“Wake up, Trev.”
“Is it time?”
My first thought:
We have to win. It’s my last chance.
I turn to my teammate Steve. He’s the same age as me, grey hair sprouting through a black beard— a grown-ass married man lying on a slightly better version of a pull-out hotel cot . He is running his hand through his hair, flipping at long thumbs at his phone.
“Steve, how tall are you? I can’t believe you were good enough to play at Georgia Tech. I mean, that’s the ACC. You’re a short white shooting guard. You can’t even dunk, can you?”
“Paris lost,” Steve says, ignoring me. “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.”
“Cool,” I grunt.“You think Paris sleeps at shitty hotels like this?”
Steve cracks a grin and looks at me sideways. “Don’t be a bitch.”
I roll over and try to get five more minutes of hard-fought sleep. We are in the finals of the French Pro B Championship. I’m worn out from yesterday’s train, plane, and automobile travel from Antibes to Chalon Reims, followed by a late practice last night. To make matters worse, I had to sleep on this Hotel Ibis rock-hard baby cot bed. I know a few of my NBA friends are living the life, eating three-star Michelin and getting laid every night.
Steve farts. “Excuse me.”
“Damn, you need medical help, man. Seriously.”
I fart back.
Flatulence is shared in European pro sports. There is a part of me that celebrates the toughness and comedy that it takes to be an overseas pro athlete, but there is another side that wants Kobe anti-gravity chambers and Tempur-Pedic mattresses every night. But that’s not how it works in Pro B France. No, you get what they give you. And we are all in it together as our coaches and our egg-shaped athletic trainer, Guillaume, drive the rental minivans to and from every airport. Most of the time, those guys are more hungover than we are.
Most of the guys sleep while we travel. The French are better at this than me. Moussa, a toothpick-thin seven-foot French-African, snores like a wild boar. Ben, with his perfect gel-hair and boyband looks, has no worries in the world. He literally falls asleep within seconds. Not me. I tend to overthink my life instead. What will I do? How will I play? Will this championship thing finally happen? When will I retire? How are my stocks and rentals doing?
This is my first chance at a national championship as a primary American player (most countries allow one to five Americans imports per team).
We stay at Hotel Ibis, which isn’t the créme de la créme of European hotels, but then again, it’s better than my CBA (now the G-League) experience at Motel 8. Steve’s lumpy, smelly cot-bed is two feet from my lumpy, smelly cot-bed. And yes, we pushed them as far apart as we could. I don’t understand why European hotels slide two single beds together. Maybe it’s Hotel Ibis’s strategy for energy conservation.
I roll back over. Our small ten-by-ten room is now a deadly gas chamber of smelly methane. Was it mine? Maybe it was Steve’s wafting over to me. Another silent killer. I wonder if the NBA guys have to sleep in the same room and deal with this. I’m close with these guys. A band of brothers. Steve is basically blood at this point.
“You ready to play today, Huff?” Steve fires away again, clasping his hand onto my shoulder.
I nod, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. “You betcha,” I say sarcastically. “But like, this bed, like, it sucks.”
“You complain too much, like.”
“But, like literally, my back feels like a cauterized asshole.”
Steve chuckles and lets go of my shoulder. “How would you know what that feels like…you know what, never mind.” He stands and moves his long, slender alien arms around in a whirling stretch above his head. He likes early shootarounds. He loves anything that involves shooting. He would wake up at three a.m. to shoot if you asked him. I tend to despise shooting early on gameday. At 35, I just want the energy to play hard, play tough, and get right to the meat and potatoes of the game.
I have never been a morning person.
I just needed nine hours of sleep on a firm mattress to play well. But pro teams overseas constantly try to rob you of that small luxury. Sleep isn’t that important. They expect you to win. They expect Americans to lead. To dominate. And then they give you a bullshit bed made of gravel.
How about them apples, eh?
But I suck it up because other guys do. I’m a follower when it comes to sleep. Steve could play well on six hours. If I don’t sleep for at least eight hours, I go into some sort of dream state where passing and decision-making don’t matter. The last time we arrived at three a.m. and played at seven p.m. that same day, I had eight turnovers against the last-place team, Bordeaux. So, yes, routines matter. Yes, sleep matters. Yes, great nutrition matters. I wish someone of high basketball I.Q. would explain why European clubs pay you hundreds of thousands of dollars and then wake you up early to eat a shitty goat milk probiotic yogurt breakfast with prosciutto ham when all you really needed was some bacon, a half of a McGriddle, and more sleep.
“Huff, let’s go, big day today. I need you ready to rock.”
