My Basketball Journey | by Chris Cayole

It’s 1997 and I’m 12 years old standing at the edge of the driveway of my new home. Nothing is familiar to me in the middle this rainforest on the island country of St. Lucia.

That is, besides basketball.

I’m watching a group of kids in flip-flops maneuver a pothole-filled street to hurl an orange ball at a bicycle rim nailed to a wooden backboard on a telephone pole. Days earlier I was playing in an air-conditioned gym at a Boys & Girls Club in America with good basketballs, glass backboards, and the sound of basketball shoes squeaking on a freshly waxed floor.

The birthplace of my father was now my new home and the game of basketball was once again going to be my gateway to making new friends in the neighborhood.

I lived on that island for three years without a TV or access to a real wooden basketball court at a time in my life when all I wanted to do was watch and play basketball. Dealing with this as a kid was just the beginning of my basketball hardships.

The one time I did get to watch a game on TV, I stood with my brother outside of a friend’s house watching through a window. We weren’t allowed in the house, but we weren’t going to miss game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. As we stood under a banana leaf hiding from the rain and getting bit by a hundred mosquitos, we got to witness Jordan’s epic final shot in a Bulls uniform over Bryon Russell. We argued all night whether Jordan pushed off or not.

When I reflect on my basketball journey I always start here. Living in a developing country at a young age gave me the appreciation for the littlest things in life that we typically take for granted. Little did I know at the time that this was all preparing me for the long, tough road ahead, but I knew from an early age that nothing could deter my love for the game of basketball.

I have faced hardship after hardship in my basketball journey, but each one set me up to succeed in whatever opportunity I found myself in next.

High School

Rice Memorial High School. Burlington, Vermont.

Not many basketball players would complain about growing from 6’4 to 6’7, but it didn’t exactly help me long term when I hit that growth spurt before my junior year of high school. I play on the wing today, and at the time I knew I was going to eventually develop into a wing player at the next levels, but when you are the tallest guy on your high school team in Burlington, Vermont you get thrown into the post.

 

This stunted my basketball growth a bit, and I ended up taking a full scholarship at Division 2 Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont. I wish I would’ve taken a bit more time to search out Division 1 opportunities because the Division 2 stamp isn’t exactly viewed too positively by overseas coaches. No matter what stats you put up, it is always looked through a tinted lens.

Saint Michael’s College. Colchester, Vermont.

After I graduated college I immediately had hip surgery on a torn labrum and recovered just in time to tryout out for the local ABA team. I made the team, and my first taste of “pro” basketball started with the Vermont Frost Heaves. It was easily the most grueling season of my career.

Two practices a day. Skills and lifting in the morning for 90 minutes and three hours of normal practice in the evening. With a focus on full-court defense.

Our coach had previously spent some time working as a video coordinator for the San Antonio Spurs and brought that Popovich style of defense to our team. It was difficult, but I saw firsthand the keys to winning basketball games: help side, ball pressure, getting a hand in the passing lanes, constant communication, and never getting beat middle.

This was all ingrained in my brain for those two years with the Frost Heaves. I received very limited playing time and only made a grand total of $500 because we won the championship one year, but I learned a lot in those two years.

One thing coach said to us that always stuck with me was, “find what it is that you do well and master it.”

Defense and three-point shooting were going to be my ticket to success and I was going to try my best to master both.

Germany

As that second season with the Frost Heaves came to a close, I had worries that my basketball career was going to be short-lived. What ensued was my introduction into the power of networking and building good relationships with coaches and teammates that would ultimately extend my career multiple times.

I put together the small amount of clips available that highlighted my defense and shooting abilities and got connected with an agent of one of my teammates. Another teammate got me a tryout with his previous team in Germany, and I could finally call myself a professional basketball player!

I signed with that team for $1000 a month in the 4th division, but none of that mattered. Most players going overseas would never consider an offer like that, but my dream was moving forward.

I had a great year and helped the team move up to the next division. Unfortunately, the team did not have the funds to move up so the only opportunity I got the following year was for a different team in the 4th division for about the same amount of pay. That season, year four, was another good year, but I ended up at home that following summer unsure of what my next move would be.

I didn’t have any offers coming from Germany and the new American agent I signed, along with most agents I would deal with in the future, didn’t find me a job. For my next job, I caught a good break on none other than Facebook.

