Jordan Theodore is five years removed from his days of playing college basketball for Seton Hall. The 6-foot point guard has made the jump that many talented college players attempt in playing overseas. Unlike the majority, Theodore stuck the landing, as he has become one of the most renowned and recognized basketball players in all of Europe. This rise to the top, however, was not achieved without its fair share of scrapes and setbacks along the way.
When Theodore arrived in Turkey – his first destination in Europe – nothing was compatible, from not being able to speak the language, to not being able to plug his cell phone to charge because of the different outlets and plugs. Couple that latter factor with the seven-hour time difference, and communication between Theodore and his family – for the first time in his life – became extremely difficult.
“In the beginning, it was kind of like hell on earth,” Theodore said. “Because, once I got there and I knew how different it was, I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to go back home immediately. I wasn’t scared, I had just never been this far away from my family…and knowing that I was going to be away for 10 months, I didn’t know how I was going to do it.”
Unlike many friends who had previously come from overseas and brought multiple people with them, Theodore went to Turkey alone. No family, no friends, just a 22-year-old and a dream to play professional basketball. But nothing was the same for Theodore, even though he was still playing the game that had gotten him to this point. Whether it was the culture in a volatile country that connects Europe and the Middle East, the fact he was one of six Americans – the maximum number of American players allotted – on one of the lowest-budgeted teams in Turkey, Theodore grew up quickly.
“This my fifth year having been in Europe, and I understand the game now,” Theodore said. “It’s like going to college; some players don’t adapt over the first couple years, but when they are seniors they get it. I had to mature on and off the court. I think me losing my first two years in Turkey helped me; it was a blessing in disguise.”
Dealing with professional egos was a new phenomenon for Theodore in those first years in Turkey. Another new element to playing in Europe was relegation – something which is not a feature of professional basketball in the United States, but is in Europe where the bottom teams in the top flight drop down a division. In his first two seasons, Theodore performed well individually, but both times experienced the bitter taste of falling out of the first division.
“I was playing really well; I would go out and I would kill these teams, but we would lose because we just weren’t good enough,” Theodore said. “Sometimes that is just the reality of going overseas; you can play well and lose.”
Then came rock bottom. Not long after signing with his third European team – JL Bourg in France – Theodore suffered a long-term injury that sidelined him from the end of June 2014 through January 2015, missing half of the season with his new team in the process. By the time Theodore finally took the floor, his team was well out of contention. Again, he played well once reaching the court, but once more none of it mattered with his lack of team success.
He left France weary, but most of all hungry, and arrived in Frankfurt, Germany that summer and joined a young team built of players who shared a similar passion and willingness to do anything to win. It was there, in what was his Theodore’s senior season of sorts, that team and individual success finally collided.
His team, Fraport, finished fourth in the German League despite being placed 12th, while Theodore finished second in the league Most Valuable Player voting. On top of that, Fraport won the FIBA Euro Cup.
That success in Germany would only be a springboard as Theodore returned for a second stint in Turkey. Although this time, Theodore did not come in as a wide-eyed recent college graduate, but a 26-year-old with a European championship medal around his neck. He signed with his third Turkish team, Banvit, and after back-to-back experiences of relegation, had his eyes set on turning things around.
“Going to Banvit, well, people just felt my wrath, because I started realizing a lot of these dudes were not good,” Theodore said. “I felt like I was better than everyone, and I wanted to show that, and that is what happened last season. I was able to dominate the game every chance I stepped on the court. And, you know, I had some really good teammates who also wanted to win, who followed my lead and understood that I would do anything to win. It didn’t matter if it was playing defense or getting that stop, taking the shot, whatever we had to do to win, I sacrificed for the team, and the guys understood that, they saw that, and they were able to follow my lead.”
His 12 months with Banvit were littered with both personal and team accolades. In February, Banvit captured the Turkish Cup, as Theodore took home Cup Final MVP. While on the continental front, Banvit competed in the inaugural Basketball Champions League, making it through the group phase and advancing all the way to the tournament final. Banvit would fall short in the tournament’s final, but Theodore’s performances throughout the tournament were still enough to earn him tournament MVP, even in a losing effort.
Despite the New Jersey tattoo on his back, Theodore admits that at this stage of his life, home is Europe. It is where he lives for 10 months out of the year with his girlfriend, as he now plays in Milan with Olimpia Milano after conquering Turkey last season. The point guard from Englewood will forever be tied to his connections back in the Garden State. Despite that, this year he took a step toward connecting with his new home and European roots by obtaining a Macedonian passport, which made him eligible to play for the Macedonian national team.
“Playing for the national team was crazy because our first game we played Kosovo, and Macedonia and Kosovo don’t get along,” Theodore said. “And you really don’t understand the rivalry because you don’t really know why they’re fighting, what the problem is. But when you’re playing in a game, and you’re getting spit on and people [are] throwing stuff at you, it’s like ‘Well s—, I hate these mother f—— too.’ Just because, I was never part of it, but now, I got the Macedonian jersey on, so now I’m a part of it. I had to embrace the culture, the people, and understand that when I stepped on the court, I’m not playing for myself.”
For Theodore, his role on the court has become much bigger than his days of representing Seton Hall, as he now has the power and responsibility of putting on a Macedonian jersey and standing for an entire nation. He went from big man on campus, to one of the bigger basketball figures in all of Europe.
“I’m pretty much a celebrity everywhere I go for the simple fact that I embrace the culture,” Theodore said. “I get out, I sightsee, I talk to people, I love to go to schools and talk to kids. I’m not just the basketball player that goes to work [and] comes home. I actually try to do things in the community and help out, because, this is home.”
Everywhere he goes, be it France, Germany, Italy or Turkey, Theodore has tried to pick up a little bit of the culture, a little bit of the language, and more than a little success on the court. Safe to say that, for the most part, as he approaches the business end of a sixth season in Europe, Theodore has accomplished a great deal of all three.
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.