Maria Blazejewski returns home after the season to answer the typical overseas questions.
I recently returned back to the USA. Most my time has been spent seeing friends, family, and stopping by local favorite spots. The question is asked over and over, “How was the season?” I give an abbreviated response, elaborating a bit when needed. It’s a long story…
I was playing professional basketball in a foreign country for seven months in the midst of a global pandemic. So how do I answer the local deli shop owner, friendly brewery bartender, parents of youth athletes I train, and friends at a casual Friday night dinner? The interest and support is appreciated, but there is no easy answer. Do they really want to hear the saga, experience the emotional roller coaster ride and ultimately a slight buzz kill?
I don’t want to come across as a negative person. However, there seems to be this theme of only wanting to hear the success stories. It is super prevalent in the world of sports. The narrative always revolves around heroic games or historic seasons. The underdog stories when everything eventually falls into place and they win it all. It appears as if overcoming challenges leads to a story book ending. Athletes have it made, they’re just “living the dream”, right?
The truth is we are faced with doubt, fear, and anxiousness along the way. We are constantly critiqued and feel the pressure. Living overseas can often result in homesickness and extreme loneliness. It is rarely glamorous, English isn’t always spoken, you are there to do a job and do it well otherwise you are replaceable. I sound like a total Debbie (downer), but stay with me here. Attempting to paint a full picture, to steer away from snapshots of everything going perfectly or social media highlight reels.
This past year playing abroad during Covid times was like nothing I had experienced yet. And I became a pro seven years ago. The typical struggles; confidence, team dynamics, language barriers, culture shock, lack of resources, handling the pressure. It was all heightened, tenfold! Most of us experienced lock down in a foreign country. We rarely had any idea of what was actually going on and what to expect next.
The economic crisis resulted in less sponsors and decreased team funding. Most leagues didn’t allow attendance. Money was needed for testing, if you were lucky and regular testing was an option. Practice and game schedules had to be re-arranged and then re-re-arranged. More injuries took place. Vet players had fewer options and many took a salary hit. Rookies were desperate just to get a look. We all had struggles in some way, shape or form.
For me personally, I was finally returning to Europe and overseas pro basketball. The Australian season I was supposed to play in the previous eight months had been canceled. Prior to that, I had been dealing with an injury that felt never-ending. Basically, I hadn’t played a professional game in two years. This is the perfect set-up though, isn’t it? The ultimate comeback story! I was going to pick up right where I left off and kill it. Not even Covid-19 could stop me. I also knew I couldn’t be out three seasons or my playing career was likely over…
I wish I could have returned home to tell my supporters (and occasional hater) that we won a cup championship, everything went smoothly and I played my best basketball yet. The truth is it didn’t pan out that way. It took time to even feel like myself out on the court again. I had a few really good games, but there were more mediocre ones and a couple bad performances. Just when I started feeling like I was hitting my stride we had a sudden month break in the game schedule. I suffered a muscle tear first game back in February. It should have been a short 2-3 weeks to heal, then a re-injury occurred in what was supposed to be the recovery/rehab process. I was sidelined for two months.
The team pulled out a few must need wins and we made the Play-off. I started participating in some of the team practices the week leading up to a do-or-die first round game. There was a risk, but I was cleared to play just in time and decided to try. I know what you’re thinking. Yup, it’s my moment! I would have a great game, everything would click within our team and we would pull out the W.
The reality, we lost. I played close to 30 minutes somehow and thought I was about to pass out in the third quarter. Some contributions were made, but I shot terribly and felt out of it. I had busted my ass to return to a season that was now over. The few days following the game I was deeply disappointed and lost. I hadn’t reached my goals, no play-off run, and my shortened season stats were average. What now? I felt like I failed. Was this entire season a wash? What did I have to show for making it through all the craziness?
Those closest to me kept saying I should be proud of playing in that last game. That the muscle tear(s) was so unfair and unfortunate. It was going to be a transition having been out so long before that season. It was all incredibly inconsistent and I needed consistency. Their words helped a little, but running through my head it all sounded like excuses. It seemed like nothing had gone my way and I was bitter about it.
It ended up I stayed in Portugal for an additional four weeks, ignoring the urge to peace out ASAP. It turned out to be exactly what I needed. Travel and culture have become other passions of mine and much needed outlets over the course of my overseas career. The country was beginning to re-open, I lived right near the ocean, and within driving distance to so many amazing places. It forced me to take a step back. I couldn’t brush off the letdown or accept the experience in its entirety without taking the time to reflect. I needed a broader scope. Was I being reasonable? Maybe there was more to consider…
The problem with pro athletes is that we are perfectionists in a line of work where it’s nearly impossible to be perfect. We are insanely competitive and set lofty goals. No matter the scenario and difficulties that arise we want to perform at our best all of the time. We struggle with separating our job from who we are as people. Our identity from our performance.
I realized I learned so much more about myself. There were new fears and insecurities faced throughout it all. I better understood the difference between setting expectations and goals. I experienced a new, beautiful place and stuck it out to enjoy the country to the fullest. New relationships were formed and I could reconnect with past teammates. Finally, I returned to Europe and a way of life I had missed so badly. I was able do a job I love, playing basketball. And even entire 40 minutes a few different games. Two years prior, when the Plantar Fasciitis was at its worst, it was too painful just too stand or walk for that long. That should be enough. A part of me still wants more though; to be better, to consistently play the way I’m capable of, win a league championship.
So, that is how it went in a nutshell (of a rather large nut). It wasn’t “famous sports movie” material. There was a lot more to it than dope action shots, inspirational quote captions and travel pics on Instagram (guilty). Maybe we shouldn’t worry about others’ perceptions or this notion everyone only wants to hear about the successes. Maybe we could all benefit from a dose of reality, feeling like we are it together, and not out there struggling alone or comparing ourselves. Sport is an amazing teacher of life lessons. What if we were more willing to deal with the tough ones and not be ashamed to share the bad along with the good?
Every single summer I am asked if I will go back and how much longer will I play. My personal favorite, “When ya getting a real job?” I don’t have all the answers yet, but no, not finished. I am just getting going again.