Michael Smith is a 28 year old 188cm guard from Canada that also has the Italian citizenship and just completed his rookie season in Germany with the Westfalen Mustangs (2.Regionalliga). He got valuable experience in Canada playing at Regina University, then moved to Brandon University (CIS) playing 36 games and then as a senior played at the University of Northern British Columbia (CIS) playing 15 games averaging 5.9ppg, 1.9rpg, 1.3apg, FGP: 34.8%, 3PT: 34.0%, FT: 66.7%. He had a rollercoaster season in Germany and spoke to German Hoops about the season he will never forget.
Michael thanks for talking to German Hoops! Where are you at the moment and have you lost trust in the game you love basketball or will any struggle not hinder you from continuing to be a professional basketball player.
Thanks for the opportunity to tell my story. I haven’t lost trust in basketball but I have lost trust in the people that are allowed to run professional basketball teams. Right now this situation is hindering me from continuing to play, where my time with the Mustangs was so unstable throughout the year it is difficult to recover from. For example, there was no game film, which means I have no way of making any tape for other jobs next year. There was also no physiotherapy for athletes where I played on a torn hamstring with no treatment for the last 4 games. The biggest problem was the living conditions, no clean water in a refugee house; it was a mentally handicapping experience that has left me financially unstable and jobless.
When you joined German Regionaliga 2 team Westfalen Mustangs at the start of the season would you ever have thought in your wildest dreams that you rookie season would be such a bizarre and disappointing experience?
When I came to the Westfalen Mustangs at the beginning of the season I was aware that it was a small club and that they would probably have problems. However, what I did not account for was the evil that existed within the club. Where players were treated like slaves, given no money while being expected to win every game by 30 or more points. The president Florian Eichstädt even brought in players from the US who were willing to pay to play. Two of these individuals were mentally handicapped, therefore adding another layer of evil to who he was taking advantage of. The extent of everything that happened even on a daily basis was a recipe for disaster.
Your rookie season was a tale of two stories. The one was having a very successful season and the second one was the financial aspect. Let´s talk about the season. The club finished with a 19-1 record. Is this the type of season that you envisioned after you saw what the club was capable of doing in the first weeks of the season.
Yes, when I first arrived with the team I knew it could be a special group because we were loaded with talent. My only doubts came with getting an all star team to play together. As the season went on we managed to figure it out and have a great season. However, we were able to have such a great season under crazy circumstances, I know for a fact many guys would go to practice and/or games without eating that day. We still managed to win however the team culture was absolutely toxic. Guys would get injured and get fired without a single attempt to give them treatment.
How much of a factor was the unending experience that the Westfalen Mustangs had for the success of the team? You had only one experienced German with Robert Huelsewede and guys from 8 different countries.
We had a lot of guys who were experienced who played in different places, so getting everyone to play a role was difficult, especially when winning was not enough. We were expected to win by 30 every game. The experience of other guys would’ve helped if the situation and circumstances weren’t so difficult. This situation was brand new for each one of our experienced players.
How content were you with your rookie season on the court? Was the fact that you were already 26 and had many veterans around you make the adjustment period so much easier?
I think my first season as a pro with the Mustangs put me in a real unique situation. Asking a first year guy to manage an all star team was no easy task. You have a bunch of guys from different places with different opinions and frustrations would rise every month we didn’t get paid, there was no structure from management or anywhere to control this. I think the situation was very unique, having veterans on the court helped a bit, but managing the egos of an all star team with expectations to win by 30 and keep everyone happy was definitely overwhelming.
Your teammate Kris Douse said this about you. “Mike is an athletic combo guard who can pressure full court with a good spot up jumper, but can also put the ball on the floor. How do you feel did your game develop in your rookie season despite all the drama within the team?
I felt I became a better point guard, where in my previous years I was a combo guard doing both. Shortly after I got here Arturo Noha suffered a torn meniscus and was fired a week after they found out about his injury. Therefore, I was the only point guard, so I felt I became more of a true point guard and also got better at managing people’s personalities on the court. Despite the drama I felt I did a great job considering the club did move up and went 19-1 this season.
Players got paid up until 2017 but then all of a sudden no more checks were coming. How did you react to this? What kind of silly excuses was management coming up with to keep you satisfied?
When I first arrived here after Christmas we were all promised things would get better. I was told my room would be a janitor´s room where clothes were washed. I told Florian, Dagmar and Sasa that I would be going home after this. Sasa calmed me down and said the money was coming and it’s just for another two months so I stayed. However, the excuses from management and Sasa continued and became more and more absurd and nonsensical as time went on. Each month we were told the team had to pay 10k in taxes, as well as pay lump sums of insurance. We were promised a lump sum at the end of the season, however, at the end their excuse for not paying us was so ridiculous it was comical. We were told our sponsor pulled out because they did not offer him a seat at the final home game and if we did not leave our apartment we would be charged 4000 euros. For me it was easy to see through the lies, however getting a bunch of people from different countries on the same page was the major problem with the whole situation.
