WHEN IT COMES to well-traveled athletes, Brett Vroman is world-class. No question.
He has been around. Go ahead. Name a country that has glass backboards. He's probably played in it. He's got more stamps on his passport than Henry Kissinger. Talk about long road trips.He's heard locker room talks in every language known to Europe. He's gotten paid in everything from lira to pesetas to francs.
You might remember Vroman as the 7-footer at Provo High who helped the Bulldogs win 56 straight basketball games in 1973 and 1974 before moving on - quite literally. He played in college first at UCLA and
then at UNLV. Abbreviated as those stops were, they turned out to be the longest tenures he's had with a single team.
He played 11 games with the Utah Jazz in 1980-81, exactly a decade ago. Now he's back at another Jazz preseason camp - trying out for two available roster spots this week at Westminster College. Which is why his name has resurfaced, and why people are asking him where in the world he's been.
Or, rather, where in the world he hasn't been.
After he was cut by the Jazz, Vroman turned to the pro leagues in Europe. For the past 10 seasons he has roamed the continent Over There, hiring out to the highest bidder. He's played in Italy for six years and in Spain, Greece, Finland and France for one year each, and he's never played for the same team twice except for one two-year deal in Italy. He even found time to play a spring season in Venezuela. He has competed in virtually every country in Europe. He once played in Albania, where few Americans have even been, let alone taken a jump shot. He has been given houses and cars and salaries in a variety of sizes, and he says his best years "were the ones when the team made it to the end of the season and I got paid."
"I've got a lot of kilometers on me," he says, putting an international slant on an old cliche.
Game-wise, the European campaign has been much more merciful than the NBA. European seasons are typically around 30 games. Vroman has racked up maybe 400 games, tops, since the Jazz last saw him (while adding 22 pounds of muscle and staying at the same 8 percent body fat he was a decade ago). An NBA player would have 1,000 games in that same time frame.
Ironically, it's because of the 11 games Vroman played with the Jazz in 1980 that he stayed in Europe so long.
He was caught in the grip of a European rule that stipulated that if a player left the NBA and came to Europe they would give him back his amateur status (so-called). But, if he came back to the NBA and played again he couldn't return to Europe because he would then be considered a professional.
A strange and inconvenient rule that made Vroman think twice about coming back to the NBA and risk sticking with a team for only a month or two, and then being out of a job, and without the European option.
So he stayed a mercenary.
"I became pretty flexible," he says. "I tried to submerge myself in whatever culture I was in, although sometimes that's not so easy when you're a 7-foot guy walking around."
In the offseasons, he had a penchant for giving himself a real break. One summer he spent on a beach in Hawaii, another on a Greek island in the Mediterranean, another two in a cabin in Alaska.
Then he'd return to Europe and sign with a new country. "Sometimes I'd change countries for the same money - just to see a new place," he says. The basketball was more or less the same all over, and he loved the basketball. He believes he became a tougher, smarter player because of it. Out of necessity as much as anything. There were never any guaranteed contracts. Never any multi-year deals. You were never any better than your last game. In Europe they think there is an endless supply of Americans who play basketball, and when most teams are limited to two each on their roster, they're not far off.
A change in the amateur rule two years ago made it possible for Vroman, now 34, to entertain notions of playing in the NBA again. He tried out with Charlotte and made it to the final cut, but was told they didn't need a veteran when they were going to lose 50 or 60 games anyway.
His tryout this week with the Jazz doesn't preclude him going back to Europe. His agent has heard an offer from Israel already ("Israel?" says Vroman. "I don't know about that right now.") But he's serious about rejoining his old team, and so, he's been told, are they.
"I told them please don't waste my time, or theirs, if this wasn't the real thing, if I didn't have a genuine chance," Vroman says.
As for his latest culture shock, he says he's enjoying it immensely.
"The NBA," he says reverently. "The intensity, the teaching, the seriousness here. They treat basketball like an artform. It's great. I'm having to pay attention, I'm having to learn. I'm out there guarding Thurl Bailey in the low post rather than Antonio Lorenzo, some Italian guy."
Brett Vroman has come full circle. And it's been a big circle. Like Marco Polo, now he's back from wherever it was he went - and has he got some stories to tell.