“F”uck that dude. Fuck Heshimu Evans. Or Heshim-uuuu. Fuck their entire team. They aren’t true Americans, and fuck the Kentucky Wildcats,” I said under my breath, watching Ovarense Basketball Club, a professional team in Portugal, stand in the corner of a Porto nightclub. I slid my bloody fingers through my bloody, wet hair and cussed under my breath. My hands were still shaking uncontrollably. The hole in my ear was searing hot. My lip was puffy — sliced open like a julienned tomato, and my nose felt broken. I kept pulling bits of glass out of my cheekbone, and the blood in my hair still wasn’t drying.
“I can’t believe they didn’t help. Fuck those dudes,” I said again, eyeing them. “They just stood there. Didn’t even try. Kentucky Wildcats are soft-batch fuckin’ cookies.”
Damon, my 21-year old younger brother whom we called D2, had his hand on my neck and there were tears in his eyes. The high of the night was gone, the buzz killed. His trip to Portugal to see me play in a championship game of professional basketball against the best Portuguese player to ever play, a Kentucky Wildcat, was over.
Many Americans have no idea what pro hoops in Europe is like, or what it is about, or how much you get paid or what the differences between the NCAA, the NBA and European pro leagues are. As a college player at Kent State, our team went to Europe during my sophomore summer, and after that I was convinced I was going to become a million dollar star.
“Americans are just better,” I told myself in college.
Then I got to Europe as a rookie, lost six games in a row, got fired three times, and realized most of my international teams would blow any NCAA National Champion out by 20 points — even on a bad night.
But what I didn’t realize is traveling through Europe is different than living in Europe. Traveling to sight-see never lets the dopamine high settle, and it isn’t until about a month in that you really start to miss home, your best friends, your college girlfriend, your ESPN and your stopping at Taco Bell for that heavenly late night Crunchy Gordita.
I especially missed the little things that added up over time: never getting the chance to see my younger brother play in college, the hilarious Huffman family holidays, or going on the annual ski trip with my college chums every year. See, when you leave college and go live in Europe at 22, you quickly realize you can’t cook frozen chicken on a George Foreman grill for breakfast. You can’t head to Walmart for a box of cereal at 2 a.m. You can’t eat or walk into a restaurant anytime you like. You realize there are certain things you have to understand or accept to enjoy your time living overseas.
Ironically, professional, Portuguese basketball was my last chance — my last stop traveling the world to get paid to do something I had dreamed of doing since I was a teenager. I had written down my dream on a note card in seventh grade. Playing pro ball in Europe was weird, almost destiny-type shit.
Porto is an unknown to many Americans — the steep hills and cobblestone streets, the steel bridges of Ponte de Dom Luís that were made by the student of Gustave Eiffel, and the gothic steeple of Igreja de São Francisco that connects worlds of modern and old that you’ve never seen before.
I left Detroit and arrived in Porto, Portugal with two, 50-pound bags and an Alienware computer. One bag was chock-full of American items I wouldn’t see for 10 months: McCormick’s Steak Seasoning, a few Harry Potter books, a canister of Lawry’s Seasoning Salt, Opti-Free, no-rub contact solution, four pairs of size-12, Nike Air Huaraches, some cargo shorts and a few Patagonia hats. In the other bag were three pairs of running shoes, ten pairs of Nike tights, ten pairs of basketball shorts, ten pairs of Kent State Nike dry-fit, workout shirts, five pairs of jeans, two Polos, a pair of slacks and one pair of dress shoes. I even threw in a tie from high school for good measure.
“YOU NEVER HAD A CAIPIRINHA?” I yelled to my younger brother. It was his first time in Portugal.
“NO, what’s that?” D2 yelled over the thump of Jay-Z.
“It’s the shit man. You need try,” my Portuguese teammate Joao said to my brother, D2. My brother had traveled across the Atlantic to watch me play. He was wide-eyed and beaming. “There are two flavors here: strawberry or lemon. No lime. Wait, what’s the difference in English actually?”
“Lemon is yellow, lime is green,” I said, rocking my head up and down to the music.
“Well,” Joao said, turning away from the bartender with small, thick cocktail glasses wrapped with napkins in his hands. “This is magic drink of Portugal.”
The three of us stood in a rapidly filling, hip-hop EDM (electronic dance music for you old-timers) fusion music bar somewhere in Porto — high on the cliffs, overlooking the Douro river. It was my fifth month living in Portugal and so far, the country had won me over. Our basketball team, União Desportiva Oliveirense, was preparing for a Portuguese Cup Championship in a few months, in which I’d win a bonus of $5,000 dollars — a lot of money to me, especially after being cut from the Phoenix Suns a year earlier, gaining 25 pounds in Poland, playing in the CBA and then almost quitting European hoops altogether.
