Finding former NBA players abroad – whether they’re just collecting checks, prolonging their career, reestablishing their name or expanding their on-court role – is nothing new. The NBA’s export market, after all, has not only helped connect international fans with the American product at large but has also produced mutually beneficial results. However, what has scarcely been seen before is former NBA lottery picks opting to take their services down to the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest island nation (as a means to help their basketball value). Jonny Flynn led the way when he first suited up for the Melbourne Tigers in Australia’s National Basketball League (NBL) and, more recently, Josh Childress decided it would also be advantageous too, signing for an undisclosed amount with the prestigious Sydney Kings.
Drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Hawks in 2004, Childress’ initial NBA run saw the 6’8 small forward average double-digit points in his first four seasons despite limited starts and a number of injuries that prevented the former Stanford standout from ever participating in all 82 games of a campaign. In the 2007-08 season with Atlanta, he averaged 11.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists on 57-37-80 shooting splits while backing up Marvin Williams for the playoff-bound Hawks. After that, Childress took his game over to Europe because contract negotiations with Atlanta dragged on for weeks despite the front office telling him he was a priority signing.
Given his reputation as a very productive reserve, Childress entertained a dozen serious NBA offers, including interest from contenders like the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs. In the end, Childress decided to become the world’s highest-paid non-NBA player by accepting a three-year, $20 million contract from Olympiacos Piraeus – double what the Hawks had offered on an annual basis.
It was an unprecedented move that many believed showed signs of Europe’s domestic basketball maturity. While other ambitious offers had been made to former NBA lottery picks in the past, Childress’ decision signaled to everyone that he wasn’t just a potential double-double contributor, he was also a hoops diplomat.
Following two solid seasons in Greece, Childress returned to the NBA, signing with Phoenix in 2010 for $33 million over five years. Amnestied by the Suns in 2012, Childress then inked a deal with the Brooklyn Nets, but only managed to clock 100 minutes of court time with them. His subsequent four years in the NBA were plagued by injuries, with Childress making a mere 106 total NBA appearances after returning from Europe.
With his career at a crossroads, Childress contemplated retirement before the Kings of Sydney came calling. While his first (temporary) NBA departure didn’t kick open the defection doors, it did show Childress that there was quality basketball being played abroad. Sydney, optimistic that Childress’ decision to play in the Harbour City would shine a similar torch into their corner of the hoops world, pursued him hard and eventually secured their marquee player.
Once he arrived in Australia’s biggest market, the former NBA player won hearts off the court (continuing his annual ‘Kicks and Flicks’ event, a tradition started in conjunction with The Josh Childress Foundation while he was a member of the Hawks) and dominated on it (averaging a league best 21.1 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks, numbers that are even more impressive due to the fact the NBL only plays 40-minute games). Going by averages and impact alone, he seemed like the front-runner to claim the league’s MVP award, but then Childress suffered a season-ending torn pectoral muscle after 18 games.
Even though he’s no longer suiting up for the Kings, Basketball Insiders sat down with the 31-year-old to discuss why he decided to play in the NBL, what it was like adapting to the new environment and what his experience in Australia was like.
Basketball Insiders: First, you surprised many when you elected to sign with the Sydney Kings (in August, 2014). How did you end up playing in here? Take us through the journey of hearing about the interest from the Kings’ management and the discussions you had with your agent and family about relocating to the southern hemisphere.
Josh Childress: I initially received a phone call from my agent while on vacation for my birthday [on June 20]. He mentioned an opportunity to play in Sydney and expressed that he thought it would be a great experience for me. Having always wanted to visit Australia, but not being able to due to the opposite seasons (my offseason was always in the Australian winter), I didn’t really think much of it upon first hearing it. However, I ended up in Sydney after many long discussions with the head of basketball operations Tim Hudson and our head coach Damien Cotter. Having gone through a frustrating few years of basketball, I had lost the fun factor that used to be there. Not playing, being cut and getting injured made the game more stressful than fun. When speaking with both of them, they were more interested in helping me redevelop my passion and helping me build my brand off the court than on it. That’s when I really knew that I had a great opportunity.
BI: After being waived by the Washington Wizards in October 2013, you inked a deal with the New Orleans Pelicans only to be cut a month later. That meant you entered 2014 without a pro contract. I read you contemplated retirement, is that true and how close did you come to hanging up the sneakers?
JC: It was very true. I ended up having surgery on December 31, 2013, to repair a torn abdominal muscle and was contemplating whether I would go through the rehab process aggressively like an athlete or take my time. I ended up taking my time and a few months later, while playing in some pickup games, I fractured my ankle and the retirement option became very real to me. I spent many hours debating on what I wanted to do before I had the conversation with the Sydney Kings.
BI: Despite a record number of Australians in the NBA, one doesn’t automatically associate the NBL talent with making the leap to the NBA. Did you and your agent ever talk about what playing in the NBL would mean for the future of your career? If so, is the NBA still a priority or have you decided it’s time to keep exploring non-U.S. avenues?
JC: Yes, my agent discussed the option of trying to go back to the NBA with me. While I am definitely leaving my options open, I think that my only priority will be doing what makes me happy. That doesn’t necessarily mean NBA or Europe. A bigger paycheck doesn’t equate to happiness. I have really enjoyed my time here in Sydney and have enjoyed getting to experience the Aussie culture.
