As I got off the plane in Helsinki, I felt prepared and excited for my 6th professional season in Europe, on a team I thought had real potential, in a country I was already familiar with.
I was ready, and there was a different feeling about this trip.
My game had matured, I had grown to embrace the joys of playing ball overseas, and our team was good.
Three other guys from the Midwest were expected to start with me, and winning the league meant we would qualify for the Basketball Champions League the following season, which would have been a first for the club, and for me.
To start the season, we won our first two games and stayed close to .500 through the calendar year.
As we entered 2020, I was putting up 19 points, dishing out 6 assists, and grabbing 5 boards per game, while leading the team in FT%, at 91%.
More importantly, we were winning.
By the time March began, we were 5th in the league, had won 6 of our previous 8, and I was fully immersed; enjoying hoops on a competitive squad, in a place that was rich with experiences.
Then, as it happened throughout the basketball world, everything changed.
The season was canceled, our team was dismissed, and I was on a one-way flight back to Columbus.
In retrospect, I don’t think I appreciated the finality of things, given how abrupt the ending was, but in short order, I had to face a tough reality. My playing days in Europe were done.
Three years later, as an NBA champion, and director of scouting for the Ohio State University, when I reflect on the journey, I start the narrative from my time as a Bobcat.
Coach John Groce recruited me during my sophomore/junior year of high school, and we began developing a rapport while he was still an assistant at Ohio State. Once he got the job as head coach of Ohio University, he offered me a scholarship, but I hesitated – I wanted to play "high major".
Truth is; the hesitancy was pointless. With OU, the fit was there, and I knew it.
School was close to home, an opportunity to play immediately, in a system where I could develop my game, with a coach who I was close to.
Now, at 31, I can honestly say that enrolling at Ohio University was one of the best decisions I’ve made as person, student, and athlete, with highlights that I can still be proud of:
Each year, my game improved, and I went from a 3&D player to more of a ballhandler with confidence, and a well-rounded contributor who could make plays when needed.
To this day, I am in touch with my Bobcats' teammates, and when I think back on the 4Yrs, I am reminded not just of the camaraderie, but of the dedication required of us as student-athletes (both on and off the court), the commitment I made to them; and to myself.
I entered college with a desire to be the best player I could during my four years, and graduated with a realistic plan to play professionally.
In Part 2, I will explain how a disciplined approach to the work was the key to my basketball journey abroad, and back home.