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Sleepless Nights and Homesick Hearts in the NBA

Behind the multimillion-dollar contracts and game-time glory, four basketball pros open up about the private pitfalls of living out every kid’s playground fantasy.


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Illustrations by Vinnie Neuberg.

Scan the fondest memories of every basketball player in the National Basketball Association and you’ll see variations of the exact same scene: a bright-eyed youngster on a day with not a cloud in the sky, dressed in the latest athletic gear and dribbling a regulation basketball dramatically as the five seconds left on the imaginary shot clock in his head tick away.

Five. He is in perpetual motion, mimicking the moves of his idol, stopping on a dime in the best sneakers his family could afford, making the rubber on his soles squeak before rising from the asphalt, hardwood or driveway pavement.

Four. He rises, almost in slow motion, powered by as much throttle as he can muster from his tiny calves and quads.

Three. He cradles the ball into his shooting hand and then launches a jump shot over the outstretched arms of his imaginary defender. The ball spirals from his fingertips in an imperfect arc.

Two. It holds there, an orb of resolute destiny, like a plume of cigarette smoke, before gravity seduces it downward into the cylinder.

One. The ball tickles the net just so, as if a light breeze had awakened it from a deep slumber.

Zero. Swish! It’s good!

The rush of that game-winning shot and the imagined roar of the crowd going wild has fueled the drive and dedication of every kid who’s ever dared to realize his dream of making it to the NBA. The thing about dreams, though, especially if they come true, is that they’re incomplete. Kids think only of the bright side; it never occurs to them that there’s even a remote chance of discontent in the professional athlete experience. But, just as sure as there are pros to being in the pros, there are some downsides to life in the league. Four players—José Juan Barea, Dante Exum, Brandon Jennings and Shaun Livingston—talk about what they miss most about the simple life and why sometimes it’s a total drag to be a professional athlete in a league where everybody knows your name. These are their stories.

European Vacation: Brandon Jennings

The pizza in Italy is very different from the pizza found in the United States. That’s one of the first things that Brandon Jennings noticed when he landed in Rome to play professional basketball for the Italian club Lottomatica Virtus Roma back in 2008. There he was, an eager and wiry nineteen-year old a long way from the comfortable confines of Compton, California, intent on proving that his decision to forgo the University of Arizona in favor of turning pro was the right one. Even now, as he’s reestablished himself as a premier point guard in the NBA, helping the woeful Detroit Pistons return to the glory days of Dennis Rodman and Isiah Thomas’ Bad Boys, Jennings, twenty-five, thinks fondly of the wood oven-baked pies that pizzerias made with fresh tomato, basil, mozzarella and pride.

“I really miss the food,” Jennings says, as he’s getting ready for practice. “The authentic Italian food was awesome. I was eager to prove myself and get to the NBA but when I think about it and look back, I really miss that Italian cuisine.”

It was a turbulent time for Jennings. His story was used as a pawn in the media chess game for and against the NBA’s “prep-to-pro” policy, which prevented him from declaring for the draft right after graduating from basketball powerhouse Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, where he’d averaged 32.7 points, 7.4 assists and 5.1 rebounds a game. According to the league’s policy, which was implemented with the 2006 draft, Jennings had to be at least nineteen years old and a year removed from high school graduation to enter the draft. So, instead of a year in college, he opted for a year playing professionally abroad.

“The only thing I missed out on by not going to college was probably the parties,” he says. “I mean, college can’t teach you about real life. I think that’s what I learned when I didn’t go to college. Once you get out of school, that’s when you got bills and life becomes real. The best part of skipping college was the fact of being a professional athlete. I was a professional. I was finally a pro. So that’s where my career started but also being able to take care of my family, I had a shoe deal over in Rome, so the opportunity was something that I couldn’t pass up.”

Had the teenage phenom become a star in the Italian League during his rookie campaign, he’d have been a trailblazer, a shining example for others to follow. But things fell apart. In twenty-seven games, Jennings failed to live up to expectations, averaging a paltry 5.5 points, 1.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. All of the experts across the pond questioned whether he was skilled enough to warrant the Milwaukee Bucks’ use of their first round (tenth overall) draft pick in 2009.

With so much to regret about the way he played that year, it’s surprising to learn that the only thing he laments is not fully digesting European culture.