BI: Before signing with the Kings, were there any other 2014 playing offers on the table from other teams, either in the NBA or overseas?
JC: Yes, there were offers. But nothing that jumped out at me.
BI: When you first arrived, what were your initial thoughts on the team and did you know much about the Kings’ heritage, the NBL or basketball culture in Australia?
JC: When I arrived, I didn’t know what to think. I only had YouTube as my guide and I looked up some of the games from the years before. Other than that, I only knew what I heard from Tim and Coach.
BI: Speaking of the coaching staff, given all the systems you’ve played in, I’m interested to hear your take on the differences between the NBL and the college game, NBA and Euroleague – as far as style, physicality, coaching, etc.
JC: I think the NBL is very similar to the other leagues in many regards. The coaching styles aren’t any different than any other places. The games are a bit more fast paced than some college and European leagues due to the 14 second shot clock reset. However, other than that it’s fairly similar. Obviously, the talent level isn’t as high compared to the NBA, but there are some very good players here.
BI: Let’s talk pro-level training sessions for a minute. What is the scheduling like as a member of the Kings and how did the training sessions in the NBL compare with other teams you’ve played for? I ask because we hear more and more that NBA coaches are passing up training for more sleep (especially on back-to-backs) while over in Europe it can be grueling two-a-day sessions. From your point of view, what was a typical Kings practice like compared with other countries and were you surprised in any way by the procedures of the NBL?
JC: The typical Kings’ training schedule is pretty good. While I am not really a morning person, I don’t mind getting up early and battling with Sydney traffic if I have the rest of the day to do what I want. We train in the weight room one to three times per week depending on how many games we have and we practice basketball about five days a week. We generally have one day during the week off and the day after games off. In comparison to the NBA, we train more but have less games so there is a trade off. It’s literally impossible to have five days a week of regular practice in the NBA due to the travel and game schedule. In Europe, most teams train twice per day and it can be pretty demanding. I was on a team that practiced once a day so I can’t speak on that. One thing of note that also affects our ability to train longer hours here is that many players are either in school or may have other jobs to supplement their income. Salaries aren’t as high in the NBL as they are in other leagues.
BI: Your respective NBA contracts have been well documented, but those weren’t game changers. However, you’re now a big fish in a small pond and you’ve often been touted as the biggest name to ever play in the NBL. Now that you’ve played here, would you ever recommend college graduates or fringe NBA players to seriously consider Australia’s NBL as an option?
JC: I would definitely recommend the NBL to college graduates and fringe NBA players. I think the issue that arises for many NBL teams is that it’s difficult to build teams when you have new imports every season. Building a good team starts with a foundation and if you’re shuffling in players who are viewing the league as a springboard to either make more money elsewhere or get some game footage to send to other teams, it creates a situation where it hurts the league. So getting guys who want to be here and enjoy the culture is important.
BI: When I’ve spoken with other former NCAA players in the past (who have competed in the NBL) they often cite the climate, lifestyle, being paid on time and the lack of any language barriers as primary reasons to play in Australia. Did those things influence your decision?
JC: These things definitely influenced my decision to play ball in Sydney. I think these factors have helped ease the transition and also have given me the ability to look into business ventures as well. They both go hand in hand. I never wanted to be an athlete that was done playing and hadn’t built himself and his post-career life in the process. So having those business opportunities in Sydney creates an advantage that I can’t necessarily get playing in other countries.
BI: I’m keen to know about the Australian experience from an outsider’s point of view. NBL crowds are often well behaved (for the most part). You’ve witnessed your fair share of hostile crowds (especially in Greece), what are a few of the more memorable venues you’ve played in and what has made each of those experiences stick?
JC: I have played in environments where I was worried for my safety – being spat on, having things thrown at you, having small explosives detonate while you shoot a jump shot or having laser pointers in your eyes while shooting free throws. These are just a few things I have experienced. I could write a laundry list of things I’ve seen while playing, but I’ll just say that I enjoy the NBL and its fans.
BI: Shifting gears for a moment, you mentioned in a previous interview that pro basketball wasn’t considered a serious career option for you until you were roughly 16 years old. Given all that you’ve accomplished on the court, and all the money you’ve earned playing the game, what’s left for you to achieve? Is the journey even measured in terms of accomplishments?
JC: Any player would say championships and I’m no different. Making the Final Four twice in Europe is the closest I’ve gotten, so I would love to win a few. Other than that, I just enjoy competing. I find myself going through withdrawals when I can’t compete and I start trying to make a game out of anything, so the love of competition drives me.
BI: You’re now in the elder statesman class (given your age). Are you someone who enjoys teaching younger players about what it takes to be successful at the pro level and did any of the NBL players or coaches pick your brain about NBA life or methods?
JC: Yes, many of the guys associated with the team ask question about my journey and the things I have experienced while playing in the NBA and Europe. I’m not one to offer up information, but when they ask I give it freely. I enjoy seeing the younger players get better and I want to help out as much as possible.
BI: I have to ask, given there are no language barriers, what kind of teammates are the Australian players and what have you discovered about how Australians approach the game that you didn’t know before you arrived?
JC: I despise all of my Australian teammates; just kidding! I have found them to be really good guys and I have enjoyed my time with them. They are a very hard working and I respect their approach to the game.
BI: What’s next for Josh Childress?
JC: What’s next for me is enjoying each day as if it’s my last, staying positive and seeing where I’m led.
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