Monday, September 12, 2011

My Rookie Year in Italy: A Year for the Scrap Book

Yes, I look  tiny here. You all know I am not.
  I don't remember being nervous about going overseas for the first time.

  Yes, there were a lot of unknowns. I had heard a few horror stories of people having bad experiences: not getting paid, being isolated, not receiving good medical treatment when injured, not being treated well if your performance on the court wasn't up to par, and so on.

  Those things were in the back of my mind, but life was moving so fast, I had no time to think.

  I was more excited than anything. The experience of a lifetime was about get underway!

Meeting the Team
  I remember my first night in Italy like it was yesterday. It was Halloween (no, they don't celebrate Halloween in Italy) and it couldn't have been raining any harder that night. I was picked up at the airport by a member of the club's staff. Charli, as I grew to call him, didn't speak much English, so it was a pretty quiet ride from Milano to Como.

Another view of Lake Como.
  Anyone who's traveled to Europe from the West Coast, knows it's a long day. It usually takes about 20 hours to get to your destination (at least that's what I've always experienced traveling from Portland). So I was content to lean my head against the window and drift in and out during the 45-minute drive from the airport.

  Once we arrived in Como, Charli took me to the gym where my new teammates were practicing. There I met the 10 or 11 girls who would be my teammates. The girls that I would grow quite close to over the span of the next two seasons (I played in Como the following year, as well).

  All of them, but one, were Italian (each league has a limit, usually 2-3, on how many foreigners are allowed per team).  The other foreigner was Hungarian. Each girl introduced themselves, but I don't think I remembered any of their names that night. Partly because I was so exhausted I could hardly see straight, but mostly because I was too busy listening to their awesome Italian accents.

My team out for a pre-game walk in Sicily.
The Moment of Truth
  The second thing I remember about that night, is going to my apartment for the first time. Part of your contract includes a furnished apartment to live in for the season.

  I like to think of seeing your apartment for the first time as the moment of truth. Every year I get very anxious when we're about to go to my new home for the first time. This was where I was going to be living for the next seven months.

  What was my apartment going to be like?

  We drove to the center of Como, the shopping area with the old, cobble-stone streets, where you're not allowed to drive cars. Charli parked the car, and we took my bags to a huge metal door nestled in between little shops and cafes. The buildings had a ton of character, all had graffiti scribbled on them, and were definitely older than anything I had been around out West.

  I can't lie, I was a little worried. I was convinced my apartment was going to be an ancient building, that didn't have heat, had paper thin walls, and the whole year was going to be a miserable experience. So I held my breath as he opened the door.

Via Indipendenza (my street!) at Xmas time.
  Those negative thoughts immediately left me when I saw the long beautiful hallway, newly renovated with Italian ceramic tile. We dragged my two bags up to the fourth floor (no elevator).

  I was finally home!

  My apartment was small but had everything I needed. It was newly remodeled, and was going to be perfect for me for my first season in Europe.

A Quick Adjustment to Italy
  After getting settled, it was time to adjust on the fly. As I mentioned before, the season in Italy had already started so I had some ground to make up. My teammates had been practicing together since late August, so they were almost in mid-season form.

  I really had no idea what to expect as far as the basketball was concerned. How good my team would be, how good the players would be, how hard practice would be, what the expectations were on me -- I was completely clueless.

  I did know my team had been a traditional Italian powerhouse, and was accustomed to winning. So it seemed like we should be pretty good.

  Practice was all in Italian. The only time our coach, Gianni, would speak English was when he specifically wanted me to know something. I quickly learned to pay close attention to my teammates in drills. So when it was my turn, I could at least pretend I knew what was going on.

Our glorious locker room. And how do you like that pink?!?
  It didn't take me long to realize that Italian was extremely similar to Spanish (which I took four years of in high school). So if I listened hard enough I could pick out a word here and there.

  In the locker room and at team meals, all I heard was Italian.

  At first I was overwhelmed, and would zone out. But then I figured I should start listening because that would be the only way I was going to learn!

  My teammates would translate for me quite often, so it wasn't constant confusion for me all the time. But I didn't like relying on them to tell me what was going on.

  It took me until December or January until I was finally able to pick out words on a regular basis, and actually understand a little of the conversation going on around me. Once my teammates and coaches realized I was understanding, I think they were just as excited as I was. They would talk to me in Italian, and I would answer back in English. I would only try to speak when I absolutely had to!

  There's one story from my first week in Como that always makes me laugh. It was the first time I ventured into the city alone to find something to eat for lunch. After walking a few blocks, I decided to stop in at this particular cafe just outside the Duomo (the cathedral).
Sunset in La Spezia.

