'Playing pro basketball never entered my mind'

Mar 26, 2019 by Frankie Sachs, Euroleague.net Print
'Playing pro basketball never entered my mind'

When Maccabi FOX Tel Aviv takes the floor for a Turkish Airlines EuroLeague home game, with 10,000-plus people gathered at Menorah Mivtachim Arena, there are surely a few in the crowd who are 1.83 meters tall, another handful who didn't initially get much playing time on their high school basketball team, and even a group who studied financial economics in college.

But only one of the people in the arena fit all three descriptions – and is the captain of the home team.

John DiBartolomeo fully embraces the unusual journey of his basketball career. Like so many of his peers, DiBartolomeo adored playing basketball as a boy. Unlike many of them, however, he did not harbor aspirations of a professional career. He was simply more realistic.

"If you told me five years ago I'd still be playing pro basketball, I'd have told you you're crazy," he said. Yet with hard work and endurance, DiBartolomeo has never stopped improving, and that has led him to a key role on EuroLeague power Maccabi.

DiBartolomeo tried almost every sport he could as a boy and really liked soccer, but by high school, he had decided to put all his focus on basketball. And even then, his aspirations were not sky high.

"If you told me five years ago I'd still be playing pro basketball, I'd have told you you're crazy."

"The thought of playing pro basketball never entered my mind," DiBartolomeo recalled. "I was all about high school basketball and hopefully trying to have some opportunity to play some sort of college basketball."

The area of Connecticut where DiBartolomeo was raised is not known as a hotbed for hoops, so it was hard for him to get much attention, especially because he did not play much until his next-to-last year in high school. With a strong final season, however, DiBartolomeo realized that he had a chance to play college basketball, although not at the highest level. Ultimately, he chose to play at the University of Rochester, a small school in Upstate New York.

"Through and through, it was the best school I was looking at for everything I was looking for in a college," DiBartolomeo said. "I started to look at other schools where maybe I wouldn't play and that lasted for maybe a couple days. I knew I wanted to play basketball and they had the best combination of good academics – and even though they were Division III, they took their basketball very seriously. When I visited the campus, I fell in love. It was perfect for me."

DiBartolomeo arrived at the school not expecting to get much playing time. He had studied the team's roster and assumed that, based on the pecking order, he would have a reserve role for two seasons, at least.

"I got there and our coach was old fashioned. He was switching lineups every day. No one knew … who was starting or playing until the first scrimmage," DiBartolomeo said. "He picked five names and told us we were starting. That was the first time I realized I was going to be one of the players."

Thanks to his coach's unusual approach, DiBartolomeo not only got the chance to start, but would go on to become his conference's rookie of the year, launching one of the best athletic careers in the university's history. Each year, he took on a larger role for the team.

"I was lucky. My coaches put me in a good position... and my teammates helped me all the way," DiBartolomeo said.

Even as he continued to garner attention, his goals were always team-oriented.

"Individual accolades never really crossed my mind. It's kind of hard to work hard towards individual goals. Every year the stuff that would get us excited was talking about the postseason, talking about winning the conference, talking about reaching the NCAA Tournament. That's what would drive us and help us persevere through practices and games."

"I do really like Israel. I'm really comfortable here. It is my home away from home."

After his junior year, DiBartolomeo's coach spoke to him about the possibility of playing professionally. "I told myself I would try for two or three years, just to see the world," DiBartolomeo said. "I always wanted to study abroad and never got the opportunity because of basketball."

Then two things happened that caused him to become even more interested in playing professionally. First, he had a taste of a desk job and didn't like it.

"Going into my senior year I had an internship at an advertising agency in New York City, just because I thought I needed to have some sort of work experience if I was going to go out into the real world in a short 10 months," DiBartolomeo explained. "I quickly realized that wasn't what I had a passion for... I was just counting down the days until I could go back to college, be with my friends and play basketball."

Second, after a fantastic final season at Rochester garnered him Division III First Team All-American status and some Player of the Year nods, DiBartolomeo received a letter from an agent in Germany. He began to consider European basketball seriously, but the initial feedback wasn't overly promising. "An agent told me, 'Being a Division III guy, it's kinda hard to place you. There's a lot of players who want jobs and Division III is not at the top of their list, especially short, white point guards.'"

The same agent recommended an exposure camp in Spain, one of the countries that interested DiBartolomeo most, and he played well enough in that setting to earn a three-year contract from ACB club CAI Zaragoza, whose plan was to loan him to a smaller club. First, however, DiBartolomeo got a taste of top-level Spanish hoops as a training camp player replacing Zaragoza's first-stringers who were competing at EuroBasket.

