Kobe’s priceless piece of advice
I remember it like it was yesterday. It was my rookie year with the Nets. We’d just lost a game to the Lakers and I was leaving our home court, Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford. Kobe Bryant just happened to be walking out at the same time.
I’d never met Kobe before. But I needed his help with something, so I told myself, ‘Just ask him’.
I said to him, ‘I’m having some real issues shooting free throws. To me, you’re one of the most mentally tough players I’ve ever seen, so I wanted to know if there’s anything you would suggest to help me?’
‘What do you think about when you’re standing on the free-throw line?’ he asked me.
‘I kind of have a bunch of things that I think about,’ I replied.
‘Just focus on one thing,’ Kobe said. ‘Make sure you have just one thought in your mind over and over. I have this one thought and that’s always helped me and that’s what I recommend you do as well. Think about shooting it up over the front of the rim, or bending your knees, or following through.’
‘One thought,’ he repeated.
This spoke volumes to me. For a player the stature of Kobe to stop and take the time to talk to me – a rookie, not a big-name guy or anything, from the opposing team – was huge.
It may sound like a very small thing to some people, but it’s very significant within the professional sports world. I’d always respected him as a player, but after this moment he gained my respect as a person as well.
I took Kobe’s advice to heart, and it did help a bit. I had some coaches try the ‘Hack-a-Shaq’ routine on me, to get me to the three-throw line, but I was never afraid of the challenge.
MY SINGLE NBA REGRET
I entered the NBA draft after my junior year of college, but I probably should’ve gone after my sophomore year.
My draft stock was highest after my freshman year, when we won the national championship at UConn, but I wasn’t ready physically or emotionally for the NBA. I was ready after my sophomore year, but I wanted to stay one more year to try to finish my degree and play another season with my friends.
I was selected by the Nets as the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2006 draft, but sometimes you’re better off going in the second round. It just depends how things develop from there.
First-round picks receive four-year deals and second-round picks receive two-year deals and as it turned out my second year was my best year in the NBA. I made it into the starting line-up and was playing alongside Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson and Sean Williams.
If I’d been a second-round pick I would’ve made a LOT of money signing a new deal after my second year, but in my third and fourth year things kind of went downhill.
I injured my ankle at the beginning of my third season and was never able to get back to the level I was at in my second year. And my last year in the NBA was essentially a disaster in every sense of the word.
We had a lot of injuries at the start and ended up with one of the worst records in NBA history. We also went through a coaching change roughly 20 games into the season, and I never saw eye-to-eye with the new coach, who was also the general manager.
This created a bit of a conflict of interest, as he had brought in several players that also played my position. And, as a GM, if the players you sign play well, it makes your decision to bring them in look good.
Some days I’d be allowed to play and I’d play well, and other days I would be relegated to the bench, with no communication or explanation as to why this was happening. I remember a game when I had 20 rebounds against the Atlanta Hawks, and just a few games later I was sent back to the bench. There were even times when I walked into the arena expecting to play, only to find there was no jersey waiting for me in my locker.
My last year in the NBA was essentially a disaster in every sense of the word.
At the end of the season, I went through a very disappointing summer. Several NBA teams promised me they would make me a contract offer, but most never followed through. I was tired of being lied to, so instead of waiting around any longer, I went to China on what was NBA-level money.
I actually had the chance to return to the NBA after my first year in China, but I was again given the runaround by a team – them telling me one thing and doing another – and I took it personally.
I’d had enough and told my agent to inform them I was going back to China.
Fifteen minutes later, my agent rang and said he had their GM on the line. He then proceeded to talk to me for 45 minutes, trying to sell me on the team as well as the city the team was in, but I wouldn’t go back on my decision.
In hindsight, I should have accepted the offer as the right business decision, but I was too stubborn. I was still hurt by all of the lies, not to mention they offered me only a non-guaranteed deal, and I knew the NBA players would be locking out that next year.
It’s probably the one career decision I wish I could go back and change, because I’m convinced had I gone back at that point I’d still be playing in the NBA today. But in life you make choices and have to do the best with the decisions you make, and that’s what I’ve tried to do.
POKER WITH VINCE CARTER
There were a lot of good and bad things about being in the NBA.
Certainly for the financial aspect of it, I’d go back in a heartbeat. But there were things I had to do that I didn’t like. I had to play the game sometimes and be fake and act like I really liked someone when in reality it’s quite the opposite, whether that be a co-worker or someone I was meeting at a team or league-sponsored appearance.
I’m a very honest – sometimes brutally honest – person and I hated having to do that. It just wasn’t me or who I am.
But there were also opportunities that sometimes came up which were great. I’m a big video-game guy and, being an NBA player, it got me connected to people who organised tours of two of the biggest video-game production companies in the world for me. That was fantastic.
I’m really not an NBA lifestyle-type person, though. I don’t drink, I don’t go out to bars and clubs.
Many of the guys do – and I don’t have anything against people who drink – but alcohol doesn’t do anything for me. I don’t feel better when I have a drink and I didn’t like the taste of most I’ve tried.
But I loved the resources and facilities that are available in the NBA. Rehabbing injuries, preparation for games, recovery – everything is designed to help you be the best player you can be on the court. They’re truly the best in the world for that.
For a player the stature of Kobe to stop and take the time to talk to me – a rookie, not a big-name guy or anything, from the opposing team – was huge.
All of the flights in the NBA are chartered. We were always on private planes, which only had first-class seating on them. The vast majority of the time, we would drive straight from our practice facility to the runway and walk right onto the plane without ever needing to go into the airport.
