“O, kurwa, ohhhhh, kurrrwwwwaa.”
I felt pain sear into my forearm as the plane dropped and jolted. There was gasps, little screams, and yelling around me. I opened one eye to see the fuss. The middle-aged man sitting to my left was gripping my arm and wrenching his body back and forth like he was exorcising a demon. I slowly opened my next eye and found the window blinds. I slid them open.
Dude, there is no point in dying scared or ungrateful, I thought.
Ironically, my life had taken a turn for the worse after getting cut from the NBA, but I was still grateful to be playing professional hoops. I still felt lucky every day to wake up and grow my craft, my passion, and make money doing something no one else gave me a chance in.
Yet, my journey to Ostrow, Poland was in its last leg (or on its last leg), and I felt tired as our Polish Airlines LOT plane descended onto Warsaw’s Chopin Airport. The plane’s long metallic wings sliced through silver and white cream cotton puffs as wispy streaks of condensation smeared by my window. From Traverse City to Detroit, from Detroit to Frankfurt, from Frankfurt to Warsaw, the travel itinerary and this job were a mystery to me.
As we popped through the cloud ceiling, the plane steadied, found its balance, and the country of Poland spread out beneath me in smooth green pastures and an endless horizon of chromatic orange roofs and whitish grey, yellow, and orange clusterings of indistinct houses and buildings.
“Oh, kurrwa. Much better. Much better. Thought we die,” the round-faced Polish man said, looking towards me.
I glanced away from the window and looked back at him. “Yes, we may make it after all,” I responded, still wondering if I had maybe 15 more minutes of shuteye left before we landed.
“You-ah-you, come here for Vodka and potato?” he paused. “Or beautiful woman?
“Ahhh. Yes. I see.”
I chuckled lightly and looked directly at him. His beady blue ovals sparkled back at me. He must not have spoken to many Americans before this encounter. The salty black bush of hair left on his balding head slung over his scalp like a handmade scarf with too little yarn. He was in a collared Polo shirt, tan slacks, and it looked like his midsection needed an overhaul.
“No, I come for basketball. Polish basket — professional,” I said.
He studied me quietly, looking me up and down.
“You too small, no?” he asked.
“Always,” I joked. “Always too small.”
The man grinned and asked quickly, “Where you play?”
“Ostrow. You know it?”
“Ostrow? No. Where it is?”
“I don’t know. It’s West of Warsaw. East of Berlin. You never heard of it?”
“No, I never hear it. Maybe small. Don’t matter, Polish women love basket. Just ask this… jak się masz?”
“What?” I asked, dumbfounded.
Suddenly, our planed lurched as the rubber tires screeched and connected with the cement. The man grabbed my arm again.
“Kurwa, ayeeee — shit!”
I laughed loudly and thought about where I had just come from, Petoskey, Michigan, my small hometown in Northern Michigan. My village was probably much like this Ostrow, I hoped. Locals. Tourism. Lakes. Beauty. People that had compassionate values and kindness.
As we descended and got closer to the Warsaw, everything started to feel bleak, lacking color and emotion, and to be honest, Warsaw from the sky looked like a bunch of concrete factories stacked on top of each other. But the real problem wasn’t Warsaw, it was that I had just been cut from the Phoenix Suns, from a modern city of sunlight, from the plush towels, the new NBA socks, practice jerseys and shorts, and rows and rows of glittering Starburys, Nike Shox, and Adidas basketball shoes for me to pick from.
My attitude was the real problem and when you travel and live in new societies and cultures, you take your mental baggage and mindset with you.
I was just cut from my dream job, in my dream location, with my dream team. I remember the flight to Phoenix, Arizona (just months before) sitting in first class, watching the scarlet desert bleed into a violet sunset wondering if my new home would be in the NBA. I remember the coaches, Mike D’Antoni, Frank Johnson, Penny Hardaway, Stephon Marbury, A’mare Stoudamire, Tommy Gugliotta, Shawn Marion, Barbosa, Joe Johnson, the soft med tables, the stem technology, the ice baths, the hot tubs, the steam rooms, the gorgeous team dancers, and I wonder if I honestly did my best to make that team.
The problem with living, traveling, and working in another country is they don’t really care about what your hangups are. They want to win. They want to succeed, and they expect you to figure it out, just like any other other organization or business in the world.
“Goodbye. Nice to meet you,” the round Polish man said, as he scampered away from me towing his luggage behind him.
A funny epiphany hit me: how could I be halfway around the world and interact with a stranger and share moments of awkward intimacy and laughter with a man I just met?
Travel is always an education, if you let it be.
I came through customs, met another short Polish man who carried a poster with my name on it, whom also had a voluptuous belly, and followed him to the back of an old silver Volkswagen van. We traveled forward through the streets of Warsaw West towards Ostrow. I fell in and out of sleep but noticed the dark green countryside and narrow, potholed roads. I was resting my head (and my life) on two duffel bags that weighed less than 50 pounds. We rambled forward past miles and miles of farming fields; past lines of what looked like oak and maple trees; past tiny villages and tiled clay roofs speckling the horizon.
Why did my agent put me here, and why did my travel plans take 28 hours?
Who would I know here?
Who would I hang out with?
What if the team didn’t like me?
Would I be fired? Would I lose my job again?
“Trevvvvaaar. You like McDonald’s?” my stocky Polish driver asked me.
“No. I am on a diet,” I said and the driver looked at me and smiled incredulously.
“I love the McDonalds,” he said proudly.
I chuckled and nodded in his rearview mirror. Eventually, he went back to watching the road. It felt like he was eyeing me, to see if I was going to be any good at basketball. At helping their team win.
Travel and being successful at sports took being in a constant growth mindset. I had to remind myself of this over the years, because it is always needed. When the sake of learning, even while failing, was more important than trying to be successful, you know you are in the growth zone.
Yet, I knew my job and money depended on my success as a player. This presented a catch-22.
What is a growth mindset and why does it matter when you travel or play sports?
A pro athlete approaches failure in their sport typically one way: never quit trying to get better.
This athlete’s way and growth mindset means embracing the challenges, the inevitable failures, the awkward conversations, and the push for learning in the face of adversity. Traveling and working inside the country of Poland was going to be my growth mindset life for the next six months.
There is no static-minded traveler that understands and lives within other cultures, people, and countries. There is growth through facing the fears that hold you back from experiencing foreign tastes, sights, and sounds. There is so much growth in trying to succeed at being happy, successful, and learning the foreign customs and culture through traveling abroad.
Hours later, hours west of Warsaw, in the village I would call home, I woke up to the darkness and a hotel and chance to prove my worth to a new basketball club.