Basketball began more than 125 years ago as a city sport, and to this day most big teams and their youth programs are centered in major metropolises. But a sport so attractive as basketball knows no boundaries, so it is not uncommon at all for players who grow up far from those big cities to still reach the heights of the game.
Such is the case of Kaleb Tarczewski of AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan, whose unique upbringing in a rural area of the United States where the population density is 21 people per square kilometer did nothing to keep him from loving and excelling at a big-city game.
Tarczewski may be one of a kind among pro basketball players for growing up in a log cabin that his mother built with her own hands.
"It's true, she built the house," he says. "My mom worked construction before I was born. And when I was born, she ended up quitting construction and starting a day-care business from home. So when I was a little kid, we would have 10 or 15 other kids in our house every day. They were almost like my brothers and sisters. And every day we'd be outside, doing activities, running around in nature. It was the best. It was really fun."
Although his passion for basketball started taking him away from home by age 16, Tarczewski knows that his values and habits were rooted in his early years, living what he calls a "country rough" lifestyle. "I look back on my childhood with great memories," he says. "I was really fortunate. I have an unbelievable family, great friends and memories that I look back on. I miss it a lot."
Miss it though he does, Tarczewski would not change a note of his journey. What he learned growing up in the woods in New England was the same commitment to hard work and self-reliance that has taken him to his first Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season. The contrast to the world fashion capital of Milan could not be sharper for the 24-year-old center, but Tarczewski wouldn't have it any other way.
Tarczewski left home initially to play basketball at a prep school in Boston, about three hours away.
He then proceeded to a university career across the country in Arizona, graduating with a degree in business management. Last season, his first as a pro, he joined Oklahoma City of the NBA for preseason global games against Real Madrid and FC Barcelona Lassa. That was his very first trip to Europe, and six months later, Milan signed him to finish the season.
"Little did I know, a few months later I'd be living over here," he said.
"I had really never been out of the United States before. And to come to a new continent with people who don't speak the same language as me... it was a little intimidating to be so far from home. But I got over here and realized it's just like everywhere else. The people are amazing, really great, so easy to get along with even with the language barrier."
Having been back this season since training camp, Tarczewski is adapting well to his debut in the EuroLeague. Through five games, he is putting up 6.8 points and 5.8 rebounds on average, ranking sixth in the competition in rebounds per minute.
It helps, too, that he has fallen in love with his new country.
"Italy is an unbelievable place. It's so beautiful," he says. "It has really been an eye-opening experience. Sometimes in small-town life, you can think that's how the world is. And when you experience other things, see other people and cultures, it really opens your eyes to how different and how unique everyone and every culture is. Like I said, it broadens your horizons. You realize that the world works in amazing ways."
One aspect of playing in Europe that has enthralled Tarczewski is the history all around him, even in smaller places like Lucca, Italy, whose medieval city wall caught the young American's attention when Milan played a preseason game there.
"I'd say it's probably 40 feet tall. Just a beautiful, beautiful wall around the entire center of the town," he recalls. "I was telling one of the guys on the team, 'Man, look at that wall. That's so cool.' And I'm thinking back 500 years ago when there were armies probably trying to fight to get into the center of this town. Coming from the United States, you don't have that same history, so over here every place that you go is just mindboggling to see how beautiful and how much history there is in everything."
But if you can take the boy out of the New England countryside, you can't take the New England countryside out of the boy. That's why Tarczewski is back on his parents’ property every summer, getting a workout that is no doubt as unique among pro basketball players as his upbringing was.
"Mom still lives out in the woods, doing her thing, splitting wood at the age of 60," he said. "She still gets out there and does it. I go home in the summer time and help her out, with the 15-pound maul, get out there and do a little workout. I'm sure I got my muscles from her."
Who knows, if Tarczewski keeps doing so well on the court, the woodwork might come to him and there might even be room for a log cabin somewhere near Milan.
"I would love my mom to come here. You know, she's never really had an opportunity to travel like this," he said. "She's a vegetarian, she loves cheese, mozzarella cheese from Italy. She loves olive oil, puts it on everything. So I feel like if she comes out here, she might not want to leave."