Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bleachers' Brew #160 Coast to Coast

Coast to Coast

The Lives & Times of American Globetrotters

by rick olivares

Everybody has questions for the big man.

“How’s the weather up there?”

“Why aren’t you in the NBA?”

“It really isn’t funny anymore,”
says all seven feet and four inches of Priest Lauderdale, the former Atlanta Hawk and Denver Nugget, about the questions constantly asked of him.

On his way up to his room at the Sunlake Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, Lauderdale finds himself inside the elevator with a couple from England. The elderly woman is less than half his size and she’s got this wide grin on her face. “Oh, my.” she exclaims looking at the giant before her. “Oh, my.”

Yet Lauderdale understands. His is the literal Big Man not on campus but in the city. After all, seven-footers aren’t grown on trees. His height has helped him get by after ditching life in the Association. “It’s all politics, man.” he notes about the NBA. “And money.” So the questions, as cumbersome as they are since they are repeated ad infinitum in almost every country he sets foot in, well, they are fine. “Comes with the territory,” he mumbles with a gentleness that belies his massive stature.

The world basketball scene is littered with American players who either never received a call up to the NBA or were waived after seeing too much pine time. In Jakarta for the 20th FIBA Asia Champions Cup, there were at least 20 in uniform for 10 different teams.

In the room next to Lauderdale’s is fellow American Maurice Hargrow who is suiting up for Al Arabi Qatar. The door to Hargrow’s room is wide open. “Hey, big man,” yells the player with the cornrows who is grooving to the music video of Leona Naess’ “Charm Attack” on television.

Lauderdale smiles and makes a few motions to synch with the infectious melody that elicits laughter from everyone in the room (Hargrow’s Qatari teammates were inside). “Later, boys. Gotta rest.”

Local food doesn’t sit well with Lauderdale. He tried some and it wasn’t so agreeable with his stomach and he has to repair to his room. He always makes it a point to know the nearest Western food eateries and to make a run to the grocery to buy ingredients. He’s become adept at cooking through self-discovery and watching endless cooking shows on the tube.

Ingredients for soul food are one of the items on his checklist when he unpacks his bags in a new city. A wifi connection is another; it’s a vital link to the life he left behind in Chicago, Illinois where he still keeps tabs on “his Bulls.” Once connected, Skype is his lifeline.

Unlike others who keep tabs with family, Priest is not married. “I am not going to subject my family to a life of moving around. Uh-uh. That’s not the way to raise a family. When I’m done… when I’m done playing basketball then it will be time to raise a family.”

He burns the phone lines back home. He’s learned to save his money and invest wisely. He has a small publishing company back home; one of the few businesses he’s set up for when he hangs up his massive sneakers.

Prior to playing in the NBA, the Chicago native actually got his first taste of professional hoops in Greece with Peristeri Nikas. After he concluded his brief NBA career with the Denver Nuggets in 1998 and the CBA (Grand Rapid Hoops and the Fort Wayne Fury) he has made a life for himself playing for Cypriot team Apollon Limassol, Lukoil Academic in Bulgaria, Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia, the Shandong Lions of the People’s Republic of China and as of late, Mahram Iran.

He pokes fun at himself by claiming he is “jet-set.” He laughs but it’s not the throaty guffaw you’d expect from someone his size. He’s polite and respectful in his tones.

During Mahram’s game with Smart Gilas Philippines, Lauderdale’s teammate and fellow American Jackson Vroman got into some trash talking with CJ Giles who was on the Southeast Asian team five. It got a little tired after awhile that Lauderdale raised his voice and told both to chill. The banter stopped.

But in truth, Lauderdale is a picture of content; a ship that sails pacific waters to distant lands he once read about in geography class.

When he travels the globe, it isn’t simply about eking out a living; he wants to win too. “What’s your worth if you don’t win?” he dispels any notion of going through the motions.

Joshua Jones was watching the Philippines play Indonesia and was mesmerized. He had good words for the Filipino team as did Hargrow, his teammate.

Jones is a Houston native who played for Dillard University, a liberal arts school in New Orleans. Prompted by his family to take his education seriously, he took up political science yet found himself drawn to computers and working as a counselor. “Strange mix, ain’t it?” he digs.

