Kaleb Joseph in right place at right time
He saw the opportunity, even in a pandemic, to hop on a plane and head back over to Europe where he had spent much of the previous year.
Last month, Nashua’s Kaleb Joseph was gambling on himself and his basketball talents.
But that’s nothing new – he’s used to doing that.
The 6-foot-3 guard gambled on himself a few years ago, when he transferred from Syracuse to Creighton, and after a rough initial go with injury woes, he enjoyed a fine senior season with a nationally ranked team.
“That’s the way it is,” the 24-year-old Joseph said of his gambles that have him playing professionally in Europe for the second straight year. “Basketball is so competitive, there are a lot of things that may not come down to talent; right place, right time.”
During this past fall, Joseph was working out in the Nashua area, but watching European teams make their plans even during the pandemic. Players he knew were being signed, but he was still on the outside looking in despite a fine but abbreviated 2019-20 season.
So his agent, Benjamin Stevic, suggested he fly to Europe – the travel restrictions had been loosened – and stay with him in Slovenia . He could work out for teams and showcase himself.
“It was a gamble,” Joseph said. “You really just have to be confident in yourself. You’re taking a chance of flying out there, you go practice for a couple of coaches, couple of teams, and maybe they don’t like your game. And you go that long way for no reason in the middle of a pandemic.”
He hit the jackpot – again.
Joseph is currently playing in Slovenia, in the Premier A Slovenian Basketball League, and the Adriatic League for the Helios Suns – a team that was his No. 1 choice to play for, based in the town of Domzale. Last year, before the pandemic hit to cut the season short in March, Joseph played for Zlatorog Lasko, also in Slovenia.
“It was really, really tough,” Joseph said of the ordeal that didn’t see him fly out to Europe until early November. “There’s a lot of really, really good players, like former NBA guys, high level guys, that are without jobs right now.
“This was probably the craziest off-season in European basketball history.”
When Joseph was back in the states, waiting for his chance to return to Slovenia, his anxiety level was raised. He was watching players finally be able to travel to Europe, and he was still grounded here.
“You’re like ‘Im better than this guy,'” he said, “but you never know the situation. So I’m really just at home, I’m training.”
And through his trainer he had a private gym to work out in. Joseph also would write down his goals as he always did every off-season in his journal.
And one of his goals that he wrote down was to play this year for Helios, whom he played against last year. Their arena was beautiful, the fans were really into it, and Joseph had one of his best games, a 30-point effort against the Suns.
“So literally since last season, every single day I would write down in my journal I will play for Helios Suns,” he said. “And in the 2020-21 season I will average 15 points, six rebounds, six assists. Every single day I wrote this down – before every single workout, before every single time I woke up and before I went to bed.”
But Joseph kept track of the moves Helios was making, and they signed a lot of guards. He felt he could still contribute, had a slight setback when Helios signed a big man formerly of Iowa, but that player got homesick and came home after two days.
There was still hope.
But Stevic was telling Joseph that European teams weren’t signing any more Americans because they would have to quarantine, thus delaying their availability.
“You’re looking at a whole month before you can get on the court,” he said. “Teams that are struggling, you’re usually able to play right away and help turn their season around. But a whole month for a team that’s losing is the difference between making the playoffs and not.”
Instead teams were buying out contracts and the player pool was already there.
Joseph had to join that pool. The second day he was in Europe, Helios called, telling him they were going to play in a bubble in the International League for 10 days and had some COVID possibles on the roster. Could he join them, basically as a temp?
“I said to myself that this was a team I’ve been saying I want, it kind of feels like the stars are aligning for me,” he said.
Joseph practiced for a couple of days, and learned the Suns system on the fly. In his first game, coming off the bench, he had seven points, six rebounds, six assists.
The next game he didn’t play much due to size matchups. But in the third and last game of the bubble, Joseph had 19 points , three assists, three steals in 21 minutes off the bench.
Jackpot again – he was offered a contract on the way back. And he’s been there since.
Right place, right time.
