The sixth season of Jordan Theodore's professional basketball career is certain to be one he will always remember. The AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan playmaker has proved himself to be among the elite point guards on the continent with a strong debut season in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague and when it's over he is set to wed the woman of his dreams. While this year stands out for good reasons, the whole experience of traveling the world, seeing new places and meeting new people while playing the game he loves has been a dream-come-true for Theodore.
After growing up in Englewood, New Jersey, and attending nearby Seton Hall University, Theodore embarked on a professional career that has enabled him to combine his love of basketball with his desire to see the world. "As I started to get older and I got to college, I was like, damn players are playing overseas and I always wanted to travel," Theodore said. "Apart from basketball, I just wanted to travel. I grew up a little less fortunate. My mom worked hard; she raised three boys, but we didn’t have all the things that I wanted… I knew that basketball could take me so many different places in America, then why wouldn’t it be able to take me all over the world."
When Theodore finished his four years with the Pirates, he accepted a contract from Turkish club Antalya BB and hopped on a plane. It was his first time outside the United States and Theodore was not fully prepared for what to expect. "My first year when I came over, my first month was probably the hardest month of my life," Theodore recalled. "Being away from my family for the first time, being seven hours ahead – I was in Turkey. I didn’t have a phone when I first got in, my phone wasn’t working. It was tough. Nobody spoke English. Everything was different, it was crazy."
The saving grace for Theodore during that period was that there were some experienced American players on his team. "Ron Lewis helped me tremendously. He helped me with everything," Theodore said. "When I got here, I wasn’t a guy who cooked. Ron used to cook and stuff. He and his family used to invite me over for dinner."
What Theodore learned that year was more than just how to cook or to adapt to a different brand of basketball. He learned to embrace the places he was living and the people he was living among. "Better than me sitting in the house like I did the first month, I got to get out and talk to people. People are ready to love you because you play basketball," he said.
And shortly after that, Theodore fell in love with the passion European fans bring to basketball. "College basketball and NBA basketball is great, the fans are amazing. But when you come over here and see the way that the atmosphere at the games, how much the people really care about their teams, they've been fans of these teams because of their parents' parents… I got to really open my eyes and see this is really not going to be so bad. I’m going to love this. I've been out here six years now and it's been great."
His first season was an individual success as Theodore proved he could excel in professional basketball, but his team finished last in the Turkish League. When the curtain came down on that season, Theodore was not ready to rest. "After that season was over, instead of me going home, I said, 'why not go make some more money.' I wanted to travel, let me go to Puerto Rico and play. I could live on the island. I’d been to Puerto Rico one time in my life, got to go to the island, try to learn some Spanish and just enjoy it."
By standing out on the court in Puerto Rico, Theodore earned himself a trip to a different island. "I played so well in Puerto Rico that my coach, who coached in Puerto Rico, went to the Dominican Republic and I went there too! Just because I had never been to the Dominican Republic, so it let me go there."
Theodore rationalized his choice to play year-round basketball because he didn't have anything he needed to attend to at home in New Jersey and by playing and making money in all sorts of different locales, his mom, grandparents and brothers were able to visit him. Eventually, the nonstop schedule caught up with Theodore.
"As players, we need rest. My first two years I just played all year. I went from Turkey to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, then I went back to Turkey to Mersin." In the summer of 2014, Theodore suffered an injury that would be a wake-up call. "I messed up my triceps working out, getting ready for the season and I just decided to take some time off because I had just played two years in a row… I was like, 'that's a sign. I'm overworking myself, I need to relax.'"
Theodore hid the injury as he declined offers to return for a third season in Turkey because he "didn’t want anybody to know I was hurt." He rested throughout the autumn and for the first time since he was in college was able to spend the holiday season with his family. Then when he felt he was back at full strength, Theodore joined French club Bourg-en-Bresse midseason.
Theodore fully embraced the opportunity to live in yet another country. "I got to see Paris. I got to see the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, the Mona Lisa," Theodore relayed excitedly. "I go home and everybody wants to go to Miami, Los Angeles and Vegas. Man, I'm in Paris, you know? I'm in Lyon. I'm trying all this fine wine and eating all this new food."
Theodore has always made sure to share these experiences with those close to him. "My mom comes every year. She loves it," he said, "She knows that I’m living my dream. She understands that I enjoy the travel. And she likes to travel. She takes two weeks off every year and comes to visit me once or twice. We have a blast. Every year she comes out she gets to see a new country. I love that."
