Outside Shots with Mike Ojo: Rookie Lessons in England

Last week on "Outside Shots," Mike Ojo prepared for his debut overseas. This week, he shares the good, the bad and the ugly of his introduction to professional basketball.

J. Cole’s first album happened to drop the first month of my first year in the British Basketball League. In just three bars on "Intro," he managed to create a microcosm of my rookie season with the Plymouth Raiders:

What a life we chose
I'm sending this out to those
Who fell down, but then rose

2011-12 was full of ups and downs, to say the least. But the grind carried me through it—kept me going, kept me focused. It’s what made me different.

I never had an issue putting in extra work. I embraced it. Basketball was always an escape for me, a form of therapy. The relief and relaxation that came from shooting—elevating, following through and hearing the “Cougggg” sound the net makes as the ball passed through—it was music to my ears.

In college, I slacked—not due to a lack of effort, but a lack of gym availability.

(Little did I know, until my junior year at Lehigh, there was a key floating around for one of the gyms. We know who had it! It showed.)

As a pro, this wasn’t an option. We’d have two-a-days as a team and I’d find a way to sneak in a third (and sometimes fourth) on-court workout—especially after catching wind that the coach might cut me.

The results started to show in week two. We had our first preseason game against a USA Select team. In 21 minutes, I ended up with nine points, five rebounds, four assists and a steal. It was decent production in limited time, but it gave me all the confidence I needed to build upon.

We were a veteran-laden team. After week two, the coach was telling my agent I was outplaying the veterans at my position.

As a rookie, I didn’t expect much. I was happy to be playing well and for us to be getting closer as a team.

But just as we were getting comfortable, the cuts came.

Were they just? Absolutely not. Sebastian Maio and Ryan Read—both fatalities of the game, both extremely talented players. Sebastian was a crafty veteran guard with the uncanny ability to create and who had a knack for passing the ball. Ryan was a lights-out (when I say lights out, I mean lights out) shooter.

(As the current owner of Thrive Specialized Training, he can still shoot.)

These two were great competitors, but even better people. Man, what a wake-up call this was! This wasn’t college anymore. If the coach wasn’t happy, things were liable to change QUICKLY. I struggled to accept this because I’m just not a fan of sudden change.

Mike Ojo Plymouth Raiders

Mike Ojo flies in for a dunk while with the Plymouth Raiders. (Courtesy of Mike Ojo)

But with those cuts came an opportunity for me. I slid into the starting lineup during the next set of friendlies and went to work.

Game 2: 17 points, five rebounds, two assists.  

Game 3: 11 points, four rebounds and a steal.

In my rookie mind, these games should have secured my spot. I proved that I could compete and hold my own against the competition. The reality: I was still stuck behind two veteran guards.

I didn’t want to accept this, so I continued to work harder. By the first game of the regular season, I thought I was ready, but things didn’t go as I expected.

During the preseason, we didn’t have to travel. Our season opener was an away game against the Surrey Heat (now the Surrey Scorchers). I was thinking, as a team we would stop, eat a meal together and head off to the game. How wrong I was.

The night before, I made sure to pack my bag and a pillow, and get everything in order for our first road trip. I was that guy. I felt like a kid getting ready for his first day of school. I laid out my uniform, socks and shoes. It was on.

I woke up early, had a good breakfast and was first on the bus. All I brought was my backpack, shoes and a pillow. Zero food, zero snacks.

As the rest of the team started to pile onto the bus, as I was dapping everyone up and saying, "Good morning,” I noticed EVERYONE with food—not just snacks, but whole meals.

I don’t know how you guys are this hungry this early, I thought. You clowns didn’t have breakfast.

About two hours into the bus ride, I asked one of the vets if we were going to stop and eat as a team. He laughed at me. Nobody told me that we were expected to bring our own pregame meal. So there I was, facing the prospect of heading into my first professional game on an empty stomach. Great way to kick things off, right?

Fortunately, the bus driver took a required rest stop at a service station.

