Jeffrey Solarin suspected he didn’t have a future in the National Basketball Association when he stopped growing in high school.
While a 6-foot, 4-inch frame and a massive wingspan might have gotten him to a place that every young basketball player dreams of, the former Rangeview High School basketball star turned more realistic in his pursuit of a pro career.
So shortly after he finished playing at Idaho State, Solarin did what an increasing number of standout athletes in America — and an astoundingly high number from Aurora — have done: look for a chance to play professionally overseas.
“I knew I probably wasn’t going to go to the NBA when I didn’t get any bigger after my junior year in high school,” Solarin said. “I knew that playing overseas was a possibility and going into my senior year of college, I was going to do everything in my power to make it happen.”
And it did indeed happen, as Solarin signed with CB Zamora of the Spanish Basketball League to get the ball rolling on a now three-year professional career that has become even more rewarding than he could have imagined.
What Solarin and other former Aurora standouts in football, basketball, volleyball and soccer have found is a chance to explore the world on somebody else’s dime, continue to play a sport they love and find out a lot about themselves along the way.
Oops, wrong language…
Most of Solarin’s friends at Rangeview took Spanish as their foreign language class, but not Jeffrey. He chose French.
That long-ago decision proved ironic when Solarin’s basketball career found traction in of all places, Spain.
And it was why shortly after he arrived in Zamora — a town of 60,000 in northwest Spain — he stared blankly at a lady at the supermarket who merely asked him if he needed a bag (something he knows now).
“I’ll never forget it, she just asked if I wanted a bag and I just stared at her and handed her my credit card,” Solarin said. “It was a little frustrating at first, but I’ve got it now.”
With so many new things to deal with when launching a career abroad, a language barrier can be a severe detriment to American athletes. Solarin got lucky in that sense, however, given he lived and roomed with Chris Hansen — his former Idaho State teammate — and his coach also coached the team in English.
On the court, the skills that earned Solarin a place on Rangeview’s list of top 30 all-time players (he remains far and away the program’s all-time leader in rebounds with 619 in four seasons) and college chances to play at Northwest College and then Idaho State — earned him a chance to play the second half of the season with CB Zamora after Hansen showed them some of his game film.
“I think my game fits very well within Spanish basketball because it’s very team-oriented; my coach over there was a huge (San Antonio) Spurs fan, so he tried to mimic our playing style after the Spurs, where everybody touches the ball and stuff like that,” Solarin said.
“At first, I think the team was hesitant, because I feel like everybody thinks Americans are entitled and just come over and try to average 20 points and put up 30 shots a game. I don’t play like that, which I think made it an easier transition into gaining their trust and ultimately gaining friends.”
Solarin and CB Zamora experienced success with a run to the playoffs in the third tier of Spanish basketball.
Off the court, Solarin found that he greatly enjoyed the European lifestyle, even if the “siesta” that closes down shops and restaurants for a few hours in the middle of each day proved inconvenient at times.
“One thing I’ve noticed is that in Spain, people live first and work second, whereas here in America, we work first, live second,” Solarin said.
While he developed a taste for local delicacies — boiled octopus drizzled with olive oil and sea salt served on a wood plank was his favorite — he admitted to eating a lot of McDonald’s to save money, though the team also had a series of sponsor restaurants that fed the players.
Solarin also experienced a bit of Chipotle withdrawal, though the biggest thing he missed about Colorado and the States was his family.
Because it falls during the Spanish season, Solarin spent last Christmas at the house of his team president, which he was grateful for instead of spending it in his room alone, but it further drove the point home that he was far away from his loved ones.
“Playing overseas is kind of like being in college again, but just knowing you can’t just hop in a car and be home in eight hours,” said Solarin, whose brother Gabe — also a former Rangeview standout — looked for a contract abroad, but didn’t find one to his liking.
Solarin moved on from CB Zamora to a team in a team in Galicia and is currently with Isover Basket Azqueca in Central Spain. He expects to play abroad for a couple more seasons — as long as there is a team that wants him — before he returns to the States full time.
When he’s back in Aurora, Solarin returns to Rangeview often and Raiders’ head coach Shawn Palmer said his success has shown former and current players the possibilities that exist if they stick with the sport.
Destined for Deutschland
When he was young, John Tidwell’s relatives always hoped that he’d end up playing football in Germany.
The former Rangeview football star’s family on his mother’s side hails from there and they envisioned Tidwell suiting up with the Frankfurt Galaxy of the now-defunct NFL Europe.
