PHOENIX — After hitting the shot of his life, Curtis Millage raced down the court of Riga Arena in Latvia with pure joy, flexing his muscles to the crowd.
“I hit the game-winning shot,” he said. “I got so excited. I took my shirt off.”
It was a defining moment in the former Arizona State player’s career.
His Latvian team, ASK Riga, had just defeated powerhouse BC Lietuvos Rytas, its first victory over a Lithuanian team in 12 years. Millage said his teammates and coach were unsure if they could win but Millage’s confidence proved to be all they needed.
“That made my career,” Millage said about the game played just more than a decade ago. “That made (me) who I was. I started to build and build and I got the respect from everyone, starting from that shot right there. It made me go to magazines, to posters, to getting a little shoe deal with Reebok.”
Millage is now playing in Poland with AZS Koszalin, the latest stop in a 15-year international career with a variety of teams. It’s a decision he made after graduating from ASU, where he played from 2001 to 2003. He has never looked back.
“It’s a great experience,” he said. “I was a little bit nervous leaving home going to another country. I saw that the culture was a little bit different and I adapted to it.”
Millage is home in Scottsdale for the summer, spending as much time as he can with his family, often waking up at 5 a.m. to train and read the book “Showboat: The Life of Kobe Bryant.” Returning to the United States is a nice break from the celebrity lifestyle he lives overseas.
“It’s a little bit more crazier than the NBA,” Millage said. “They (Latvia) went crazy. We couldn’t walk nowhere around the stores or the restaurants. Everyone wanted to take photos or ask for an autograph.”
Millage has shaped a successful career overseas, especially in Latvia, where he was named league MVP and winner of the slam dunk contest and led his team to a championship.
“I’ve been lucky to win them accolades. Just giving a lot of hard work out there,” Millage said. “I give it to my wife for pushing (my) fitness and staying focused.”
“It’s nice to see Curtis’ hard work pay off,” his wife, Monica, said. “For people to recognize it. For being able to do what he has loved for so long is pretty amazing.”
The couple have been together since attending ASU and Millage is grateful his wife pushed him to pursue a professional basketball career.
“I wasn’t thinking about basketball afterward,” Millage said. “I knew I had a degree and I could get a job. She was like ‘Well, you’re lucky and blessed to be able to play this game, try it’. So I try and we end up liking it (and) I’m like OK, let’s go get it.”
Millage has played for more than a dozen teams in a variety of countries, including Germany, Latvia, Turkey, Ukraine, China, France and now Poland.
Bouncing around to different teams was difficult. Many of his contracts would last a year or two, and he even had a mere two-month stint playing for a Turkish team. In a few situations, Millage’s contracts were terminated because the team didn’t pay.
“I really did not want to go team to team,” Millage said. “Unfortunately that happened throughout my career.”
Like the NBA, the value of contracts vary overseas. They do distinguish themselves in one way, however.
“In Europe, they give you your house, your plane tickets, your car so you don’t pay for none of that,” Millage said. “The only thing you do is put the ball in the hole and win some games.”
Throughout the years playing overseas, Millage has maintained a close relationship with his former coach at ASU, Rob Evans. Millage asked his coach what he thought about the move before deciding to play overseas.
“I said to Curtis, ‘This is not about making it in the NBA, this is about making a living,’ ” Evans said. “Wherever you can make the best living is where you need to go.”
Although some NBA players have made their way overseas, Millage would like to encourage more to experience the lifestyle.
“Playing overseas is a blessing. It’s a different culture,” Millage said. “If you want to see the world, go. I advise anyone if you get the opportunity to go see the other side of the world in Europe and they want you, take it.”
Throughout his career, Millage has taken his wife and two kids with him. Now that they are getting older, they accompany him in spurts, but having his family close to him on his journey proved valuable.
“When you know you can wake up to the people you love and (they) make you smile when you have a bad game or having a bad, that’s a great feeling,” Millage said.
Monica said the experience is “like an adventure. Every time Curtis signs somewhere new, we do as much research as possible on the internet and just kind of go for it.”
It’s a journey that started back when he began playing basketball at 14. Millage mused that a former coach used to call him “apple turnover” for all the times he turned the ball over.
He has turned it around since, having won a high school state championship and being named Southern California Community College Player of the Year when he led Los Angeles Southwest College to a state championship.
And then there was his successful two-year ASU career.
“He came in and had an unbelievable work ethic,” Evans sad. “Unbelievable knowledge of the game and just a tremendous competitor.”
At ASU, Millage finished his career eighth in points (853) and tied for seventh in scoring average (14.7) and played a role in ASU’s upset win over Memphis and then-coach John Calipari in 2003.
“(His success) does not surprise me at all, because he has tremendous work ethic,” Evans said. “He is going to continue to get better and better and takes his craft serious.”
Millage calls his career ” a blessing.”
“From a young man from an inner city who didn’t know anything about basketball and put the time into it. Stayed humble and kept fighting every day to succeed.”