New Balls.ie series, 'A Postcard Home', delves into the careers of Irish sports stars playing overseas. This week, we talk with Irish professional basketball player Jordan Blount about leaving Cork as a 15-year-old to play abroad, joining NCAA Division 1 college team UIC Flames, the death of his father, and how it led to him leaving his first professional team.
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Jordan Blount was just a few games into his time with Spanish basketball club Navarra late last year when he told his agent that he wanted his contract terminated. It was the lack of sensitivity which the club showed after the death of his father that made the Corkman bolt for the exit.
The 24-year-old, now playing with Aquimisa Carbajosa in the third tier of the Spanish game, is one of Ireland's few professional basketball players.
"Basically, the way they handled the situation of my father's passing, I found to be very disrespectful. And for that reason, I left the club," explains Blount, whose father Gary died on the morning of a Navarra game.
"My father passed away on a Saturday morning, I flew home Sunday and the funeral was Tuesday morning. They had me fly back Tuesday night.
"To get to Spain is a direct flight, and I ended up travelling for 23 hours. When I landed in Bilbao, I had to get a three-hour bus back to the city. There was nobody there to pick me up.
"I know through the ranks of basketball, and enough of the professional world, that if someone doesn't really care or think too much about you, then they mess with your travel. And I just felt that on the day of my father's funeral to have me flying for that long, I just felt it to be disrespectful.
"I feel like the people who I had spoken to [at the club] were sympathetic and were caring and thoughtful, but the higher ups of the club couldn't care less. That didn't sit right with me. It was kind of like, 'Well, I don't think I want to continue playing for for a team who think this little of me'.
"The thing was, our team just tested positive for Covid. We had to go straight into a 10-day quarantine. I could have stayed at home for a few more days without me having to go back. And I think if I did stay at home for a few more days, I probably wouldn't have left."
27 January 2013; Brunell coach Gary Blount during the Women's U20 National Cup Final against Killester at the National Basketball Arena, Tallaght. Picture credit: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
The death of a parent will always open a wound. When there's a close relationship, like Jordan and Gary Blount had, it cuts even deeper.
Gary was one of Cork and Ireland's great basketball men. He was a referee (a sure sign that someone cares deeply about a sport) and a coach. He came from a family immersed in basketball. Gary once coached a team featuring his squad of sisters.
In his own family, he instilled a love of the sport. Along with Jordan, sons Colm and Garreth, and daughter Molly, all play basketball competitively.
When Jordan was 11, and playing with Neptune, Kyle Hosford - then a UCC Demons player - left Ireland to play abroad. Blount wanted to emulate him.
"I said to my dad, 'I want to do that. I want to be one of the guys to go away', because I remember there was a lot of talk about him," says Blount.
"Every gym I went into, I'd hear his name. My dad wanted to go away when he was younger, too. But life just got in the way of it."
By his mid-teens, the son of a 6' 9" father had sprouted to 6' 4", and was already being compared to some of Ireland's best players. The year before he left for England, Blount had the chance to fly but stayed grounded. He spent the year proving to his parents that he'd be able to cook his own food and wash his own clothes.
Cork - Plymouth - Tenerife
When he did depart Cork, shortly after finishing his Junior Cert in 2012 (he didn't hang around for the results), it was for Plymouth Raiders.
Still just 15, and in what turned out to be against the rules because he was too young, he featured in a handful of games for their first team in the British Basketball League, while also playing with their academy side. Time spent hanging around good pros - like fellow Corkman Colin O'Reilly - was a valuable experience. He saw how they lived, worked, and conducted themselves.
The Plymouth platform brought Blount to the attention of European clubs. There was interest from Real Madrid and Estudiantes. He went on trial but turning pro at that stage wasn't the plan.
The next move was an obvious one for Blount and his advisors. Though, perhaps not to those uneducated in the basketball chessboard.
"Mine and my dad's goal was to go to America," says Blount.
"If I was to go with any of those clubs, I would have had to sign a contract, accept money. I couldn't do that if I wanted to go to college; you have to remain an amateur."
Tenerife and the Canarias Basketball Academy (CBA) - a hothouse for young players - was the gambit.
"It makes you realise whether you love basketball or not," explains Blount about CBA, which he joined in 2013.
I feel like if you can get through there, you can make it through anywhere. It was very, very strenuous. I didn't realise how much it was until I was removed from it.
Monday to Friday, for two years, we woke up at 5am. Then we had to run to the gym for practice at 6am, finish that at 8:30, go to school, then finish school at 1pm.
We had shooting practice from 2pm to 4pm. And then we got back and we had weights at either 6pm or 7pm, and then we had team practice 8:30 - 10pm. If you don't get better in that kind of environment, you should probably be playing a different sport.