“I felt like I was at peace when I was overseas,” says Jennings, who has seen his star rise significantly since leaving Italy. “I didn’t have to worry about family members or anybody asking me for anything. I was just living my life. The thing I most regret is not taking advantage of really experiencing and taking in the places that I visited while I was there. Greece, Turkey, Slovenia, all these different places. I wish I would have took it in more and really took advantage of it.”

The Man From Down Under: Dante Exum

It’s early afternoon in Downtown Houston, just before rush hour. The sun is piercing through the wispy, translucent clouds, offering a brief respite from the winter chill. A sea of crimson and white jerseys are lined up outside the Toyota Center to see the home team Rockets play the Utah Jazz. Inside the arena, the din of bouncing basketballs floats from the court into the tunnel, where nineteen-year-old rookie Dante Exum emerges to hoist up a few shots before the game.

Lanky yet graceful, the Australian-born point guard sinks jump shot after jump shot, each more silky-smooth than the last. It’s the halfway mark in the season and Exum, the player who no one saw coming just a year ago, looks as if he’s adjusted well in his new environs. His play is developing nicely and, with each game, the coaches show more confidence in Exum’s ability to make the right basketball decisions.

Back in the locker room, Exum is quick to set the record straight. He’s had some difficulty adapting to his new life, especially since his twin sister, Tierra, and the rest of the family have gone back to Melbourne.

“The thing I miss most is being with my family,” Exum says. “They were here for a couple months to start the season, but they’ve gone back now. I still talk to them whenever I can, but it’s just an adjustment not having my family and friends here.”

Exum’s American-born father, Cecil, played alongside Michael Jordan at the University of North Carolina and got his opportunity to play in the NBA with the Denver Nuggets in 1984. A knee injury derailed his career in the league and he found himself signing with a team in Australia — his choice because it was an English-speaking country. Dante no doubt mined his father’s firsthand experiences as a professional athlete, but there was still an important facet of NBA life that no one warned him about before he migrated to Salt Lake City.

“At the start of the season, I was asking a lot of questions about what it’s going to be like to live life on the road and everything, so I thought I was pretty prepared coming into the season,” he says. “But I learned quickly about one of the things you need to be doing that I wasn’t doing: getting enough sleep. I was staying up a bit later than usual, especially on the road. I was not getting my sleep after shootarounds and that’s played a big part in what I’ve changed in my routine. Now, I try to sleep whenever I can. Instead of going out on the road, I go back to the hotel and get my rest in. It’s a small change, but that’s helped me progress and get to where I am as a player.”

Exum’s progression didn’t go unnoticed by Utah’s coaching staff. They made him the starting point guard over incumbent Trey Burke. Exum, who ranked second among all rookies in PER (player efficiency rating) in the 2015 season, was excited to be leading and pacing the team, but with less than a full year logged in the pros, there’s still a lot more growing pains left. Case in point: when he had to leave the court to puke after being hit in the throat by Draymond Green on a screen during a game against the Golden State Warriors.

“I was about to throw up on the court,” he says. “I said, ‘Coach, Coach, I’m about to throw up. I’ve got to go.’ And I just walked off.”

Un Pez Grande: J.J. Barea

It’s an hour before tip-off at American Airlines Arena in Dallas, where the cold winter wind is whipping through the night as if blown from a jet engine. José Juan (J.J.) Barea’s Dallas Mavericks are prepping to take on the Detroit Pistons and Barea is getting dressed in front of his locker while watching LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers play another game on television. Barea loves basketball. He loves it so much that even when he’s not playing, he’s watching others play it. And when he can’t watch it, he thinks and dreams about it. His face creases from thought on every possession, every pass, and every shot. He’s taking mental notes. He’s learning his opponents, scouting weaknesses and memorizing points of attack for the next time he faces them on the hardwood.

In a league of extraordinarily tall men, Barea, thirty, stands a mere six feet tall, diminutive but fearless, known for weaving into the forest of human trees to score the ball with impunity. He’s been this way since he was a child in Puerto Rico, where, despite his size, he dominated games.

“I got two older brothers,” he says. “Growing up with them made me tough. And all my leagues in Puerto Rico were tough leagues with very tough players. Opposing players were always trying to get me out of my comfort zone, so that helped me in the long run. It made me a better player. You can’t just push me around and stop me.”