While Theodore was loving the European experiences basketball had provided him off the court, he had yet to reach the heights he expected on the court. "I tell people all the time, it wasn’t easy for me to get to this point in my career; my first three years were tough. Not off the court, but playing. I was on three teams in a row that got relegated. As a point guard, that's not good."
The major turning point in Theodore's career came with his move to Germany for the 2015-16 season. "I feel like Frankfurt resurrected my career, in Germany with Coach Gordon Herbert," Theodore said, "The team embraced me. I was finally on a team with some young guys who wanted to win and who were as hungry as me. I played with Johannes Voigtmann, who’s now in Baskonia, Danilo Barthel who’s in Munich. Aaron Doornekamp, who’s in Valencia. We had some young talent. We were all hungry and we just wanted to win."
And win they did. Theodore led the Fraport Skyliners to the 2016 FIBA Europe Cup final four in Chalon, France, where he unleashed a superb defensive effort with 12 points, 7 assists and 5 steals for a 59-56 semifinal win over BC Enisey of Russia. Theodore added 13 points against Italy's Varese in the final to win Frankfurt's first European trophy. After that it was back to Turkey for another magical season, this time with Banvit Bandirma. Theodore was named MVP of the Turkish Cup final after leading Banvit to the trophy with a 66-75 victory over Anadolu Efes Istanbul with 19 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists. He was later named MVP of the Basketball Champions League after leading Banvit to the title game; he topped that competition with 7.5 assists per game and ranked fourth in scoring with 16.2 points per game.
In addition to his on-court prowess while at Banvit, Theodore's life changed as his relationship with Turkish basketball player Tugba Tascı blossomed. They had actually met years before, as Theodore described: "I was down near the Mediterranean Sea. She was in Besiktas at the time and we met. I saw her one day and I just couldn’t stop staring at her. But she didn’t pay me any attention. I introduced myself, but I think she was in a relationship at the time and she just didn’t pay me any attention, which was okay. I was a rookie, I wasn’t looking for a girlfriend at the time."
Theodore didn't even know she was a basketball player at the time, but when he learned that he was even more drawn to her. It wasn’t until his season in Banvit that the two became a couple. "We ended up running into each other when I was in Turkey last season and I had to tell her, 'I’ve had a crush on you since I first met you… And I’m at a point in my life now where I think it’s time.'"
Like with all great romances, all the pieces came together and now Theodore thinks of Istanbul as his second home. "Her family is amazing," he said. "My family loves her. This summer is going to be big because our families will meet for the first time. It’s a great feeling! I’m smiling because I've never been in love like this. I’ve never had something or someone, outside of basketball, that I care about so much."
After enjoying his experiences in Turkey, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, France and Germany, Theodore was excited when Milan came to him with an offer, because it would allow him to test his game against the best in Europe in the EuroLeague. He had never been to Italy before. And Milan has become another place he loves.
"I love fashion. I love to dress really nice. I went to the Duomo for the first time and I couldn’t stop staring at it. I was star struck. It was like seeing my favorite rapper. I just couldn't stop staring because it was so beautiful." Theodore made sure his family came for a visit early in the season so they would have time to be tourists before the rigors of the EuroLeague schedule took hold. "They were able to see the city and have a good time. I love to be able to show my family new things, things that if it wasn’t for basketball, we might not be able to see."
As he nears the stretch run of his sixth season as a professional, Theodore is now a veteran of European basketball and in a position to offer sage advice to the North American players who are coming to the Old Continent. "I think once you get to these places, you have to embrace it, take it all in, because if you don’t, you’re going to struggle. Coming from America and living in Europe is not an easy lifestyle. It’s not. They give you a car. They give you a new house. But you’ve got to learn the ways to get to the gym and everything. It’s hard. Finding places to eat."
Another important tip from Theodore is: learn the local tongue. "I think it's important to try to pick up as much as you can while you’re out here, 10 to 11 months, depending upon how far you go in the playoffs. You get one month at home. You have to pick up the language. It’s smart to. I think you have to do it because you have to interact with people. Not everyone you meet is going to speak English."
As he looks back nearly a decade to the kid at Seton Hall who was trying to figure out his future, Theodore has plenty to be proud of. "I knew basketball was gonna take me here, I just wasn’t sure how," he said. "I could never have imagined this."