For many college basketball players, hoop dreams exist beyond the confines of North America. Xavier University has sent its share of standouts to the NBA over the years—guys like Tyrone Hill, Brian Grant, James Posey, and David West—but a growing number have ventured overseas to play internationally as well, including Romain Sato, Lionel Chalmers, Will Caudle, and the man European fans call “Captain America”: Justin Doellman. The 6-foot-9 forward starred under both Thad Matta and Sean Miller for the Musketeers from 2003 to 2007 and is currently playing in the top tier of European basketball for FC Barcelona Lassa, which shares its ownership, fan base, and signature blue-and-red colors with the storied futbol club that’s home to Lionel Messi.
A Union native and son of former Northern Kentucky star Dan Doellman, Justin played his high school ball for Ryle and crossed the river for AAU action under Oak Hills coach Mike Price. Injured during the NBA draft combines—following a First-Team All-Atlantic 10 senior season—Doellman opted for the guaranteed playing time and money of Europe. He bounced around a few teams in France and Spain before joining Barcelona, where he’s spent the past three seasons flashing the same scoring versatility (and deadly three-point stroke) that made him a star for the Muskies. We caught up with Doellman after a mid-season road trip to talk about his days at Xavier, his international nickname, and which American foods he craves while he’s away.
Your father played for Northern Kentucky, which was Division II when you were in college. Was there ever a chance you’d follow him there? There was always a chance, but as it got later into high school, serious Division I teams started coming. I played some open gyms at Oak Hills, where college coaches would come watch. Sean Miller [then a Xavier assistant] picked me out of a crowd, and then Thad came to watch me, and that’s kind of how that all started.
So it was always Xavier? I looked at a couple of other schools that were a little farther away. I liked Notre Dame. I liked Florida. But Xavier ended up being a good fit. It was close to home. I had an opportunity to come in as a freshman and play. And we had a great run that year . Went to the Elite Eight.
And almost made it to the Final Four before losing to Duke in a classic. Is that still a career highlight? It was one of the greatest moments. To be honest, that year was kind of up and down. I think we started out 10–9 going into the Crosstown Shootout, and then everything kind of changed when Lionel Chalmers hit that shot [an 18-foot go-ahead fadeaway jumper with less than 30 seconds left]. That was our trampoline, and we ended up winning…I want to say it was 16 or 17 in a row. Beating [then top-ranked and undefeated] St. Joe’s in the A10 tournament, we just kept on going, and unfortunately we came up a little short against Duke. We gave them a run for their money.
What do you think makes Xavier such a consistent program? They get guys who kind of carry a chip on their shoulder, that have some things to prove. Guys that fly under the radar, [who] are hard-nosed and want to play and want to win.
There are quite a few of you playing overseas. It’s pretty cool to play against guys that I played with in college. Derrick Brown, we play against each other quite a bit. And Romaine Sato, we played together in college my freshman year, and then 10 years later we ended up as teammates in Valencia. That was really neat.
Your first three seasons were in France. Do you remember any particular culture shock? It was going to be an adventure, and luckily I had Meredith, my wife, to go with me and help me get through some of the rough times. Other than the language, everything was just different. Stores and restaurants close early. In that little city [Doellman’s first team was in Cholet, a town of 50,000] I think I landed on a Sunday, and everything was closed. Luckily I packed peanut butter and some granola bars and we were able to get through that Sunday evening and get to the store on Monday morning. But it was definitely a shell shocker.
On the other hand, we are having this conversation at 10 p.m. your time, which I just realized isn’t late in Spain. It’s not that late at all. We just finished up our team meal here at 9:30.
What’s the difference between the fans? In Spain, the basketball following is much more intense. Here in the Liga Andesa there’s a pretty big following, because you have Barcelona, and Madrid, some of the top teams in all of Europe.
Is there a small subculture of people who are just into basketball, or does soccer always come first? It’s definitely soccer first. The entire city shuts down when there’s a soccer game going on. It’s pretty cool to see. They live and breathe Barcelona here. I’d say a lot of the soccer fans are basketball fans. We have a pretty good showing every night. In Europe, it’s the cream of the crop. There’s only a handful of teams that are at this level.