“For me, flying myself out here, my biggest asset was my accessibility,” Joseph said. “They could come touch me, see me in person. If I didn’t do that, in my mind, somebody else might have that opportunity, and they might not be as good as me. I took that chance on myself, and put the work in.”
But he had to fight the travel restrictions. He had a three day notice to travel, and the only way he could fly into Slovenia was through Germany and the airport in Frankfurt. And there he would have to take a COVID test at a rapid testing center. If he was positive, he’d have to fly back home.
“That’s why when I was home, I did nothing but train,” he said. “I wasn’t going to work my butt off and while I was home have someone give me COVID and I’d miss out on all this money.”
Joseph couldn’t make the rounds to say good-bye to his family. He sent a text instead. “I said, ‘I’m leaving, going to Europe for seven months, I love you.’
“You know what I mean? I love my career, and I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”
But again, this gamble was nothing new for Joseph.
The Creighton experience was certainly worthwhile for Joseph but it started out tough. After having to sit out a season due to the transfer, he was projected as a starter as the Bluejays needed a point guard, but he tore his hamstring a month or so prior to the start of the season.
Joseph called himself “young, dumb and naive” trying to come back too quickly – after all he had been out all of the previous year and was itching to finally play – but eventually had to give in and sit out most of his junior season as well due to the injury. His senior year was spent trying, in his mind “earning the coaches’ trust” and became a reliable sixth man for a Top 25 team.
“It just kind of worked out,” Joseph said. “That helped propel me to my professional career.”
He trained out in Los Angeles after that season in the summer of 2019 with a couple of former college teammates as well as NBA veteran Will Bynum and NBA lottery pick (Pistons) Killian Hayes. The four would work out in the gym every day.
“It was literally my greatest off-season,” Joseph said, adding Bynum had also played in Europe and was telling Joseph what it would be like. “I was like a sponge soaking up all this information,” he said. “And from a basketball standpoint, you’re learning from a guy (Bynum) who played our position at the highest level.”
Thus it was easy to take an offer from Zlatorog Lasko. For Joseph it was baptism by fire, but well worth it.
“It was a good season, my first season overseas, adjusting was probably the toughest thing,” Joseph said. “Adjusting to the lifestyle. Being away from home, you know what I mean?”
But signing the contract was what Joseph called “a very surreal moment.”
“People don’t realize,” he said. “The NBA is great, it’s obviously the greatest league in the world. But you can make millions of dollars playing overseas. The average NBA career is only three years. You sign your first contract, and after that, most guys are out.
“But you play overseas, another team sees you, they pick you up, you go back to the NBA. Back and forth. The average basketball fan doesn’t know much about overseas basketball, but it’s a great lifestyle, man.
“You make really good money. Being young, you get to see the world, travel the world. It would be a great experience for anybody, not just a basketball player. I love it. It’s been a really good experience for me so far.”
But it certainly wasn’t easy at the start.
“It was hard initially,” Joseph said. “I was like a deer in the headlights, a big culture shock. But the biggest thing for me I had going for myself was I’m not a super high maintenance person. … I came over with the attitude I’m going to another country, I want to learn as much as I can.”
In other words Joseph stayed humble wit h no ego, careful to make sure he didn’t portray himself as “a big shot American.”
“I think that’s where most guys struggle,” he said. “A sense of entitlement, instead of trying to take in the culture, take it for what it is.”
So Joseph’s teammates and coaches embraced him, wanting him to do well. There were a few Americans on the team, but, as he said, “They came and they went. It’s not for everybody. Some guys came in and thought they would dominate. It’s not as easy as you think it is. These are high level basketball players.”
Thus, for an extended period of time, Joseph was the only American on the team.
As for culture shock, Joseph had to get used to being an island to himself.
“You kind of feel like you’re isolated,” he said. “You wake up, and for me, I’m six hours ahead of you guys back home. I’m halfway through my day and you guys are just waking up.”
So that had to be taken into consideration when he’d want to talk with family and friends. He had to avoid the temptation to stay up late at night to catch people back home.
“And you’re away from everybody, so you have to learn how to survive on your own,” he said. “Just be happy on your own. There’s a lot less distractions here.
