He Traveled to Albania and Got Signed to Play Pro Basketball.
By Jakobi Bonner
I don’t think it would take a rocket scientist to realize that overseas professional basketball isn’t the most stable career choice.
I found myself muttering this last fall as I was given a two-day notice to pack my bags and fly from Orlando to Montenegro on another contract.
I then found myself muttering this again one month later as I sat, very frustrated on a sweaty, smelly, and packed bus traveling for four hours from Podgorica, Montenegro to Tirana, Albania.
Now look man, I put a ball in a hoop for a living. It’s fun. And at the conclusion of my last season, I backpacked all of Europe in less than a month’s time. I was booking accommodations and flights with a couple of hours’ notice.
I can say with confidence I’ve been in some, uh, interesting situations; but I still live life on the edge, with a carefree attitude. I say that because as I was seated on this crowded bus, getting coughed on by an old Irish backpacker, the frustration begin to really set in.
Saying Bye Bye to Montenegro
I just parted ways with my Montenegrin sports club and planned to give myself a mental break and do some traveling before taking another deal. My first stop was to visit my old teammate from college.
He somehow ended up playing basketball in Albania, and I was excited to see an old friend; plus, I had heard there was lot of rich history in Albania.
It was only meant to be a four-day trip — trust me, I had already booked my flight for my next destination; and from what I initially saw in the city, I wasn’t that impressed with Tirana.
Anyways, being a basketball junkie, I decided to check out a local game one Sunday evening, two days before I booked my flight to leave, and little did I know I would be meeting the coach of one of the oldest and most storied sports franchises in Albania: Klub Sport Tirana.
I was invited for a training session with the team the following evening. I figured I’d get some good court time and show off some skills for fun; but little did I know, on the day of my scheduled departure, I canceled my flights and signed a deal to stay and play in the Albanian Superliga for the remainder of the 2022 – 2023 season.
Okay, I know what a lot of you are thinking: Albania… man, what? All the stereotypes, the unrest, and the news clips you might have seen. I had one friend say that when he thinks of Albania, two things come up: cigarettes and anger. Haha, pause.
There might be some truth to some of the fables and stories you may have read, but to my surprise, I’ve slowly developed a deep and genuine adoration for this small, cheap, and sunny Balkan country; the crowded sweaty bus ride was worth it.
To the literal breath-taking natural sites I’ve witnessed, homely cafes I frequently attend, 200 lek (roughly two dollars) whole pizzas I eat, and the sunny warmth that not only reflects the fact that it’s one of the sunniest countries in Europe but also the sunny sweet souls I’ve met.
One may ponder what it’s like being an American, playing in a relatively unknown country such as Albania. Believe me, the beautiful thing about doing something you love internationally is you recognize that love and passion overcome cultural and language barriers; and based on the age differences in my club, those barriers are big.
Different Age Players
To my surprise, my teammates’ ages vary tremendously. The youngest is a talented 16-year-old; not even old enough to drink a beer after a win, but still a huge fan of American Rap & Hip-Hop culture.
You see in European athletics; younger and more talented kids are “thrown into the fire” and compete with the older and more senior members of athletic clubs. Famous players such as Luka Doncic, Drazen Petrovic, and even Cristiano Renaldo are great success examples of the success of this method.
But still, the most senior member on my team is 36 years old, and although I call him grandpa, or “gyshi,” in Albanian — I hate to admit that he still almost jumps as high as me. I guess he’s discovered the Albanian fountain of youth.
Moreover, one of the more difficult parts of the barriers listed above is the communication aspect. First off, Albanian is one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn.
No lie — it probably took me a legit two months before I had the confidence to say “faleminderit,” or “thank you” while departing Supermarkets.
Some Speak English, Other’s Not
Although specifically among my team, some know English well, and others not so much. To be honest, this can be witnessed on the basketball court.
Traditionally, in basketball, you communicate with one another to make sure that the team is organized well both offensively and defensively.
Unfortunately, our communication deficiencies often reveal themselves when there is a man wide open on defense or we’re slightly out of place on offense.
More than likely, in Albania most of the younger crowd communicates in English better than the older people, but on my team it’s mixed.
Turns out some of the older players on my team are patient and help translate for me whenever the coach speaks. And regarding the younger guys, one teammate of mine is my age (24), and a great guy, but whenever we’ve hung out or chatted, we have to use Google translate!
Despite all this, one Albanian word that will be burned in my memory is “hejda!” which essentially means “lets go,” or “hurry.” It is either yelled as a teammate of mine makes a big play, or if my coach is chewing us out for moving too slowly during practice.
All this being said, differences and barriers acknowledged; the bond that we hold towards basketball still drives us together to do one thing: win.
