A Break for the Better
This almost didn’t happen.
True, there are a lot of stories that begin that way, especially in the volatile world of sports. But, when you’re talking about a kid that was stocking grocery shelves in England only 8 years ago, it rings especially true.
The one thing that appears certain about Joel Freeland is that he would have been successful in whatever he decided to do with his life. Fortunately for the Portland Trail Blazers, it so happens that he’s fallen in love with a game he didn’t know at all as a youngster.
Freeland was born in Farnham, Surrey, England, which is in the Southeast corner of the country. He says he was one of those kids who always had a ball in his hand going back as far as he can remember. But, as everyone knows, the national sport in England is one in which you don’t use your hands. Everything was football (soccer, of course). And, Freeland was good at it.
“It’s amazing thinking back,” said Freeland, following a training-camp practice with the Portland Trail Blazers. “It was all about football when I was a kid. Basketball was nowhere to be seen.”
So, you can immediately cut out the “life-long dream” tags when describing Freeland’s route to the NBA. He simply had no idea what it was. There were dreams of a career in athletics, but, in the only sport he knew at the time, they came to a crashing halt when he was 14.
“I was playing football, as usual, and suffered an awful injury,” said Freeland. “I broke my leg, and it was pretty severe. I broke both bones and was in the hospital for two weeks. It was rough.”
It took Freeland over a year to recover, and he had every intention of continuing to play the sport he loved. But, after contemplating a return, decided football was out.
“I was watching some pretty high-level football, and was getting ready to play again,” said Freeland. “I was watching these guys fly around, and was watching all of these hard tackles and figured then that there was no way I could come back to that sport. I thought, if someone hits me in the leg, it’s going to be over. That’s the main reason I decided to change sports. That’s really the only reason.”
And, if not for a P.E. teacher’s suggestion, he says he probably wouldn’t have turned to basketball. He was 17 now, and had gotten taller. His teacher noticed, placed a basketball in his hands and simply said,“why don’t you try basketball?”
“It was a bit of a shock for me,” laughed Freeland. “I was like, ‘what the hell is this?’ But, when I took the ball, I kind of fell in love with the game right there and then. I know that sounds strange, but it’s true. I had never touched a basketball until that moment.”
He quickly got himself on to a local team, the TVTigers/Guildford Heat, and things came naturally. Obviously, for a kid who was already 6-9, he had built-in advantages that the other kids didn’t have.
“That first year I was just kind of messing around with my friends, playing at the park everyday,” remembered Freeland. “Simply just from playing at the park I was noticed, and the next thing I knew I got an invitation to play with the under-18 national team in England. At that point I had only been playing the game for one year, and hadn’t ever had any kind of formal training.”
Soon after Freeland started playing on the U-18 team, NBA scouts took notice, and began to closely follow his progress.
In 2006, when he was just 19, and only two years after he had taken his first-ever shot at a basketball rim, he was drafted by the Trail Blazers. Of course, considering Portland had earlier selected LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy in that draft, Freeland’s selection at the 30th spot didn’t garner much attention.
Even when he finally came to the United States, for the 2007 NBA Summer League, Freeland didn’t create much of a buzz. That was the summer league team that boasted a freshly-drafted Greg Oden, and even though Freeland showed potential, it was clear his time hadn’t yet come.
Now, after some seasoning in Spain with CB Gran Canaria, and then with Unicaja Malaga, and a stint in the Olympics with the Great Britain National Team, it is time.
It appears to be the perfect time, not only for Freeland, but also for the Trail Blazers, who certainly have a need in the frontcourt.
“If they would have brought me over when I was 19, and tried to watch me progress in the NBA, you never know how it would have turned out,” said Freeland. “I just wasn’t ready. I had fun at that summer league, and did pretty well, but I just wasn’t ready. It worked out perfectly for me to stay in Europe and learn the game over there. I had to put on weight and really learn all the parts of the game. Again, I had only just started playing.”
Now, he’s started playing for the Trail Blazers, and everyone is taking notice. Early in training camp, he’s been one of the pleasant surprises on the practice court. He’s strong, polished, mature, and his outside jumper is starting to wow the coaches. Freeland has taken it all in stride, so far, and doesn’t appear in awe or overly confident.
“I have such a great perspective now, and that can’t be overstated,” said Freeland. “I’ve been through some hard times. I’ve been through a lot of wins, and a lot of losses, at the professional level. I’ve been in some very tough environments with fans going against you, some crazy stuff, and have had to learn to deal with the pressure and expectations. I feel like all of that gives me a bit of an advantage going into this NBA season.”
So, is he a power forward, or is he a center? Will he start, or will he come off the bench? Will he want a bigger role early, or will he be patient? Freeland has answered all of those questions, and more, with the same answer- “I don’t care.
“Hey, I just try and do what I can do, and it’s really as simple as that,” said Freeland. “I don’t try and play out of my limits. That’s the key to being successful. I’m going to earn my spot on this team, earn my minutes, and hopefully have a long career here. I’ll play whatever Coach wants me to play. It doesn’t matter. If he wants me to play the one, I’ll play the one (laughing).”
It’s the beginning of the next stage for Freeland, and the continuation of a very interesting path to Portland and professional basketball. And, all of it is the result of an unfortunate play on a soccer field a long time ago, a long way from Oregon.