How did you get the “Captain America” nickname? That started out in Manresa, my fifth year, and second in Spain. It was around the time that the first movie came out, and one of my teammates was giving me a hard time calling me Captain America. And then he’s like, You know, after you dunk, you’ve got to salute the crowd. And I ended up doing it one game, and the fans loved it. It’s stuck with me ever since.
Is there a language barrier on the court?
I use, basically, Spanglish. It kind of depends who I’m talking to.
Barcelona is the heart of Catalonia. How different is the Catalan language from Spanish? It’s very different. It sounds like a couple languages intertwined. I’d say the closest thing, or the best example, would be French and Spanish combined. It’s pretty hard.
For most people is it enough that you can speak some Spanish? Yes. They appreciate that. My Spanish is good enough to get around. I can’t have a conversation or anything like that but I have my phrases, and I can understand almost everything they say.
So what is the travel like compared to college or the NBA? Here in Barcelona we travel very similar. We fly charter flights, and we’re back directly after the game that night, which is nice. Especially having a family—I can wake up the following morning and be with the kids. Our longest flight this year was to Moscow. That’s about five, five-and-a-half hours. Previously, with some teams, it was long bus rides, which is taxing on the body, but you do it. It’s your job.
You became a citizen of Kosovo this year, for the country’s first-ever appearance in the EuroBasket tournament. Do you have some ancestry there, or was that purely a paper move? It was a basketball move. It gave me the opportunity to play some international competition going into the season. I played five games and came into Barcelona in shape. It was a lot of fun playing against some guys I play professionally.
It was interesting to read that you still don’t count as a “European player” in the Liga, because Spain still hasn’t formally recognized Kosovan independence. Yeah, hopefully that changes, but I have no way of knowing. It’s a political thing and I’m just kind of waiting, seeing how it all goes. I knew that it might not happen. It was just a basketball decision for me.
Were people constantly asking you about politics and the American election this year? Well, me and my teammates would always talk about the politics because that was the only thing in the news lately. They were always like, Who are you voting for? What’s going on? How are these the only two candidates you have?
How do your kids like living there? Well to be honest, they don’t know any different. Both my kids were born in Spain. This is the only lifestyle they know, so they’re pretty comfortable with it.
Have you ever thought about giving the NBA another go, or do you think you’ll finish your career overseas? There have been opportunities, but we can never finalize an agreement that gets to the terms I wanted. Who knows? Maybe a door will open or an opportunity will arise, but I’ll take it one year at a time.
Do you still follow American college basketball? Heck yeah! You better believe it. The time zone is a little rough, because I usually can’t watch the games live. But I’m watching March Madness every year. I get up, check the scores, I get on ESPN and try to follow what’s going on. Unfortunately Xavier lost the Crosstown Shootout [this year]. That was disappointing. But I definitely follow Xavier and keep in touch with those guys.
How often are you back in Northern Kentucky? We’re back for the summers. We travel to and from Cincinnati and Columbus, where my wife’s from, so we’re back and forth quite a bit.
You run triathlons in the off-season. Does that keep your competitive juices going? It does. On race day it’s definitely exciting, just because you’ve got pros and amateurs competing on the same course at the same time. What I like is you’re competing against yourself just as much as the guy next to you. You’ve got to get through the hurdles and the humps yourself. There’s no teammates cheering you on that will pull you through the hard times. It’s a good mental preparation for the season.
This is a question I ask everyone: What’s the first thing you eat when you get back home? Chipotle. Straight to Chipotle. Get a steak and chicken burrito and put it down. It’s the best.
That’s not an answer anyone still in the States has given! Anything else you miss when you’re in Europe? A good breakfast restaurant. Like, pancakes and bacon and eggs. They have a couple places, but it’s just not the same.
What are you fond of over there? Paella is a real big one for me. And jamon iberico—the cured ham. And you’ve got to throw in the siesta. They do it right, taking a nap in the middle of the day. It’s awesome.