Indeed. And his athletic career actually began in baseball where he patrolled the outfield for the minor league teams of the Florida Marlins, Seattle Mariners, and California Angels before he decided that he was better off playing hoops. “And I’m a New York Yankees fan!” he points out.

“Houston is big and that doesn’t mean that everyone from the area is an Astros fan,”
he explains with devilish glee. “There are Rangers fans too so now everyone roots for the home team.”

But the world is not the United States for him. The 6’6” Jones’ initial foray into world hoops was crossing the Texan border to Mexico. “Adjusting wasn’t that difficult since Spanish is spoken extensively in the US, but the game was very rugged, very aggressive. Far from what I was used to.”

From there he got his passport stamped at China, Egypt, Qatar, and Indonesia. “You have to adapt real quick because no one waits for you. From the language to the style to basketball right down to the culture and the food. Yeah, the food.”

Jones was shocked to be served a whole chicken one time complete with its head still in place. “I was speechless. Made it difficult to look at KFC after that.” he relates. “The local players would take me out to restaurants and it took a while for the food to settle down in my stomach.”

“Speaking of eating out and food, you always have to understand the local currency and prices,”
he admonishes. “People will always try to stiff you with prices. But I’m not going to fall for that since I always ask around.”

Conversely, Jones understands that being an American on a foreign team can be a dual-edged sword. “You’re either a savior or a fall guy. Everywhere I’ve played I’ve done well (Jones helped lead Al Arabi to the Qatar Basketball League title) whether it’s being the leading scorer or doing all the intangibles. But the tough thing is having to replace a fellow American because he couldn’t get the job done. It makes me feel sorry and sad.”

Like Lauderdale, Jones calls the internet a lifesaver. “I’m going to have to start blogging soon. After all, it isn’t the usual kind of lifestyle one goes through.”

Joel Box is also from Illinois (Rockford) like Lauderdale and he went out of state first to play college ball with the New Mexico Lobos then with the Quincy College Hawks. “Isn’t it ironic that my college career reflects my pro basketball career – moving around?”

“The nature of playing overseas is to be ready to pack your bag at a moment’s notice. And jet lag or no jet lag you have to be ready to play. That’s the one truth about playing overseas… you have to play,” explains Box, who spent his first pro career in Turkey before going to Lebanon then to Kuwait where he led Qadsia to the Gulf Championship where he was named the Most Valuable Player.

After a quick vacation in Chicago, he rejoined the Kuwaiti team in the 20th FIBA Champions Cup. From America, he flew to Thailand for a stopover before he took the short hop to Indonesia. “Man, that’s 22 hours in a plane. Makes me a little crazy if you know what I mean,” says the 6’9” forward with a mean three-point shot.

Box, like Lauderdale and Jones has heard countless stories of fellow Americans and their horror stories of not getting paid or being sent home after a game or two. “You might get paid in full but your confidence takes a beating. The money cannot cover for that.”

For all the concerns about adapting to different cultures, their ultimate concern is something that can only happen on the hardcourt. “You try to stay healthy,” notes Lauderdale. “Injuries can mess up your career and livelihood.”

“That’s an athlete’s greatest fear, man,”
concurs Box. “But there’s nothing you can do about that. You just keep playing until you can play no more.”

Notes: All the teams were billeted in one hotel in Jakarta and I took the opportunity to befriend many of the players; not just the Americans. Priest Lauderdale was on the same floor as I (he was in Room 608 while I was at 640). We'd chat before and after games and sometimes in the lobby of our floor. Josh Jones was a big fan of the Philippine team and he tried to watch as much as he could. Joel Box was cool. Played hard but not dirty. And a swell guy off the court.

Muchos gracias to Priest, Josh & Joel! It was cool knowing ya'll.

This concludes my stuff on the 20th FIBA Asia Champions Cup. Oh, by the way, all three players were huge fans of the Chicago Bulls when Mike Jordan & Pip were there.

Check out Chris Charles entry on my Bleachers' Brew column:

or here in Brew:

CJ Giles:

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