“Bet. Bet, son,” I say sarcastically, farting as loud while grinning as wide as I can. There is something liberating about farting louder than your teammate.
“Speaking of ass — you are the worst. ”
“Shh. I’m doing yoga.”
The cat-cow pose. As I hear my lumbar spine crackle and pop, I recall all the days of travel to get here. The practices. The season. The injuries. It has taken me nine months to get to this spot. I’ve already had one surgery this year (and my fourth total). Steve has come back from an Achilles tear he suffered in October, but he was relentless in his physical therapy. And it was all for this moment. To get to this championship game. To win a title. We both wanted to get the monkey off our back.
I’ve heard a lot of NBA athletes say they get to sleep a lot. They take power naps. I’ve heard Steve Nash and Cam Newton and Doug Flutie and other pro athletes talk about their daily ritual of taking power naps. If I ever took a power nap on game day, count me in for 32 turnovers and a Rajon Rondo-type shooting night from three.
Being a pro athlete on the road has been different in every city and country I’ve ever played in. In Portugal, it was bus rides with our coach whom we called “Big Head.” In Belgium, it was a chartered luxury bus for a 45-minute drive while we all shouted at the top of our heads playing Nintendo’s Mario Kart on the DS. Losers bought Trappist Tripels after the game.
I never got to travel because I was cut from the NBA before tasting sweet luxury with the Phoenix Suns. That said, I have some friends who played in the NBA. I once asked Robbie Hummel, a Big Ten MVP, about his travel with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and he responded that it was pretty sweet. They get the Waldorf. The Drake. The Ritz. The Four Seasons. In every American city they play in, they eat pregame like I do once a year.
Traveling as a pro athlete can look and feel like many things, but there are a few things it always means. You are sleep-deprived after you travel home for every game. Four a.m. bus rides, commercial Air Ryan, Air France, and Iberia flights, train rides, and driving yourself to games. Not to mention trips with the CBA’s Flint Fuze, where Americans hot-boxed rooms with weed smoke trimming out the edges of Motel Eight doors two hours before game time.
My CBA team won an Eastern Conference championship.
The challenge with traveling as an NBA athlete is that you never get to enjoy the cities you visit, unless you are brave enough to go out the night before a game. (If you have to guard LeBron James when he was in Miami, where all the NBA guys go out, then God bless you.) I heard that Dennis Rodman once did 60 Kamikaze shots, showed up drunk at the next day’s pregame, and pulled down 29 rebounds that evening.
Allegedly, guys in the NBA have copious amounts of sex on the road, but I’m sure no one wants to talk about the hookers, the strippers, the gold diggers, and the con artists. I mean, these guys are worth millions and millions of dollars. The path of least resistance starts in the lobby. I heard MJ would drink a ton and then go to sleep at a decent hour. He knew when to go home. Most guys don’t. I didn’t when I was 26. I would stay out until four and chase women at Portuguese dance clubs in Porto with my teammates, then sit and watch the sunrise and come back and practice or play later that night.
When you’re young, you feel invincible— you don’t feel the aches and pains and throbs of swelling joints. You just go play. You win. You ball. You have fun. But things change as you get older and you search for that title. You start to learn. Mature. If you want something that elusive that bad, you have to sacrifice for it.
As an older pro athlete in overseas basketball, you actually get to see a little of the cities you visit. Sometimes you get there a day early and take some time getting into the grey-brown bridges and castles of Ghent, fresh chocolate croissants of Leon, crispy baguettes of Porto, and cobblestone pasts of those places you go.
The NCAA tournament travel was dope, and completely different. We’d get police escorts to and from the Rupp, or Cox, or TD Arena, and Kent State fans would come to meet and cheer us on at every hotel lobby. Our luxury bus would pull into the belly of every NBA arena and a jolt of adrenaline would rise into me.
I’d have to pinch myself.
This never happened in Europe. We’d spin through the French countryside in an Avis rental van talking shit to each other. It was simple. Slow. There is no rush to get anywhere in Europe. I’ve been in cities and leagues where teams are even late to games. Eating team dinners, guys would almost always sit in the same spot and eat the same thing and bitch about not having the same food they always had if it wasn’t available.
Athletes are creatures of habit. Routines are paramount for success. The video breakdown was always spoken in short blurbs by the coaches, and in some cases, when I was older than the coaches, we worked together on the scouts.
“Loves to go left.”
“They push the ball.”
“We must get back.”
