NBA at 75: When Brandon Jennings was in Rome

Milwaukee Bucks, NBA at 75

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As the NBA celebrates 75 years, we can still learn some lessons from Brandon Jennings, the first U.S. high schooler who skipped college to play overseas.

Rewind. It’s 2008. The world is wildly different.

Global networking services and the cultural influence of Instagram, Snapchat, Tik Tok, Uber, Spotify, self-navigating Google Maps, and so many other platforms and services we rely on don’t exist.

And the NBA? Not nearly the same international exchange market it would eventually become. In 2008, international means a guy from Germany, a guy from Argentina, and a guy from China have been imported to play in the League and are proving themselves as highly skilled and very marketable tokens. NBA organizations are beginning to embrace the risks and benefits of shipping foreign players in — not just to play, but to build franchises around. Yet, exchange implies we are sending our young players to other places, too. But we are not. At least, not then.

It’s still 2008. Just imagine for a moment, not having your smartphone to navigate a new city, to translate a new language, to search for new, unknown information. Pretend you don’t go home to turn on a streaming device to watch an international basketball superstar on your screen every night. Comprehend how not every aspect of your life is seamlessly interconnected around the globe.

Ok. Now that you’ve remembered the horrendously unimaginable reality from over a decade ago, we’re back in 2022. It’s absolutely ordinary — nay, essential — to check your phone and see trending news about something happening in Italy, Spain, New Zealand, anywhere. Our sense of the globe — especially for a teenager — is infinitely, and I do mean infinitely, wider. Every destination is suddenly more reachable than any other period in world history.

Nowadays, it’s not unthinkable when a major NBA prospect like LaMelo Ball announces his move to Lithuania, or when RJ Hampton decides to join the Australian League (where Ball then played and even owned a team, before he ever made his NBA debut). I mean, let’s just talk about the fact that a U.S. teenage player can now comfortably move from Lithuania to Australia for kicks and own the basketball team he plays on, as a barometer of how times have changed.

When Brandon Jennings went to Rome it was a path no prep star had ever taken

So when we look back at 2008 — at Brandon Jennings’s culture-shifting decision to forego college and play basketball in Rome — we should actually be more impressed by his choice to leave his home, than by his choice to go pro.

Compton isn’t Rome. One is known for housing the holy Pope. The other is notorious for gang life and hustling. These are hyperboles, of course — mythic fantasies we’ve built in our imaginations. Rome is more than an architectural mecca and Compton is much more than a rap song. But, despite their nuances, one fact remains true: these locations are worlds apart and, geographically and culturally, rarely bridged in our minds.

That’s why Brandon Jennings’s choice — a Compton teenager’s decision — to skip college and pursue a professional basketball career in Italy established him as such a colossal, cross-Atlantic wavemaker. Not only did he challenge the basketball world’s status quo by paving an unwalked path, but he challenged society’s expectation for a young Black talent to stay in his lane and never leave his neighborhood — let alone his country. Dude went straight “outta” the States (shout out N.W.A) to the Italian capital at only age 18. And he did so in historic fashion — like no one could have imagined in those times.

In 2008, Jennings became the first American teenager to escape the NCAA one-year rule, instead inking a $1.2 million deal to ball as a pro overseas. No recruit had done anything like it before him. Think about that. Not a single U.S. high schooler in the history of American high school basketball had ever decided to pass up on a guaranteed college scholarship or NBA entry — therefore jettisoning life as a famous athlete — to live in relative obscurity as a working adult professional in another country. Not Shaq, not MJ, not Kobe. But Brandon Jennings did.

After an outstanding career at the legendary high school basketball prep, Oak Hill, in West Virginia — where he spent a few years to hone his basketball skills after growing up in Los Angeles — he said no thank you to offers from elite university programs around the country, packed his bags, and hopped onto an airplane (which definitely didn’t have those touch screen TVs in the back of every headrest where you can just zone out and binge your favorite action movies during a 13-hour flight; it was 2008, so the kid probably just had an issue of SLAM magazine with him).

Forget the fact that Jennings eventually entered the NBA as the No.10 overall pick in the 2009 draft. Forget that he scorched Steph Curry by dropping 55 points against his rookie contemporary in both of their debut seasons. Forget that the young star quickly became the face of Milwaukee’s struggling franchise and led them to a playoff appearance in his first season. Forget it all, all of his basketball cult status and following.

JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images

This teenager was living in Rome, and playing with grown-ass European men, learning how to speak a new language and operate within a foreign society, while every single one of his classmates were sitting in uncomfortably undersized desks and pretending to study for exams in classrooms in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Kansas.

