On March 12, 2020, college basketball’s governing body formally announced the cancelation of the NCAA tournament.
The disappointment for the Aztecs and their fans of not getting to see what would have been the highest-seeded team play in the postseason is palpable to this day. March Madness 2020 will live on as one of the greatest “what if” moments in San Diego sports history.
Across the ocean, on the same day, former Aztec center Skylar Spencer was experiencing the same situation. Playing for Kauhajoen Karhu in the Finnish Professional Basketball League, Spencer was enjoying the best experience in his young professional career.
“That was the first time in a while where I had multiple American teammates,” Spencer told the East Village Times in an exclusive interview. “I was kind of used to being lonely (overseas). We were winning a lot of games, and I was on a really good team. We were probably going to win a championship before Covid happened. It was pretty unfortunate, the situation that we had.”
When the season was put to rest, the Karhu were in the midst of an impressive run. From the end of October to March, they lost only four times in league play. In addition to the tremendous team success, Spencer was enjoying personal success as well. He was averaging 12 points, 9 rebounds, 1.9 blocks, and 1.6 steals a game. To understand how devastating the cancelation of the season was for Spencer; however, you have to go back a few years to the start of Spencer’s journey as an overseas player.
“I got a lot of crazy stories being overseas,” Spencer said. “In my five years, I feel like I’ve been doing this for ten. You get a lot of crazy experiences. I could write a book about every place I’ve been. There’s a bunch of overseas guys who have a bunch of crazy stories that I think need to be out there more. Everybody goes through their own interesting journey and different experiences. Hopefully, all of them get brought to light.”
The life of an overseas basketball player is not for the faint of heart. Keeping relationships current and thriving in any situation is challenging, but when people are separated by an ocean and multiple time zones, it makes a difficult task near impossible. Even when people are able to overcome the obstacles and stay connected, long-distance friendships are a poor substitute for living near someone.
Over the years, Spencer has kept in good contact with former teammate Xavier Thames mostly through text messages. The 29-year-old Thames plays for Kormend in the Hungarian Professional League. On January 27th of this year, Spencer and Thames’ teams met in the Fiba European Cup. In an 83 – 66 win, Spencer led all scorers with 17 points. “That’s something I’m going to hold onto every chance I see him, Spencer said. “Talk a little mess,” he added with a smile.
The game permitted the two friends to connect in person for the first time in years. Teams in the Fiba Europe Cup were part of a COVID bubble and stayed in the same hotel. At the end of each night, Thames and Spencer would spend half an hour to an hour talking, catching up, and taking advantage of the opportunity. In addition to Thames, Spencer has had a chance to play against Angelo Chol, who plays in Brussels in the same Belgium League Spencer plays in, Tre Kell, and occasionally former opponents from his high school and college days.
The opportunity to spend time with people from his past, who speak his language and understand who he is as a person, is rare. Usually, his free time is spent with teammates, and with most of his teammates being from outside the USA, it makes forming friendships difficult, if not impossible.
The challenge of personal relationships aside, basketball players overseas also have to contend with numerous teams, leagues, and the socio-political situations of the country they are playing in. Spencer’s time in Venezuela during the summer of 2018 provides a good example.
After the end of the NBA G League season, Spencer spent a month and a half playing in a summer league in South America. At the end of the regular season, there was a two-week “Fiba Break.” Most of Spencer’s teammates were older and went to play with the Venezuela National Team. This left Spencer and the only other American on the roster alone in a country that was slipping into disarray. Water was shut off throughout the country at 10 pm each night. There were rumors of a looming food shortage.
Understandably, Spencer asked to go home for a week with the intention of returning for the playoffs. Instead, his Venezuela team cut him the day after he landed back in the States. Since Spencer had paid for his own flight home, the team was not on the hook for that expense and only had to cover shipping his belongings back.
“They basically had always planned to cut me,” Spencer said, “but they figured out a way to send me back on my own dime. Luckily, I had packed up all my stuff except for a couple of pairs of shoes because I didn’t trust them. They found the cheapest way to cut me and took about three months to pay for everything that they owed me.”
The episode in Venezuela was not the shadiest experience Spencer has had in his career, but it is a good representation of the challenges players face to play the game they love. Yet, through it all, Spencer has shown a remarkable perseverance and character. He has been guided by a lesson taught to him by former Aztec coach Steve Fisher.
