Nik Caner-Medley will next take his basketball to a place where winter temperatures can plunge to 30 degrees below zero. A place where he must learn a bit of Kazakh or Russian to order his steak well done or rare.
A place in the middle of the world’s largest landlocked country in the vast Asian steppe. A place that borders Russia, China and three other former parts of the Soviet Union. A place that couldn’t be more out-of-sight, out-of-mind to Americans.
Caner-Medley signed a two-year contract Thursday worth $2 million to play basketball in Astana, the capital city of Kazakhstan. The contract stamps the 30-year-old Deering High and University of Maryland grad as BC Astana’s franchise player, he says.
“Money isn’t the reason I play basketball,” said Caner-Medley, snacking on a lunch-time pizza Saturday near his family’s home in the Deering section of Portland. “But it says a lot when a team offers you a million dollars. That figure was always my dream.”
Next season will be his seventh as a professional, playing in Europe and Asia in the top leagues. The 6-foot-8 forward has been an MVP, an all-star, and a scoring and rebounding leader. No, Caner-Medley wasn’t an NBA draft choice, although the Detroit Pistons signed him as a free agent in 2006. No, he hasn’t played one game in the NBA, although he was on NBA Summer League teams.
“Nik has had more success playing basketball than any other Mainer I know,” said Bob Brown, the veteran coach and father of Brett Brown, the Philadelphia 76ers head coach. “(Nik) is playing in the best European leagues. I don’t know that (Mainers) appreciate that.”
Caner-Medley was a top draft pick in the NBA Development League but left after about a month in 2007. Gran Canaria in Spain offered Caner-Medley more than double his D-League salary.
More importantly, that opportunity gave him a chance to learn the business of being an American player in Europe.
“If you respect the culture, respect your coach and your teammates, and can play, you’ll be fine,” he said.
He moved from the Canary Islands to Seville, Madrid and Valencia. In 2012 he signed a two-year contract with Maccabi, the Boston Celtics of Israel. Each new contract offered him more money. “I’ve wondered when I’ll face my ‘decline’ when I’m making less money,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet.”
In Tel Aviv, Caner-Medley played for David Blatt, now the new coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Diving for a loose ball, Caner-Medley suffered a small tear in his hamstring. He knocked knees hard with another player, missed more time and lost his spot in the playing rotation.
He loved Tel Aviv, a seaside city. In some aspects, Caner- Medley compared it to Las Vegas. Until the air raid sirens sounded one night. Josh Corbeau, a friend from Portland, was visiting. Corbeau had served in the military and knew what was happening. The two men went out onto a balcony in Caner-Medley’s home.
“People were sprinting in the streets, trying to get into stores, hiding behind dumpsters. Josh was saying we’ll be able to see everything in the night sky and I’m freaking, saying I don’t want to sit here, watching missiles come in.”
After a minute or so, they heard a dull explosion. The missile landed in the sea, not far from the American embassy.
“I had a game that night. For the Israeli players, this was part of their life. No way was I getting my head into basketball when missiles are falling.”
There was another attack the next afternoon. In daylight, Caner-Medley watched a missile arc over the buildings until an Israeli defense drone took it down. His heart was no longer racing, but he did have to calm family back in Maine.
He left Maccabi after that season to play with Malaga on Spain’s Andalucian coast. The move gave him more minutes, more opportunities to help his team win, and opened the door to Kazakhstan.
Caner-Medley’s home for much of the six weeks he’s back in America is in Miami. Sometime near the end of summer, he’ll leave for Astana and its population of just under 1 million. He’ll play against opponents from Russia, the Baltic republics and Ukraine.
“I want to show (the team owners) they picked the right guy to build a team around. I want to tell them ‘you’re smarter than you know.’ “