"[It] was eye-opening," DiBartolomeo said. "I for sure wasn't at that level, and I felt it from the first couple of days that I was there. It was an extremely high level of basketball, and I knew I had a ways to go before I could play with people of that caliber.

"It was a little [discouraging], but it also gave me the motivation to help me when I went down to the third division. I had a month of playing with these great players, so I had an advantage... Sometimes when you go overseas and you go to a level maybe you're not prepared for, you get kind of discouraged and people kind of regress. I was fortunate to be in a good situation for what I needed at the time."

He was sent to Palma Air Europa, a club located in Mallorca that played in Spain's third division, LEB Plata. For DiBartolomeo, it was a perfect spot to begin his professional career.

"It was great. I consider myself very lucky. It was a professional club," DiBartolomeo said. "There was excitement around the club. There was pressure on the club, but in a good way. And it was a good place to live. I was a block or two from the beach, just playing basketball, making a little money and living in a beautiful country."

Palma earned a spot in the next-highest division, LEB Oro, and was able to get DiBartolomeo back on loan from Zaragoza for the next season, too. After impressing there, it seemed DiBartolomeo might get his shot at playing in the Spanish first division. But then his agent learned an interesting piece of information.

"My agent found out that I was Jewish and I could play as an Israeli in Israel," DiBartolomeo explained. "Israel wasn't really on my radar before that."

DiBartolomeo flew to Israel after his second season in Spain ended to train with Maccabi Haifa and get a feel for what his life would be like there. He was impressed with the professionalism and amazed by the crowd support. He decided that if Haifa made the right offer, he would accept, which is exactly what happened in 2015. But it was a rough beginning for DiBartolomeo in Israel.

"I wasn't playing my best basketball. On the court, stuff was tough for me. Off the court, it was even harder because I was in a new country, I didn't know anybody. I didn't know the culture or what to do outside of basketball," DiBartolomeo explained. "I am very thankful I went to Haifa... They stuck with me, they kept playing me through my terrible times, and I eventually started to feel more comfortable and play better."

Midway through that season, on February 6, 2016, to be exact, DiBartolomeo had his breakout moment in Israel. He scored 22 points on 5-for-7 three-point shooting as Haifa pounded Maccabi Tel Aviv 91-56.

"Everybody knows Maccabi Tel Aviv. Maccabi was the big team. It was an amazing game for us at the time," DiBartolomeo recalled. "I was always excited to play Maccabi Tel Aviv, for the chance to knock off the best team and to compare myself with the best players. It was one of the highlights of our season. It was one of the toughest losses for Maccabi at that time."

After a strong first season in Haifa, DiBartolomeo was even better in his second one. "I was more comfortable and felt like I could keep growing," he said. "You always feel like you can improve and I think that if you're in a situation to do that and you have the willingness to work hard, that can happen. "My coach was always on me to be more aggressive and I think that helped me. My teammates were telling me to be more aggressive. All that stuff really helped me and from a development standpoint, I was a year older, a year better and had another year of understanding the league here. And that really played into our success."

DiBartolomeo led Haifa to the Israeli League final by knocking off Maccabi Tel Aviv in the semifinals. He was rewarded for his play by being named the league MVP. Haifa would lose to Hapoel Jerusalem in the final, but DiBartolomeo's stock was again on the rise and he was a free agent. Maccabi came calling and DiBartolomeo didn't need much time to think about the offer.

"Maccabi Tel Aviv speaks for itself. It's a EuroLeague team. The best team in Israel," said DiBartolomeo. "When I set out to play, I always said I want to try and get to the highest level I could and Maccabi Tel Aviv seemed to have all the boxes that I wanted checked off.

"Taking it one step at a time has always enabled me to play my best."

"I was open to playing in other countries, but I do really like Israel. I'm really comfortable here. It is my home away from home. So to find a team that could help take me to the next level in Israel, it was even better."

One might think the fairytale story that took a DiBartolomeo from his high school team's bench to a small Division III college, up the ladder in Spain, all the way to a EuroLeague powerhouse in Israel could end there. But DiBartolomeo's leadership was immediately recognized by the blue-and-yellow, which named him the team's captain within the first few months of his joining the team.

"When they asked me to do it, I was taken aback," DiBartolomeo said. "I was extremely honored that they thought of me."

Joining the ranks of club legends like Ralph Klein, Tal Brody, Mickey Berkowitz, Doron Jamchy, Nadav Henefeld, Gue Shelef and Derrick Sharp, DiBartolomeo was humbled by the appointment, but has not let it go to his head. He keeps his focus on the team and what he can do to help it.

"I try to stay in the present. There are a bunch more things that I want to accomplish as a player," he said. "Taking it one step at a time has always enabled me to play my best."

The journey to where he is today has not worn DiBartolomeo out at all. Let's see what's next!