From Alaska to Spain, Brad Oleson lets his game lead the way
by Adam Fleischer
Most people probably haven’t heard of North Pole, Alaska, a small city with 2,100 residents sitting 400 miles north of Anchorage. They don’t know the fun facts—like that it has the most roundabouts per capita in the country or that it is home to the world’s largest fiberglass statue of Santa. And they don’t know Brad Oleson.
But he’s worth getting to know.
“It’s a different upbringing, I guess,” says the 26-year-old Alaskan native who will be suiting up in Spain for the ACB’s Caja Labroal (formerly TAU Ceramica) this season. “You think Alaska’s like every other place, but it’s really not. As a kid growing up, you don’t realize how dark and cold it is during the winter. A lot of kids stay in the gym and play basketball. It’s what they do.”
He was one of those kids. Like any ‘80s baby, he looked up to Michael Jordan as a young’n. And, like so many others, he didn’t exactly have MJ’s athleticism or skill-set on the court. But he felt that he could at least get closer if he put in work.
So that’s what he did, setting the precedent early for what would be his bread and butter as he got older: hard work. Despite never playing AAU ball or attending a basketball camp outside of Alaska, Oleson’s game steadily improved. He honed his skills playing against his older brother in the backyard and didn’t begin to even take basketball seriously until his junior year in high school.
Successful years as an upperclassman soon gave way to graduation, and Oleson brought his game to nearby Division II University of Alaska Fairbainks to prolong his playing days. Before long, the typically woeful program—which went 4-23 in the year before Oleson’s arrival—was not just winning games but beating D-I teams (as a sophomore, Oleson was named MVP of the Top of the World Tournament during which Fairbanks topped three Division I schools). In three seasons at Fairbanks, his scoring average increased from year to year, jumping from 17 to 23 to 25 per in his final season.
Upon graduation in 2005, Oleson was the school’s all-time leading scorer and a First Team All-American. “We traveled all over the west coast,” he says of his playing days in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference. “There’s a team in Idaho, Oregon, a few teams in Washington, a team in California, and we usually made a trip to Hawaii. A lot of kids don’t get to see that much, but it was one thing that was nice about college because every other year we were traveling.”
Those were just the beginnings of the 6-3 guard’s world travels. He had a brief stint with the USBL’s Dodge City Legend where he was able to talk to other players on the professional threshold and see what options were available to allow him to follow his dream and make a living playing ball. “It was nice having all those guys around me that could guide me and kind of tell me what to do and what not to do,” he recalls. Then, with the help of his agent, he landed a contract with Rosalia de Castro, a second division professional team in Spain.
Playing in the northwest region of Galicia for three seasons, his numbers were consistent: scoring hovered around the 15 to 20 point per game clip, and he shot nearly 50% from long range and 60% from inside the arc. The kid was experiencing personal and team success across the pond, but the life isn’t always as glamorous as you may expect for a professional athlete.
“It’s a grind, man,” he promises. “Overseas, they make you earn your money. I wouldn’t come over here [to Europe] just for the money. You wake up, eat breakfast, and go to practice. Right now, we’re practicing twice a day. And it’s two hard practices—running in the morning and getting on the court after. Then, you got about a five-hour break. Most people take a little nap. Then you’re back again at six o’clock for another two hour practice on the court. By the time that gets over and you’re done icing or seeing the physical therapist or whatever you have to do, it’s 9:30 and you gotta get dinner. And then you’re back at it again.”
A commitment to that constant grind has proven to pay off. Last season, the kid from small town Alaska was doing big time things in the globe’s second best pro league. Moving over to the ACB’s first division Alta Gestión Fuenlabrada for the ’08-09 campaign, Oleson was second in the league in scoring, posting 18 per en route to an MVP of the month award in February and the Rising Star Award for the year (the accolade counts past winners as Sergio Rodriguez and Ricky Rubio in its five years of existence).
Spain has treated him well, there’s no doubt about that. His game has progressed and he’s had experiences and exposure to things that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible. But, like any baller, he still dreams about the NBA. He got a taste with a spot in the Orlando Summer League with the Heat back in 2006, but that was just a taste. He knows the odds are against him, but he’s alright with that.
“Of course I would like to play in the NBA,” he admits, “but the NBA is a long shot, and I know that. I’m making due with what I got to work with. And the European game is totally different than the NBA game. The European game fits my style of play, so I can’t complain.”
He’ll leave that for opposing teams.