In the summer of 2008, I signed with a team based in yet another of the most beautiful cities in the world: Geneva, Switzerland. The American head coach took the initiative to contact me personally to persuade me to come play for his team. He was a former pro who had enjoyed a solid playing career in the Italian leagues.
He told me that he wanted to combine his knowledge with my ability. I couldn’t wait. I traveled to Switzerland by train fresh off another campaign with the Austrian National Team under coach Neno Aseric. He was my third coach from the former Yugoslavia, and I always felt like I learned so much under their tutelage.
This time I wasn’t traveling light. I had my usual two duffels from home, and had acquired three more bags full of swag courtesy of the national team. Spalding sponsored the Austrian National Team that year, and they had been generous with new gear. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing the flashiest brand names as a kid and always made due with what I had. Consequently, I still appreciated the freebies associated with my profession. I couldn’t always use everything.
Plenty of my endorsement gear eventually found its way into the hands of some of the bigger kids on the youth teams. My new Swiss teammates joked that I must have been personally sponsored since I was virtually a bright red walking billboard.
My new team manager picked me up at the downtown Geneva station and drove me straight to the gym to meet my new teammates and the head coach. I loaded my bags straight onto our team bus. We were on our way across the French border to training camp. Camp was held in Feurs, France, and the accommodations were some of the worst that I had ever been expected to endure. It had all the charm of a military outpost. I roomed with the team’s center. Both of us had to sleep on our sides because the tiny beds had footboards that would cut off the circulation if you fell asleep with your feet hanging over the edge.
I couldn’t wait to get back to Geneva and civilization. The team worked extremely hard, but I was already in great basketball shape from being with the national team and I never felt tired. It was the first time in my life that I was actually one of the better players in the long distance runs.
I started to sense a pattern through the years that most Americans would gradually fall toward the end of the pack in preseason distance runs. It simply wasn’t something that we spent a lot of time working on in the States. I couldn’t think of any other explanation as to why my chain-smoking teammate Namik Zahirovic effortlessly stayed with me at the front of the pack. It certainly couldn’t have been the extra nicotine in his system. I didn’t mind one bit, as it helped me keep my Croatian skills sharp and my mind off the monotony of the run.
My accomodations for the first few weeks were in the suburb of Meyrin. I was promised a larger apartment in Geneva when my family arrived. I never could understand why foreign players were put up in temporary living arrangements before being able to move into a proper apartment. They knew I was coming and they knew that I had a family.
The one consolation was that my temporary lodgings had an interesting view. From one bedroom window I could see the European Organization for Nuclear Research, otherwise known as CERN. Geneva and Meyrin are dotted with large apartment complexes forming a skyline of mini-skyscrapers. There were flags hanging in the windows of every third apartment. I recognized the colors of Italy, Germany, Spain, and Jamaica, among others.
I took buses and trains everywhere I needed to go, because it was so much more convenient than driving. The traffic itself wasn’t horrible, but finding a parking spot was next to impossible. Besides, the public transportation was punctual and precise. You could practically set your watch by keeping an eye on any bus stop. There was something to be said for Swiss precision. I loved it.
Switzerland is home to a population that speaks four different languages (depending on the region). It is also a safe haven for numerous ethnicities. On the surface, this wasn’t anything new for me – I had experienced being a part of diverse teams in most of my stops in Europe. But this team went beyond what I had experienced before. We had guys from parts of the world I had never heard of. And even the local Swiss players on our team weren’t simply Swiss. They had roots from Tunisia, Algeria and who knows where else. I had to admit that it was a little embarrassing to be unfamiliar with some of their native countries.
We had guys on our team from all over the world, with names that sounded like something else. It was the first time that I had teammates explaining Ramadan and Islamic culture to me.
Jelloul Blidi allowed me to pry and question and didn’t mind one bit. It was like having a book answer my questions and I loved it. Aurelian Tshitundu was another welcoming teammate who made sure that I felt comfortable.
Yassine Khoummsi was our starting point guard. His family had originally come from Morocco. He was a perfect example of how diverse the new Switzerland had become. We first met on the way to training camp. Sitting across from each other on the team bus, I could hear his music blaring out the edges of his headphones as he rocked his head to the beat of his iPod. I thought I recognized the lyrics, and during a break in the music, I asked him who his favorite rapper was in order to see if my memory was accurate. He smiled and proclaimed “Disiz la Peste, of course!”
We formed an immediate bond through our musical tastes. Coincidentally, the album he had been listening to was the very first French CD that I had purchased eight years before. It seemed like a lifetime ago that I had faced the seemingly insurmountable challenge of learning French.