  I stepped in the door, and took a look around. I was quickly trying to figure out the standard operating procedure. I was barely three feet inside the door, and the man behind the bar says to me (in English): 'How can I help you?'

  I smiled, and thought to myself, I must have a giant sign on my forehead that says 'I'm not from around here', or 'I don't speak Italian'.

  I guess I stood out like a sore thumb. But since I knew it was a safe haven, I would stop there on occasion for a sandwich or an ice cream, and chat with the barman,

Everyday Life
  In today's world, we are in constant communication with our friends and family no matter where we are in the world. With fast internet, cell phones and WiFi it is very easy to stay in contact with people back home. I can even watch live American TV and sporting events on my computer now. So even with an eight-or nine-hour time change, staying in contact is pretty easy these days.

  My first two years in Italy however, it was a different story (2003-2005). There was no fast internet. I had dial-up through the phone line (c'mon, you remember those days).

1 of our many team dinners!
  There was no Skype. There was no WiFi. So I relied on e-mail, AIM and the good ole telephone. That made for an interesting two years. My mom usually called me everyday before she went to work (which was typically right before I had to leave for my evening practice).

  So that was a nice routine to have, catching up on the day's events back home before I went to work.

  But I think not having the best internet accommodation made me go into town, and interact with my teammates and the people I met in Como more that I would have otherwise.

  It's very easy, when you're overseas, to get into the routine of staying home and chatting with people back home on the internet, so it was probably better for me, as a person, not to have that access.

  The TV in my apartment had 11 channels. And they were all in Italian. I remember watching movies or TV shows that I had already seen, and trying to pick out any Italian word or phrase I could. It was best when there were sub-titles too because then I could actually see the words, and learn how they were spelled (I must be a visual learner).

  I remember driving my car home from practice for first time.

  Anyone who's been to Italy knows that getting into a car there means taking a chance with your life. Between wannabe race car drivers, horns honking, lights flashing, Vespas popping in and out of lanes, Italy is a pretty wild place to drive a car. Couple that with driving a stick for the first time and trying to navigate my way home, and I was a nervous wreck.

  Every time I had to stop, I thought to myself 'don't stall, don't stall'. I didn't want to feel the wrath of the crazy person behind me. Thankfully I survived my first drive home, and every drive home after that. Though I'm sure, that's no small miracle.

Kim & I above Como.
Sundays in Milano
  After the New Year, another American arrived to practice with us for the rest of the season. Kim was from the Bronx, and had previously spent some time in Italy and more specifically, Milano. This opened up a whole new world for me.

  Before, I hadn't really ventured outside of Como too much, and certainly hadn't done anything 'social' since I had arrived in October. But Kim knew the hot spots to hit in Milano and had a group of friends that she was willing to share with me. We ended up having some fun/crazy/memorable post-game Sunday nights together at Club Hollywood.

On the Court 
  So how did the basketball turn out? That was, after all, the reason I was in Como right? My team endured a lot of bumps and bruises that season.

  We lost the first game I played in. After the game, our coach was irate, so the locker room wasn't a pretty place to be. There was a lot of yelling, and more memorably, chair kicking. I knew this team meant business.

Celebrating a playoff road win.
  There were times of screaming matches in practice, late payments, near fights in practice, and other not-so-glamorous things to talk about.

  Personally, I struggled to find my role on the court, so there were definite ups and downs as I adjusted to being a professional.

  But above all that, my teammates were the best. We had a such a tight knit group of girls, that we had an amazing time together. We all did our part, and we played hard.

  Somehow, we put it all together at the right time (playoff time), and played our best basketball when it counted most.

Italian Champions 
  Our team ended up winning the Italian championship that season. At the time I didn't realize the importance of winning the scudetto. But now after completing seven more seasons abroad, I see how hard it is to win a championship no matter where you are playing.

  And I saw how my teammates celebrated. They were so happy! It was so satisfying after the up and down year we had just had.

  One of the fans gave me an Italian flag immediately following the game. I still have that flag, along with many other mementos from that special season.

   My rookie year in Italy laid the ground work for the rest of my basketball career. Had I not had such an amazing experience with la Comense, maybe I would have stopped playing after one season.

Time to celebrate! Our scudetto dinner.

  Statistically speaking, I didn't have a great season. Probably my worst as a professional. But I was just a rookie.

  There were lots of things about being a pro I had yet to learn. The mindset it takes to be a pro, the expectations, how to take care of yourself, the work ethic.

  But for me, my first season in Como will always have a special place in my heart. Even though it was the most-difficult season for me mentally, it was a fun year and I learned a lot.

  Because of that, my rookie season has always been my favorite.

A domani

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