A World Away

To be honest, I could probably write an entire book about the European experience that I have had and all of the things that come with that. Maybe, that is actually in the future for me, because I have seen and been through a lot so far and I plan to continue to play for a while longer. So, for now, I will give you a big picture of what this life is like as it is definitely one that is very unique, but also one that not many people know much about.

So far, I have played 5 years overseas. My first 4 in Belgium and this past season I spent in France. European basketball is a unique experience mainly because of the volatility of each season. Generally, American players switch teams every season in Europe. In 5 years, I have changed teams four times. This is pretty standard as a pro because simply, if you play well, often times better teams want to sign you for more money. This causes most Americans overseas to bounce around not just city to city, but country to country. There is only a finite time people can play sports at a professional level, so personally, I want to maximize the amount of money and experiences I can have in that short window.

Obviously, there are a lot of adjustments that have to be made transitioning from college to being a pro. First, you are making money now while in college we were all mainly “broke”. But for me the biggest change comes with the amount of free time and independence you are given. College years are filled with class, practice, study hall, meetings, and if you can squeeze in some time for friends, then you are doing pretty well. However, overseas we have one practice a day and sometimes 2. In an average week, I would say, we practice 9 times with 1 game and 1 day off. Depending on the style of coach, (and trust me some can be “insane”, others can be chill as a cucumber) practices can go anywhere from 1 to 2.5 hours each. With 24 hours in a day, that leaves a lot up to the individual of what they want to do. Living in a foreign country, where you don’t know the language, the people, or have any friends, this can lead to a lot of Netflix, video games, youtube clips, books, or whatever you do to fill your time. Personally, I am a professional basketball player, but my dog and I are also some of the best nappers in the world. And believe me, I have watched more than my fair share of television series and movies. To some, this may sound like a dream life, which it is in a lot of ways. I get to play the sport I love, get paid to do it, and I have the rest of my day free. However, there are definitely some things that can make life, maybe not difficult, but challenging because of the circumstances of our job.

A lot of people think “Wow, you get to live in this great European city, or country, you must have seen so much!” And I have seen a lot, but we rely on our body and our physical performance to make money. Therefore, rest is incredibly important and so is how you take care of your body. We have practice in the morning and afternoon most days, so we can’t go out at night for drinks, because we have an early morning practice or a game the next day. We can’t go explore the city during the day, we have practice in the afternoon. On off-days, we mainly want to stay off of our feet because another long week is coming. Saying this, I have seen and done a lot of things that many people dream of. I’ve been up to the Eiffel Tower, seen the ruins and the Parthenon in Athens, walked the Grand Place in Brussels, eaten at Michelin restaurants in San Sebastian, just to name a few things. But there is more that could be done if not for needing to be in peak physical shape every day.

Brandon Ubel, Nebraska Cornhuskers

Family and friends often times can feel disconnected and even removed from our lives, and it’s not just the distance. The time difference makes it hard to communicate with friends and family back home in the US, especially as people start to get into their careers after college. Typically, for me, there is a 7 hour time difference, so when people get off of work around 5 pm and home by 6, that means for me it is midnight or 1 am, and I am either already asleep, or I’m halfway there. Continuing friendships is difficult once people start their post-college life, whether that is with work, family, or many other reasons. But, add in the distance and time change, it can be nearly impossible to continue a lot of relationships with people while we pursue our dreams of playing basketball. Many players that have talent and opportunities decide not to continue their career because they are not only far from home, family and friends, but the lifestyle of bouncing around so much can make you almost feel as if you no longer even have a place to call home. Andre Agassi, in his book, had a great name for all the places he would stay at while he was on tour; he called them “Not Home”. For me, this couldn’t be any truer. I know that each place I am at is simply a stop or a stepping stone towards a day I will have a place I can call home. But until then, my dog and I are cool with staying in as many “not homes” as we need to. For sure I miss my family and my friends, but the chance to do what I love is well worth it. Plus, typically there are multiple Americans on each European team, and this can really help stay mentally stable. Just being with other guys that understand the life, the sacrifices, but also the great parts as well.

Brandon Ubel, Nebraska Cornhuskers 2

One thing I miss about the college atmosphere is definitely the camaraderie in the locker room. In college, you are all 18-22 years old, at similar points in your life, and are going through exactly the same things each and every day. This simply makes friends out of nearly the entire team because you share the same interests, hobbies, life stories, and daily experiences. As a pro, it is reversed. The age range is now 22-38 and not only are people’s lives very different, but mix in the fact that there can be language barriers, different styles of thinking (American basketball players have a very different mindset than most Europeans) and simply growing up across the world from each other. Most times, the only time you see your teammates are when you are at practice. I have been very lucky that most of my teammates have been really great guys. However, many of them I wouldn’t consider being “friends”. We sometimes spend 9 months a year/9 months of our lives together. That’s just enough time to become acquaintances with a lot of people. The type of friend that if call them, there is a 50/50 chance they will meet up with you. Only a couple of friends would make the trip for the sole purpose of seeing you. College teammates, on the other hand, I feel like are the friends you can have for life.

Brandon Ubel, Nebraska Cornhuskers 3

Without turning this into a novel, the final major difference in European basketball is how “cutthroat” this profession can be. It is simply a fact of this profession and something that has become almost normal at this point. I have never played a season where the guys on the team at the beginning matched the guys on the team at the end. This year alone we started with 10 players under contract with young players to fill in for practices. By the end of the season, I had accumulated 17 different teammates in a 9-month span. I am fortunate enough in my career to never have been cut from any team that I played for. But this season we cut 5 players, lost one early to injury and signed an additional 7. Obviously, this was not all at once, but if you can imagine spending a couple of months building chemistry and getting to know guys, then one day they are gone and we bring in a new player. One month after that we add another player. 2 weeks later we cut another and replace him with a new guy. And finally 2 months later, another move is made. So this obviously sends a message that they don’t care about the players as people as much as their production on the court. And that message is not only true but also has been explicitly expressed to myself and my teammates directly. I have had a president that word for word said, “I don’t give a f*** about any of you. I only care about this club and winning games. Nobody is safe, so if we don’t win games, changes will be made.” So at the end of the day, if you are brought in to score, you better score. If you are brought in to rebound, you better rebound, or you will find yourself on a plane back home. Most of the time there is no long-term plan or vision, it’s all about the results of now, and what have you done for me lately.

I feel like this is painting a negative picture of my experience, but I truly love what I do. I play a game for a living. It doesn’t get any better than that. There are sacrifices that have to be made for sure in your personal life in the short term, but the experiences that I have gained living in other countries, making friends from all around the world, and expanding my worldview have doubtlessly made me a different and hopefully better person. Because of this, I think I will be able to succeed and thrive in any environment that I find myself in.

It is an interesting life to say the least, but it is one that, at the moment, I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Thank you to the Nebraska Huskers and NRPhoto.fr for allowing us to use their pictures.



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