In an exclusive interview, Joel Freeland talks snubbing the NBA and his Great Britain hiatus.

The thermometer reads 17 degrees. Minus. The blast of frozen air rockets through the open door like an explosion of nitrogen. They might not see temperatures above freezing in Russia’s capital for another three months. The hours of light, the days without despatches of snow, are at a premium.

This is what Joel Freeland signed up for last summer when he opted out of the NBA and into an exotic excursion amid the chill of CSKA Moscow.

The Surrey-born centre spent three years living the dream with the Portland Trail Blazers and squaring off with king-sized ballers like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

Private jets. 5-star hotels. A-List invites. And a contract that made him a millionaire many times over during 151-game stint in which he averaged 3.2 points and 3.2 rebounds.

Even as his rookie deal in Oregon expired, he could have clung onto the good life, held onto the circuit of journeymen padding out benches and praying for minutes, a body to utilise when required.

The Dallas Mavericks, reportedly, held out a firm contract. But the 29-year-old Great Britain international – who agreed a two-deal with CSKA, said: “I wanted to play. I probably had four or five offers from the NBA, but at the end of the day, nobody would guarantee me minutes. And I never knew what my situation was going to be, going to those teams.

“So I felt like this was my best option, especially coming to a team with a great heritage, a great organisation and a team that’s hopefully going to be fighting for championships.”

Freeland has been a frustrated spectator for spells this season

Freeland has been a frustrated spectator for spells this season

Billeted in a luxury apartment not far from Red Square, the one-time Solent Stars junior has settled into the life of a monied ex-pat. His girlfriend visits for spells. Otherwise, he has his team-mates for company.

The CSKA team – bankrolled by billionaire energy magnate Yevgeni Giner – is a mix of high-priced Americans and Euro stars, all trading trash talk in English. Out on the streets, Freeland – who has missed chunks of this campaign due to injury – can barely understand a single word.

“That’s why I have a driver,” he smiles. “He takes me everywhere. Otherwise, I’d be totally lost.”

Moscow is a pleasant city, easily navigable for the adventurous and able to cater for those with wealth from home and abroad. Portland, it is not. Or Miami or LA or any of the glamorous destinations that became part of the Englishman’s tour of duty with the Blazers.

But, he declares: “It’s not too bad really. Initially, when I was thinking of coming to somewhere like Russia, I was thinking it was going to be a culture shock. That’s what I thought it would be in the summer.

“But coming here has been quite an easy adjustment to be honest. I live in a great place. The only thing is the cold is a bit of an adjustment. But at the same time, it’s not too bad.”

After taking centre stage at the London Olympics when GB knocked off China and almost shocked Spain, Freeland hasn’t pulled on the jersey since – a spell that’s seen the side slump down the rankings.

With national team supremo Warwick Cann resigning, and a new structure coming in, there have been hopes of a fresh start – and a reunion of the band for this summer’s EuroBasket qualifiers.

Margins are slim. Talent is needed. As one prospective team member told me: “If we get Joel, there’s every chance we qualify.”

In the past, Freeland’s get-out clause was Portland and their demands that he choose self-improvement with their own staff over raising the bar for his national side.

“Now,” he says, “especially with the injuries I’ve had here, the focus is to be 100% when I come back, especially as I won’t have had a break. It could be six weeks. It could be two months for the summer I have.

“I loved my time with GB and the opportunities we had. I would never rule anything out. I’d love to be part of it again but it’s tough in these situations where I feel I really need to give everything to my team.”

It is hardly enough enthusiasm to allow grounds for optimism. As with Luol Deng, another post-2012 absentee, the presumption must be that he is out, unless otherwise advised.

Yet unlike the former NBA All Star and his one-time captain Drew Sullivan, he has few critiques of the way the GB teams have been run since the Olympics amid a perception that players have been largely ignored and a lack of communication engendering a lack of loyalty to the common cause.

Up to London 2012 from when he joined at the outset of the British programme, it all seemed on the rise, Freeland opines. If only it could have continued to ascend.

“I would like to see the sport being grown. We’ve tried from when I was with the national team to build the sport and it really didn’t take off. So from my point of view, it’s about introducing the sport into Great Britain and hoping it takes off.

“There’s funding that’s needed to make that happen but those things will help the country. We have a lot of talent and that’s going to help keep the players in the country instead of it being whoever gets good gets shipped out.”

Freeland had three years at the Trail Blazers (NBAE/Getty)

Freeland had three years at the Trail Blazers (NBAE/Getty)

Freeland, of course, went off to Gran Canaria once the inevitable plateau came during his early days in the UK. Then to Malaga where he became a Euroleague star before capitalising on his first round drafting into the NBA.

He had flourishes in Portland, spells where he was fitting into the league. Often, it seemed, his body would rebel and force him to win his spot in the rotation all over again.

No regrets, he confirms.

“It was an unbelievable experience. I have grown as a player because of it. My first year in the NBA I expected to be playing a little bit more and doing a little bit more and that wasn’t the case.

“So I had to work through that adversity. It showed me a different side of the sport and something else I had to overcome. I really felt I grew as a player and it’s helping me now adjust again to the European style.”

He won’t rule out a return Stateside. Not wholly. Yet he wanted playing time and success and with CSKA, both are attainable.

Proven performers like Nando de Colo and Milos Teodosic do not come cheap but with such investment comes high ambition.

Top of the VTB United League domestically, in first place in their Euroleague Top 16 group, the targets – claims their British import – are very clear.

“Euroleague title. That’s what we’re heading for. We’ve got a great group of guys with unbelievable talent. We just need to stop the injuries.

“We’ve been struck by the injury bug but hopefully it’s going to stop now and we can get into a rhythm.”

Main pic: Mansoor Ahmed/BB

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