Canada

Scrolling through my facebook one day I came across a guy that owned an ABA team. He posted about starting a new league called the National Basketball League of Canada and a combine being held outside of Toronto.

I was drafted to the Prince Edward Island Storm and spent two years there. I was a starter and playing some of the best basketball of my life. Things were looking good, and I was excited to see what was next for me.

Well, injuries don’t care about all of that.

Achilles

Basketball in Vermont is small and it’s difficult to find good competition to play against. At the time, my summers consisted of working at camps and getting runs in with the Vermont and Saint Michael’s men’s teams.

Sometimes I would have to find lesser competition to play against.

There are 3 seconds left on the clock, two guys fight for a rebound, and the ball bounces right in front of me.

The competition includes a mixture of middle-aged guys who just got off work and some high school freshmen. I was only here because my friend needed a fifth guy to play, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to get up and down the court a little and work on my shooting.

I lunge forward to pick up the ball to see if I can hit this half court shot before time expires. What I felt was the sensation you get when someone accidentally steps on your heel and your foot pops out of your shoe.

Instead, it was my achilles exploding.

With the amount of pressure on my heel, I was convinced one of the two guys fighting for the rebound fell and sat on my heel. My achilles was mush to the touch, and the only upside to it was that I had minimal pain due to the fact that all nerves were severed.

After surgery, hours and hours of rehabilitation and extra work at home, I hit the 9-month mark and I was finally jogging and feeling more like my old self again.

Once again, my previous relationships opened the door for my next opportunity. My coach from Canada invited me to a scouting event for the upcoming NBLC season to see how I had progressed since the injury.

I signed back with Prince Edward Island before I even departed.

Back to Canada

It’s my 5th year as a pro and the final days of training camp are coming to a close. Everyone has to meet with coach to talk about the future and I walked into mine without a worry in the world.

“Chris we’re going to trade you.”

The situation could not have been better in Prince Edward Island. From the house I was living in, familiar teammates and the amazing friendship I had formed with a local family that would give me home cooked meals and invite me over to hang out and watch basketball.

All of that was gone and I had to pack up quick for the flight that left in 3 hours.

I’m shipped off to the Orangeville A’s just outside of Toronto. After a month I was asked to come to the front of the bus after a road loss. “Chris, we’re going to go in a different direction and would like to find someone that better fits our style.”

I was a sucker for reality TV, but after living in Orangeville in one house with one fridge for about 8 players, I no longer wanted to know what it felt like to be on MTV’s The Real World.

They told me they could either send me home or trade me to the Halifax Hurricanes. Halifax it was.

My contract at the time was for $3000 CAD a month or about $2300 USD before taxes. I had to pay rent and my phone bill, but even with no student bills, car payments, or debt, I was barely treading water. Because of training camp and not being with the team for a whole pay period, I walked away from the situation with only $1000 CAD.

At the time I had a little less than $500 USD in my bank account, and even after the coach told me that Halifax would only pay me the league minimum of $1600 CAD a month, I still agreed to go.

I was not ready to quit on basketball.

Halifax

I arrived in Halifax around midnight and the owner’s son took me to my new home. A small house of a young husband and wife with their 5-year-old son. Quite the contrast from The Real World.

I wake up in a bed barely big enough for a 10-year-old at 6am to the sound of footsteps and a 5-year-old not wanting to brush his teeth.

Maybe I was wrong. I text my now wife, “Heather I just can’t do this.”

Sitting on the edge of that child-sized bed, I had never felt so low in my entire life.

The owner agreed to put me in a better living situation, but that ended up being his son’s apartment that had no cable, no internet, and for close to 2 months, I slept on a couch with my puffy Nike jacket as a pillow.

As I stood outside on the porch in below zero temperature just to try to snag an open Wifi signal from across the street so I could text Heather goodnight, I wondered how many players would have stuck around and dealt with this.

Living those years in St. Lucia with power outages for days, ice cold showers with water from a bucket, and no TV all seemed to prepare me for the toughest moment in my career.

Josep Clarós

Finding a coach that brings out the best in your game doesn’t always happen but when it does you are given the chance to take your game to the next level. Coach Pep saved my career that year in Halifax and it wouldn’t be the first time.