It should be noted that Jennings had previously committed to the University of Arizona at one point during his recruitment, but due to SAT complications and hesitations on his part — which, let’s be honest, for an elite basketball recruit at a major university in 2008, wouldn’t have stopped him from attending if he really wanted to — he just switched gears and Eurostepped to Europa.

But Rome wasn’t all victory, as the storybook narrative would have it seem. It was actually far from easy and extremely difficult — like the real world often is. Jennings struggled in his first and only year abroad, averaging only 8 points per game (after averaging nearly double that in his high school career, with just over 15 points and 11 dimes each night against the best U.S. competition, even being named a National Player of the Year and breaking scoring records of other future NBA stars). In Italy though, his production was halved, his time on the court was limited, and he never got the shine or spotlight that he clearly wanted to embrace — as he later did in the NBA when given the chance — to be the guy. Instead, he was treated like the American kid.

It’s a complicated thing. Taking on any career as a fresh high school graduate — but to do it on foreign soil? In Europe, they didn’t just drop everything and say, “here’s your free pass, American teenager, welcome, we’ve been waiting.” They treated him like an average and potentially undeserving part of a much bigger and complex team system, in which he was only a minor piece to the coach’s puzzle. That’s what B-Jennings’s time in Europe was like as a youth — a puzzle, which had to learn to reassemble every night.

In interviews of him during his experience as a Lottomatica Virtus Roma pro, the boyish joy and obedient awkwardness of a teen trying to please his employer (because let’s face it, athletes are glorified employees who the world pays to watch while they’re on the job) is evident. He’s a teenager trying to keep his job for chrissake. If the coach ordered him to play hard defense and pass first (which his demanding coach did tell him), what else could Jennings do? If Jennings wasn’t able to communicate with his teammates in English and barely spoke Italian, how the hell could he build chemistry as a point guard and team leader? On top of that, he didn’t have a neat little dorm room and cafeteria to get his planned meals delivered from. The guy was living as an adult in a faraway city. And you know what that means? Laundry, dinner, work, repeat. (There’s this interesting video by his sponsor, Under Armour, in which he talks about learning how to hang dry clothes for the first time in his life because Italy, like many countries around the world, doesn’t use electric dryers).

He brought his mom and brother along to help, but at the end of the day, Jennings was the man — paying bills for not only himself, but for two of his family members, and doing what very few men who grew up where he did do: experiencing the world beyond the literal and figurative borders that confine so many who grow up without someone to teach about the game beyond the game. Because how can you know the limitations past the gym’s ceiling if you’ve only been stuck on a hardwood floor?

That’s what inspires me about Jennings. It’s not so much that he eventually became the face of an NBA franchise for a hot minute — which is already worth tipping your fitted cap to — but that he saw the bigger world and decided to live in it, in a time and in a way that so few U.S. citizens did, especially not blue-chip hoopers from Compton.

Interestingly enough, this near-myth of a man has long been at it, recently going to work in China as a baller, still learning about new cultures and new languages while doing what he loves. Though his playing days have ended — and I must emphasize this since he was resurrecting his career up to the point of his injury on the Detroit Pistons in 2015 — he has had a remarkable journey that arguably no other player has achieved.

In many ways, he reshaped how young athletes with real NBA potential could navigate their career paths. Though his move didn’t set a global trend and deplete the ranks of young talent going to the NCAA on their way to the League — which some critics were ready to blame or credit Jennings for doing back then — he did create a blueprint that others, like Emmanuel Mudiay, have used in constructing their own destiny.

With the NBA’s discussion to likely remove the age limit in 2022 — a long-standing and controversial rule that in many ways prompted Brandon Jennings to create an alternative route — BJ’s legacy sit atop an even more exclusive club, as the next generation of stars will be able to directly join the NBA if they elect to pass up on college. In other words, we’ll still be getting the world’s best players, but they probably won’t be getting ours anymore.

Even after his NBA career has flamed out due to injuries, I honor Brandon Jennings. For what he did, for when he did it, and for how and why he did it. Yes, some of us are privileged enough to pursue our dreams in the United States. But at the apex of rarity, is making that leap of faith across any ocean or continent and leaving behind the cultural, psychological, and linguistic security of home to see what else is possible out there. A working immigrant, of sorts. He just happened to do it while bringing a basketball along with him.

Check out more reflections in our NBA at 75 series and subscribe to The Whiteboard to make sure you keep up with all our latest NBA news and analysis.

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