“I just wasn’t tough enough to make it,” I thought back then.
Actually, I hadn’t lived enough places to know better.
In Europe, professional basketball is played in a similar fashion as professional soccer. You can win the domestic league championship, which is played the entire 10–month season and fought for in playoff format, the domestic Cup championship, which is a home-and-away game with every team in the country fighting for the title.
My Portuguese team was winning a lot of games, and my first chance at a championship awaited me. I took a sip of my tart caipirinha, saw a few Ovarense American players wander past me and winced as the cold, sweet-tart liquid slid down my throat. I handed two ice-cold drinks back to my brother, and turned to order two more.
“D2, you see him?” I pointed toward a six-foot-six, swingman for Ovarense, the highest-paying club in Portuguese basketball. “That’s Heshimu, pronounced He-she-moo, I think. He’s a Wildcat, the MVP of the Portuguese league.”
“Like the Kentucky Wildcats?” D2 asked back, big-eyed.
“Yes. The Kentucky Wildcats.”
“Damn, cool. You know him? Did he play when you played Tayshaun Prince?”
“No. He was older, I think. And not really, most Americans from other teams hate each other. I think we’ll play him for the Cup title next month. People say he’s the best player to ever play in Portugal.”
“Yeah, really. What the hell, you think we’re chopped liver you ass-wipe? Greg and I are gonna be dunking on these fools,” I said, winking.
D2 studied me, his brown eyes analyzing my body language. He was my closest friend, even as a freshman in college, mostly because I had coached, trained and taught him everything I knew about the game of basketball.
“Well, you like it?” Joao asked us, grinning. The special Portuguese cachaca alcohol blended with the lime and simple syrup were going down smooth.
“HELLLLL yeah! It tastes like Sour Patch Kids,” D2 said.
“Oh, my favorite candy. I always eat at the movies,” Joao said.
“Joao, seriously, how are you so good at English?” D2 asked loudly.
“I watch American movies with subtitles. It helps me. USA man, you guys make good shit in Hollywood.”
“D2, in Portugal,” I said, leaning in. “TV is just Friends on rerun and their local news in between.”
My eyes shifted to a group of shorter, dark-skinned men approaching us. I couldn’t tell if they were Portuguese or North African or Spanish. I watched them pass us and turned back to Joao.
“You see, Joao? You aren’t the shortest Portuguese man in the world after all,” I said, laughing.
Joao tilted his head back and chuckled, a dark, tribal tattoo pulsating up the side of his arm. “Trevor, you asshole, you guys have basketball, we have soccer. I choose wrong sport.”
The blade of dark ink poked outside Joao’s designer t-shirt collar near his collarbone. Joao was our team’s backup point guard and was a short, bald, fit, funny kid, about 22-years old. He always wore light, stonewashed denim, these spacesuit-looking jeans with creases in the knees that were too tight on his thighs. G-Star the leather tag read. They were the ugliest jeans on Earth, and all the Portuguese loved them.
We followed Joao to the end of the bar, away from the dancing, where there were dark, long, rectangle windows that opened to a majestic view of the city across the river. It was gorgeous. Orange, blurry dots of light ran through the black night as the rest of Porto slept and I felt the love tingles move through me. The cement houses scattered in rooster-tail colored roofs along the countryside. The reverence of the moment hit me.
I gazed at a group of dark-eyed Portuguese women. They were dancing in a circle with their purses in the middle. It was 3 a.m. They were moving their hips and shoulders to some sort of electronic hip-hop music I’d never heard. There was a dark-haired DJ standing at a table with a mixer, headphones, an electronic spinner and an Apple computer. As I turned around to talk to D2, he wasn’t there. And that’s when I knew something was wrong. I saw him standing in between the same group of guys that had eyed us moments earlier.
“WHAT THE FUCK?” I yelled at the man in front of me.
When the cocktail glass ricocheted off the side of my face, it didn’t make sense to me why. It didn’t register who had hurt me, or why the glass had been thrown at the side of my skull without explanation. But it was too late. I reacted as any older protective brother would.
And the frenzy happened instantly.
I rushed the short black-haired, dark-skinned looking man in front of D2, slamming his face between my armpit with a headlock. I fed him a few punches before I felt another sharp blow to the side of my face. But where were the other Americans? Where were the American Ovarense players? My teammates?
The adrenaline and fury took over. Time bled in frozen moments of fleeting pain and reactions that I had never felt before. I swung another fist into the stranger’s face locked between my bicep and chest.
