Just four years out of college and still eyeing another shot in the NBA, Matt Janning is growing increasingly accustomed to the nomadic lifestyle that comes with trying to build a professional basketball career.
Since finishing his college career at Northeastern University in 2010, the former Watertown-Mayer High School star has played for six teams in three countries, including three different European clubs in the last three years. In the past month, if he hadn’t been already, Janning was also introduced to the uncertainty that is European professional basketball when he was forced to make an unexpected, mid-season move from Croatia back to Italy.
Those types of major life changes could easily be a stress or a burden, but Janning chooses to view them as a blessing.
“It’s exciting to be able to move around Europe and see different places and meet new people,” Janning said last week in an e-mail interview. “Also, getting to see and learn the cultures of different regions is pretty cool. I’ve gotten a chance to live in the northern part of Italy, the Tuscan region of Italy, and now the first half of this season was spent in Croatia. Along with living in these places, I’ve been fortunate to be able to compete in many other countries as well.”
Fortunately for Janning and other foreign players — many of them American — European clubs often make what could be dramatic life changes as simple as possible for their players as they frequently settle into new homes in new countries. Janning said many teams set up players with an apartment, a car, and sometimes even a bank account to make the transition between sometimes very different cultures as stress-free as possible. Janning said he’s been with clubs that left him essentially on his own to set up his new life, but also fortunate to be with clubs that took care of almost everything.
Either way, Janning said the people outside of the organizations have been tremendously helpful in helping adjust to new cities and new cultures.
“They understand what it’s like for someone to come from far away to make new friends, start a new job, and all the things involved,” Janning said. “They tend to like it when you are more interested to try something within their culture rather than just wanting to eat McDonalds every day.”
Thankfully, Janning’s most recent transition should be much easier than it could have been. When Janning’s new team in Zagreb, Croatia, ran into almost immediate trouble paying many of its players this season, Janning quickly began looking into opportunities elsewhere. Janning had offers in Israel, Turkey and Montenegro, but ultimately chose to return to the same club he played for last year in Siena, Italy.
“I’m very happy to be back in Italy,” Janning said. “I’m comfortable here living in the city, and the team has had some success once again so far this season. I think it will be great to be able to play in front of the great fans here who really have a strong passion for basketball.”
After playing his first European season in Casale Monferrato, Italy, in 2011-12, Janning made the switch to Siena for the 2012-13 season, where his team, Montepaschi Siena, won the mid-season Italian Cup trophy and the Italian League championship at the end of the year.
He said he ultimately chose to sign in Croatia at the start of this season because his team, Cibona Zagreb, offered him the best situation in terms of playing time, money and role on the team. However, now that’s he’s back in Italy, Janning said it’s beginning to feel more like home.
“Life here in Italy is definitely becoming more comfortable,” he said. “I’ve started to pick up the language a bit. I’m better at understanding it than speaking it at this point, but another few months here and I should improve on that some more. I also have a few friends outside of basketball from Siena whom I can go to dinner with and just be able to get away from basketball for a bit. It’s also nice to have friends away from the guys on the team because they know the city, the surroundings, and can show you some particular parts of the country that most people may not see, or even know about.”
And perhaps the best part of living in Italy?
“The food here is unbeatable,” Janning said. “There are so many small amazing restaurants throughout the city here in Siena. Also, throughout Italy, you can find different cities that each have their own specialty. Whether it’s a certain pasta, or certain way to cook a steak, or some type of cheese. It really is a beautiful place to live and travel.”
Janning’s girlfriend is also living with him in Europe this year, which he said makes life overseas even easier.
“Having my girlfriend over here with me this year has been great,” he said. “Living over here alone is OK, but you really do start to miss family and friends. At least with her here I have someone to come home and talk to each day after practice. There is a lot of down time, so usually I would get bored and end up staying in the house when I was alone. With her here, we tend to go out and sightsee a bit more and get things done throughout the city.”
Janning said that much of his time is occupied by basketball, but he does try to take advantage of any time to sightsee that he can. He was able to make the 3-hour drive from Zagreb to Venice for Christmas this year, and last year he spent Christmas in Florence and New Year’s in Rome. He said he’s also been able to do some sightseeing throughout Europe on road trips.
“We’ve been to some really great cities like Barcelona, Moscow, Istanbul, Berlin, Malaga, Milan, Tel-Aviv, Belgrade, and some small cities in France and Poland,” He said. “It’s been really amazing to see different parts of the world.”
As great as Janning’s experience in Italy has been, he also experienced the other end of the spectrum during his brief stint in Croatia. Janning said the club in Zagreb offered him a chance to take a big step in his career, both in terms of his role as a go-to player on this team, as well as the chance to move up to a larger club after the season.
However, after an up-and-down start, the club fired its coach after just two months, and at that point, Janning said the team was already behind in payments to players as well. As of mid December — Janning’s fifth month with the club after signing in August — the club had paid only two months worth of salary. He said he also had problems with his team paying for his apartment, and the apartment owner was threatening to make him move.
“(The club) made it known to me and other American players that they would not be able to pay our full salaries by season’s end, and that if we were able to get deals elsewhere, we should seriously look into it,” Janning said. “At that point, I knew it was a bad situation.”
Despite the team’s financial struggles, Janning said it was difficult to leave the club because of the career opportunities that playing there would create for him, and the success he was having on the court. The team was in the top four in the Adriatic League, and Janning was posting solid statistics. According to hoopsrumors.com, Janning averaged 10.4 points and 26.2 minutes in 23 games.
However, Janning said it became more and more clear that he needed to move on.
“When things went bad with the team, they got real bad,” he said, adding that things have worked out nicely with his return to Siena. “Siena is in a great position to compete for the Italian title once again this year.”
Janning, a 6-foot-5 guard, said he still hopes his play in Europe will lead to another chance in the NBA. He nearly got that shot in his rookie season, when, after going undrafted, he played well in several NBA summer leagues and signed a multi-year contract with the Phoenix Suns. He spent training camp with the Suns in 2010, but was released prior to the start of the regular season.
Instead, he spent his rookie season in the NBA’s Developmental League, first in Maine, and then, after a midseason trade, with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the league champions that year.
The following season, in 2011-12, Janning took his career to Europe when he played for Junior Casale in Italy’s second division. In the summer of 2012, Janning returned to the United States to play for the Indiana Pacers’ and Memphis Grizzlies’ summer league entries in Orlando and Las Vegas, but returned to Italy that fall to play for Siena, his current team.
“At this point, my aspirations in basketball remain the same,” Janning said. “I want to get to the highest levels. Getting back to the NBA is first on my list.”
If that doesn’t happen though, Janning said he’s blessed to be able to play basketball for a living, no matter where it is.
“The Euroleague is very competitive, with many former NBA players and many young talented players with similar aspirations to mine,” Janning said. “In any case, playing the game I love at home or abroad has, and will continue to be, a blessing. I hope to be able to play many more seasons and continue this great journey.”