Jerome Tillman has experienced everything the usual abroad student from Ohio University goes through in Europe: exploring historical monuments, struggling with language barriers and grasping a culture outside America.
The only difference is Tillman’s European adventure comes with being paid to do what he loves.
Tillman, an Ohio forward on the men’s basketball team from 2005-09, has played for three professional teams across the Atlantic since leaving Athens. He currently starts at forward for Burgos basketball club in Spain’s Liga Española de Baloncesto, the second biggest division in the country.
“I love it,” Tillman said. “To play the sport I grew up loving with all the travel involved — you can’t ask anything more than that.”
Tillman’s Burgos team clinched a spot in the LEB Gold championships against Obradoiro after it swept Girona 3-0. The winner moves into Spain’s top league, Asociación de Clubs de Baloncesto.
Before coming to Burgos in December, Tillman played in both Germany and France. Especially in France, the tourist side of Tillman came out as he visited the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Recently in Spain, he watched Europe’s most popular team in its most popular sport: Real Madrid soccer (or fútbol, as said in Spain).
“You hear about the places, and you see them online and stuff,” Tillman said. “But it’s hard to grasp that you’re actually here standing right by them. You’re actually here.”
The difference in languages has been somewhat difficult for Tillman. He currently draws on his three years of Spanish classes in high school.
That becomes especially difficult on the court, where Tillman must read and react to plays more than he communicates with his teammates. His coach, Andreu Casadevall, doesn’t speak English, but fellow forward Peter Lorant, a Hungarian, helps Tillman translate.
“It’s crazy because we all know we’re thinking the same thing on the court,” Tillman said. “But not speaking the same language, it throws you off. You have to be on your toes about the situations on the court.”
Although it’s difficult, Tillman said the communication barrier has helped him to become a smarter and better player. He’s been able to analyze situations on the court quicker and read them before they happen.
The biggest difference in the style of play that Tillman has noticed is the physicality of the games. A lot of fouls that would be called in America are let go in Europe, he said.
“It’s way more physical,” Tillman said. “Stuff like that, I really think it’s made me a lot better of a player since I got over here.”
His team doesn’t receive the NBA treatment with charter flights and quick trips across the country, but Tillman said he doesn’t mind the long bus and train rides to unfamiliar places. Packing a suitcase and snapping photographs on the excursions to games invigorates the sense of adventure he’s developed in Europe.
“Sometimes you just get on a train and go,” Tillman said. “Like today, we just got back from a nine and a half hour trip. It’s a little exhausting, but I love the experience.”
Off the court, Tillman has encountered glances of both admiration and awkwardness. With his team having a good amount of popularity in Spain, he’s seen a normal stroll turn into a 45-minute autograph session.
But his 6-foot-6-inch frame also makes him stand out wherever he walks. Tillman usually finds himself met with gawks and stares as he goes about his daily activities.
“Man, it’s funny sometimes,” Tillman said. “I’ll be walking down the street, and people will just be staring. Especially at a place like the grocery store.”
He stands more than 4,000 miles away from his friends and family in Ohio, but Tillman has learned to adjust. With Skype and other programs, being homesick becomes a lot easier for him. He knows he is far from home but also realizes how unique of an opportunity he has experienced.
“I’ve just been snapping photos, taking videos — everything,” Tillman said. “It’s something I can look back upon. It’s something my kids can see later on.”