The teenager barely had a word of Spanish but initially got through by force of personality, there being some coaches who spoke English, and quickly picking up the basketball vernacular. He's now fluent in the language.
In an academy featuring players from all over the world - there were 35 - 40 nationalities - the 6' 8" forward identified the type of player he needed to be if he was going to get that US college scholarship offer.
"I was the MVP of the Junior Euro League tournament, the leading scorer," says Blount.
"The attraction and the attention that that brings is a lot - there's a lot of reward in it. So for me, it was like, 'I want this all the time'."
The SPIRE Academy in Ohio - a prep school which LaMelo Ball would attend a few years later - was the adventure's next stop. For the TV star who wanted to make the move to the big screen, it was a chance to showcase his talents. The SPIRE gym regularly hosted NCAA division one college coaches.
Virtually every day for two months, Blount had suitors, but it was love at first sight when he visited the Windy City. The 19-year-old and the University of Illinois at Chicago decided to settle down for four years. Though, the first year was far from a honeymoon. Due to an eligibility issue, Blount was not allowed to play the 2016/17 season.
"I went from the Irish system to the English system to the Spanish system to the American system," he explains.
"Basically the NCAA [Eligibility Center] said that I didn't go to school for four years. I felt like they didn't fully understand what was going on, and the easy thing for them to do was to say I can't play for a year.
"I was deemed ineligible for a year and a half. I had to go to school, go to class and show that I wanted to be a student, which was tough, especially given everything of my life so far had been building up to college basketball."
'There's so many ways they can make money, but they're just not allowed to'
When Blount did get to play for the UIC Flames, it was the 2017/18 season but he didn't move like a car which had been sitting in a showroom for two years. He was one of two players to start all 36 games, averaged 25 minutes on the court, led the team in rebounds, and was second in assists.
"I was a huge part of the team and [so too was] my identity was whenever I was on the floor - we were playing at a high pace, playing high intensity," he explains.
I think it suited coach [Steve McClain], I think coach loved my personality. He wanted the team kind of like shaped around the kind of person that I was, which was huge for me to have that kind of influence at a Division One university. That just reinstated how much I made the right decision.
My dad was over quite a few times. He could see everything that was American basketball, and the kind of the profile that I had built for myself.
It was absolutely huge for him, especially given that was the level that he wanted to get to himself. My proudest moment of my career to date was when I was playing and I looked up to see he was being interviewed by ESPN. We both got interviewed by ESPN afterwards.
In the summer of 2018, he was part of the Irish team which won bronze at the European Championships for Small Countries. His good form continued into his junior year as he led the team in offensive rebounds and shot their best percentage from the field.
Blount says he didn't want for anything during his four years a college athlete. Though, looking back now, he doesn't think it's right that players are not allowed to earn money by capitalising on their image rights.
"I always used to tell my teammates, because I had been in Europe and I'd seen the life there, 'You don't understand how much of a bubble American college basketball is. You're so secure: You'll never be hungry, you'll never need clothes, you never need shoes, you never need anything. You're living in an amazing city with a team of people around you to make sure that your every need is catered to'.
"When I look at my team, we were on buses - I remember seeing a life-sized poster of me on a train one time. There were people courtside wearing t-shirts with my face on it.
"We were a featured team on ESPN a bunch of times. And I would have been one of the players that they would put up as a preview of the game.
"For people who have the ambitions to put their personality out there, there's so many ways they can make money, but they're just not allowed to - you get punished if you do.
"On Patrick's Day, I was on the boat that dyed the [Chicago] River green. I actually have a picture with the Lord Mayor of Cork. He was on it as well.
"Barstool Sports became a huge fan of mine. I go to this meet and greet thing. I'm with the Barstool Sports [people] and there's people coming up and meeting me because I was Irish. Not getting any financial reward from that is kind of bewildering.
"It's like 'I'm doing all this stuff and all these things and all these events and I'm not getting a cent for it'. I would never talk about it before because I was being so well looked after by the college. I never really cared too much about it then. But looking back at it, it's like. 'Jesus Christ'."
Jordan Blount playing for the UIC Flames. Photo credit: University of Illinois at Chicago
In the summer before his final year, Blount suffered the first serious injury of his career when he tore his ACL and menisci in his left knee. It was a setback but he embraced it as a chance to test his mettle.
Remarkably, he recovered in just five months, and missed only nine games. Having the USA Olympic team doctor perform the surgery helped.
"Then I am right back in," he says, "didn't miss a beat, went back into the starting lineup, played 20-something games, and we made it all the way to the [Horizon League] championship final."