I had played against Pep my first year in Canada, and when he found out Orangeville didn’t want me anymore he wasted no time in bringing me in.

Coach Pep

Pep has won a championship or medal in 4 continents and 15 finals appearances in different countries across the world. He brought the type of defensive mentality and grit that I powered through my two years in the ABA. Even though my back was extra tight and my legs heavier than normal from sleeping on a couch I knew that I was in a good situation when it came to basketball.

An experienced coach with all the confidence in the world in me was exactly what I needed. I was mentally prepared and ready to prove myself to a real coach with a real resume.

I eventually became a starter and got revenge when I played well in a win over Orangeville and when we beat Prince Edward Island to clinch the division. That year we made it to the NBLC Finals, but to this day, there is still a void in my basketball heart from what transpired before game 7 of the finals.

A combination of no commissioner or real higher authority running the league and inexperienced non-FIBA regulated refs led to what happened.

The series was physical to say the least. Elbows to the head resulting in concussions, intentional fouls to cause injury, and the manipulation of gameday shoot around schedules were all part of what we went through.

It didn’t help that our team’s owner, who was nothing short of a crook, had been in a feud with his childhood “friend” who was the owner of the opposing team.

All of this ended up boiling over. We were playing in their arena for game 6 and 7. They denied us a proper shootaround before game 6 and we weren’t going to accept the late shoot around time they gave us before game 7. We decided to show up an hour before their scheduled time in the morning so we could get a proper shoot around and rest before the game.

Their coach didn’t like that.

He called some of his players to come to the gym to kind of force us off the court. As we were finishing our stretching and leaving the court a ball bounced towards us and our 7’2” center picked it up and started to take a few shots.

From the other end of the court, the opposing coach approached him with anger in his eyes and vengeance in his movement. He tried to rip the ball out of his hands and things went from 0 to 100 real quick.

The coach decided he was going to try to tackle our center at the knees. Is this really happening because of a shoot around?

Like David taking down Goliath, I watched as their point guard grabbed a metal chair and swung it at our 7 footer’s head. You could hear it ping off his head.

A short brawl ensued and eventually, we got separated and got back on the bus. The tension building from the first 6 games had finally boiled over, and we all agreed that we could not expect to play a clean game in a few hours. The first 6 games were bad enough. We decided as a team we weren’t going to play that night.

Well, the league did not like that.

The league was worried about the money loss from pushing the game until the next day. The commissioner-less league decided to appoint the Orangeville A’s coach to act as a commissioner in that moment.

He ended up counting our refusal to play as a forfeit and simply handed the championship trophy to the opposing team. We found out as we were traveling home.

On top of that, we were each fined $5000 that had to be paid if we ever wanted to play in Canada ever again. Our coaches were not so lucky and got an outright lifetime ban and fine.

The opposing coach who started the fight and the players involved in the fight were allowed to return to the league the following season.

To top everything off, we were told we would not be given our final checks when we returned to Halifax.

As I sat on the plane heading home with less money in my account than when I left home I realized how much I really loved the game of basketball. The amount of time, sacrifice, and energy I just put into that season was more than the 5 previous seasons combined. I didn’t have money or a championship but I had my pride. I didn’t give up when quitting was screaming in my face.

I kept thinking to myself what a story I would have had to come back from such an injury, be traded twice, beat both of the teams that didn’t want me, and to top it off, playing well enough to be in consideration for a finals MVP and a championship. Once again, basketball didn’t make me rich but made me stronger and gave me another life lesson that I would bring with me on my journey.

With the vacuum blaring and the smell of windshield washer fluid on my shirt, my manager asked me if that car was done yet. The customer was already waiting at the airport curbside for it.

I hadn’t been home for more than 5 days and I was back at my temp job prepping rentals cars for Avis at the airport. $11.50 an hour brought me in about $370 a week directly deposited into my account. I was still treading water, but at least I was home, happy, and in good health.

As I worked 5 days a week from 6am to 2:30pm, I wondered if my basketball career was finally over. Was it finally time to try and use my degree and get a real job?  

Midway through the summer, I got a message from my assistant coach that I had in Canada named Pedro, “Chris I just signed to coach in Mexico’s top league the LNBP and I want you on my team are you interested.” Jackpot!