Our most experienced player was Fabien Fond. He was a 37-year-old journeyman who had played at a high level on numerous teams in Europe. He had been playing professionally for 20 years and was the youngest Frenchman ever to have signed a professional contract. He was popular on an international level.
Fabien was one of the few poster boys of a new up-and-coming German shoe company. I felt I was playing with a bit of European basketball history. At his age, Fabien was the equivalent of a vintage racecar competing against the latest models. We became close friends, as we were always the first players in and the last to leave the gym. As I got to know him better, I learned the value of taking better care of my “wheels.”
Team equipment manager and quasi assistant coach Alain Zosso used to let us in the gym early and rebound for us during shooting drills. I had long since learned to respect and appreciate team managers, they just kept things running a little smoother.
Due to his heavy accent and Rainman-like mannerisms, it was hard for me to tell if Alain was supremely gifted or somewhat slow. I never knew if I was the student or teacher in our conversations.
It was his gift to have that kind of effect on people. Nevertheless, he threw a great chest pass and I was happy that somebody had a key to let us in early.
Fabien’s long career was a model I hoped to emulate. My goal was always to play basketball as long as I possibly could. I often joked that I would play as long as my legs would carry me. Over the years, I had started to make some changes in my diet and how I cared for my body, but it all started with my approach to workout routines.
In my younger days, I would just go to the weight room and try to lift as much heavy stuff as I possibly could. That was something I picked up in college. I think that it’s definitely an old school American bit of conventional wisdom pushed onto basketball players by trainers with more of a football background. Little by little, I observed the way players trained in Europe. I began to appreciate the importance of balance training, strengthening the secondary muscles, and paying attention to the core groups. I was on the right track, but physical training was only part of the equation. I also learned that I had to put the right gas in the tank if I expected to go the distance.
Initially, I thought that my main focus should be to maintain my weight. Because of my activity level, I could eat almost anything without thinking of the effect my food intake could have on my future. Then, one season, I decided to stop eating junk and fast food altogether. I just stopped, cold turkey. Watching the movie Super Size Me definitely helped sway me in that direction. There was a palpable and amazing difference in the way I felt after a just a few weeks. Year by year, I continued to strip away “foods” that I felt were counterproductive to developing good nutritional habits.
My body continued to change, and I felt the positive effects of my efforts paying off. I had always been capable of running all game long, but now I could do it with even less effort. Our team had made arrangements for us to eat meals at the neighboring grade school cafeteria. When they first told me about it, I wasn’t particularly excited.
The faded canned vegetables, sloppy joes and green jello cafeteria fare I watched my friends eat back at Mayflower Elementary didn’t trigger nostalgic thoughts about grade school cafeteria food to me. It was Fabien who finally convinced me to at least give it a try one day. I was stunned by what I saw. This was actual food and had nothing in common with the trays full of slop that oozed down the sides of the trashcans at my school every day after lunch. Here in Geneva, there were chefs actually preparing and cooking locally grown food. It was amazing. Those school kids ate much better than most Americans of any age.
From that day forward, I had perfect attendance at the school cafeteria. I was just sorry I couldn’t convince the school administration to let me sign up to repeat the fifth grade so I could keep eating there. I would never again doubt Fabien where good food was concerned. Anything that was good enough for Swiss school kids was okay by me.
In order to get a handle on how we were developing as a unit, we played a preseason tournament in Geneva a few weeks before the start of our regular schedule. We faced a team from France in the first game. I was excited to play and be on the court with my new team. Our coach started me at the two spot, and I was matched up against a much smaller player. I started strong and immediately took advantage of the mismatch. We had a comfortable lead, and I was having a great game when, midway through the second quarter, I slid over for help-side defense as I had done so many times before, and took a good charge. I normally bounced right back up, but this time things were different.
I’m not sure exactly how it happened. I had somehow taken an elbow to my eye and it had really connected. As I rolled over to stand up, I realized I was blind in my right eye. I felt a warm sensation on my face and tried to blink. Through my left eye, I saw a small pool of blood on the floor. As the fog in my head cleared, I became aware of our trainer trying to cover my eye with a towel as he helped me get back on my feet.
I looked at my hands and could barely see the color of my skin. I had been through injuries in the past – stitches, a few broken noses and a few teeth knocked out, but I had never had any problems with my eyes. I kept hoping that there wasn’t anything drastically wrong. My mind flashed on the scene from Any Given Sunday when the football player’s eyeball is ripped from the socket and lands on the grass. Without taking time to change out of my uniform, the trainer and our team captain, Julien Senderos, rushed me to the nearest hospital. I held a blood-soaked towel over my head, and my mind was racing. I hoped we wouldn’t get caught in the snarl of afternoon traffic.
