BJ Raymond was a standout at St. John's Jesuit, and has played professional basketball overseas for eight years after graduating from Xavier. Raymond played in Italy last season. THE BLADE/KURT STEISS
A funny thing happened to BJ Raymond.
If you asked Raymond for his career plans when he was tearing up the City League as a standout at St. John’s Jesuit, or immediately after his NCAA tournament heroics at Xavier, he always had the same answer: the NBA.
So, when the 2009 NBA draft came and went without Raymond’s name being called, he wasn’t happy, to say the minimum. As far as Raymond was concerned, the NBA was all there was to basketball, and any league outside of the United States was small-time.
“To be honest, I was extremely disappointed when I didn’t get drafted. I thought overseas was a joke,” Raymond said. “I thought it had no value, and basically meant you sucked.”
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Now 30 years old, Raymond laughs at the retelling.
Raymond, the same man who started his international career reluctantly, has become a case study in making it overseas.
Basketball has taken Raymond all around the world in eight seasons overseas, and Raymond is hoping for his ninth later this year. Since his last game for Xavier, Raymond has lived in nine countries — Belgium, Lebanon, Slovenia, Cyprus, Argentina, Georgia, Finland, Italy, and Germany — and played in dozens more.
He married a woman from Belgium, became a father in 2016, and plans to keep playing in Europe so long as teams keep offering contracts and his body cooperates.
He never imagined this — but it's been the ride of a lifetime.
“I didn’t think it would take me around the world,” Raymond said. “I thought basketball would take me to the NBA — I never sold myself short. Then I realized basketball is more than just the NBA.”
The reality is that hanging on overseas is an art.
Simply arriving as an American college player isn’t enough.
As Raymond discovered during his first few months after college, jump-starting a career in an unfamiliar place isn’t easy. The basketball was different, the talent pool is deep and ever-changing, and the demands are constant.
It’s a simple — and, at times, ruthless — system: earn your contract, or somebody else will. In the pros, it’s all desperation all the time.
“You get a rude awakening,” Raymond said. “You better bring your A-game because you don’t realize this is how you're going to eat; this is how you’re going to provide for yourself.
“In college, there’s no desperation. There’s only desire, your desire and will to win. In the professional level, it’s desperation. I got to get a job next year, I have to feed my kids — and this is how. I have to do well.”
Living in a new country for the first time was an adventure for Raymond. He didn’t want to drive anywhere because he didn’t speak the language. Grocery stores close early in the evening and, for the life of him, Raymond couldn't figure out why their milk wasn't refrigerated, so he avoided it altogether.
Being an ocean away from his family for most of the year was taxing, and Raymond said he underestimated the skill of the international game. Raymond admittedly went to Europe expecting to dominate, but said it took three or four years of work before he deemed himself a consistently effective professional player.
But Raymond stuck with pro hoops and is still going. The contracts have rolled in one after another — he most recently played in Italy — as Raymond turned the considerable skill he had as high school player into a full-time career.
The leagues and teams might change, but Raymond said the challenge is always the same.
“One, you have to be professional, and two, you have to love it,” Raymond said. “You have to really love it. At first, it’s fine, but the grind of it is hard. You’re away from your family, and people don’t understand the sacrifice that it takes to do what you love sometimes.”
That Raymond made basketball his career was not a surprise at St. John’s, where he starred on Titans teams that were loaded with Division I talent before graduating in 2005. As good a player as Raymond was in high school, he was as famous — or was it infamous? — for how competitive he was.
“Right or wrong, I don’t think he’s ever walked into a gym and thought there was anybody better than him,” said Mike Schoen, Raymond’s former teammate and now a Titans assistant coach.
“When we talk to our [current] guys about him, it’s always about how tough and how competitive he is. If you play on his team, you better be ready because he’s going to raise the competitive level.”
Raymond still visits Toledo and drops into St. John’s open gyms during the offseason to stay sharp.
The scene is priceless: Raymond — who has bulked up considerably since college — is still dominating the games all these years later, barking out defensive orders to players who were in diapers when Raymond started at St. John’s.
The Titans’ basketball program is happy to have him, a living, breathing example of how a player from Toledo can make it to professional basketball and stay there.
“It’s a testament to him as guy who knows where he came from and where he started that, as a pro, Toledo and St. John’s are still important to him,” Schoen said. “It’s really cool for our guys to see that.”
The next step
Raymond plans to stay in basketball — and not in the United States.
After his career, Raymond said he would like to coach in Europe, where he has since grown to love the game he once dismissed.
In truth, Raymond said he prefers the pro game in Europe to American colleges, where coaches subsist on recruiting. Though he went through it himself, Raymond said he’s not interested in it.
“You have to kiss up to kids, man. These kids are 15 years old, and you have to act like they’re the next Michael Jordan, then you have school and everything else,” Raymond said. “In Europe, they accept the money and that’s all the kissing up you have to do.”
The system breaks many American players who make the jump overseas, and the turnover rate is high. For Raymond, international basketball had the opposite effect.
Raymond never thought he would have this life — he gritted his teeth and tried it in the beginning — but it has allowed him to see the world while still playing basketball.
No, the NBA didn’t call, but Raymond talked himself into Europe and vowed to at least try it for a little bit.
With a smile and a shrug, he said that was one of the best decisions he ever made.
“You can get a 9-to-5 [job], or you can do what you love, but you have to go far, far away from home,” Raymond said. “You have choices, and right now, I'm happy with the choices I made.”
B.J. Raymond graduated from St. John’s in 2005, then played at Xavier University for four years. THE BLADE
BJ Raymond returns to St. John’s High School when he visits Toledo, playing pickup games during open gym to stay sharp. THE BLADE/KURT STEISS