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Like a proud father, Barton College men’s basketball head coach Ron Lievense pointed that his former player Daniel Westbrook had grown since he last played for the Bulldogs two years ago.
“Look at him! He’s got to be 7 feet by now,” Lievense proclaimed Monday morning as Westbrook walked into the hallway outside Kennedy Recreation and Intramural Center on campus.
Westbrook was back in Wilson for the summer after his second season of playing professional basketball in Spain. The 2013 Hunt High graduate played for Gallofa Cantbasket in the Liga Española de Baloncesto Aficionado, or EBA, this past winter. The EBA is a sort of minor league within the Spanish Basketball Federation and clubs are organized similar to soccer clubs. Gallofa Cantbasket is based in Santander, a city of more than 170,000 on the north coast of Spain.
While Westbrook insisted he was only a little taller than his listed height of 6-foot-10 as a Barton senior, it was clear that he had grown in many ways. He was a few pounds heavier and noticeably more muscular than during his time at Barton.
Westbrook, one of two Americans on the roster as allowed by the league, played on his second team in as many years in Spain. He said that he plans on returning for another season in September.
“Spain is one of the top countries in Europe as far as the competition level goes,” he said. “It’s really similar (to playing NCAA Division II basketball), too. You’ve got to bring it every night.”
Westbrook averaged 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game on statistics listed on the team website while shooting 64.3% from 2-point range and 33.1% from 3-point.
Westbrook, who was an All-Conference Carolinas selection as a senior at Barton, said that Spanish professional basketball, while maybe not more structured than college basketball in the United States, certainly places an emphasis on fundamentals, which he learned extensively from Lievense and his staff.
“A lot of passing and cutting — the same stuff that we did here at Barton, we do over there, offensively. Defensively, it’s a lot the same too,” Westbrook said.
Lievense said that Westbrook’s size and athleticism made him difficult to defend, saying: “Nobody at 6-10 could do the things that he could do.”
“The thing that I loved about him was his ability to stretch the floor,” Lievense said. “How many big guys can score around the basket, can block shots, can move and run like a deer like he can and then spread the floor with the 3-point shot? That’s what made him so great as he continued to mature as a player. And not only that, he was always coachable, always listened and I just always believed in him and felt like he could be a great asset to our program here.”
While Westbrook has yet to sign with another club for next season, he assures that he plans on returning to Spain for a third season. After spending most of his first 22 years in Wilson County, the 24-year-old has embraced his second home, even if it gets lonely at times.
“Just being that far away from your friends and family and being over there by yourself, really,” he said of the most difficult part of playing abroad. “It was definitely easier the second season. The first season was really hard.”
Santander, located in the Cantabrian region, has a Mediterranean climate, which means winters are mostly wet.
“In that part of Spain, in the winter it rains a lot — like every day,” Westbrook said. “It’s really like a wet and dry season so basically every day (in winter) it’s raining.”
While he took Spanish at Hunt High, Westbrook admitted that he still hasn’t mastered the foreign language.
“I can understand most of it,” he said. “Speaking it is where I run in trouble, but I can understand most everything because my coach didn’t speak English this year. One of our assistant coaches translated everything if I needed it but I could understand most everything they were saying.”
And count Westbrook as a big fan of Spanish cuisine.
“They have different sausage dishes with rice and stuff,” he said. “In the northern part, seafood’s really big, too, and I didn’t really like seafood when I went over there but they keep feeding me fish and so I’ve grown accustomed to it now.”
Westbrook said that his roommates were the other American, former Norfolk State player Daniel Robinson, “and a guy from Serbia.” The team takes care of his living expenses, including meals. Westbrook said that he didn’t have a car in Spain but “I would just take the buses but the gym was close enough to my apartment to where I could walk and most of the restaurants, I’d just walk to.”
While basketball doesn’t come close in popularity to soccer in Spain, it’s right behind soccer. The game is played at all levels throughout the country, which has produced such NBA players as Marc Gasol and Ricky Rubio.
Westbrook hopes to have a long career in Spain or even in another European country. After all, playing professional basketball has always been his dream and now he’s living it.
“That was always the goal. That’s always what I wanted to do,” he said. “Of course, when I was little it was always the NBA. Once I came here, Coach Lievense used to always tell me as a freshman even that he thought I could play professionally. So when he was telling me that every day and every time he saw me, it built my confidence. I think that’s really what helped me make the decision that I could do it.”