G’day from Vilnius, Lithuania, my name is Ben Madgen or as per the locals, Benas Madgenas. I must say I’m becoming quite accustomed to my new name. I’ll be bringing you the inside scoop on our EuroCup journey, but before we get underway, I'd like to take the opportunity to share my journey with you and how I landed in the EuroCup competition.
Many would speculate that my European debut was highly unconventional and to be really honest I know I am definitely here against the odds. After playing five years in the Australian National Basketball League, I was 30 and hungry for my next challenges despite many probably thinking I was “getting old.” I had wanted to play in Europe for a while, but like many of you reading this, the journey was filled with ups, downs and almosts. In 2012-13, I led the league in scoring, was runner-up MVP and was selected for the Australian national squad. When it looked like my master plan was coming together, I landed on my teammate’s foot during a training session with the Australian squad. I looked down at my leg and my ankle was facing upwards, at first I thought maybe my leg was twisted, but it wasn’t, my eyes were right. I watched my teammates turn white and I knew this wasn’t a quick bandage job.
I made it my mission to utilise every cent of health insurance coverage available to me and rehabbed all day every day, quite seriously. I left at 6 a.m. for Pilates, then physical therapy and yoga followed by ball-handling workouts. I then would be swimming my last laps at 9 p.m. I made an early return to the court after a grueling five months. The hard work paid off as I was offered an opportunity to play the back-end of the season with Fuenlabrada in the Spanish ACB. I thought: "You beauty, this my friends is what we call hard work paying off." The problem was that I was captain of Sydney and we had three regular season games left. I loved my club and felt I couldn’t leave until I finished my obligations there. So I had planned to jet out two days after my last game, but during our last game, I contested a shot at the rim and felt a pop in my shoulder… again it felt like one step forward, two steps back.
For me, this is where there is some magic in my story. I so badly wanted to come and play in Europe, but I was coming off shoulder surgery with an estimated recovery time of nine months… If I wanted to get to Europe I had to make that six. My wife and I had a mortgage to repay, so I had to carefully weigh my options. Exit my comfortable contract with Sydney, which allows a good quality of life and financial security for my family, OR try and get a contract in Europe off the back of an injury with no assurance as to how I was going to recover. I toed and froed with this many times in my head, but I still knew what the smart decision was. I told my wife Bria that I would be continuing with Sydney and she gave me a right old serve and told me that she didn’t want to grow old with someone wondering if they COULD have achieved their dreams when they were so close. Life is short she said and nothing is for certain, so what’s the point living for certainty when that’s never truly an option anyway. “What if my shoulder doesn’t recover,” I asked. Well then you know you tried.
She simplified the dilemma for me and committed to manage our financial responsibilities whilst I focused on giving this a red hot go. Our journey is something that I am so incredibly proud of. After weeks of waiting nervously, thinking I’d just foolishly exited my contract for potentially nothing and wondering if I would have to go and beg for my spot back in Sydney, I got a gig in Belgium. I had been advised this was a great springboard into higher level leagues. I really enjoyed the basketball, it was fast paced and a great transition from the NBL. Fortunately, I was able to lead the league in scoring and my wife and I had the best time; the community in Belgium was beyond amazing, they embraced us as their own and were content with our 10-word French vocabulary. Once again the fire was in my belly and I wanted more. This time Euro level competition.
As offseasons so often play out, I waited, waited, and waited some more. I stayed true to the plan and knocked back offers that weren’t EuroCup level. As the days turned into weeks and then months, I was starting to get really anxious. I should probably mention that by August my wife was seven and a half months pregnant with our first child and we were living out of Airbnbs in Antwerp, Belgium. We had to pack up all our stuff and wheel our bags from place to place every few days due to availability and not wanting to book too far in advance to jinx us. She is a good woman, huh! I continued to wait, but was now starting to really stress; this wasn’t just about me anymore, I had my baby on the way. I was calling my agent every day for updates and I started to think I had bitten off way more than I could chew. Just when I thought I was going to keel over, Sydney called and offered me a contract and I honestly thought it was a sign that we should head home and make way for baby Madgen. Again, my wife looked at me with fire in her eyes. At the time, I wasn’t actually too sure if she was fiery because she was in this tricky situation because of me and that I was thinking of bailing out or if she couldn’t believe that I was thinking of packing it in, in place of security, the known, the reliable. Thankfully she is one for testing the “what ifs” and told me that I might think it’s the best decision now, but I was too close to my dream to take a step back and if I gave this chance up now I may forever live to regret it. There was also the minor fact that it was too late in the pregnancy for Bria to fly home, but hey, let’s not let that get in the way of a good story! I was sitting there thinking, "Damn! If my wife who is seven months pregnant and is backing me to follow my dreams, I’m not actually sure I can bail out now." It was around August 20, we finally got the call and I could breathe properly for the first time in about five weeks. My agent explained that the offer was from a team called BC Lietkabelis Panevezys, a EuroCup team has offered me a contract. Not really knowing anything about Lithuania or Panevezys I said: "where do I sign?"
Although I have never felt cold like I did last winter, basketball-wise it couldn’t have worked out better. After a slowish start, finding my place in a new, very structured style of basketball, I was able to figure it out and ended up having a successful EuroCup campaign and LKL season. We made it to the finals, eventually losing to Lithuanian powerhouse Zalgiris. I made lifelong mates in the team and my baby boy Xavier was born in Panevezys. We consider Xavier part Lithuanian and there will always be a special place in our hearts for this country. As I’m sure you can imagine, after the journey I’ve had, the opportunity to play for a club like Lietuvos Rytas and legendary coach Rimas Kurtinaitis is beyond mind-blowing. This is definitely something I consider a privilege and I am so excited to start our EuroCup campaign. We have a fantastic team, with an awesome culture already, so I know we’re on a good trajectory. For me personally, I want to be the best teammate I can be and I want to play my heart out and ensure that I don’t die wondering.
In the meantime, stay tuned for my next blog.
Catch ya later mates!