Big Adjustments as a Player
Furthermore, hear me clearly: while being an international professional basketball star is immense fun, and random, it doesn’t take away from the huge adjustments to be made.
You’re away from home, homesick, the training is structured differently, and specifically, in the Balkan region, the play style is very physical. I feel like I’m being whacked like a pinata every time I step onto the floor.
But most of all, there’s a huge perception behind being “The American.” Often time, Americans are categorized as “imports.” Some international leagues may only have 1 or 2 spots available per team.
So, you may get that job over thousands of other athletes all over the globe; not even just Americans.
The likeliness of getting a job usually, depends on your skill level, career resume, or the agency that represents you. But when you get there, sometimes, as in my case it can be a little frustrating.
It’s like “whoa, the American!” Michael Jordan! But I’m like no, I’m just Jakobi Bonner. I have good days and bad days, but at the end of the day: I’m just me.
One teammate is always asking why I don’t dunk more in practice, to which I respond: “Look man, I’m not Lebron James, my legs are tired!
More importantly, the most fun part of competing here in Albania has been journeying to our away matches, witnessing the immense natural beauty of the country, and experiencing bitter sports rivalries. One weekend, I got both of those in the same day.
When traveling as an overseas professional, your mode of transportation may vary depending on the size and financial situation of your club.
More than likely, for smaller countries, you’re not getting transported by a private plane or luxury bus. In our case, it was a small white van. Buckle up!
On that weekend, our van departed for Shkodër , a beautiful city, and one of the oldest inhabited municipalities in the Balkan region. We were set to play KB Vllaznia. Our clubs were two of the oldest in Albania. Throughout the years, numerous matches were fiercely contested with nail-biting finishes.
Serious Basketball Rivalries
I later discovered from my teammates that many matches in the past also resulted in physical altercations. Despite Vllanzia being lower in strength this season, one wouldn’t suspect it by the mental focus of every one of my teammates old and young that evening.
As we embarked on our journey to Shkodër and left the hustle and bustle of Tirana we crossed the threshold into the sensational landscape of the Albanian countryside.
Within minutes of leaving the city, in every which way you turned, there were vast hills and grand mountainous ranges. 70% of Albania is covered by mountains; so, every away trip we had was pretty much the equivalent to a site seeing tour. My mind always shifts from the importance of our games to the fantasy of a hiking excursion of a day off.
Small cozy homes were spread out amongst the great sites, many tucked away comfortably behind large trees, while others stacked upon each other and reflected bright colors. I also observed many uncompleted buildings. Albania, which for a large span of time was ruled by a ruthless communist dictator, is a relatively new democratic nation that is still progressing in regard to its infrastructural development.
Despite being completely focused on my club’s desired match at hand, I couldn’t help but revel in the gorgeous landscape and scenery that are small white van navigated. I turned my music off, put my phone down, and just stared.
My mind continued to drift from our game to the fantasy of an excursion on a day off of training to some of the alluring sites we passed.
It’s funny, many people often talk about Europe and their desire to go hiking in Switzerland or Italy; but at the same time, many underestimate the immense fun and cheap prices that Albania so easily offers.
Despite the beauty of the gorgeous landscapes and thriving nature, we navigated, the ugliness of the rivalry match that night should give you a proper insight into what basketball can be like in Albania.
In my opinion: Albanian, and European fans in general, are much more loyal to their respective teams than Americans. This could be seen at our match that night as the crowd roared insults at us in Albanian so vicious, that I regret to even learn what they were saying.
At one point during our match, the game stopped. Literally paused. We were told to go to our benches and wait. I turned to one of my teammates who spoke better English and was just like “Bro what?”
5 minutes passed. Then another. And another. More chanting. More insults…Turns out: the crowd was getting so nasty, that they needed to stop the game to call security! That was my first realization of how serious and dedicated locals are to sports here.
Altogether, despite this, I guess you could consider me a fan of a lot of aspects of Albania. To the heavy cafe culture, where I literally witness the same elderly person sippin’ the same coffee from the time I go and depart from training; or even to the immense amount of stray dogs I’m going to gather up and bring back with me to America with me.
Bottom line, before you die, you need to witness the distinctive cultural and natural beauty of Albania; and more importantly, you need to watch some Albanian basketball rivals go at it. Hey, maybe you’ll learn how to say a couple of insults in Albanian. I certainly have (Sorry Mom).
You won’t regret it. Book that flight “hejda, hejda!”
Jakobi Bonner is a professional basketball player and freelance writer from Orlando, Florida. He also has played for teams in London, England, and Montenegro. Besides playing basketball, he loves to read, act, explore new environments, and of course, give back to the community — he recently started his own basketball camp in Orlando, aiming to empower the youth in his local community.