In the final against Northern Kentucky, now just over a year ago, Blount had a decent game, shooting five of nine from the field but UIC lost by nine. "There was a lot of hype about the class that I came in with," says Blount, "and it was kind of like, 'This is the pinnacle right now. This is where we do everything we were supposed to do'. We just felt a little bit short. It was gut-wrenching."
The end credits rolled on Blount's collge career quicker than expected when Covid-19 hit the US in March 2020 and everything began to shut down.
"We had about two more months left of school, two more months in the city," he says.
"We still would have been going to work out and all that kind of stuff. We played the final on a Tuesday, got home on the Wednesday, the NBA got cancelled on Thursday.
"I went into my athletic director, and said, 'If I'm going to be quarantined or locked away, I'd prefer that to be at home [in Ireland] where I haven't been in about five years'.
"I was home on Saturday. That really just put a cap on it. It didn't sink in until about a week after I got home, when all the novelty of seeing my family wore off a little bit and then it was just kind of like, 'Yeah, like it's all over'. Then it was kind of like a realisation period of, 'Well, now real life starts'."
Thank you so much to everyone who has reached out with messages, stories and memories of support for myself and my family on behalf of my Father. We pray for your continued support. Thank you all. https://t.co/Uaj7L3r0fF
— Jordan Blount (@BlountJordan13) October 25, 2020
In hindsight, it was a fortunate time for Blount to head home. He got a summer with his father before he died in October. "That was the longest I've been home since I left," says Blount. "My father and I always loved each other's company, but I didn't realise how special that time was going to be for me."
'The one thing that this year has taught me is that this is a business'
During his third year at UIC, through an agent he'd known since he was 15, Blount started signalling that playing pro ball in Spain would appeal to him. Having spent two years at a Spanish academy and being proficient in the language, it made sense.
"All through the summer, I was getting different offers," says Blount.
"And then kind of just one week it all blew up. I had to make a decision within 24 hours. It moves quick if you don't accept the offer, they take the offer away. So I made the decision to go to Navarra in the north east of Spain, in Pamplona."
Even before Navarra's insensitivity in dealing with his father's death, Blount began to see red flags at the club. "On the Friday, I had a meeting with the owners," he says.
One of the big issues with my time there was that we didn't have any centres. I'm nowhere near a centre, especially not at a professional level. I'm a small forward to a power forward and I can't guard seven footers. We were playing with a bunch of kids in practice because we didn't have enough pros.
I had just played a game against the second best team in the league and I had 25 [points] and 12 [rebounds]. I think I missed three shots. They came in and they told me that they weren't happy with my performance. I think I was the top performer of the league that week.
There were a lot of things that [made me think], 'I don't understand what's going on here. I don't get it. I don't know what you want for me' and then for them to conduct themselves how they did in a time for me that was very tough - I just didn't feel like I was a priority for them in their thoughts.
After leaving Navarra, Blount spent a fortnight at home in Cork. In his time of need, Neptune came to his aid, accommodating him in the team apartment.
"They just showed what great people they are," says Blount. "People in the club were reaching out, asking for if I need help. It was a two-week period where I needed comfort. They were there and they really, really stepped up and showed who they were as people."
He was soon picked up by another team. Forca Lleida, a Catalan side who play in the second tier, had an injury and needed cover for two months. Following the passing of his father, Blount had lost some drive. That was revived at Lleida who had a team full of real pros. He had to perform every day or be made look substandard.
"The one thing that this year has taught me is that this is a business - however long or whatever they need you for, that's what they wanted and need you for," he says. Though staying in Lleida would have been a welcome option, it wasn't one available. Instead, he joined Aquimisa Carbajosa, the club he's with today. There were teams playing at higher levels which put offers on the table but none had a fellow Corkman, and friend, on the roster.
"With everything that had gone on this year, I said to myself, 'If anything happens, the least I could do is be happy living with Adrian O'Sullivan'. He's a longtime family friend. My family and their family know each other very well. They've helped us on numerous occasions in different areas of life.
"No matter what happened on the basketball court, no matter what happened on a personal level, I knew that when I came home [everything would be OK]."
Where he goes next, Blount isn't sure. With offers from several different leagues being made, the man who loves change thinks he's finished with Spain. But no matter where he goes, he will have the words of his father in mind.
"As cliche as it may sound, my dad was my best friend, my confidant," he says.
"And everything I did through basketball was to make him proud and to see him have some of his dreams come true through me.
"Basketball has blessed me to no end of being able to meet different people from different cultures and really experience what the world is like. My dad would always tell me that basketball was my tool. So what was I going to build?
"For me, it's about building a network, building building friendships and all that kind of stuff from all over the world. I think it's amazing where a ball can take you."