Not all the rantings, encouragement, rebukes and advice have stuck with Terrence Lewis, but he hasn’t forgotten at least one thing his college coach once told him.
“If you treat it right,” Kelvin Sampson said, “basketball will take you around the world.”
And it has. Since his days at Washington State, Lewis has played the game professionally in England, Taiwan, Turkey, the Philippines – “all over,” he said. “Everyplace.”
It’s also taken him one place.
Or at least what’s been home for nearly 20 years now – Wellington, New Zealand’s capital on Cook Strait, birthplace of the Bucket Fountain, “The Lord of the Rings” franchise, the pavlova and Russell Crowe, to say nothing of Terrence and Alinthian Lewis’ two children, Terrence Jr. and Ebony Jordon.
“It is home,” Lewis admitted. “I just love the place, the people. They’re accepting, they’re … just sweet.”
So sweet that, a little moret than a decade ago, he decided to become one of them.
Over the next few Sundays here, you’ll read about an array of basketball graduates from the Inland Northwest’s four NCAA Division I schools who are still bridging their way between college and, well, real life by playing professionally overseas, as have previous generations of Zags, Vandals, Eagles and Cougars – Terrence Lewis among them.
No two have the same story. For every player looking for a good time and a good payday to stake himself in the states, another is trying to keep an NBA dream alive. For every player who struggles to order dinner in Polish, another immerses himself in a new language and culture. For every player who banks six figures, another gets stiffed.
And for every player who chases the game through multiple ports of call, another gives it one shot and returns home.
Or finds it.
This happened quite by accident to Lewis. After helping WSU to the NIT in 1992, Lewis got a training camp look with the Seattle SuperSonics and then was steered by his agent to New Zealand – and into an entire colony of Cougs.
“Angelo Hill was here,” he remembered. “Kenny McFadden, Clyde Huntley, Ronnie Joyner. I’d seen their names in the (WSU record) books, but I didn’t know them and didn’t know they were here.”
Lewis landed with the Wellington Saints and averaged 29 points a game that first season, not quite double his output at WSU – which lends some insight into the state of the game there.
“You were only allowed two imports per team and everything was focused on the imports,” he said, “and it could be frustrating because I’d get a teammate an open shot – an easy layup – and he’d give the ball right back to me. I wasn’t there to be arrogant and take every shot.”
And there were other adjustments.
“The gyms,” Lewis laughed. “They were colder inside than outside. I’m practicing in sweats and a skullcap and these guys were in shorts and tank tops. I’d ask, ‘Ain’t you cold?’ And the drives – nine hours to some games.”
It took about four seasons for Lewis to be conscripted into the intramural drama that seems endemic to the overseas basketball experience. Sponsorships dried up and the Saints merged with a team in nearby Hutt Valley – whose owner didn’t have any use for Lewis. So he came back to the states, had knee surgery and in the meantime – as he had during New Zealand off-seasons – he made cameos in other countries.
But he had already met and married Alinthian Reedy, who grew up in the tiny town of Ruatoria farther up New Zealand’s North Island. So a return seemed inevitable – and, sure enough, after another ownership shuffle, Lewis was a Saint again for the 1999 season, averaging 34 points a game and hitting 55 in one, a National Basketball League record that still stands.
There would be other hiccups. He jumped to a team in Christchurch for a year in a salary dispute. And he finally left the Saints in 2008 after butting heads with coach Doug Marty. The next year he surfaced with a fledgling club in Invercargill and led them to the Division II national title before retiring.
In 2000, Lewis began the process of becoming a naturalized citizen and two years later joined the national team, the Tall Blacks – the highlight being a best-of-3 tour against Yao Ming and the Chinese national team that began in the mountain village of Lushan.
“Two hours on a bus and nothing but clouds and then there’s this village,” Lewis recalled. “And Yao – he looked like he was put together in a laboratory. Like ‘The Terminator.’”
The next year, he returned and won his lone NBL title with the Saints despite having two coaches quit and the team nearly fold for lack of money.
“But we finally had a coach, Mike McHugh, who changed the mentality of the players,” he said. “I didn’t have to average 25 anymore. We had five guys in double figures and we were just a snowball rolling downhill.”
In his 13 years with the Saints, it was rare that Lewis ever played with another import for longer than a season. Whether it was homesickness or a conflict with the coach, the churn was epic – and always left this accidental homebody shaking his head.
“I can’t believe how many different coaches and imports I went through,” he said. “I tried to tell (players) to just do the job, stay out of trouble and people will like you, and I’d tell the coaches, ‘Look, leave the imports to me – I’m the closest thing to home they’ve got.’ But it was always something.”
Lewis now works at the Wellington airport in security and assists with national team’s youth program after having coached in schools for years. But he’s becoming frustrated at the lack of opportunity to be a head coach and is making plans to return to the United States. He’s bringing his son (“he’s going to be better than me”) to finish high school in Newport News, Va., where his brother lives.
But it won’t be easy to leave New Zealand behind.
“I see guys who are police officers now and others that I coached and tell me they appreciate what I’ve done for them,” he said. “It’s great to have become a part of something here. I’ve had so much love and support. I see people at airport and my colleagues are amazed at how many people I know.
“From Birmingham, Ala., to Pullman to here, it’s amazing the connections you can make. I never thought it would happen to me in my lifetime.”