Forget numerical data. Forget safety reports. Jean Carlo is now the reason I know driving is without a doubt more dangerous than flying. I was nervous enough with his swerving from lane to lane, honking and muttering when early for an appointment. I did not know what to expect now that he was actually late taking me to the airport.
“So ehhhhhhh you go ehhh casa,” he asks. “Ehhh home?” he repeats half curious if that is my destination, half curious if he used the correct translation. Jean Carlo does not speak english. This rare occasion he tried. In his native italian, he rambles enthusiastically with his hands, peppering his stories with sudden cackles of laughter, and speaking to his passengers like we are longtime friends. I only spent a week learning italian on DuoLingo so I don’t catch a word but I understand.
“Uhhh no no no,” I say with an unfamiliar italian accent. It sounds good so I stick with it. “Uhhhh mas basket.” I add a jump shot motion with my arms for good measure. He catches it through the rearview mirror. We’re steady at 110km/hr in the dead center of the two lane highway. He is always indecisive about which lane he wants to be in. So, unless there’s a car he needs to honk out of the way, he drives right in the middle.
He turns his sunglass-cloaked eyes to me in the back seat. I take a moment of pause to wonder who’s watching the road.
“Citta?” he echoes. He takes a reassuring peak forward then turns back to me. An answer.
“Ahhhh uhhh Tel Aviv”
“BRAVI! BRAVI, JAOSH! BRAVI!” he explodes pumping his fists (yes fists) and biting his lower lip. He accelerates into a passionate waving rant of laughs and smiles. He shares the same enthusiasm of my Siena teammates when I told them. I don’t know much about Tel Aviv. Hell, I didn’t know much about Siena either but I packed all my belongings and hopped on a flight.
Jean Carlo blazes along. He’s telling me all these great things I don’t understand about a city I’ve never visited. He’s racing against time to get me to the Florence airport. We don’t so much as swerve.
For the duration of my professional career, my agent has preached the same few tokens of wisdom. He concludes almost every phone conversation reminding me, “You gotta stay ready, Josh. Cause when it happens, it’s gonna happen fast. And when you get the call you’ve gotta go. Josh, you gotta go.” Though a bit on the vanilla side, they are words I’ve come to appreciate more and more—on and off the court. Perhaps my best lesson came this offseason of free agency.
I learned to stay prepared even during times when it seemed least necessary. As a pro athlete, the offseason is a welcoming ocean of unrestricted possibilities stretching as far as the eye can see—or at least until the shores of the next season. I decided to stick to the familiar currents of Stanford. Were there other options? Of course. But Stanford was where I could find a rhythm, routine, and focus with minimal distractions. And though early on I wondered why I began training when the season was still five months away, I received an answer less than a month in. NBA mini camps. First a showcase in Chicago, then to Salt Lake City, back to the bay for Golden State, and finally up to Portland. Needless to say, there is a big difference between being in shape and being on vacation. Committing to preparation allowed me to put my best foot forward at a moments notice.
Just when the nerve racking days of free agency were setting in, I learned just how fast the business really moves. A discouraging NBA Las Vegas Summer League was more than a month in the rearview. I was back at Stanford training, rehabbing my sprained ankle from Vegas and beginning to wonder why I didn’t accept a contract offer I passed on just before summer league. One by one, friends and old teammates were off to new countries and new teams. I was waiting… impatiently.
On a Tuesday morning when a career counseling meeting was the only appointment to break the monotony of workouts, I received a call to go to Siena, Italy. While the team was a bit disappointed I couldn’t pack up my entire life and leave that very evening, they empathized with my situation and arranged a flight for the next morning. Instead of packing for a long anticipated trip to Philadelphia and Kentucky, I loaded the same three suitcases I’ve lived out of for more than a year and hopped on a one way to Florence.
Yea, that fast.
As Jean Carlo speeds along, exhaustion pins my face to the back seat van window. Rolling hills filled with vineyards, orchards, and majestic villas wave goodbye. It’s beautiful. I want to take a picture, but I don’t. I’m blessed and grateful for the time spent in Siena/Bormio working and learning with the team during training camp. I decide that experience alone trumps any jpeg file.
Cruising through the countryside digesting the newest developments of my career, I am reminded that free agency, like life, is about opportunities. I guess that’s what my agent was trying to tell me. It is about always being prepared to take advantage when they arise. It is about being agile and ready to respond to their unexpected changes and uncertainties. And it’s about having to make a decision when opportunity comes knocking.
The call came two nights earlier and after long hours of sleepless deliberation, I knew I had to go. Lesson learned.
I hop out the van immediately wondering whether the travel tag I placed on my credit card had activated. Lord knows there will be baggage fees. Jean Carlo helps me stack my luggage on an abandoned cart. I tap the respective pants pockets double checking for my passport, wallet, phone and iPod. All accounted for. I give him a hand shake and hug before he rushes back to his hour of highway entertainment back to Siena. In my most authentic italian, “Grazie mille, Jean Carlo! Arrivederci!”
Next stop: Tel Aviv, Israel.