We’d sit in empty hotel conference rooms, turn off the lights, and watch game tape for an hour in silence. Our mornings would start slowly. Half asleep, my teammates and man-giants would zombie-walk through hotels, duck their heads through door jams, and then eat pineapple, strawberry, and mixed berries from tiny porcelain saucers. Then espresso. Their hands would engulf the small cups. One. Then two. Three cups of espresso. A touch of milk. No creamer there. More espresso. Cold slices of ham. Cereal in a plastic bin with a button that slides some more cereal out. Toast. The goat yogurt again, the ones that have big lumps of strawberries. No waffles, or pancakes, or grits in Europe. By the end, our team would be awake and ready for shootaround.
After breakfast, soft tissue massage if you want it. Ankles taped for shootaround if you play for a Serbian or Croatian coach (yes, some batshit crazy coaches like to imagine a world in which players in their late 30s can play better with a live practice the day of the game). Light stretching or yoga. Maybe a quick shower to loosen up the back. Some players pray. The small bus or van rides to the arena for shootaround are short. Earbuds and Beats by Dre in and out of the hotel and the gym. Some guys laugh and talk, while others shut their eyes and listen or watch the world go by. I was the world watcher or the joke teller. I liked to be in the middle of the conversation or on the outside looking in.
Certain travel moments stayed with me. The snowy white tips of the Alps peering into the heavens; a small boy in a blue suit holding the hand of his jet-black-haired mother walking in a sundress on the Antibes promenade near the ramparts; the brownish-blonde beaches of Oostende and Le Havre that spun out eternally into the greenish waters of the North Sea. I used to dream about my grandpa Howard flying overhead in a B-52 Bomber on D-Day, letting his bombs fly on German underground bunkers and jettison turrets that seem as ancient as the sand itself.
The bus stops. It jolts you back to reality. We shuffle from our seats into a line to the gym. Most guys are dressed, carrying their shoes. Steve is always first to shoot. He stays near the rim. Follows through. Snaps his wrist and hears the net. He grins. I’m not far behind him. My first shots release something in me. I am lighter than air. Free. I’m a boy again. The scent of musky popcorn wafts down from the rafters. A shot of adrenaline buzzes through me. The familiar leather rolls into my hands and I understand my job. This arena will be full tonight.
We take ten shots at ten spots. We go over a few of their offensive sets. We shoot again on the other hoop. The coaches set us down screens, flare screens, ball screens. I’m shooting well. I’m not missing. The focus is inside everyone today.
“Let’s wrap it up, fellas.” We meet in the circle clapping. “1-2-3, ANTIBES.”
I walk towards my roommate. “Steve, how many did you make out of 100?”
“Nice. For a chump.”
I will owe him a drink later. We usually shoot for something. We always shoot for something. NBA guys, I hear, shoot three pointers for hundreds of thousands of dollars. European guys play for drinks.
Music in the ears back to the hotel.
Wear the practice jersey under the warmups.
I won’t shower until after lunch.
Back in the conference room. Roasted rotisserie chicken. Steamed vegetables. Something light. More video after lunch. Individual defensive player clips. Bigs (power forwards and centers) leave the room and come back when they get texted. We all go over our own personnel.
Back to the room.
Shower, but not too long. The heat can be too relaxing. Saps the energy. I lie down and Steve is already asleep. I open my computer and start writing.
Traveling to the championship games is what I miss the most. I miss anticipating everything, the anxiety, the pressure, going inside myself as I watch the world go by. You can feel the energy of a playoff game as soon as you walk through the doors. Playing against Pau-Orthez and walking past the pictures of famous NBA French stars. Boris Diaw. Tony Parker. Those French twins. Nicolas Batum.
One of the best feelings in the world is coming into an arena that isn’t your own and stealing a game from the fans. Stealing a piece of their culture. Stealing a piece of their past and their future. I shut my eyes and listen to electric neon and jet engines suction cup to my ears. Nina Simone is playing in the background.
I feel a tap on my shoulder.
“Huff, you ready?”
I slip my headphones out.
“Your back feel better?”
“Dude. You snored all night. I didn’t sleep a wink. How does your wife put up with that shit?”
Steve smirks. We both know that we have to win the championship. This is our last chance. But we can enjoy it either way. Winning. Losing. It all happens with our best intentions. I put my earphones back in and smile. We walk into enemy territory. My world is alive.
This is happening in almost every country, in every pro basketball league, on Earth, every weekend for nine months.
Trevor Huffman is a former professional basketball player and contributor at Grandstand Central. His new podcast, ‘The Post Game’ looks at the game after the game, where he speaks with retired athletes about life beyond sports. Subscribe here.