“Fuck, where is D2?” I wondered. I had to help him. I continued to choke harder. I was going to end this. I rolled him onto the ground, smashing his face into the wooden floor laced with broken glass. I hit him again, and again, and wrenched my forearm harder and harder into his neck. I wanted him to sleep. His body went motionless.
Wait, was I killing him?
Then I felt reverb on the back of my head.
PING — PINGGGGG.
Something was happening to me, but I couldn’t see it.
PING — PINGGGGGGG.
Every PING I heard, I saw and heard a fuzzy, white ringing bell. It was as hot as the sun. Then a voice told me to get up — to move — to stop choking. I knew I wouldn’t be able to retain consciousness if that PING happened again, so I let go of the stranger in my arms to see a black boot swinging into my face. I shut my eyes and darkness came.
Where the fuck was Heshimu? The American players? I’d have helped him. I’d have fucking helped him. That’s bullshit.
The fury inside me rose and I jumped to my feet. There were three dark-haired men in front of me closing in, their fists clenched, their eyes scanning for new weapons to throw at me.
Where was D2?
I kept wiping something wet that was dripping into my eyes. Then the music stopped, and everyone turned. I peeked down at my shirt. It was ripped almost in half and stretched to my knees. I saw the looks and their faces said it all. I was hurt. But I just couldn’t feel it.
“FUCK, LET’S GO.” I yelled, the world blurry around the edges.
But the lights turned on and combatants scattered and ran in separate directions. I touched my ear and felt a gaping hole. There was metallic-tasting blood dripping into my lips and mouth. It was warm.
“Joao, D2, where the hell are you?” I asked, as I sprayed blood out of my mouth and realized I wasn’t going to be standing much longer.
The American players on our team called our basketball coach in Portugal “Big Head.” Mostly, well, because his head was fucking huge for the size of man he was. Ironically, he was a very short, famous, national coach that was a supremely nice guy. Big Head was probably five-foot-nine with a Buddha belly and a swatch of gray hair on his head that flopped around like a loose toupee. But he smiled at the sight of our team walking into the gym, especially the day of the Ovarense scout.
“Trevorrrrrr, good morning! How Trevorrrr doing this fine day? You ready to scout video of the Mr. Kentucky Wildcat?”
“Good coach. I’m good.”
But really, my whole season in Portugal, I wasn’t good. I was hungover, or I was angry. I was angry about getting my ass kicked in the bar fight, angry about being 25, and confined to the life of a professional Portuguese point guard, one of the lowest-paying leagues in Europe. In my mind, I was supposed to be in the NBA, or at least the EuroLeague making hundreds of thousands of dollars. Or maybe I was supposed to be called up for a ten-day NBA contract after winning an Eastern Conference Championship in the CBA (short for Cannabis Basketball Association). Or maybe, at the very least, I was supposed to have a hot Portuguese girlfriend.
The Portuguese Championship Cup game clips started and Big Head started talking, his chubby fingers tracing the screen as he spoke, “Next, we play Ovarense — our derby. You know this team, this guy. This HEEE-SHIM-UH. If we beat one team, one player, our owner says it must be this team.”
The tape rolled on. There were highlights of a superior team rolling over their opponents — dunks, lobs, long threes, and no-look passes in black and white jerseys. I recognized some of the faces from the night at the dance club and the fury bubbled inside me.
Is that them? Those fuckers. I want to beat him so bad.
“Greg, you must guard Heee-shi-muuu. He’s legend here,” Big Head said. “No one can stop. He’s fast. Lefty. Shooting enough, but better at drive, then pass. He is a Kentucky Wildcat. Unstoppable for most teams.”
“Greg, not you, not Trevor, not anyone, has stopped him this year. We must find way to do it together men. Yes, you agree?”
“Coach, we’ll stop them,” I said quickly, still half-buzzed from another 6 a.m. night out with Joao. The team looked at me, stunned. I was the team’s starting point guard, but rarely did I speak in morning film sessions. I touched the scab on my ear and ran my finger along the rough split on my nose and remembered the metal taste of blood that dripped down from my forehead. I thought back to my college days. I recalled losing to the Kentucky Wildcats my senior year, before we made it to the Elite Eight, and future NBA player Tayshaun Prince, his long tentacle arms blocking my shot and beating us before our long NCAA tournament run with Antonio Gates. I thought back to the bar fight and the blood and how I felt getting my face kicked in while I choked a complete stranger.
Then I felt the fury rise inside as an epiphany hit me:
I despised the “Goliaths” of the world, Heshimu Evans, Tayshaun Prince, Keith Bogans, Heshimu’s entire Ovarense team, and the entire Kentucky Wildcat nation. And I knew the glass I pulled from my face, the bar fight where no one helped, the spite I felt and revenge I sought would only keep getting heavier until I had a Championship Cup title in my hand.