For four years wearing the Red and Blue, Rob Belcore planned on using college as a launching pad for a professional basketball career in Europe.
“My whole life, everything that I always thought of was basketball, basketball, basketball — what am I going to do to accomplish my goal of playing professional basketball and getting paid to do what you love,” the 2012 graduate said.
And he set himself up perfectly: getting Italian citizenship, working with an agent, spending two weeks playing in Italy over the summer, working out with a former NBA player and dropping 20 pounds after graduation.
But when London came calling, he shot down the offer — officially pulling the plug on a 15-year journey, but doing so on his own terms.
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Belcore did everything right. But as the summer progressed and he was able to spend more time with his family than he ever could in college, he began to reconsider whether basketball was in his immediate future.
“I just realized that I would be totally okay with staying home and that … You couldn’t pay me enough to go play overseas with the experience and time I’ve had with my family,” he said. “I really missed out on that in the past four years.”
But Belcore went through the entire free agency process, and his decision to retire was not one he took lightly.
In June, the agent with whom Belcore worked took him, fellow 2012 grad Tyler Bernardini and a few other American players to play against professional teams in Italy. Belcore was the leading scorer of his team, and due to his performance, he thought free agency would be “a piece of cake.”
But Belcore soon came to understand the difficulty of the process. His agent emailed approximately 30 European teams highlighting Belcore’s strengths and expected to get around 20 responses, most of which, however, would offer incredibly small contracts of around $500 per month.
“In terms of just the right setting, the right team, the right city, the right league, the right level, only one or two of them will be of interest,” Belcore said. “And that is a long process to say the least because you’re always just waiting and hearing something. But unless you’re one of a couple guys, no one over there in Europe really knows anything about you.
“That was what was great about going to get to play because the leagues in Italy, the teams over there knew my name as a result of that, and I played really well so that was good. I expected things to happen relatively quickly because I’m over there, I’m the leading scorer on my team, the games out there are played against professional teams, and I played really well.”
While Belcore waited for a reasonable offer, Penn coach Jerome Allen helped him get set up in Los Angeles with former Lakers guard Mike Penberthy, a teammate of Allen’s from the pair’s playing days in Naples and now a shooting coach.
“I don’t have all the answers, and I just thought Mike Penberthy was a tremendous teacher and … sometimes guys outgrow you or you don’t have anything else to pass on to them,” Allen said. “So if they have a thirst to learn, you try to go out there and make the connections for them.”
Belcore worked out with Penberthy in the mornings, but his real experience came later in the day. Penberthy also coached the Oklahoma City Thunder’s rookie contract players, and following the team’s workouts, Belcore had the opportunity to play five-on-five games against NBA athletes.
“I was the only person that wasn’t a professional athlete who played … and it was great to be able to play against them and you know, hold your own against them,” Belcore said. “It was certainly a boost in confidence.”
Belcore returned to the East Coast to spend a weekend in New York, where his agent continued to emphasize that free agency is a long and difficult experience.
“Every single person I spoke to said, ‘You’re going to be fine. You had a good year, you got your citizenship, played great in the summer league over there, people know your name, you’re going to be fine,’” Belcore said. “[It’s] great to hear, but at the same time it’s frustrating when you just want something to happen.”
Eventually, though, Belcore got the offer he was looking for with a team in the English Basketball League, the second level of competition in the United Kingdom.
But by that point, he was rethinking his future.
“I got a pretty decent offer,” he said. “The situation was right, the money was fine to go play in London. I’m not going to say I lost the will to play, but it wasn’t all-important to me anymore.”
In the few months since he declined the offer, Belcore has reconsidered his decision and admitted “it’s certainly tough to actually be retired.” One recurring problem is his health — he has no cartilage in one knee and needs surgery on one of his ankles.
“I get back in the gym and tell myself I’m coming back and tell my agent I’m playing and all this stuff, but then when I train and do that, I realize I can’t walk for like three days, my body is just so mangled,” he said. “I really wish I was back in the gym every morning at six or playing Friday and Saturday nights, but that’s just not going to be my life anymore.”
And while his retirement hasn’t been easy, Belcore is focused on moving forward.
“I’m good, I’m happy, I’m in a healthy place,” he said. “It’s not like I felt defeated and just gave up.”
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Belcore is searching for a permanent job and even exploring the possibility of attending graduate school at Notre Dame.
“I recognize I have talents that make me a marketable person in the professional world,” he said. “I would rather pursue that than be gone 10 months a year.”
But Belcore does see basketball in his future in some way, whether in coaching or in the front office for an NBA team.
“Me and Zack [Rosen] talked about, at some point down the line, getting into some level of coaching if nothing else just to help kids,” he said. “We want to be able to do that and give back to the game. I definitely see it, maybe somewhere down the line, I bring my management and business skills into a basketball setting.”
“I’m never going to be able to really let it go completely, but it’s the right time for me.”
But for now, he continues to adjust to the reality of the end of his playing career.
“There’s always going to be a hole where basketball used to be,” he said. “And that’s just something I’m going to have to learn to deal with and go on to other things.”