Many years later, Tidwell made his family’s dreams a reality in part when he joined the Frankfurt Universe of the German Football League for two seasons.
“When my grandparents would come to the states, my grandpa made a joke that I would play for the Galaxy when I was 5 or 6 years old,” Tidwell recalled. “So I knew there was something over there, but I heard about it in a lot of different ways later.”
Tidwell helped Rangeview to its best season in the past 20 years before he headed to Division II University of Sioux Falls, where he was a three-time all-conference selection as a defensive back. Tidwell caught the eye of the hometown Denver Broncos, who gave him a shot in the same training camp as former Grandview standout Eddie Yarbrough.
Neither local product made it through the final cut with the Broncos and while Yarbrough ended up in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills, Tidwell’s path led him to Germany after he posted a profile with some of his highlights on the website Europlayer.
By birthright, he could claim dual citizenship, which is an important distinction in the league that allows just two American players on the field at the same time.
As a player with American football experience, the Universe coaches and players counted on him to help teach the game to them given their limited background in the sport.
Interestingly enough, Tidwell also paved the way for another former Aurora prep star — his Rangeview teammate, Jaleel Awini — to play in Frankfurt.
During the 2017 season, the Universe suffered an injury to its quarterback and while looking for options, Tidwell suggested Awini, who had a good high school career and played at the University of Colorado. The team brought Awini out for a visit, signed him on the spot and he played the rest of the year at quarterback.
“Our quarterback messed up his ankle and I told them ‘I know a dude I played with in high school and he’s a baller,'” Tidwell said. “They took a look at him and they were impressed, but they didn’t know if they could trust him. In the end, they trusted me, brought him and we played together for the first time since 2011 in high school. Jaleel balled out like I told them and he played the rest of the season.”
Not only that, Awini has remained in the GFL, though he has switched over to the Hildesheim Invaders, a team in the opposite conference from the Universe.
Off the field, Tidwell took full advantage of the ability to travel through Europe cheaply. He headed to Munich and Berlin as he explored Germany and jetted off to Finland and Spain among other destinations.
All the aspects of the experience were good as he had no language barrier, he was paid enough to live comfortably and explore; and he got to play the game he loved at a lot less violent level than he would have in the NFL.
Because of that, Tidwell believes he could have played 10 more seasons of football in Germany barring major injury. Instead, he just decided to hang up the cleats and pursue another dream: coaching.
He’s now working toward that goal at Division II Lindenwood University in Missouri.
Even though he’s done, Tidwell hopes young players will give it a shot to play abroad if they have the desire.
“I highly encourage any young athlete who is aspiring to play and might not be able to go to the NFL to look over to Europe,” Tidwell said. “You can have so much fun, travel and meet some amazing people.”
Rush hour in Jakarta
A mysterious hole in the ground introduced Courtney Karst to the realities of playing professionally in certain places in the world.
Shortly after she arrived in Jakarta, Indonesia, for her first practice with the Jakarta BNI team of the Indonesian Proliga, the former Eaglecrest standout left the gym floor in search of a bathroom.
Karst found a much different bathroom than she’d expected, especially for professional athletes.
“The toilet was just a hole in the ground,” Karst recalls with a laugh. “I thought ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’ It was kind of intense.”
Karst ended up in Indonesia in January of 2013 after she completed a strong career at the University of Arizona. She felt somewhat prepared for playing and living abroad after she took a three-week playing tour of Europe with her Front Range Volleyball Club team during her sophomore year at in high school.
But the realities of playing in an extremely populous Southeast Asian nation made things extra difficult.
The team had to fly just about everywhere to play matches and did so on cramped airplanes with no air conditioning, while traffic was so bad in Jakarta that Karst remembers a time it took three hours for her to get home from practice over a span of just two miles.
On top of that, the 12-hour time difference between Colorado and Indonesia meant it was very difficult for Karst to chat with friends and family.
Aside from that, Karst had nice accommodations — where she roomed with the team’s other “import” player, who hailed from Brazil — ate with the team at a restaurant or used a per diem to buy food at a nearby mall and got to play in front of pretty large crowds on a regular basis as matches included both men’s and women’s teams.
The level of play wasn’t as high as Karst was used to nor did she find many dynamic opponents.
“The players over there were scrappy for sure and they would get after it a lot, but there weren’t any real powerful players,” Karst said.