In his native Mayagüez, the country’s eighth-largest municipality, Barea was un pez grande — a big fish in a small pond. In the states, he felt more like a guppy lost in the raging high seas.

“The thing with me, I went to high school in Miami and then I went to college at Northeastern, so everything was a step,” he says. “It was still different for me because when I got here, it took me a while to get accustomed to this league and really do it. It was very different than what I thought it was going to be. I missed home, where I was the best player on any team I played on.”

Missing home made it difficult for Barea, who had to find purchase in the league as an undrafted player. And even when he went home, there wasn’t quite the hero’s welcome he hoped for.

“Baseball is the biggest sport in Puerto Rico,” he says, and at first, even as he made it big in the NBA, basketball was still largely overlooked back home.

Now that he’s established himself as a bona fide contributor off the bench and helped Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki win an NBA championship, he doesn’t have to revisit his Plan B.

“Over the years, basketball has picked up in popularity,” says Barea. “A lot more people are playing it now. Now, I’m getting to be more of a superstar at home. They have a love for the NBA now that they didn’t have. It’s completely different from when I used to go back home.”

The Comeback Kid: Shaun Livingston

February 26, 2007 is forever burned into Shaun Livingston’s mind. With eight minutes and twenty seconds left in the first quarter, his team down 7-4 to the Charlotte Bobcats, the third-year point guard drove to the basket for a runaway layup, but landed in a heap after his left leg snapped on the way down. It was a gruesome injury that resulted in a torn lateral meniscus, medial collateral ligament, anterior cruciate ligament and posterior cruciate ligament.

The YouTube video of his gruesome injury went viral before viral was a thing. As Livingston’s career hung in the balance, it played on ESPN on a loop and everyone watched it like it was a ten-car pileup on the interstate. Everyone that is, except for Livingston. It’s been seven years since the freak accident almost ended his career and he still hasn’t been able to watch the replay of it.

“I won’t watch it,” he says. “I can’t watch replays of any injuries. I think not watching it helped me focus on getting back on the court.”

“When I was in the hospital, thinking I’d be back in six to eight months, I remember the nurse telling me that I might need to have my leg amputated like it was nothing,” he says. “My career was flashing before my eyes and people were laughing while watching the replay on ESPN.”

Despite the fact that a return to the NBA seemed impossible, Livingston got to work just two weeks after surgery.

“It was all about having the right attitude mentally,” he says. “That’s the hardest part. I feel like believing in yourself in spite of all the outside distractions that’s coming in around you is key because it’s a lot of times when you doubt yourself. You have that cloud over you. So believing in yourself even when everybody else stopped believing in you is very important.”

Motivated from a distance by football player Willis McGahee’s equally daunting, yet successful comeback from a major ACL and MCL injury, Livingston made it back to the league in less than two years with intense rehabilitation, cementing his return with a breakout season with the Brooklyn Nets in 2013.

“Willis McGahee was my muse,” he says. “He was the only guy I know who suffered an injury like mine. I didn’t know him and I’ve still never met him to this day. But his approach to take control of the mental aspect of rehab really helped me. I really started to feel like I was back in 2010, when I caught on with the Washington Wizards. That’s when I started playing back-to-back games and my minutes were increasing and I was able to do things that I hadn’t been able to do in my last two stops.”

As of early 2015, the twenty-nine-year old veteran is now in the first year of a three-year, $16 million contract with a serious contender. His signature afro and flashy style of play long gone, Livingston is now an elder statesman, a wiser and more efficient playmaker leading younger teammates by inspirational example. But even in the darkest days of his injury, he knew he’d never leave basketball behind.

“I’m still playing, but if it didn’t work out, I would’ve still been around basketball,” he says. “I’d have been around the game someway, shape or form. Whether it be in the studio calling games or behind the scenes doing player development and developing talent, I’d still be around the game.”

Maurice Bobb is freelance wordsmith living in Houston, Texas. He believes wholeheartedly that the pen is mightier than the sword, except for the samurai variety — those things are incredibly deadly. His work appears regularly on MTVNews.com and intermittently on RollingStone.com and SLAM Magazine.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published February 11, 2015. This article is republished here with permission.

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