Upon arriving at the hospital, I went straight to the bathroom to have a look in the mirror while the trainer signed me in. I was relieved to see that my eye appeared to be fine; it was just swollen shut from the trauma of the gash underneath. It looked to me like just a matter of stitches. When I returned to the waiting room, we were told that the hospital was too busy to take care of me.
Apparently, a neighborhood soccer match had ended in a violent brawl, and the emergency room was swamped. The receptionist told my trainer we were better off going to another hospital. By this time, my initial adrenalin high was skidding and the pain started to creep in. My head was throbbing. I was getting cold and my body started to shake. My teammate took off his jacket and put it around my shoulders. Julien was a great guy, and I was grateful for his simple act of kindness.
Back in the car, we drove to a second hospital. I finally got in to see a doctor. In an almost comical twist of fate, we had managed to find the only doctor in all of Switzerland who didn’t speak English. By this time, my head was really throbbing and it was difficult to concentrate. Julien decided it would be best if he came in with me to translate. They tried to glue the laceration closed to minimize any future scar, but the bleeding wouldn’t stop: the torn edges of skin kept pulling apart. The doctor tried to glue it again. I admired his persistence, but I started to wonder if they were out of good old-fashioned needle and thread. After few more stubborn attempts with the glue, they finally gave in and got out the sewing kit. Since so much time had elapsed since the initial slash, they had to skip the local pain relief, because they had to close the wound immediately.
I really didn’t care any longer. With my history of facial injuries and the scars to prove it, hanging onto my looks was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to get stitched up and out of there.
A few days prior to my family’s arrival in Switzerland, the team representative told me that my new apartment in France was ready for me to move in. Needless to say, I was confused and wondered if perhaps I hadn’t understood him correctly. I asked again, “Ou nous allons habiter?” I didn’t understand why I would be living in a different country from where I was playing. The next day the manager drove me to my new place to check it out. Sure enough, our apartment was only 10 minutes outside of Geneva.
It was literally across the border in France. The name of the village was Archamps. The building overlooked a breathtaking panorama of the French countryside. I immediately went from window to window to piece together a 360-degree panorama of our new surroundings. Our bedroom window looked out over acres upon acres of vineyards that seemed to stretch all the way to the huge Jet d’Eau water fountain in Lake Geneva. It was a gorgeous view, and I decided to overlook the inconvenience of commuting across the border several times a day.
As we boarded the team bus to Basel, I thought about the irony of that night’s game and one opponent in particular. Starting on the wing for the Basel Starwings was Tony McCrory. Tony had been my teammate for one season back in St. Pölten. He was on the opposing team on the night of my 56-point game. We had also played against each other in Germany, so the evening’s game against Starwings Basket Regio Basel would mark the third country in which I played against Tony. As if it wasn’t enough that Tony and I had a history, our wives were also former teammates and had become close friends over the years. One of the lessons I had learned by then, was that true warriors had the ability to compete even against the best of friends. I can’t speak for Tony, but I suspected that, like me, he intended to give his best and compete as hard as possible that night.
The Starwings had players from the University of Kentucky and Clemson. Although I had tried to come to terms with my college experience, I still probably carried the remnant of a chip on my shoulder over the thought that I didn’t get the opportunity to shine in college as much as I would have liked. This was the extra motivation I took with me into that game. The starting point guard for the Starwings was another old friend from Austria. Mike Coffin was an American who had settled to raise a family in Austria, and had led Kapfenberg to four straight championships. I had a lot of respect for Mike, but I checked it at the door just as I did my friendship with Tony.
From what I had seen so far, our coach believed in leaving a player in the game as long as he continued to play as hard as possible. I put my double preseason training camps and long distance running to the test, and took full advantage of my increased endurance level. I started strong and would go on to have one of my better games in Switzerland. The only rest I had was during official breaks and timeouts. I played every single second of that game. If the clock was running, so was I. We lost in the final minute and Tony’s team rewarded their fans with a win. I scored 27 points and was named the Player of the Game. It was the only time that I would get that distinction while being on the wrong side of the scoreboard. It was nice to be recognized, but just a few points more, and I could have sent Tony back to a much quieter locker room.
Pete Strobl, a veteran of the European basketball leagues, founded The Scoring Factory in Pittsburgh in 2009. Originally from the Los Angeles area, he attended Niagara University on a full athletic scholarship where he also earned a Master’s degree in business. You can follow him on Twitter @PeteStrobl.