KEEPING LOW: Paul Kendall Davis (left) and Dane Johnson, making Lithuania home away from home, say there is big pressure to perform as an expat player.
KLAIPEDA - When Lithuanians were crooning Christmas carols and enjoying the New Year frolicking, most of the 27 Lithuanian Basketball League (LBL) legionnaires (expat players), including the Americans, were huddled together in pairs or, like Paul Kendall Davis and Dane Johnson, players on Naglis, the LBL team from Palanga, spent the holidays alone crouching over the screens of their laptops.
“When I am off the court, I spend hours at my apartment the club rents for me, chatting on Skype with my family and my friends back home in South Carolina, the U.S.,” says Davis. He has spent just one month in a country that he had never heard of before arriving.
In South Carolina, the weather is balmy and sunny most of the time, even in winter. In Palanga, the biggest Lithuanian resort, which has become his first destination in his career as a professional basketball player, the weather, he says, is horrible, though Palanga residents are enjoying a snowless, relatively warm winter this season.
In the off-season, even in a warm winter like this, Palanga seemingly puts one into a drowsy, never-ending lethargy. “It is very cold in Lithuania. Besides, it rains a lot. Pretty nasty weather so far,” the 23-year-old says quietly, slouching on the chair in front of me. Although the heating is on in the editorial office, and I feel like taking my summer jacket off, he stays in his thick sporty winter coat.
In Palanga, even in a warm winter like this, you can walk five blocks without seeing a single living soul. Not even a stray dog.
If not for Davis’ lanky posture, his 6’6 height, so extraordinary for Palanga, and the athletic gait, I notice, in giant-size sportswear, the hood he wears outdoors would be enough to keep gawkers’ stares away from the Afro-American. And, sure, the drizzly weather is a big help in keeping a low profile. Even for Davis.
Most of the 27 LBL players from Russia, Ukraine and the Balkans went home for the brief Christmas holidays, but the LBL Americans stayed in Lithuania.
There is a decline in the number of players, from 39 last year to 27 this year, but American hoopsters are a sought-after commodity. Not only for their sharp shooting, aggressive rebounding, tenacity and stamina, but also for such practical reasons like taxes.
Lithuanians, still crisis-hit, are particularly weary of them. “Contrary to belief, American players for LBL teams, tax-wise, are the cheapest. You pay twice-higher taxes for a local guy, and even more, compared to Americans, for players from the former Soviet bloc. Besides, Americans are usually of low maintenance. Sure, most of the guys see the Lithuanian basketball league as an opportunity to go higher,” says Gediminas Petrauskas, the former Palanga Naglis coach.
When firecrackers at midnight started bursting, sending Palanga New Year revelers onto the streets, or huddling in
Soviet-type apartment block balconies, Davis says he felt a pang in his chest then. He raised his glass of champagne with his extensive family members and friends at the other end of Skype when it was early morning in Lithuania.
“Certainly, the life of a professional athlete, especially being far from home, is tough. In that sense, I feel better than Paul, as I have got accustomed to the style of European basketball and this life,” Johnson says.
Born in Kingston, the capital of Jamaica, he moved to the U.S. in his teenage years and went to Hofstra University in New York City.
At 25, Johnson is playing his third professional season in Europe – he stayed in Portugal during the 2008-2009 season, jostled on Turkish basketball courts a year later, and was recruited by Palanga Naglis for the 2011-2012 season.
“My first year as a pro was tough. But the years spent far away from home have toughened me. Maybe the NBA was not meant for me. The guys play good basketball in Europe, too,” the ex-New Yorker says. “I feel rather comfortable in Lithuania,” he says, not casting a glance to Davis, who sits next to him.
Johnson has proven himself to be a valuable Naglis player, topping the league’s best rebounder list, and is one of the sharpest Naglis shooters. “Dane has exceeded our expectations. He is a real fighter on the court. No doubt, he is a very successful purchase for our team,” Regimantas Juska, Naglis team director, told The Baltic Times. “Paul, however, needs more time to adapt to the team and the life,” he adds.
For Naglis, this season is the fifth with Afro-American players on the roster. Not all of them lasted long in Palanga. “We fired four guys last year. They were not up to our expectations. Had the club a lot more money, I would screen guys we are interested in myself before getting them on the team. Unfortunately, we are not able to do that due to a small team budget. Therefore, I have to rely on basketball agents who, often, frankly, are not trustworthy or, speaking bluntly, very shady. Along the way, I have dumped many phony agents, sticking to a few that offer really good players,” Juska says.
“It is like buying the cat in the sack, like a lottery. As a coach, I always have the dilemma of whether to buy cheaper foreign players without having assurances on their performance, or pay double and stick to local players I can screen,” Gediminas Petrauskas says.
There are more reasons than talent and physical characteristics to look for in Afro-American players. “Black guys spice up often lackadaisical national basketball leagues, particularly those at the lower levels. Many people in the provinces come to local arenas not as much for the game, as for getting a glimpse at the black guys,” a basketball coach who did not want to have his name mentioned said to The Baltic Times.
Every LBL team can have six legionnaire players on its roster. Most teams never fully use the quota, though small town teams, like Pieno Zvaigzdes, Kedainiai Trobet or Naglis, cannot afford hiring more expensive Lithuanian players.
