Ashley Hamilton came to Canada on a few day's notice, travelling over 10,000 kilometres in one week to keep his career going. That's the life most pro players know.
Ashley Hamilton needed a break.
He’d just put his body through another season of professional basketball and, at 33, the wear was starting to get to him. Everything hurt. Some days it felt like he was held together by medical tape, ice and prayers.
But Hamilton’s team had just been eliminated from the playoffs and he was looking for work.
So when the Montreal Alliance offered him a spot on their roster earlier this month, he had a decision to make: would he take the summer to heal or would he pack his bags, wrangle the family together and cross the Atlantic in pursuit of the next paycheque?
He took the job.
“We were eliminated from the playoffs and right away I got the call to move to Canada,” said Hamilton, an English ballplayer under contract with Basket Coruña, in Spain. “When you play this game for a living, you have to be willing to pack everything up and move without much more than a moment’s notice. Thursday I’m in Spain, then I hop on a flight to London, London to Montreal, Montreal to Toronto, Toronto to Edmonton so I could join the team on the road.
“By Wednesday, I was in a city I’d never been to before, playing with guys I’d just met that day.”
This is the life of a professional athlete — roaming the basketball world like some itinerant Samurai, ready to trade his skills and put miles on his body for a bit of cash and life experience.
The four international players on the Montreal Alliance all have similar stories to Hamilton’s. They live out of a suitcase with little more than a well-worn pair of sneakers and the knowledge that they’re living on borrowed time.
“This basketball life will come to an end and that day comes sooner than you’d think,” said Hamilton. “The ups and downs are immense. It has to be something you would do if you weren’t being paid. But it’s basketball and it’s a pretty cool job to have at the end of the day.”
Hamilton wasn’t brought to Montreal to win the team a championship.
The Alliance are the newest squad in the Canadian Elite Basketball Association and it shows. Their players are mostly young men from Quebec with talent and drive but little in the way of pro experience.
They need a bit of toughening up and some hand holding. That’s where Hamilton comes in.
Off the court, he’s kind and self-deprecating. After coach Vincent Lavendier scolded one of the younger players at practice this week, Hamilton walked over, held his hand, gave him a pat on the bum and whispered some encouragement in his ear. On his Instagram, Hamilton posts pictures of his two kids and regularly makes fun of himself (in one of his videos, he fabricates evidence that he went to the gym and in another he takes the viewer inside his anxiety-riddled brain).
He is not as self-effacing during a game.
When I saw him play against the Niagara River Lions on June 15, he ran roughshod over his opponents, digging his elbows into them up under the net, bullying players out of the paint and setting screens hard enough to knock grown men on their asses.
North Americans think of basketball players as graceful and pampered. They see men so agile they can score without being touched by the other players and NBA athletes who make millions playing before packed arenas.
But elsewhere in the basketball world, it is a grinding sport. Without the kinds of superstars that dominate the NBA, teams in Europe play a stifling, defensive style aimed at pressuring the other team into making mistakes.
“We have to teach the European style because, I hate to say it, but none of the Canadian players on this team will ever play in the NBA,” said Lavendier. “They’re good but they’re a bit raw and they need to learn if they want to make a career out of basketball.”
Coach Lavendier rarely pays much attention to veterans like Hamilton but he’s relentless with the locals. Lavendier, who lives and coaches in France most the year, speaks in short bursts.
“Your attitude on defence,” he paused, during practice, failing to find the perfect words. “Very bad!”
A few moments later, while Lavendier saw one of his players miss an opportunity to bump an opponent during scrimmage, he whistled the play dead, walked over and gave him a shove.
The other aspect of the overseas basketball circuit is just how weird it can feel to the uninitiated. Hamilton has played pro ball all over the world; in Europe, Asia, the United States and on England’s national team. It isn’t a life of first class travel and seven figure shoe endorsements.
It’s a job where every dollar is fought for in some objectively strange conditions.
“In Lebanon, fans are so passionate — and maybe that’s not the best way to put it — but fans of the visiting team weren’t allowed to come to our games because there was guaranteed to be fights,” he said. “The home fans would fight each other so I can’t imagine what they’d do to away fans. But it was beautiful, in Beirut, an amazing place to play.
“In Greece fans smoked in the stands, so you’d have this thick fog descending on the court. They were smoking weed, letting off fireworks, throwing toilet paper onto the court. It’s intense.
“The crowd would hurl coins at us in Bosnia. We had a plastic dome over our bench to keep us safe. They’d make monkey noises and then after the game they’d come ask for our autograph.”
On his new team, Hamilton and the other nine roster players split $8,000 a game in salary. The Alliance provides meals and accommodations but that money is hard earned.
“It’s not really about the money for me,” says Sherwood Brown, an American guard with the Alliance. “It’s about giving back to the game that’s given me so much. I dunno if that makes sense but I really don’t know who I’d be without basketball.”