Karst would have liked to continue playing professionally and would have liked to play in Europe, but her knees came back in rough shape. Even after surgery and a year off, it became clear she couldn’t continue to play. She’s since returned Colorado and has served as an assistant coach at Eaglecrest under the coach she played for, Tanya Bond.
As a whole, Karst wouldn’t trade her experience.
“I think at the time I was a little disappointed in it; I don’t think I was mentally prepared for volleyball in that part of the world,” Karst said.
“It wasn’t as competitive as what I was used to, it was obviously a completely different culture and I struggled with being that far from family. But now that I look back on it, I’m thankful for the experience I had.”
Single and ready to keep playing
Eric Garcia has proved doubters wrong for the entirety of his basketball career.
The once diminutive guard worked his way into the starting lineup at Grandview, helped spark a resurgence in the program at Wofford University, where he helped the Terriers qualify for the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament in 2014 and then earned a workout with the hometown Denver Nuggets.
Though that didn’t result in a contract, Garcia dismissed doubts that he could play professionally when he landed a contract to play with KK Mzt Skopje Aerodrom in Macedonia in a league where current Denver Nuggets star center Nikola Jokic got his start.
Garcia, 23, quickly found that playing overseas is unlike anything he’d ever experienced.
“In one of my first games, we’re playing and the fans are throwing things on the court like coins and a lit cigarette and I’m wondering if this is normal,” Garcia recalled. “Then I was dribbling the ball up and something like a firecracker went off in the stands. I stopped and looked around like ‘Did a bomb go off or what? I looked at my European teammates and they said it was normal.”
Garcia learned to block out the extraneous stuff and adjusted to the quick pace of play, while he had a very key role as a point guard in a league that favored the pick and roll.
He’s since moved on from Macedonia and had a short stint with a team in Finland before he ended up with a new club in Sweden, the Södertälje Kings.
As much he’s enjoyed the opportunity to keep playing, Garcia has noted personal growth as well. With a lot of down time and not many people to spend time with, he’s become a more avid reader and has even tried to cook regularly to supplement the food he gets at team-sponsored restaurants.
If nothing else, those are things he’ll remember.
“To me, that’s the cool part about being over there, every day is an adventure,” Garcia said. “You have to try new things, get out of your comfort zones and engross yourself in the culture.”
Garcia works hard to keep himself in shape physically and ready to go through the rigors of a professional season and aims to keep doing it for the foreseeable future.
“I’m going to keep playing as long as I’m not moving down in leagues, as long as money keeps going up and as long as my body holds up,” he said. “I could see myself playing until I’m 32. “It’s been amazing. I was driving around the other day and thinking at my age, ‘I’ve lived in Europe by myself and I’m about to go to Sweden.’ It’s kind of crazy to think about.“
Aurorans all over the world
• TreShawn Wilford ended an outstanding basketball career at Eaglecrest as he led the Raptors to their first-ever Class 5A state championship in the 2012-13 season.
The dynamic guard went on to play with a number of other former Aurora standouts with the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. He currently is in England with the Derby Trailblazers of the National Basketball League, which began play Oct. 6.
• Tanner Samson helped the Regis Jesuit boys basketball team win 5A state championships in 2010 and 2011, then went on to a standout Division I career at Elon University where he ranks 17th in scoring in program history.
The prolific outside shooter began his career abroad with Fundacion Globalcaja La Roda in Spain, and will begin a new season in Australia’s Western Port Basketball Association in January.
• Jessica Westhoff had an outstanding career on the pitch at Eaglecrest, went on to star at Colorado State-Pueblo and is currently playing professional soccer in Wales with Cardiff Metropolitan.
• Travis Haney, a former standout football player at Gateway who played collegiately at Western State, is currently in Australia playing for the Swan City Titans Gridiron Club.
• Marcus Holt, a former Rangeview basketball standout, has hooked on with the Basketball Club Marlins of San Jose Del Cabo in Mexico.
After a stop to play at Colorado State, Holt got his first international gig with a team in Dublin, Ireland.
• Reggie Evans, another former Rangeview basketball star who had an outstanding college career at Metropolitan State College of Denver, played several seasons in Luxembourg before he recently retired from the game to start a family. Evans played for BBC Arantia Larochette, AS Soleuvre and Massagno and averaged well over 20 points per game.
• Lauren Van Orden had an exceptional career playing volleyball at Grandview, which she helped lead to a 5A state crown, then went on to play on a NCAA national championship-winning team at UCLA.
A professional career abroad just “fell into her lap” after the national title and she picked Switzerland from several possibilities.