Being a legionnaire player, Davis says, and Johnson agrees, puts big pressure on an athlete. “When you are not up to the level the coach, whom you barely know, wants, you get cut from the team. It hurts. I do not want to go home like this,” Davis says quietly.
He says he takes his job very seriously, and still supports his family back in South Carolina. Raised by a single mother along with other two brothers and a sister, he says he owes his life to his mother. “It was tough for her to raise us alone,” he says. “I was a bad boy when I was young: used to miss so many classes that they put me in a special school, sort of a correctional facility for teenagers,” Davis admits.
At the correctional school he says he dealt with kids who were brought in for stabbing someone, or belonging to gangs. “My mother kept visiting me there. It was then that I told myself I do not want such a life. And I have really changed,” the player’s eyes enliven and scintillate.
When he started going to high school in South Carolina, he met a “great” basketball coach who cared for the problematic fidgeter. After Davis grew by 4 inches in one summer, the coach put him on the high school basketball team. Later he went to South Carolina Winston-Salem University where, he says, he was among the best players on the varsity team. “Honestly, basketball has changed my life,” the athlete says. His contract with Naglis goes until April, and then he will return to South Carolina to defend his college thesis on physical training and recreation. He notes that he studies hard in long monotonous evenings while in Palanga.
Davis grins: “The distance is not a problem. Remote studies are popular among pro athletes.” He adds: “I am still working on my final work. I want to show how things are different in the U.S. and Europe.”
When asked whether he will employ Lithuanian examples in the field, he says: “Sure. However, from what I see, things are very different here and over there.”
For many aspiring athletes, a good U.S. college serves as a springboard to professional sports, but for Johnson and Davis, fate has taken another path. “Sure, I dreamt of playing in the NBA, like most college guys. However, only the best get to the NBA. I want to always improve as a ball player, and it is not very important to me where to play ball. Most teams play a very good game in Europe,” Johnson says.
Davis admits a lot of hoop-savvy folks predicted he would be drafted into the NBA. “Well, it seems I will have to go for it in another way, through Naglis,” he says.
His current team struggles on the LBL bottom, and he may be yet underperforming, but he sounds for the instant upbeat, not allowing anyone’s doubts to gnaw into his dream. Allowed to play roughly 15 minutes in his first game against mediocre Pieno Zvaigzdes, he scored 4 points and, given twice that time against Neptunas, the Klaipeda team, he netted 6 points.
If he does not start scoring and rebounding in double digits soon, he should be wary of the fate of other Americans who were cut from Naglis. “Basketball is very physical in Lithuania,” Davis notices. “The pressure is big. I do not want to disappoint anyone on the team. I cannot allow myself to underachieve,” he says, his words sounding like a dire warning. First to himself.
In tough a life as his, one would seek solace, in a girlfriend’s hug or on a best friend’s shoulder, but Davis in Palanga does not have many whom he would be able to speak to and be understood.
Though both Naglis Americans share the same life of a basketball legionnaire, and even the same taste for rap music, there is the impression that there is a lot more that differentiates them than unites. Maybe not just the different professional experiences, slightly different backgrounds and tastes they have. Stiff competition and the sense of survivability seem to often threaten to trample the buds of these two compatriots’ amity.
To spice up their lives in Lithuania, they could go out and meet locals, or maybe even hook up with local girls who cast curious glances over them – their contract does not forbid this kind of mingling – but they say they do not want that.
Davis says he craves American food, but he has not yet swung by the Klaipeda McDonald’s. “I will do that soon, certainly,” he grins and adds: “I am not afraid to gain extra weight. Putting on some fat would endanger my physical condition, and I am very aware of fat,” the American says.
He has noticed that Lithuanians eat a lot of potato dishes. Because of the local nutritional peculiarities, he says, he has started eating more potatoes. “It is a good food, giving a lot of energy but, frankly, I was not a big potato eater back in the U.S.. I would use rice most back home,” Davis admits.
For him, Lithuania is a daily discovery, not only in the kitchen and the grocery store, but also, most importantly, on the court, where a slightly different basketball - European - is played, few teammates speak good English and the coach, who lacks the language proficiency, often employs the universal language of gestures and mimicry on the sidelines.
In that sense, Johnson could be considered an expert of Lithuania - he had played against Lithuanians on the NYC varsity team. “They spoke of the big Lithuanian basketball traditions that seemingly so many people are proud of here. Lithuania was fourth in the last World Championship, and that is big,” acknowledges the Naglis forward.
Davis listens with interest to his teammate. “I heard that basketball here is being compared to the second religion. Honestly, I do not get it. Get me right, but I do not feel Lithuanians are that much crazy about hoops. Wherever I played, there were quite a few fans,” the Naglis rookie says.
“It depends on what teams you play against. When Kaunas Zalgiris or Vilnius Lietuvos Rytas plays, the fan frenzy is always a part of the game,” Johnson says matter-of-factly.
When asked if they get a lot of attitude because of their ethnicity in Palanga, they were seemingly unsurprised at the question. Davis plunged his head, twitching the corners of his lips. He raised his head and said: “No, man. All is good. I am not sure anyone notices me walking down the street with the thick hood on, particularly in this non-stop, rainy, cold weather.”
Johnson listens to him nodding. “People are nice here. My teammate’s grandfather was happy to meet me here. He said he had never met a black guy in his entire life, though he always wanted to,” he says, cracking a smile. “I have fulfilled his dream,” he add, snickering.