Brown was playing in Romania last spring when war broke out in neighbouring Ukraine. He remembers how surreal it was to read about refugees pouring into the country while he played basketball to entertain crowds during an international humanitarian crisis.
“We’ve kind of seen it all these past two years,” says Brown, who also played in Qatar and Lebanon. “COVID-19, playing in front of empty arenas, war, now — in Canada — we play on courts that are on top of hockey rinks. I had never seen that before, a big sheet of ice under the court.”
For Hamilton, though, it is about the money. At least, insofar as he is one of the few players on his team with children to provide for.
“When I was on my own, I didn’t have to think about saving up for a rainy day, I was just moving around and playing basketball,” he said. “The family, in some ways it takes pressure off because you can have a shit game and your kids don’t care. They’re just happy to see you. But then you’ve got to provide for them and if you’re not putting up points, if you’re not doing your job, you’re off the team.
“So it’s paycheque to paycheque until the time where I can’t play at a pro level anymore. And that time comes for all of us.”
At practice on Wednesday, his partner Alice Walton held their daughter Amani as two-year-old Ace summoned all the restraint he could muster not to run onto the court and hug his dad.
“We’re living a bit of an unconventional family life but we make it work,” said Walton, who runs an online travel-booking business. “I suppose I’m lucky because I can work from anywhere in the world but it takes a lot of planning and organization to keep it all together.”
Walton — who played on the women’s national team in England — is still getting used to yet another new city. During practice Wednesday, she took the kids for a drive so they could fall asleep in the car. When it wrapped, she gave Ace the run of the court and sank a shot while holding Amani in her left arm.
“We’re a unit, I don’t want to be away from my kids and I don’t want to leave Alice alone with the responsibility of two kids either,” Hamilton said. “It wasn't in the team’s budget to bring the whole family over so we decided to turn this summer into a little Canadian vacation for them. They’re so used to moving around, travelling and meeting people. They’re in their element.”
It was a rare off night for Hamilton.
The Niagara River Lions knew he was long before their match against Montreal on June 15 and put together a strategy to shut him down. They swarmed Hamilton every time he got the ball, sometimes putting two defenders on him to force the 33-year-old onto his heels.
After he missing his first four shots, Hamilton switched things up and started passing the ball to younger, Montreal-born players like Nathan Cayo.
“(Hamilton) is always going to get extra attention from the other team but he uses that to help me develop,” Cayo said, after the game. “He’s a teacher out there too.”
Victor Raso, the River Lions coach, says guys like Hamilton aren’t expected to be at 100 per cent when they play pro ball in Canada.
“When we bring (international) players in, we have an honest conversation about how worn out they are, what kind of playing time they can give us and how they can help out in the locker room,” said Raso, during a post-game interview. “It’s a summer league, we know the guys are banged up but there’s a lot they can offer on and off the court. It’s just about having that conversation first.”
By the third quarter, Hamilton was spent. He had travelled 10,000 kilometres — from Spain to Edmonton and then back to Montreal — in a span of a few days and hadn’t taken time to heal from the season in Europe. Even so, when his coach benched him, he didn’t protest or make excuses for himself. Hamilton sat down and cheered his teammates on.
“Some nights aren’t gonna go your way and you have to learn not to dwell on that,” he said. “Maybe I was tired, maybe I was just off. When that happens, you can’t think of the shot you missed, you have to think about the next one. And if you’re on the bench, you still have to lead by example; you cheer your teammates on, coach them up a bit, you carry yourself like a professional.”
Late in the game, with his team down 11-points, Hamilton sank a 3-point shot that helped turned the tide. His teammates battled back and soon the game was tied. Ultimately, the River Lions wrestled back control and won the game but Hamilton’s ice cold demeanour is something the younger players feed off.
“One of the lessons is actually really easy, it’s to remind them they’re really good players,” Hamilton said. “Sometimes they hesitate, sometimes they don’t realize they can be more aggressive, sometimes they stop and think when they should be trusting their instincts. It’s all things you learn with time.”
It was a twist of fate that sparked Hamilton’s love of basketball.
One afternoon, in high school, he tried to avoid detention by hiding in his high school gymnasium. That’s when he came upon a basketball clinic. The coach saw his imposing frame and invited him to join the play. Within a few years, he was recruited to play college ball in the United States.
Were it not for this game of cat and mouse between a troublemaking kid and his headmaster, Hamilton wouldn’t be travelling the world with his family in tow. And while there is still basketball left to be played — Hamilton will likely join the British national team in the fall — he knows that one day he may not have it in him to keep pushing through the pain to play another game. And as he often says, that day comes sooner than you think.
“There will be life after basketball,” he said. “I have a masters degree in education, Alice has her business and the kids are growing fast. There’s so many things left to do in life that don’t involve the game. But for now, I’m still having fun, basketball is still exciting, I’m still learning and teaching.
“For now, there’s still basketball left to be played.”