Marisa Peryer

Blake Reynolds ’19, former Yale men’s basketball captain, was putting up big numbers in Bulgaria earlier this year when COVID-19 cut his rookie season short.

Few Yale graduates take their first job in eastern Europe, but Reynolds thrived in his role, leading Chernomorets Burgas in its first season in Bulgaria’s top division, the National Basketball League. By the time he took a flight back home to the United States in early March, Reynolds ranked third in the league with 17.5 points a game and was averaging 7.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists for Chernomorets, which never got the chance to complete the final third of its canceled season. 

Now, nearly five months after his last start in Bulgaria, Reynolds is set to return to Europe. Earlier this week, he inked a one-year deal with the reigning champions of Poland’s first division, Stelmet Enea BC Zielona Góra. Sportando, a European publication that covers basketball, first reported the signing on Tuesday.

“Going into last season, I didn’t know what to expect,” Reynolds said. “After I was over there and was able to get a feel for everything, I felt like I could play at a higher level … It was midway through the season when I kind of started feeling like I can move up and continue to play for better competition and bigger clubs in Europe.”

Reynolds said teams from leagues in Spain, France and Germany reached out to his agent, Charly Mandic, after seeing film from his first professional season. Former Yale assistant coach Tobe Carberry, who enjoyed his own successful career in Europe after graduating from the University of Vermont, was originally the one who helped connect Reynolds with his agent, the forward said.

But Zielona Góra, which finished first in the Polish Basketball League five times in the last decade, stood out to Reynolds. The club’s head coach Žan Tabak, who also leads the Slovakia national team, played eight seasons in the NBA — and though he was never a star center in America, he began coaching after rounding out his playing career in Europe. Tabak served as an assistant at Real Madrid, one of the most dominant teams in Europe, before earning head coaching gigs in Spain, Israel, Italy and now Poland.

With training set to begin at the end of August, Reynolds said he plans to fly to Poland early next week. Although he has not yet spoken with coach Tabak and his new teammates, the 6-foot-7 forward — whose height is advertised as 201 centimeters in European basketball circles — has shared calls with the club’s general manager and media relations director.

For Reynolds, a return to Europe caps a year of significant change brought on by his first professional contract in Bulgaria and the coronavirus in America. A family move this summer from his hometown of Jackson, Missouri to Florida, where he participated in a Wednesday phone interview with the News, only added to the constant adjustment.

“[Moving to Bulgaria] was a big, big lifestyle change,” Reynolds said. “I’d been to a lot of western European countries in the past, but never explored eastern Europe and the differences in lifestyle, in food and just overall culture … You miss your family a lot for sure, it gets lonely at times, you’re kind of questioning like, ‘Man, I’m in Bulgaria. What am I doing?’ But the game is amazing. I love it. I never regret being over there just because I get to wake up and play basketball every day and that’s my job. It doesn’t really get much better than that.”

International basketball also presented differences. European teams play four quarters of 10 minutes each, which sums to the two 20-minute halves men’s college basketball teams play. But unlike the NCAA, Reynolds said his Bulgarian league lacked media timeouts, which required significant conditioning for a player who led his team with 33.7 minutes per game. Reynolds sometimes played eight or nine straight minutes without a break from the floor if neither coach called any timeouts.

Zielona Góra welcomed Reynolds to the team earlier this week. (Photo: Courtesy of Blake Reynolds ’19)

Professional basketball required serious commitment from Reynolds. At Yale he and other student-athletes balanced a significant amount of practice and competition with coursework and other campus activities, but his experience in Bulgaria was completely basketball-centric. He said his Bulgarian teammates “gave their whole lives” to basketball, and he appreciated being able to learn in that environment. His club often practiced twice in one day. He would wake up and leave his apartment for a morning practice, return home in the middle of the day for a nap and then head back to the gym.

“There’s really not time for anything but that,” Reynolds said. “You eat, sleep and breathe it.”

Zielona Góra promises a new adventure, though the focus remains on basketball. The club handles the flight to the city next week and will also set him up with a car and apartment, Reynolds said. Reaching the Polish city of about 140,000 residents requires a five-hour drive from the capital in Warsaw, but the city sits closer to the German border. Berlin and Dresden are about two and a half hours away by car. 

Fellow Yale alumni in the midst of their own basketball careers also surround Reynolds on the continent. Justin Sears ’16 has played the past four seasons in the German Basketball Bundesliga (but parted with EWE Baskets Oldenburg last weekend), Brandon Sherrod ’16 has spent three years in Italy and Makai Mason ’18, who spent his rookie season with Alba Berlin in Germany, will play next year with Manresa in Spain’s top division. Yale’s all-time blocks leader Greg Mangano ’12 has also played overseas for eight years, landing with teams in Turkey, Spain, Germany, Finland, Belgium, Ukraine and Japan.

Reynolds said he talked a lot last summer with the group of Mason, Sears and Sherrod as he was preparing to launch his European career, seeking advice on everything from how European teams operate to handling life with no family or friends in a foreign city. All four played on the 2015–16 Yale team that captured the program’s first NCAA Tournament win over Baylor. Mason went on to captain the Bulldogs during the 2017–18 season, and Reynolds succeeded him in the role. By the end of his career with the Blue and White, Reynolds had made 86 starts and scored 970 points.

Reynolds walks off the court after the final game of his Yale career against LSU in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. (Photo: Joey Kamm)

“Blake was definitely a guy that led by example rather than being super vocal all the time, and I think that’s a super important aspect that can be kind of forgotten by people in general when they’re thinking about leadership,” former captain Eric Monroe ’20 said last October as his senior season began. “If you’re a guy that shows up every day when you’re supposed to, gets extra work in, work as hard as you can on a daily basis, that will rub off on others … Blake was great with just being super professional about everything.” 

In an official release, Zielona Góra announced that Reynolds will wear number 32, the same number he sported at Yale.

William McCormack | william.mccormack@yale.edu