His pro career has taken him all over Europe, but now it's on hold as Abbotsford's Marek Klassen waits to see the fate of his CEBL team — the Fraser Valley Bandits — and his overseas options.
Five years and seven countries into his professional basketball career, Marek Klassen has been blessed to visit some of the world’s greatest sights.
Oh, and then there was the camel fighting, too.
“I got a call one time from a teammate, saying ‘Hey Marek, we have a cultural team activity if you want to come do it,’” said the Abbotsford native. “He was like, ‘Don’t worry about what it is. Just come down to this place, there’s going to be some wrestling matches.’
“I went down, and it turns out they had camel wrestling. They had like 200 camels out there … right in the middle of the city. There were thousands of people watching and betting. It was like a regular Saturday for them.”
Camel wrestling, for those unfamiliar with the popular traditional Turkish sport, sees male Tulu camels — hopped up on salts — fight until one falls, retreats, or, uhmm, screams.
“It was an interesting cultural experience. It’s a really big deal there,” said Klassen. “(But) it’s really crazy. It’s nuts.”
These days, Klassen’s current living arrangements are far less glamorous. He and wife Lindsay are under lockdown in his parent’s basement suite in Abbotsford after returning from his last pro stop in Kiev, Ukraine, on March 12.
He had returned — prematurely, unfortunately — for a second season with the Fraser Valley Bandits of the Canadian Elite Basketball League, a fledgling seven-team summer circuit launched in 2019, aimed at providing an alternative for Canadian pros abroad.
The money isn’t quite the same as Europe, but the CEBL season sits between most overseas ones, allowing players to earn during a period they might otherwise be idle.
Klassen has suited up for nine different teams since turning pro, and then-Bandits coach Peter Guarasci — who had a 14-year European career himself — knew exactly what pitch to make to him when recruiting the Yale Secondary grad last year: family.
“I wasn’t sure what the quality of basketball was going to be and the quality of the league. I was a little bit hesitant at first. I was like ‘is this going to hurt my career?,’” said the 27-year-old point guard.
“After coming home and watching a few games, I was like ‘this is pretty cool. This is a good opportunity for guys coming home.’
“One of the big factors for me was being able to play in front of my family. The arena is five minutes from my house. The training facility is 10 minutes from my house. My grandma hadn’t seen me play until 10 years before in high school. We got her to come down, put her courtside in a wheelchair … it was amazing for me.”
Klassen went on to average a league-leading 7.2 assists per game last season — including setting the record for assists in a game with 15 — and be named a second team all-star.
In his first year in Turkey with ITU B.K., the 6-1 guard averaged 15.12 points, 5.58 rebounds and 6.58 assists — the league’s only player to average as much in all three categories.
With B.C. Kyiv Basket in the Ukraine Basketball SuperLeague this winter, he shot 44.8 per cent from the field — 50 per cent from behind the arc — and averaged 12.6 points and 6.7 assists per game.
Kiev was set to play in the league’s Cup final when the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down sports around the globe.
“I sat out quite a bit at the beginning of this year, because I was like ‘I refuse to go to a team that wasn’t going to win a championship.’ I needed that for me, I needed it for my career,” said Klassen. “And I was two days away from winning a championship in Ukraine. Two days!
“(The team) called all the Americans and said, ‘Hey guys, pack up your bags, you need to leave in 24 hours, because all airports are shutting down to international travel. So if you don’t get out today, you won’t get out.’
“So we pack up our bags, they shut the league down, and I would have been playing for the Cup championship game — and we were the heavy favourites — in two days. That was devastating for me.”
Losing out a summer when he’s finally established himself as a valuable pro would be equally so. CEBL training camps are supposed to begin in the final week of April, and the Bandits were slated to tip-off against the Saskatchewan Rattlers on May 8 at the Abbotsford Centre.
The league made the decision to temporarily lay off all ticketing staff Wednesday, but teams continue to sign and announce players. The Bandits rolled out former Marquette University Golden Eagles guard Junior Cadougan as their latest acquisition on Wednesday.
“We’re kind of like most summer-oriented sports organizations. We’re kind of in a bit of a waiting game now, seeing how everything unfolds and looking at different contingency plans if the season can start on time,” said John Lashway, the CEBL’s vice-president of strategy and communications, as well as the president of the Hamilton Honey Badgers.
“On the basketball side of things, it’s business as usual. The teams are signing players and announcing players. And that’s all moving forward without any hiccups. From a business standpoint, it does impact. There’s no revenues coming in, there’s no tickets being sold.”
