After playing 11 seasons of professional basketball for 10 teams in six leagues and four different countries, former Utah Jazz and BYU basketball player Andy Toolson is finally ready to hang up his high-tops for a spot on the Cougar bench as a college assistant coach.
It has been a long and winding road for somebody who never expected to play professional basketball. Ironically, his transition from pro player to college assistant happened on the road as well.
"A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a bus, traveling to a game, when Steve Cleveland called on my cell phone," Toolson said Thursday. "I was surprised, and we talked about how Heath Schroyer had left for Wyoming. He asked if I was interested in becoming an assistant coach at BYU. He caught me off-guard. My initial impression was, yes, I was interested."
He's giving it a shot — just like a pro career that ended up spanning more than a decade and a good share of the globe.
"I applied for law school," said Toolson, who as a first-team academic All-American his senior year certainly had the grades for it coming out of college. "I just wanted to give it a shot. I never really planned on this. We've enjoyed the ride and figured we'd ride it as long as we could."
The ride began when Toolson signed a free-agent contract with the Utah Jazz after graduating in 1990. He played 47 games that season, averaging just under three points in 10 minutes per game. With his NBA future in doubt, he received an intriguing offer from an Italian team.
"I had a wife and a small baby," Toolson said. "The Jazz said they wanted me to come back, but I had a guaranteed offer over there."
Toolson's stay with Telemarket Brescia was short-lived and disappointing, but it opened the door to a world of options. When Europe came calling again, after a short season in Georgia with the Albany Sharpshooters of the now-defunct Global Basketball League and a year with the CBA's Tri-City Chinook, Toolson didn't hesitate.
"I knew that I didn't want to continue playing in the CBA," he said, recalling his frustration with the negative, me-first attitude that was prevalent in that league. "Everybody's trying to get out of there, and it's not a real team-oriented atmosphere."
This time, the call came from a Spanish-league club in Andorra, a tiny country nestled in the Pyrenees between France and Spain. Toolson would go on to play in Spain for seven seasons. Toolson quickly developed a reputation in Spain as a three-point specialist who consistently could score 15 to 20 points per game.
More importantly, he found that the talent level and style of play were more suited to his abilities. Toolson has never been the quickest player on the court, and as a 6-6 shooting guard in the NBA, he had to shadow some of the game's most amazing athletes, including Michael Jordan.
"The overall game over here is probably not quite as athletic," Toolson said. "You don't see guys playing above the rim so much. I consider it like top-20 college basketball."
Toolson enjoyed playing in a league where his skills made him a team leader, where he could not only make a living playing basketball, but also play 30 minutes per game and get the ball with the game on the line.
In fact, when the Utah Jazz gave him a second chance in 1995, Toolson found himself missing Europe. "When I was sitting on the bench that second time around with the Jazz, I felt like it'd be more fun to be playing over here," he said. "The money is not a lot different from when you're sitting at the end of the bench in the NBA, and here, you're able to play."
In fact, Toolson found the lower salaries in a league where many players earn less than sixty thousand dollars annually to be a positive. "Life in European basketball is a little more down to earth," Toolson said. "It's probably a little more pure, a little more innocent."
Of course, there have been exceptions to this rosy description, especially off the court. For one, many European clubs have difficulty meeting their obligations with their players.
"You rarely get paid on the day you're supposed to be paid," Toolson said. "I've trusted the teams I've been on in Spain, and they've always . . . almost always come through."
When he played in Greece, one of Western Europe's least stable countries, the U.S. Embassy would issue warnings for Americans to stay in whenever protests were held against the American government. But Toolson didn't even get out of practice. "My employer never took the warnings very seriously," he said. "But there are times when there is upheaval in the world and the U.S. is involved we have to be a little more careful."
Most teams in Europe practice more than their American counterparts — often twice a day, three or four days every week — because the seasons are shorter and teams play only once a week. This gets especially tedious during a losing streak.
"When you've lost three or four games straight, that could last for a month over here," Toolson said. "The media's on you, and it's tough everyday to go to practice."
Winning changes everything. "You look back on winning," he said, fondly recalling his time playing for Badalona, a working-class industrial suburb of Barcelona on the northeast coast of Spain.
He spent two years playing there, alongside Bonneville High School grad Tanoka Beard. They won the Copa del Rey, a sort of midseason playoff tournament, and finished near the top of the overall standings.
But even during that time, he wondered how long he would feel motivated to play. Chasing opportunities brings on its own kind of wear and tear.
"It's got a little crazy at times," Toolson said. "With the issues of traveling and uprooting your family and coming overseas . . . a lot of guys just don't want to do it. And I'm getting to the point where it's getting tougher.
"I've got a great wife," Toolson said. "She's supported me through all this."
But everybody has their limits, and Holly Toolson has "pretty much said 'hey, it's time,' " Toolson said. His 10-year old daughter, Taryn, who has attended five elementary schools in three different countries, agrees. She's ready to stay home.
"I thought I was done two years ago," Toolson said. "But when you're sitting around at the end of the summer and they call you and make you an offer, it's hard to say no sometimes."
Last fall, that call came from Casademont Girona of the Spanish league, where he played briefly in 1999. Toolson decided to lace 'em up one more time and go out shooting. It wasn't that easy.
First, he had to lose 15 pounds. "I thought I was done," Toolson said, apologetic. "I'm lucky they stuck with me. I stunk it up the first 10 or 12 games, and our team was struggling."
After starting out 5-12, Girona has fought to 15-17, one game behind the eighth and final playoff seed with two games remaining. Toolson has played a central role, averaging 12 points in 30 minutes per game, and making 82 three-pointers.
Editor's note: Chad Nielsen is a free-lance writer living in Spain.