“You’re in another country. It’s not like you can run around town. You have to learn how to just find peace with yourself, honestly.”
And when he had to return back to Nashua to deal with the pandemic from March to early November, he was prepared for the semi-quarantine life. “It didn’t bother me much,” he said.
“I really felt like I was used to it.”
Of course, the other adjustment would be the food.
“The food’s good,” Joseph said. “There’s certain things I’m just not going to eat. I haven’t had any problems with the food. I have a couple of former teammates who play and China and Korea, and they’re having some issues with the food. But for me, it’s pretty good. Italy’s an hour away from me, Austria. There’s really, really great food everywhere.”
His favorite? He’s enjoyed struklji, which is a rolled dumpling, and kremsnita, a Croatian vanilla cream-filled pastry.
He also has to deal with life in the pandemic. “Honestly, they’re handling it here a lot better than we are back home,” he said. “The first question eveyone asks me is what the (explitive) is going on in America?”
You can’t leave the city you’re in (except for work), if you get caught, its a $450 fine. Restaurants only have take out; there is a curfew every night. You go outside you have to wear a mask.
“Everybody follows the rules,” he said. “Luckily, that’s why our team is able to continue to play. People are following the rules, the numbers are slowly going down.”
The players, he said, get tested once a week. And every other month, rather than travel from country to country, they play in a bubble (hotel resort) to play five games in 12-15 days. He’s hoping for a regular playoff season.
Then there was the adjustment to the level of play. Joseph came out of Cushing Academy as one of the best point guards in the country, so Zlatorog Lasko coach Robi Rebezl knew of him.
“He saw the potential in me, that obviously all the other coaches who recruited me (for college) saw in me,” Joseph said. “I was finally healthy, and for me I have a lot to prove, to me, not anyone else, that I am the player I believe (he could be).”
He had a lot of conversations with Rebezl before he left for Europe, “and he really believed in me.” And that helped Joseph with the learning curve.
“The game is different,” he said. “It’s really tactical. You have to be a high IQ guy, have a great understanding for the game.”
That is why, Joseph said, you see top level Europeans be “the smartest guys on the court” in the NBA – including Slovenia’s Luca Doncic, standout with the Miami Heat. In Europe, there’s not defensive three seconds, so big men can clog the paint. “So you have to know how to shoot the ball,” Joseph said. “If you can’t shoot the ball, you’re not going to be able to score. You have to be very skilled and have a great understanding of the game.”
Joseph said that in the U.S.a lot of players rely on just their athleticism. That’s not enough in the European game. Joseph’s team played about 25 games before the pandemic hit.
There was a time when Joseph was in college that he felt “a little defeated” and was thinking of giving up basketball altogether. He had formed a non-profit that he would plan to continue to do in the off-season.
“My passion outside of basketball,” he called it.
Joseph studied emotional intelligence and lifestyle medicine at Creighton. During the off-season he makes three or four stops around the country – when in L.A.he took side trips to along the west coast to eight or nine different cities and hosts seminars talking about self awareness, and “coping mechanisms (people) can use to deal with stress and anxiety.”
In Nashua, he did the same thing with PAL, helping youths deal with COVID.
Then basketball – and Europe – beckoned. Joseph had been to Europe once before last year, when he played on an All-Star team before college. He has made good friends in a couple of countries, Austria for one.
He’d definitely recommend the European experience.
“It’s so beautiful,” he said. “The way of living, I think a lot of Americans could learn a lot from traveling. It would open up their eyes. … A lot of Americans have never seen other countries. When (the pandemic) is over, I’ll be able to have my family over here, I’d really like to share this experience with them.”
He hopes that continuing to play for Helios next year is an option, but he also wants to advance to higher leagues in Europe.
“That’s why this year was so big,” he said. “I was able to take a step forward in my career, play in a more competitive league, more money and more exposure. It was a great step for me.”
A step in a great direction.
“I didn’t want to give (basketball) up yet,” Joseph said. “I really wanted to explore it. I’m glad I did.
“On a whim, I kind of took a chance on myself, and it worked out.”
That is Nashuan Kaleb Joseph’s basketball career – and life – in a nutshell.