Few players in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague, if any, have crossed more of the continent than Zenit St Petersburg swingman KC Rivers. After starting his European adventure in 2009 with small Italian club Latina, he has also played in France, Spain, Germany, Greece, Serbia, Lithuania and now – for the third time in his career – Russia.
Rivers was born in North Carolina and spent his youth in Virginia before attending college at Clemson University. He readily admits that the prospect of pursuing his professional career away from his native United States never really crossed his mind. And when the move to Italy came along, it took a while to adjust.
"These are things you've read about and when you visit a place like the Red Square you don't forget it."
"For American kids, our dream is the NBA," he says. "So when I started out with Latina, it was an eye-opener. A shock, to be honest. It’s a small city about 40 minutes south of Rome and I was one of the first Americans on the team. There wasn't really anywhere to go and I was by myself, so I really had to grow up. At college, you’ve got your teammates and your friends and lots of things around you to occupy your time, but I didn’t have anything besides watching movies all day!
"Once we started playing, I was doing so well and it was probably because I didn’t want to be there. I had that mindset of doing whatever I could to get myself out of that situation by joining a bigger team and I was playing great, so it did help start my career."
Indeed, Rivers only spent half a season with Latina before joining Benetton Treviso and he continued to climb the ladder before eventually reaching the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague with a move to Khimki Moscow Region in the summer of 2012. But he said it was a mixed experience.
"I was excited to play in EuroLeague and the team we had at Khimki was pretty good, but I got depressed because of that weather," he reflected. "Every day was constant snow. As a kid, I loved snow, but seeing it every single day… I was over it. I didn't want to see another drop of snow! I was struggling to adapt to what life was like in Moscow and I never really got over it. I had some days that were good, but a lot of days that were not necessarily bad but you could tell that something was bothering me, and I didn't really have an outlet to express what was going on."
"I enjoyed the two years I was there and the Greek people are great."
His memories of Moscow aren’t all negative, though, as he adds: “The architecture in Moscow is amazing, especially seeing the Kremlin and how these buildings are designed. These are things you've read about and when you visit a place like the Red Square you don’t forget it."
After a year away from Europe, Rivers returned by joining Real Madrid in 2014, and he immediately felt very comfortable in the Spanish capital.
"I gotta say Madrid was one of my favorite places,” he stated. “Being able to venture out and see some of the city, as well as the way the club was run. The organization was Class A from top to bottom. I embraced being in Madrid. I loved it and didn't want to leave. The city has that New York City kind of flow – lots of people walking around at two o clock in the morning, everywhere feels safe, and I enjoyed the life there."
His two spells with Real were interspersed with a brief stint with FC Bayern Munich, where he was able to enjoy one of Europe’s great cultural traditions: "I went to Oktoberfest," he smiled. "So I got to understand what that hoopla is all about, although I’m not a big beer drinker and I didn't dress up! But it was nice to experience it and it’s definitely something to go and do when you're in Germany."
Next up was a move to Panathinaikos and Rivers has very fond memories of his time in Greece.
"Athens was beautiful, man, I loved it. There are a lot of Greek-Americans who go back to live there so the language barrier wasn't hard. The living was pretty easy and it was one of the best cities, along with Madrid, where I lived comfortably," Rivers said. "I was able to enjoy the life of the city, it’s a beautiful city with so many different parts. I enjoyed the two years I was there and the Greek people are great. They’re crazy! But they've very supportive, die-hard fans. I love them to death. I'll never forget the atmosphere at Panathinaikos."
After a brief return to Italy with Reggiana, the next stop on Rivers's European tour was Belgrade, where he spent half a season with Crvena Zvezda. "Belgrade was nice," he said. "It’s not that big a city, but there's a beauty to the place. They have the different rivers and you can look around and see the old ruins, which they keep to remind people of where they came from, that’s how I saw it. The city is alive and you see the new buildings which are going up to uplift the city, but I like the fact they keep some of the ruins around as a constant reminder of where the country came from."
Last season saw Rivers start out with Real Betis in Spain before moving to Zalgiris Kaunas for a few months and he was struck by the picturesque nature of the Lithuanian city’s historic center.
"I appreciated playing for such a well-known EuroLeague club in a small city and I loved walking around the old town – especially when I got there around Christmas time and you see the big tree and lots of people out, partaking in the festivities," he reminisced.
That brings us to the present day and Rivers making his return to Russia with a move to Zenit, but his opportunities to see the sights of St Petersburg have so far been limited by the current situation – which has also complicated his family life.
"I had to be in quarantine when I arrived so I haven’t had the chance to see the city much," he explained. "My wife and kids are back in California because Russia is not permitting families to enter the country, so I’ll probably be here myself this season unless something changes.
"My kids are young. My daughter is six so she understands what’s going on, but my son’s four so he doesn’t quite get it. I have to keep telling him, 'No man, I don't think you're coming over this year.' The kids love the whole experience of flying and traveling, so I feel bad for them that they won’t get to enjoy it this year."
"It’s been an adventure. Seeing different cultures and different aspects of life."
Overall, though, Rivers rates his experiences in Europe as a big positive for both himself and his family: "We were together in places like Madrid, Munich, Athens, Belgrade… We've always been together until this year when things are different. My mom always jokes and says the kids have more stamps in their passport than she does! It’s definitely good for them. They have memories and they understand they've lived in certain countries and not only been stateside for their entire life.
"And I've been blessed to have this opportunity to play abroad. It’s been an adventure. Seeing different cultures and different aspects of life. How people live, how they parent, what they do in everyday life. I’m grateful for this opportunity to travel and live in different countries.
"I've even had the idea that I might write a book!" he laughed. "Given how many places I've played and how many years I've been here, I could tell stories for days about the things I’ve seen!"
Write the book, KC, we'll all be reading it!