The dream was brought back to life and all the trades and nonsense that I endured in Canada now had a meaning. I made another good relationship and my hard work had got me noticed once again. Whether you’re in division 2 or 3 or a low league, if you have game and you work hard, you can be found.

Mexico

I heard the stories about the cartels, the violence, and of player’s buses being robbed on payday which made me a little nervous before signing, but I knew that I had to give it a try. I’m glad that I did because I ended up really enjoying my time in Mexico and fully embraced the amazing culture and people. $4k US dollars a month untaxed, an apartment with amenities, and two meals a day provided by a team chef was the details of my contract. I was finally looking at what I thought was a respectable contract.

After about a month of adjusting to the 6,000-foot elevation and 90-degree weather, I was in my element and playing the best basketball of my career. I had always been a role player in my previous years but now took on the role of being the go-to guy.

I was now in a situation that meant as an import player the pressure for me to perform each night was very high and I had to make a name for myself early to secure my job. Leading the league in scoring early on with about 24 points a game and posting a career-best 52 points on 18-26 shooting, I felt confident that my job was secured for the rest of the season.

Dropping 39 points against a former New York Knicks player was a small highlight to my year. Coming from a small division 2 school in small-town Vermont, I always found it fun to share the same court with ex NBA players or even high division 1 college players that I used to watch on TV.

My name was buzzing in the Latin American market now and my Facebook inbox was getting messages every other day from coaches in other Mexican leagues and some South American countries. With one month left to go in the season, I got the message I had only ever dreamed of.  

“Hey, Chris I have been following you this past season and have a team in Argentina’s first division who is interested in you. It is the first place team and the contract is for $12k USD a month Plus bonuses. I saw your Canada highlight tape and your defense stood out from another guy we were looking at for the job.”

My jaw dropped to the floor, but I was also very conflicted. I am a loyal person and I saw the impact I had on my team and the impact I had on the community with the fans. I really felt the love from the fans that year, and it made it difficult to be that guy that just ups and leaves.

If there was a time for me to be selfish and leave, the time was now, but I couldn’t just quit on my team. I responded back saying thank you for the offer, but unless the team can wait, I have one month to go and do not feel comfortable leaving before the season ends.

I didn’t want to burn any bridges in Mexico, and luckily, the team in Argentina, whose season ended in June, was willing to wait until the Mexican league finished in March. With that, I signed a contract to play in one of the best leagues in the world for an amount of money that I had never seen in my lifetime.

I wanted to cry because now I had validation for everything that I had been through up until this point. From not being paid anything to sleepless nights on a couch to waking up every morning at 5am to clean cars for 8 hours a day, I had reached my goal of getting to a top league for good money.

My first 2 years of 3-hour intense practices while not being paid weren’t for nothing. My defense, that one skill that I worked on mastering, landed me a job. 

Argentina

As I opened my email and clicked the link that brought me to the teams playbook, I knew that I was heading into a whole different world of basketball. Close to 15 pages of defense and offensive sets all in Spanish further let me know that if you want to be paid the big money you’re going to have to work for it.

In my first month, my brain was ready to explode from all the information. The style and speed of play was different than anything I have experienced and the skill of the import players and Argentinean players was next level.

One of my teammates played in the NBA and a couple others played many years in Spain’s ACB. Most of the guys I matched up against all had way better resumes than me but when the ball was tipped none of that mattered because I worked hard to get where I was and I was going to hold my own. The atmosphere at games in Argentina especially for my team was unlike anything I had experienced. Being a fan of soccer it was similar to those fans with the constant chanting and banging of drums. There is a real passion there that made you play just that much harder.

We ended up losing in the semi-finals in the final game and my 9 months away from home had come to an end.

Teams holding your rights

After receiving an Argentinean agent for my last contract I was hoping to land back there the following season. But, due to the team not resigning me and holding my rights for another season, I ran into problems finding a new team who would pay the extra fee to regain my rights.

Mexico was a similar situation. Once you sign with a team they hold your rights. If a different team wants you, they have to buy your rights from your previous team. They own your rights in their respective leagues indefinitely. Even though I played in Argentina the season after I played in Mexico, the team I played for in Mexico still owned my rights. When I talked to two different teams in Mexico about returning to that league they had to negotiate a buyout with my previous team. This is where things get tricky. Even though I was loyal to that team in Mexico, the owner was still being difficult in buyout negotiations. He didn’t offer me nearly the money other teams were and on top of it made my buyout $12,000. That was a little too expensive for the prospective teams and I was essentially blocked from returning to play in Mexico.