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First I want to say thank you to the Kyiv Basket Organization and Fans. It was an amazing group of people dedicated to see this club succeed. . So so hard to see the season end like this.. I came to this club to win a title, and Today we should be playing in the Cup finals!! We had a huge opportunity for both 🏆.. and it was taken from us by the virus. . Regardless we had amazing support from the Fans through the Superleague and Fiba Europe Cup. We were on a great winning streak, and a historic top 8 finish is Europe Cup. Thank you for letting me be a part of it. 🙏🏻🙏🏻 . I will remember my time here in the Ukraine fondly, and know that Kyiv Basket is just beginning it’s run of dominance. 🗣
Klassen, Cadougan, NCAA grad and European veteran Kyle Johnson — along with University of Fraser Valley standout Parm Bains — are the only official current signees. No imports have been announced yet with the border shutdown preventing any deal.
Incoming coach Kyle Julius is in frequent contact with his players, giving them workouts and drills — even scouting reports to absorb — in the meantime. Klassen is working out at home, and on the fenced-in court close to his childhood house — paid for by his neighbours, who couldn’t take the endless noise he made playing on his driveway hoop — and hoping he gets a chance to play, both here and in Europe.
He already has a standing offer to play in the G-League again — he suited up for the Erie Bayhawks before moving on to Ukraine — and feels like he’s entering his prime.
“I think this is me entering the second stage of my career. My first five years was a lot of learning, a lot of playing, a lot of growing,” said Klassen. “I just really don’t know what’s going to happen next year in Europe with this virus. Will it take a hit on European teams, countries and leagues? Will they shut down? Probably.
“Physically, I may have jumped higher before, I may have run faster before, but when you add in the experience and the things I’ve learned, my basketball IQ, it doesn’t compare. I’m really hopeful for what might happen in Europe next year.”
Klassen has been a dusty footed philosopher since graduating from Point Loma University in San Diego, leaving the NCAA school with an MBA and a 40 per cent three-point average that ranked among the best in the country.
He then married Lindsay — whom he met at the school — and almost instantly, they embarked on the beginning of his pro journey together. First stop, Romania.
Lindsay, an accomplished athlete and coach who competed in track for the Sea Lions, did some teaching and launched her own business during their tours.
It was a crash course on different styles of basketball for Klassen. While North America and its NBA influence trends towards a more isolation brand of basketball, the team-oriented, defensively sophisticated Euro style has produced several subsects in different leagues. At Romanian side CSU Sibiu in the Liga Naționala, he came in as the youngest player on a team with seven imports. He moved to the British League, where the run-and-gun style fit a league of players trying to showcase their game to make their jump to a higher one.
Turkey was a physical league full of seven-footers. With Kiev, he played FIBA competition, like the small-ball Latvian champs who had a style akin to the Golden State Warriors, with all five players on the court shooting more than 45 per cent from three-point range.
Before he stepped on the court in Abbotsford, the move to the CEBL might have felt like a step down, but Klassen’s perception was quickly changed. The Bandits went 4-16 and finished last in the seven-team circuit, but the atmosphere was always charged as the team had the second-highest attendance.
“Our record wasn’t very good, but we lost by far, the most overtime games. And in the end, I think we provided a good level of entertainment,” he said. “As far as the league, the arenas are first class. The treatment of the players is first class. It’s leading with professionalism.
“I’d rather it be over-professional than under. I really appreciate that, coming from leagues in Europe where it’s very normal to not pay a guy for a few months. It’s ‘Hey, Marek, we’re going to be late.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re already 20 days late.’ ‘Well, we’re going to be another 20 days late.’
“That kind of stuff is very normalized in Europe. To come to a Canadian league that is in its first year, and could have money issues, it was truly professional. Most of the guys in Europe are making a lot more than this … but it’s not about the money, it’s about coming back and getting paid to train and have some professionalism, some standards, while you’re home.”
The league exceeded expectations in its first season. CBC has signed on to livestream all the games, with eight planned for TV broadcast, as well. Its corporate structure — all seven teams are centrally owned — protects each individual club to a certain degree.
“That’s an advantage of a single-entity ownership league,” said Lashway, a former Portland Trail Blazers executive who also helped launch the Toronto Raptors.
“The good ones pick up the weak ones, and you hope that it all averages out. We all share resources and the people who are at the leadership positions.
“Most of us have come from other sports backgrounds, sports organizations with the CFL, NBA, NHL … so there’s a collective breadth of experience that I think really benefits this league.”
The COVID-19 crisis was unexpected, but Lashway stressed that the CEBL was always going to be a multi-year launch, likening last season to coming out of the first quarter of a game with a lead. Now that there has been a body of work to attract players who might have been on the fence, and a possible — stress possible — chance to fill a broadcast void left by the cancellation of the Summer Olympics, he’s bullish on the future.
“I’ve been around pro basketball for a long, long time and the quality of play in this league was way ahead of when I or anybody else thought it was going to be,” he said.
“There was a high level of confidence going into season two, and there still is. This is a turbulent time and this league is not immune to this, but I think the fact that (the league) is still small helps. We can be a little bit more nimble … it allows us to adjust and kind of ride out this time.
So I think that if you can be resilient and nimble, and you have good leadership, strategic experience … I think you can get through this.”
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