Except, KFC was the only food option. Yes, my first professional game was played on a stomach full of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I laid an egg, but learned a valuable lesson in the process.

In addition to having a stomach full of fake chicken, the difference in intensity between preseason games and actual games was beyond words. I wasn’t a complete liability on the floor because I could always play defense, but offensively, I felt inept. There was only one way to fix this: get back in the lab...and bring good meals to road games.

I didn’t find my stride offensively until my seventh game, after the team had made yet another cut. It was almost as if someone flipped a switch.

I knew no one else was putting in the extra work and it showed. I came off the bench to hold Demarius Bolds, the BBL’s leading scorer, to 16 points on 19 shots while tallying 17 points and eight rebounds of my own in 29 minutes. That helped me sneak into the starting rotation until I missed a few games with a sprained ankle. In my time away, the vet whose minutes I had stolen started to play well. Back to the bench.

Mike Ojo Plymouth Raiders

Mike averaged 13.2 points and shot 38.4 percent from three-point range as a rookie with the Plymouth Raiders. (Courtesy of Mike Ojo)

As much as I wanted to start and wanted it to be easy, this adversity helped make me as a player. It also fueled us as a team.

We were talented in Plymouth. Jeremy Bell led the way at point guard while our bigs—Anthony Row, Lehmon Colbert and Paul Williams—held things down inside. On the wings, James Jones, Anthony Martin and I made a lot happen. We reached both the Cup and Trophy finals that season.

(The Cup and Trophy are both in season tournaments held separately from championship competition.)

Unfortunately, we came up short in both.

By midseason, I was comfortable and making an impact. I had become a key member of the team. Fresh out of college, I was still accustomed to playing my best in February and March—tournament time.

Around this time, C.J. McCollum and Lehigh were making all types of noise in the Patriot League. They avenged our championship loss the year before by defeating Bucknell on its home court to reach the NCAA tournament.

Two years before, when we drew Kansas in the first round, we were all upset. We wanted Duke because, historically, the Blue Devils seemed the most likely to choke. We weren’t so lucky, but C.J. got his chance. As soon as I saw the matchup, I told anyone who’d listen that Lehigh was going to win, that C.J. was going to go off.

Sure enough, he dropped 30 points, my Mountain Hawks, a 15-seed, beat Duke, a two-seed...and I made a lot of money that night.

Back in England, I had come into my own. I rounded out the season with games of 21 points and seven rebounds, 22 and six boards, 22 and five boards and a then-career-high of 31 and nine rebounds. I had started making a name for myself, thanks to the countless hours of extra work I’d put in.

Heading into the postseason, we were a tired team. Extra games due to Cup and Trophy success, homesickness, fatigue—all of it took a toll on us. We matched up with the Glasgow Rocks in the first round of the playoffs, which consisted of two games wherein the winner was determined by the aggregate score.

(This made no sense, but the British love soccer, so why not push that idea onto basketball...)

Game 1 was a battle on our home court at Plymouth Pavilions. We lost by five, which was no big deal since we had another game. The beauty of aggregate scoring is, instead of us losing, we basically start the next game down by five.

Still, our team owner was so upset with what he saw as our lack of effort that, rather than put us on a 90-minute flight to Glasgow, we had to take a 12-hour bus ride to Scotland from the southwest corner of England for the second leg of this playoff series. What’s worse, we left the same day of the game.

A recipe for disaster? Absolutely. It was one of the most difficult traveling experiences I’ve ever had. We didn’t even have a full-sized bus, for guys ranging between 6’1" and seven feet. We were literally riding the short bus!

We lost Game 2 by 20. While extremely unfortunate, this was just a small taste of how fickle and petty some owners can be if they don’t feel you performed to the fullest of your ability.

The bus ride back was surprisingly joyous considering the outcome. Personally, I was excited. I had just completed my first season as a professional basketball player. I was ready to get back in the lab to prepare for what was to come…

 

Follow Mike Ojo on Twitter and Instagram.