“Coach Fisher use to always tell us, ‘There’s only two things you can control. It is your attitude and your effort.’ That’s one of the biggest things that has stuck with me because playing a lot of games, everything doesn’t go your way, or the situation may not be in my favor. At the end of the day, I don’t think any coach could say I didn’t come out and play hard or that I was trouble. I never gave coaches any issues since I’ve been over here. I always try to go out and play hard. Those are two things I always try to keep in my control.”
The lows experienced at various stages in his career made the success he was experiencing in Finland that much sweeter. It also made the cancelation of the season and the lost opportunity to chase a championship that much more unfortunate. “It was one of those perfect kind of situations that went wrong.”
Remembering Aztec Nation
For Spencer, the most memorable part of his time at SDSU was the 2013-2014 season when as a sophomore, he started on a team that made a run to the Sweet 16. What a year it was! From the buzzer to buzzer victory over Kansas, Dwayne Polee’s clutch three to win at Boise State, the complete takeover Xavier Thames had at Utah State, and of course, the epic comeback the team had against New Mexico to clinch the regular-season Mountain West title, it was an unforgettable season. The team, as they went through that magical, once-in-a-lifetime season, savored the experience.
“My whole sophomore year – being top 5, winning a lot of games,” Spencer reflected. “There was a lot going on in the city that year. We were getting a lot of love.”
“Back then, we really took advantage of the moment and soaked it in. I know of guys who have been in moments like that, and they let it fly by. I remember us having a lot of talks during that year about everything that was going on. I really feel we didn’t take it for granted. I appreciate times like that. Made some great friends from it for sure.”
In addition to relationships formed among his teammates and the coaching staff, Spencer endeared himself to legions of San Diego State fans. Spencer was very accessible during his time on the Mesa, frequenting football games, allowing fans to take pictures and have conversations with him. The bond developed then endures to this day primarily on Twitter.
“I appreciate everybody’s support,” Spencer said. “I know I have a lot of State fans that follow me on social media. Everybody is always joking with me and keeping it light, and showing me love. Any time when one of my little highlights or whatever comes across the timeline, everybody shows love to it. I do feel the love, and I do appreciate the support throughout the years, and that’s something I’m grateful for.”
The Road Ahead
Far from being the end of Spencer’s journey, the cancelation of the Finnish season was just another episode in an epic journey that has literally taken him all over the world. From low beginnings with the Westports Malaysian Dragons, Spencer has been working his way up in the world of international basketball and is now playing in the Belgium EuroMillions League, which is in the middle tier of European Leagues. While much of Spencer success is due to his personal strength and passion for basketball, a more basic factor is also at work: he is beginning to put down roots.
Three years ago, Spencer and his girlfriend, who is from San Diego, welcomed a baby boy into the world. For the first half of each season, Spencer lives alone, focused on a new team and a new situation before his girlfriend and son join him wherever he is playing. His family first came to live with him in Romania, then Lithuania, Finland, and are now with him in Belgium.
“The transition overseas has been a bit smoother having them around,” Spencer explained. “It’s still difficult, but it’s a lot less lonely when you have your family here with you. It took some getting used to for both parties, but I think now we’re both well in our groove in how to handle parenting overseas.”
The long-term goals for Spencer is the same: win championships and make a lot of money playing the game he loves. The next step, though, is to find a place where he feels comfortable enough to return for a second season. Each year, so far, he has jumped to a new team, a new country, and a new opportunity looking for that right fit. His current situation with Mons-Hainaut in Belgium looks promising.
“Right now, I am really enjoying being in Belgium,” Spencer said. “I’m kind of in the same situation as Finland. I got a bunch of American teammates. We’re winning a lot of games right now. Fingers crossed that nothing crazy happens.”
On the court, Spencer’s game has grown with opportunity and experience. A defensive first player at SDSU, he has developed a full offensive repertoire. His teams depend on him for scoring, which has put the onus on him on that end of the court. It is at the free-throw line where Spencer says he has improved the most. No longer a liability at the line, Spencer reworked his form, and positive results have followed.
The next few years will hopefully see Spencer continuing to ascend into European leagues with greater prestige and higher salaries. Still, whatever the future holds, Spencer has already learned the secret to success. No matter where he might be in the world, if he can control his effort, his attitude, and he has his family by his side, life is good.