During the summer after playing in Mexico and Argentina I was offered $10,000 a month to play in Puerto Rico’s BSN league for a coach I had played well against in Mexico. That league didn’t start until April of the following year so I could still look for a team to play for from the fall until March.

Not wanting to sit out the whole winter hoping the Mexican or Argentinian team that owned my rights would be reasonable, my agent was able to sign me to a team in Argentina where I could play in a tournament without needing my rights bought out. Club La Union in Argentina’s first division was going to play in the international tournament Ligas de Las Americas that lasted from January to March. $17,500 and only 6 games was by far the easiest money I have ever seen.

With a roster spot opening up in my position and a good performance in the tournament, they said they would buy my rights from my previous Argentinian team and could play with them for the rest of the season that ended in June. Having already signed my deal in Puerto Rico that started in April, I made the decision to not stay in Argentina and try my luck in a new league even though I was told before going that is was very cutthroat in regards to how fast and how often they make cuts. Not realizing the original coach that signed me was no longer the coach of the team meant that after 3 weeks and 2 losses to start the season, I was cut and back home by the end of the month without any real prospects.

I was now home for 7 months and my agent was telling me nothing was looking good for a team to buy my rights in Argentina. Hitting what seemed to be another dead end in my career I got a message from my old teammate that I had in Canada, “Chris we just watched your Halifax highlight tape again. Coach keeps showing it to the team to show them how he wants everyone to play defense.”

My ex-teammates now playing for my favorite coach Pep in Japan. As nice as it was to hear, I was just hoping that I could be out there playing on his team. My wish came true as two weeks later I get a message from Pep, “Chris are you available?”

Japan

Organized, timely and professional are some of the words that come to mind when describing my experience in Japan.  Japan was everything I ever wanted in a basketball team and organization. The organization was super professional which meant we were paid on time, given detailed schedules a week in advance, and placed in nice apartments which made it an overseas basketball players paradise.

The system of basketball in Japan is quite different than any other place I have played. Teams consisted of 3 imports 2 of them are usually 5s and then you have a 3 or a stretch 4. Only one import is only allowed on the court for each team in the first and third quarter while 2 imports can play simultaneously in the second and fourth quarter making it a challenging situation for the players and coaches. All games are played back to back on weekends which are very challenging physically and mentally.

This type of system means you have to be efficient and mentally prepared to be an effective player in a limited amount of time. Our team finished the season with an amazing record of 54-6 which was the best in the history of Japan basketball and we also set a record-breaking 22 wins in a row. To top it all off, we won a playoff series that granted the team promotion to the first division. A storybook season that I finally was able to experience.

The Waiting Game

As I sit here looking back at my career, I go through a mix of emotions. If I could talk to the younger me knowing what I know now about what it takes to play Professional basketball would I still do it? The answer is yes because since I was a kid shooting a basketball on a bicycle rim attached to a telephone pole in the Caribbean, basketball has always brought me a joy I couldn’t find anywhere else.

The game of basketball has brought the world to me and gave me a chance to walk The Great Wall of China, eat bratwurst in Germany, ride a bullet train to Tokyo, bite into the best piece of steak in Argentina and listen to authentic Mariachi music in Mexico. One of my favorite songs by reggae artist Buju Banton has an opening line that says:

“It’s not an easy road

 Many see the glamour and the glitter

 And think it’s a bed of rose

 Who feels it knows”

My basketball journey hasn’t been an easy road, but those on the outside will only see the pictures of the places I’ve been and the awards I have achieved. To the kid reading this hoping to have a chance to one day play professional basketball; anything is possible.  It won’t always be easy, but if you can be humble, work hard, and be patient, good things can happen. I don’t know if my basketball journey has come to an end, but I do know that what I have experienced so far has made me stronger and has prepared me for life after the game.

As of now, I am in an all too familiar situation playing the dreaded waiting game; checking my phone every morning to see if I have an email or WhatsApp message from an agent or coach offering me a contract. As I reflect on my career so far it sure has been a wild ride, and time will tell if I am given a chance to take one more trip.