Promising pro hoops players who don’t make the NBA often head to Europe to play. Usually they stay for a couple of years, perfect their technique, then try to find their way onto a pro roster back home.
But one American power forward who went abroad never came back. He's now in Alicante, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast. And his focus isn't on basketball.
The story of how 47-year-old Darryl Middleton, arguably the most successful hoops player in European League history, ended up in this quiet beach town is, well, pretty amazing. It starts in the 1980s, with a tall 15-year-old kid from Queens, New York, who was too shy to even touch a basketball.
"New York City is different, man. You got people watching the game. Like 200 people at the park. Everyone talking trash. I could never understand how people could play like that," he says.
His older brother convinced him to just try. He says he instantly loved the game.
Not too long after, Middleton became a star high school forward. Ditto, later, at Baylor University. The Atlanta Hawks drafted him. Life was good. He thought.
"The Hawks was a bad choice," Middleton says. "I mean, I got picked by the wrong team. They had a lot of players in my position. It didn’t make no sense for me to go there and get cut."
Meanwhile, his agent was whispering in his ear: "Turkey."
"Turkey. I didn’t know they played basketball in Turkey," he says.
He says it was a tough first three months in Istanbul.
"But I had a good coach, took me under his wing, treated me like a son. That is normal, not for a European coach. Usually they take you over here and just leave you. But he took in me and my wife. Took care like we were family. I think that’s why I am still here today. Because of that coach," he adds.
As if life hadn’t gotten strange enough, something weirder happened. Middleton fell in love with his life abroad and quickly forgot about the NBA. He eventually left Istanbul to play in Rome and never looked back.
"I went to Spain for seven years. Then to Greece. Then to Russia. Then back to Spain. So I've been around," he says, with a laugh.
For 25 years, Middleton reigned over European hoops, averaging nearly 30 points per game most seasons, taking home several MVP awards, earning a good living. It took a toll on his personal life, though. He divorced early on. His wife went back to the US with their three daughters.
"My kids are grown, I just wish I’d seen them growing up. That’s the only thing. Going to school and all that. But they understand," he says.
Family aside, Middleton has had an extraordinary run. He finally retired last year, injury-free, at the unheard-of age of 46. You might think he’d have considered returning home. But no.
"I miss my family and friends, but I like it here. The food — I won’t go back to the States — too much fast foods. It’s different," he says.
Food, in fact, is Middleton’s future now.
In November, he opened a posh eatery just off the beach in Alicante, called Gastrokomia. On a recent day, it's packed at lunchtime. That night it’s closed. But Middleton invites a reporter in for dinner.
"You’re gonna enjoy this meal," he says. "It’s gonna be the best meal you've ever had."
Call it culinary confidence. Middleton cooks everything he serves. And makes the drinks, like his gin and tonic with strawberries, complete with bubbling dry ice.
For dinner, Middleton whips up a salmon and crab salad, laced with little, white, worm-like eels, fried. The main course: parmegian sea bass on a bed of lobster potatoes.
Middleton shares the key to his success overseas: being different. He was different on the court: stronger, faster, more disciplined. And he’s different in the kitchen. Especially when it comes to the desserts he makes.
"Apple pie. Carrot cake, that’s the most famous. People go nuts for it. The pecan pie, people act like it’s crack!" he says. "You laugh, man. You’d be amazed. Maybe it’s all the corn syrup."
It’s a good life, Middleton says, over a slice of carrot cake. Most of the memories are good ones. You can hear it in his voice.