s an adventure. It’s brutal. I love it.”
P.S. I received my luggage and had my first preseason game Sunday. Romania is great, and I have really enjoyed my time here so far. Enter you email address below for more adventures from db4three.