Few, if any, players have journeyed so far to join the Turkish Airlines Euroleague as FC Barcelona Regal center Nathan Jawai. Growing up in the town of Bamaga, on the remote northernmost tip of Australia, rugby and fishing were his sports. A basketball career in Europe was beyond Jawai’s wildest dreams. When Jawai took up the sport as a teenager, however, it started him on a journey to him becoming the first indigenous Australian to play in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague. "I never felt I would be out here playing," Jawai says. "I never felt my career would come here. I never felt my career would leave Australia."
Jawai's rugged play and his playful personality make sense together when you hear how he spent his days as a boy in Bamaga, population 1,000, on the tip of Cape York Peninsula, in the Australian state of Queensland. With the waters of the Great Barrier Reef as their swimming pool, Jawai and his boys liked to catch seafood by going crayfish diving.
"We would dive, probably about 10 to 12 feet under water, looking for lobsters," he says. "It is a fun thing to do, but also could be dangerous, because of sharks."
From Bamaga, it was impossible for a young Jawai to imagine himself in Barcelona now.
"Real remote, small, everybody knew each other," Jawai says. "Bamaga is a great, relaxed city. I mean, town… There was not much to do, but we found things to do. We would go out fishing, hunting, and stuff like that. When I was growing up, you had to find stuff to do yourself. I did not have malls to go to, or PlayStation 3. It was difficult...My very first things were fishing and rugby. I love to go fishing. Every day after school, my best friend and I would head out. Also, number one sport in the community was rugby, and that is what I grew up playing. So, being physical in the paint is kind of nothing for me, because I'm used to it."
Sometimes in the off-season, Jawai likes to return home, go crayfish diving and fishing, but he has found fun without the danger in basketball. He started to play at age 16, when his uncle Danny Morseu suggested that Jawai give basketball a try. Jawai decided to take it up for a year, showed great talent, and was selected to the Australian Institute of Sport.
"The institute is the biggest thing in Australian basketball, and it carried on from there," Jawai explains. "I started professionally in Cairns, then I got drafted in the NBA, and now I'm here in the Euroleague."
Soon after playing for the Cairns Taipans, in 2008, Jawai was already heading to the NBA, and two years later landed in Europe to join Partizan Belgrade in 2010. Wearing the black-and-white jersey for Partizan's faithful in one of the loudest arenas in all of sports was quite an introduction for Jawai to the Euroleague.
"It was a great experience, great organization with a winning tradition. It was fun," he says. "Obviously, the atmosphere in Serbia is very phenomenal. Partizan has great fans, probably the best fans in the world. It was crazy, the atmosphere was just blowing. Very different from the NBA and from other leagues I was playing in."
With Partizan, Jawai averaged 9.1 points and 5 rebounds as one of the most important pieces on a team that went to Top 16. The next summer, he moved to Unics Kazan of Russia. There, Jawai made another extra step, advancing to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Playoffs, where Unics was eliminated in three games against his current team, Barcelona. This year, Jawai is again in the playoffs, but he wants make it even further, to his first Final Four, in London starting May 10.
Regardless of the outcome of the season, though, Jawai can already consider himself a true globetrotter.
"I'm in Europe and it is a blessing," he says. "It is amazing how basketball can take you to many different places, and different countries. You meet many different coaches, and a lot of good people. Basketball has been good."
Despite his many travels, Jawai never forgets his origins. He uses is status as an ambassador from his community on the world stage to reach out to youth in his community.
"When I go back home, I know a lot of people, and back in my community we kind of have a drug and alcohol problem," he says. "Being the first one to get out of there is kind of saying to younger kids growing up that they can do it, too. It says that you do not have to take the path of doing drugs and alcohol. So, yes, I’m proud to be the first, and I am blessed, too."