Joe McLean seems like a normal enough guy. Bay Area Middle class upbringing, now employed as a consultant for Franklin/Templeton Investments in Pennsylvania.
Pretty hum drum.
Well, except for his post-Arizona basketball playing days. A lot of former UA Wildcats have had interesting professional basketball experiences, but it's hard to imagine anyone can top McLean's travails.
"I started off in the CBA and IBA, then played for 11 different teams in Spain and Europe for three and a half years," said McLean, who visited Tucson with other former UA players during the Centennial Celebration All-Star weekend in August. "I played for (the Sacramento Kings) during the NBA strike in 1998, but got cut shortly thereafter. Then I played in Australia and Europe again."
Let's start with the CBA. Bismarck, North Dakota. Not quite San Francisco. Not quite Tucson.
"I lived in the Bismarck Hotel. There were cracks in the window," McLean said. "You could put your food and soda up to the window and it would freeze overnight. It was the worst six months of my life. We slept in churches. We slept in diners. There were times they'd shut down the whole state. We had 20-hour bus rides where we put the uniform on the bus to arrive and play."
But still, it was sort of stable. That is, when compared to the revolving door world of the European Leagues. As his 11-team tour would suggest, McLean pretty much defined the term Journeyman.
"If you think 11 countries in three and a half years, there are only two Americans per team in Europe, so there are no binding contracts," McLean said. "If you lose two or three games, they'll rip up your contract and send you home. It's an ongoing cycle. Americans literally pass each other in the airports. It's all business, but you certainly get to see the world that way."
OK, so it's really cold in North Dakota. And you're basketball livelihood hangs by a thread in Europe. Eh, that's child's play when compared to the professional experience in Australia, or more accurately for an Australian team playing in communist Asia.
"There was a near-death experience in China," McLean said. "We were playing the Shanghai Dragons with Yao Ming, who was 16-years-old at the time. We had just bombed the Yugoslavian embassy in China by mistake, and there was a lot of animosity toward Americans. A fight broke out and they threw hundreds of glass Evian bottles at the crew and stormed the court. A lot of people got injured. That was one of those "For Love of the Game" things. What the heck am I doing here in China playing basketball? I saw fans shoot flare guns at the referees if they made a bad call. You could probably write a book on those experiences."
And somebody probably should. It's different for McLean now. Stable job, stable paycheck, stable life. But this whole stability thing has its drawbacks.
"I'm getting the itch again," McLean said. "Fortunately, I'll be doing some international traveling with my company."
He may not have made the riches afforded NBA stars, which means he actually still has to work for a living, but McLean has a treasure chest of priceless memories.
"If I had to choose five years in the NBA or five with this route, I'd do this again," McLean said. "It was an incredible experience."
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