Justin Pierce would not return.
He had spent four years bouncing around gyms in Los Angeles — even living in one — just to try his luck at a professional basketball career. He had spent the previous two years, after a playing career at Averett University in Danville, Va., saving his pennies for the G League tryouts. He had been scammed, defrauded and sucked into the maw of the slot machine that is the world of professional basketball below deck and spat out without even a place to live.
But in September, Pierce, 32, was summoned by Mike Creppy, managing director of Los Angeles-based international consultancy Vindicated Sports, to accompany the agency to a showcase in Uruguay. After a five-month stint in Costa Rica where he averaged over 30 points per game for the Caribe Jaguares, Pierce was determined to secure a deal by any means necessary.
He bought a one-way plane ticket. He did not return home empty-handed. Not yet.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m missing this,'” Pierce said. “I don’t have money to come back anyway.”
There’s a certain class of hard-court grinders in LA that exist between the fringes, between the G League and the semi-pro, striving for a chance to play in another country. According to the RealGM website, more than 80 Los Angeles players have played overseas. Some are former NBA pros like Jordan Farmar, a two-time NBA champion with the Lakers. But many, like Pierce, are products of small colleges with divergent resumes.
For them, playing abroad is a holy grail, without a clear GPS route. The business is fierce, say the players. If you’re not careful, a player can get broke or stuck halfway around the world spinning their wheels.
“It’s almost like racing without a finish line,” Creppy said. “They don’t know where they are running.”
Coming out of Averett, Pierce had no plan. Few players make it when they don’t have a direct path to the NBA.
Still, he believed his calling in life was to play professional basketball, and after two scoreless years on the East Coast, Pierce moved to Southern California to focus on coaching.
The basketball part was one thing. Living was the most pressing issue. After his roommate situation deteriorated, Pierce moved into his trainer’s office at a local gym. It was smaller than a dormitory and had no windows.
What it had, however, were glorious photos of NBA legends hanging on its walls. Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird made fun of Pierce every day.
“You look at each other, and it’s like, man, man, you don’t have a car, you don’t have a job,” Pierce said. “I’m in a gymnasium. I am homeless, bro.
For many in Pierce’s situation, injury or personal circumstances have thrown a wrench in professional career plans.
Former Panorama City St. Genevieve High player Marcel Burton, 23, was injured in his senior year at Lincoln University Division II in Jefferson City, Mo., and has spent the past two years training in Los Angeles to get on the professional radar. Zena Edosomwan, 28, was a top 100 recruit at Studio City Harvard-Westlake High, graduated from Harvard and then spent two years recovering from a knee injury.
“It’s like the wild Wild West. What sets you apart?”
– Zena Edosomwan, a former high school and college basketball star, became a professional basketball player.
Creppy, a veteran of more than a decade overseas, had his hopes of a promising career at UC Riverside dashed when he suffered a nasty shoulder separation after a car crash that killed a teammate. .
They weren’t ready to give up on their dream and playing abroad offered a chance to earn a living. But most clubs have a quota for imports from the United States. Fighting for a spot overseas is incredibly competitive, said Edosomwan, who has just started a stint in Canada.
“It’s like the wild west,” Edosomwan said. “What sets you apart? »
Sacrifice. That’s what they all pointed to as the difference maker – the will to fight. To save money for a dream, rather than indulge in the extravagance that Los Angeles hangs like a carrot.
But this dream can cause players to trip over themselves as they rush into an opportunity.
Clutching his phone and sunglasses, Creppy paced the sideline. He turned away from the squeaking of sneakers behind him, holding the phone to his ear.
“Why do you have to fly from Thessaloniki to Tbilisi?” he asked Joshua Nurse, his voice on the line. “Uh-huh. Are you sure?”
His attention is abruptly diverted from watching Burton working out in a sweaty gymnasium in Chatsworth. Nurse, at that point abandoned in North Macedonia while playing for Prva Liga side KK Kosuv, is in crisis mode.
“They never got your visa?” Creppy said, voice rising slightly. “Oh yes, we’ll get you out of here.”
Incorrect documentation could have led Border Patrol to arrest Nurse before his flight, questioning why he had been in the country for more than three months without a visa. Creppy knows his client could spend the night in a freezing holding cell. He had seen it happen before.
So he retrieved Nurse’s contract from his phone, pinching the screen with two fingers. Satisfied with a solution, Creppy put the phone to his mouth and spoke a series of firm instructions: tell the club that you are asking for an immediate termination of the contract due to an incorrect visa deposit and late payments.
He hung up, a tired smile on the corner of his mouth.
“It’s every day,” Creppy said.
Creppy warned Nurse to take this contract. The big man, averaging just two points per game with KK Kosuv, had rushed into an engagement out of impatience.
It’s a trap that Creppy sees alien hopefuls fall into repeatedly. In 2017, Creppy launched Vindicated and published a guide to playing overseas because he wanted to help players who had experienced the same pitfalls as him.
At every fork in the road there is a club offering a contract full of red flags, an agency offering representation that will take money and shut up, a storefront offering exposure that ends up being “useless”, like the said Burton.
“There are so many dishonest and crooked people. It’s predatory. »
– Mike Creppy, on securing opportunities and contracts for players overseas
Out of the blue, a few years earlier, an email appeared in Pierce’s inbox with an offer to play for a team in the Netherlands. It was a solution at a time when he was technically homeless.
“I don’t know anything at this point,” Pierce recalled. “I tell my coaches, like, ‘We did it!'”
The shipper asked for money to get Pierce there. He collected what little money he had, even going so far as to contact his family members. But the weeks passed with radio silence. Pierce grew suspicious.
After some research online, the truth hit him in the face: the company didn’t exist. The team name mentioned in the email was associated with a scam. He had just squandered his limited funds on a long-awaited chance to play overseas that had never existed.
“It was the first time I actually thought about quitting,” Pierce said. “Am I doing all this just to get scammed?”
“If you’re desperate and they smell blood,” he later continued, “they’ll sell you your dream.”
Pierce could have hung up the sneakers, moved back to Virginia, gotten a job at a T-Mobile or Sprint store. Could have had stability.
It was not his destiny, he thought. So Pierce lived in that office for three years, hearing persistent encouragement from coaches, feeling flashes of validation working alongside NBA players.
He came to regard his situation as a blessing. He could get out of bed in the morning, down the stairs, and walk on land with a pull machine.
“We’ve got to be willing to make the sacrifice to get there,” Pierce said, “because otherwise you’ll rot trying to figure out why it’s not working.”
Eventually the hard work paid off with the concert in Costa Rica. After Pierce finished burning nets there, Creppy invited him to Uruguay, during the international signing period.
Pierce had spent seven years on this uncharted path of chasing dreams, seven years of sweat, tears and empty pockets. So he booked the one-way ticket. Now, after impressing in that showcase, Pierce plays for Olivol Mundial of La Liga Uruguaya.
Life has been weird. He lives in a one-bedroom house with no central air conditioning. Back in Costa Rica, her trainer was her roommate, and as they walked the streets every day, a parade of stray dogs and chickens passed by.
Everything is different. But this is not the inside of a gym office. Pierce won’t be coming back.