As far as first professional seasons go, Clarksville-native Tommy Brenton says he couldn't have drawn things up much better.
Last July, Brenton signed a two-year professional basketball contract with Link Tochigi Brex in Japan's National Basketball League and proceeded to help lead the team this past winter to a 31-23 overall record and its first appearance in the playoffs since 2010.
Brenton, 25, who was the Howard County Player of the Year at River Hill as a senior in 2006-07 before moving on to play collegiately at Stony Brook, quickly established himself as a versatile forward with Tochigi Brex. On the season, he finished with averages of 4.5 points, 5 rebounds and 3.4 assists a game while sprinkling in some top notch individual game performances.
On top of several double-digit scoring efforts, he also registered single-game bests of 13 rebounds (against Chiba Jets on November 9) and 11 assists (against Daytrick Tsukuba on March 22).
Now, after a summer spent with family and friends in Maryland and New York, Brenton is preparing to return to Japan on Aug. 9 to begin preparing for the upcoming season. Before leaving, though, he took some time to talk about his first year overseas and his outlook for the future.
Back when you were looking at your options for turning pro, was Japan always the frontrunner?
All along it was definitely Japan, but I didn't want to put all my eggs in one basket so I was looking into Europe and other options too. The way it works for mid-major guys is that you want to find an agent that has contracts, not necessarily find a team. I selected an agent based on the connections that he had and the one with the best opportunities for me happened to be in Japan. Also, my mom was born in Japan and was raised there until she was like 13 and came here. So thinking down the road, I'm actually trying to get my Japanese passport so that I can count as one of the Japanese players and whatever team I'm on can sign two more American players and give us the best opportunity to win.
So were you ultimately happy with the decision?
Yeah, definitely. Having been there for a year, I love it there and I can really see myself staying there for my whole career. A lot of guys move around year to year, but I definitely would like to stick around. My contract I signed last summer was a two-year, 24-month deal, but I'm actually in talks right now about extending it for a third year with the same team, same organization.
How similar was the pro game to the college basketball you were used to?
I honestly think that college was a lot harder. The pro life is a lot more stress-free, I would say. There is no 6 a.m. conditioning or weightlifting right after practice. No study halls, class or finals and that really allowed me to just focus on basketball. There are still pressures to take care of your body and maintain your skills, but you know it's definitely a reward for five years of hard work in college.
In terms of your game itself, how did that translate to the international style of play?
I think my game translated pretty well, and I know that some guys have had a hard time with it. The hardest thing for me initially was adjusting to the coaching style. We had a European coach (Antanas Sireika) and I was just lost. It took me a good two weeks to get everything. It was like all the things you learn in college about defensive schemes and play calling ... you just throw it out the window. I looked like a guy that had never played basketball before in practice those first two weeks. But eventually I caught on and was really able to help my team.
Did it take a little while for the team to adjust to your style of play as well?
I think early on, they didn't really know what to expect from me. What I do is not so much fancy or like a superstar, but I definitely can help a team and contribute. Usually when teams over there sign Americans, they are looking for 20 points a game and they aren't expecting a guy that's going to strap it up and play defense. So it was definitely different having me on the team, but I think it helped a lot of the Japanese players too in terms of confidence when I was able to set them up for shots too. I'm not one of those guys trying to get his stats and then move up to a different team.
So if you felt pretty comfortable with the transition basketball wise, was it a tough transition in terms of being in a different country?
Oh yeah, it definitely was a culture shock going over there. The lifestyle was the biggest thing. I think I hit my head on the bathroom doorway at least 10 times within the first week because it's like only 6-feet-high and waking up in the morning you don't even think about it. I had a huge knot on my head. It was like the little things. I remember getting a haircut and they would have these magazines to pick the style you wanted, but most Japanese people keep their hair so long and I just wanted a simple fade. I kept going through and eventually I just pulled out my driver's license and said 'this is what I want.' It's that kind of stuff that you don't even think of that takes time to adjust to.
They give you a translator when you are with the team, but how did you cope when they weren't around?
For road trips, the other American on the team Ryan (Rossiter) and I, we would go out for meals and would always try to take one of the Japanese guys that spoke English. Whenever we went to a restaurant or something and had a meal that we liked, we would keep the receipt so that we could go back by ourselves and get it again. I think we had like 30 to 50 receipts in our cars. Then we also started keeping pictures on our phone of Domino's or Pizza Hut so that when we were at hotels we could show them and they could point us in the right direction. I think like any rookie playing overseas, you figure out different tricks as you go.
Have you made any efforts to learn the language?
I've definitely tried and still am. They actually gave me a teacher and I was seeing her twice a week for like two weeks but I realized pretty quickly that she didn't speak English and we were having the hardest time ... and I eventually stopped seeing her. I've learned the general conversations and if I need help, I can ask someone. I can also say the basic things like 'hey, how you doing' or 'thank you.' It's enough to get by.
How have the fans been?
Basketball isn't really the favorite sport over there, it's definitely baseball. They draw like 25,000 fans for some baseball games. But Brex, our team, we were No. 1 in the league in terms of fans at around 3,000 a game. And they were great. Their energy and how committed they are to the team definitely helped us out. They had chants, drums ... it was phenomenal. We could have a game like six hours away and most of them would still come. It is definitely way better than I expected.
Have you reached celebrity status yet?
It was my first year, so not me personally. But we have a player on our team, our point guard (Yuta Tabuse), who was the first Japanese-born player to play in the NBA and he's a celebrity all around Japan. We will get off an airplane, he was on the (Phoenix) Suns, and you will see Suns jerseys and people waiting for him to sign autographs everywhere we go. He worked his way up through the D League, just a great story, and got to play a few games in the NBA.
How have you stayed in touch with your family while you have been in Japan?
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That was definitely one of the hardest things about going over there, figuring out when I could talk to my family or see them. But technology has made it so easy. I can FaceTime or Skype every day. My parents actually joke that they talked to me more when I was in Japan than when I was back at home because I was always in the basement with my brother hanging out with friends. But it's still definitely a challenge. It's a 14-hour time difference between here and Japan, so that took some getting used to. I was also lucky enough to have my parents come over and see a few games. The fans were great, treating them just like they treat me.
Now I know your first child, Peyton, was born in June of last year right before you left for Japan. How difficult was it to be away from her and what's it like seeing her after so much time?
Seeing her on FaceTime and Skype is a lot different than seeing her in person obviously. But the biggest thing is picking her up and feeling her weight in my arms. When I left last summer she was a little baby that was just staring at me and sleeping all the time. But I came back in January after five months and she had grown so much. Then coming back again (in May), we've had a lot of fun this summer. She's finally starting to walk and run everywhere and it's been great getting to see her grow up. We're working on getting her out to Japan this season.
Is being away from her and your family just one of the sacrifices you sometimes have to make to chase your dreams?
It's been my dream to play professional basketball. You don't necessarily think it's going to be in Japan, but that's one of the sacrifices that overseas basketball players have to make. Some people don't understand that — that it's not an easy life and it's a grind. But financially it's helping me provide for my daughter now and down the road. I'm also getting a chance to live out my dreams as well ... it's a great opportunity for me.
Heading into your second season, how much better prepared do you feel for what's ahead?
With a season under your belt, you know what the league is like, you know what the team and players are like. We have some great players returning, we'll add another American player to go along with us just adding a new American coach so I think the communication will be a lot easier this time around. After finishing top-three this year, I think we are ready to make the next step into a championship-caliber team. I'm excited to go back and get started.