How far of an obligation do you feel did you have to the Westfalen Mustangs even when you weren´t getting paid? Did you ever feel like you wanted to quit? What kept you on board? Was it just having good faith anyway that you would get your money?
I felt a level of understanding for the team considering the club presented themselves as good people who financially had run into some hard times. I was willing to be understanding and felt obligated to play because of their problems. However as time went on it was pretty obvious that the problems Florian and Dagmar complained about, were a result of their own irresponsibility where they had a different excuse for any situation. The only reason I did stay was because I believed Sasa Cuic was a friend of mine and was trying to help the players. As time went on however, I found out the hard way that this was not true, and that he was only protecting himself and none of his teammates.
How difficult was it for you to keep giving good team and personal performances on the floor despite playing for nothing? Any other player might not have had the desire to leave it all on the floor, but you and the team did. How difficult was it performing well under stress?
It was very difficult because all of the problems off the court began to affect things on the court. No one was happy, constant complaining, there was no control and no way for anyone to say anything to a teammate when he was not getting paid. This team culture eventually became toxic when we lost the last game by 2 points. All the negative energy and poor team culture revealed itself. It was difficult performing under these conditions however we were able to do it, only to be welcomed by more stress at the end of the season.
There were reports that players were put up in Refugee housing. Players didn´t have clean running water.Is this an accurate account and what other things did you experience in the last months that were just unbearable?
I lived in the refugee house with Kris and two other teammates for 3 months. I have videos on my phone of the water and how dirty it was. The water was so dirty that when putting clothes in the washing machine they smelled worse when you took them out than when they first went in. The refugee house had nothing, we had no WiFi, we were placed out of Wiedenbruck in the middle of nowhere. Each room had one bed, and we were expected to pay for the gas of the team vehicle to get to practice each day, all while we weren’t getting paid.
Players were also forced to leave their housing, but because they hadn´t been paid had no money to get home. How did you deal with this situation? Did you feel like a homeless man?
We were told by Florian Eichstädt that we had 5 days to leave the apartment or he would call the police. 7 days after this threat Florian came with his mother and a fake landlord, broke into the flat and began to verbally and physically abuse players. He also called someone who was impersonating a police officer to try and tell us to leave. When my teammate Kris douse tried to go to his room, florian blocked the door and pushed Kris which led to him banging his head on the top part of the door. We are now seeking legal action for the physical and verbal abuse he has put us through. My teammate Albert called the real police and they told him to leave. I knew that physically doing anything to him would probably help him. All four of us as a group kept calm and learned afterwards that Florian had not paid rent to the landlord the last 5 months. For this reason the landlord was gracious enough to allow us to stay in this difficult time.
How important was it having Canadian teammate Kris Douse in this time of need? Was it comforting having him by your side and getting advice form the veteran?
Without Kris Douse in this situation, especially as a rookie, I would’ve reacted very differently. If someone owes me money than verbally and physically abuses me I probably would have done something I would have later regretted to Florian. With Kris helping me through this situation he showed me the correct way to conduct myself, and would give me advice on a daily basis on how to act professional. I give a lot of thanks to having Kris Douse with me during this time because he acted like a true veteran and not only helped me, but the other 2 guys in the house as well.
Will you be seeking legal action against the Westfalen Mustangs? Have you sought out consultation in how to get the money that you should of gotten?
Yes, we will all seek legal action against the Westfalen Mustangs where I believe this kind of abuse towards players has gone on long enough. Florian and his mother have done this same thing the last 7 years to players, and the only reason they have got away with it, was because they had American imports. They would not pay players than wait for their visa to expire. We have all received consultation and we feel that we will get all the money we are owed.
This has been a rookie season to forget. What do you feel did you learn from this horrible experience that has made you stronger and will help you combat any future struggle on your way up the professional basketball ladder?
While this was the worst basketball experience of my life I still did learn a lot from it. I feel like now I have first hand seen the business side of things and now I know how to ensure that this can never happen again to me. I feel like I am a lot smarter and a lot wiser with my knowledge of things off the court where previously I would play basketball and not think in depth about off the court business. I feel overall the experience has made me a stronger and smarter man.
Despite your struggles with the Westfalen mustangs , what did you learn to appreciate from the German country?
I think Germany as a country is a beautiful place that supports their citizens in ways I have never seen. I do like Germany I just do not like a few bad apples that can ruin the overall perception of Germany. The one thing I do appreciate about Germany is that a contract in this country means everything.
What is the next step for Michael Smith? Have you had enough of Germany or could you see playing there again?
The next step for me right now is going to court to make sure justice is served, and after that it would be looking for another job. Without any game film Florian has made it difficult but I’m still hopeful I can find something. I can see myself playing in Germany again, where I think this situation was a very unique one.
What is it about the game of basketball that will help you not forget this traumatic rookie season, but help sooth that and let you continue to play the game that you love?
I love playing basketball and that feeling has never changed from when I was a small child. However every time I touch a basketball now I’ll have to be reminded of a refugee house, no clean water, struggling to pay for food because I was not getting paid. This is why I want to continue and play somewhere else because if I finish my career here this situation will be all I think about whenever I’m around basketball .
Thanks Michael for the chat.