Our bags were also taken care of for us, so we wouldn’t even see them from the time we arrived at the practice facility, until we arrived in our hotel rooms in the new city. Travelling for road games at least 41 times every season sounds difficult, but the way we travelled was much easier than the travel I’ve experienced in any other league.
And, of course, the quality of the competition itself was incredible. I loved playing with some great guys like Jason Kidd and Vince Carter. I also played against some of the best to ever play the game; greats such as Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitski, Shaquille O’Neal, and many others.
Vince and I got along very well. We were both poker players, so sometimes we’d go out to the casino and play together for five or six hours.
I played against LeBron James, including in finals, and he was great, but that was before he became the incredible all-round basketballer he is now. I’m so impressed by the giant leap he has made in his career.
NBL VS OTHER LEAGUES
I came to Australia on short notice – less than 24 hours from the time I first heard from my agent about the opportunity here – and was more than a little wary due to some bad experiences I’d had playing basketball around the world after stepping away from the NBA.
I didn’t know much about the NBL, or the situation I was walking into at Melbourne United, so I was naturally on edge.
But from the day I got here, they proved things were going to be very different – and better – in Australia.
I’m actually in the process of suing my Turkish club from 2016, Pinar Karsiyaka, to try and get back money that they were contractually obligated to pay me.
My agent and I did our due diligence and thought they would be one of the safer clubs in Turkey when it comes to getting paid. They’re a big club, they played in the Euroleague the year before I got there, so we didn’t think it would be an issue. But it was.
All the players were getting paid late and then the club wanted to get rid of me because I got injured. My contract was fully guaranteed, but instead of paying it out like they should have, they refused to give me my letter of clearance (which would allow me to play for another team) until I worked out a buy-out figure with them.
They made me take a really low buy-out compared to what I was supposed to be owed, and still only paid me half of that, so I’m trying to get it back. Unfortunately it’s a long process, which may not end for several more months.
From the day I got here, they proved things were going to be very different – and better – in Australia.
China was the first country I played in after four years with the Nets. It was the opposite of everything I’d known to that point in my life.
I was truly thrown into the deep end, alone in a place where virtually no one spoke English. My translator didn’t really want to do anything and I couldn’t communicate with people back home unless I stayed up until 1am to do it.
I’ve figured out over the years that, if you’re playing and living in a foreign country, there are two things you need to feel reasonably comfortable: a decent internet connection and access to food you can actually eat.
I didn’t really have either of those things in China.
When I first arrived, the general manager of my team, Zhejiang Golden Bulls, insisted on taking me out to eat for my first few meals. I ended up being so sick as a result of eating the food – and our crazy practice schedule on top of that – that I lost seven kilograms in 48 hours.
Making matters worse was the fact the hotel we were living in had only one internet router on our floor. That’s not ideal when all your Chinese teammates like to play online video games! They would tie up all the bandwidth, so that I literally couldn’t get a single webpage to load until they stopped playing at about one in the morning.
During my second year in China, the team didn’t want to pay me the last part of my salary and kept delaying, but when I threatened to take them to FIBA for arbitration they immediately came up with the money.
PHILIPPINES, ESTONIA & BEYOND
After taking well over a year to recover from a major knee injury, I spent all of two weeks with the San Miguel Beermen in the Philippines.
I played two competition games. The first I had 15 points and 15 rebounds and we won by 20, the second I had 32 points and 21 rebounds and we won by 15.
They cut me the next day.
Three days after I arrived there, we’d had a pre-season game that didn’t count and which we lost. I didn’t play well and it turned out the club had panicked and bought someone out of their NBA D-League contract.
My next stop, Bahrain, was a great country to play in. Manama Club always paid me on time. It was here that I really got my love for the game back, a love which I had lost a bit after being sent home from the Philippines.
I really loved my teammates there and still talk to a couple of them regularly. And the fans were phenomenal. When we won the championship, they basically shut down the entire capital city so the entire population could come and join in on the party.
I’m still missing money from my time in Estonia, at BC Kalev, but the amount isn’t really worth pursuing. Going through FIBA can be a very expensive and time-consuming process, so you’ve got to pick your battles.
Every year they talk about that club going bankrupt, and every year they somehow still have a team.
The team I played for in Russia, BC Khimki, was very professional. They were the second-largest club there, so I was optimistic there wouldn’t be any problems. It’s really the next tier of leagues down, which is where my former Estonian team resides, where a lot of the clubs have financial issues.
MELBOURNE UNITED & THE CHAMPIONSHIP
The NBL is great for me – mentally and physically.
There’s a lot of camaraderie throughout the entire league. I think Aussies and Americans share a lot of similarities and that’s why we get along so well. In a place like China the Americans gravitate towards each other, but it’s easier to develop genuine friendships with local players here.
There’s nobody on our team at Melbourne United who I’d say has a negative relationship with anyone else on the team, and I’d venture to guess it’s pretty similar throughout the league. All the guys I’ve met are good quality guys and I can’t say that for some of the other places I’ve been.
I’m 33, so the odds of me getting another shot at the NBA are slim to none, even if in my mind I’m still better than a lot of the guys there now. But I’ve been on an amazing journey that has shaped me as a person and given me a look at the world, allowing me to travel to 40 countries and live in 10 of those.
There have been huge ups and major downs, but that’s to be expected in this business, and life in general.
After this season, I think I probably have another four or five years left in my playing career.
Though I’m still brainstorming what I want to do after I finish, right now my sole focus is on winning an NBL championship with Melbourne United. I won a championship in Hong Kong last year, and it has made me very greedy when it comes to winning. So you can believe that I will leave everything on the court during the upcoming finals to give us the best chance of winning.
From the NBA, to Europe, Asia, and finally Australia, I’ve been a nomad for the last 12 years . But I think I may have finally found a home here in Australia.