FLOWERY BRANCH — Adrian Penland has learned how to be adaptable as a professional basketball player. He’s quick to assimilate to the local cuisine and to respect the local cultures as a veteran of seven seasons playing internationally.
However, he knows this season, which he spent with the team Al Rayyan in Qatar could have been his biggest learning experience and helped sharpen his skills as a point guard more than any other. The team won the league championship, the Emir Cup, with wins in a pair of best-of-three series.
But this season was more about moving away from his comfort zone and playing in the Middle East for the first time in his career. Penland, a West Hall High graduate from 1999, left his previous professional home in Europe and joined the Qatar League — where he was the only player from the U.S. on his club — upon a contract being reach by his agent, Gerald Green.
“Qatar isn’t a bad place to play,” Penland said. “I think I improved as a player and turned into a leader.”
Previously, Penland spent seasons playing in Greece, Germany, Poland, Latvia and Finland, among others. But the same downturn that has gripped the American economy touched Europe’s infrastructure, forcing players like Penland to look elsewhere for a club.
Penland says that Qatar, a peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia in the Persian gulf, has a thriving economy thanks to the oil and engineering fields, even importing large numbers of Americans to work. He added that most of the players in the league came from Africa in hopes of gaining citizenship.
This season, Penland led Al Rayyan to the championship series against Al Gharrafah by averaging 15 points and nine assists per outing. However, he really grabbed the team’s attention when he kept Al Rayyan’s season alive with 25 points and 12 rebounds in the second game of its first-round playoff series en route to a 40-point victory.
“We really had our backs against the wall,” Penland said. “I looked into the other guys’ eyes on the team and really took on that leadership role.”
Although Penland would love to return to Europe next season, he knows that the opportunity to return to Qatar is still on the table, should the economy in European nations not improve. He explained that the league structure in Qatar is much different as far as ownership in concerned. In Qatar, a single entrepreneur owns the team, as opposed to Europe where it is primarily businesses that own teams.
“If they don’t have the money to pay the employees in Europe, then they aren’t going to be able to pay for a team either,” added Penland.
Despite his interest in returning to Europe, Penland had some interesting cultural experiences that will not fade away quickly.
First, he had the opportunity to see the billionaire Prime Minister of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr Al Thani, in person. The nation’s prime minister was an acquaintance of his club’s owner.
Also, Penland got acclimated to the regular call for Muslim prayer, the athan, that signals the need to stop and pray seven times per day. Despite the difference in culture, and lack of recognition of tradition American holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, among others), Penland found the people from Qatar to be extremely hospitable to those, such as himself, from different backgrounds.
“I think the biggest thing I had to get used to in Qatar was how fast everyone drove,” Penland said. “There really wasn’t any speed limit.”
Now in his down time between seasons, Penland has returned home to try his hand at developing a summer camp for local athletes. He has partnered with former East Hall two-sport standout Chezley Watson to run the North Georgia Elite basketball camp at the Mulberry Creek Community Center, in Flowery Branch, and the East Hall Community Center.
Penland and Watson, who played basketball at the University of Virginia, discussed developing their own camp off and on for the past three years. While Penland was away playing this season, Watson, a local strength trainer, did the leg work with testing the viability of such a project.
“People know who we are in the community,” Watson said. “Our goal is to make players better in just one week.
“Hall County has a ton of basketball talent.”
Before giving their idea the go-ahead, they tested the sustainability of such a project with a marketing course taught by Richard Darracott, a friend of Watson’s, at Flowery Branch High. Communication back and forth between Penland and Watson was maintained on a weekly basis on the Skype computer-based communication tool.
Once Penland ends his playing career, the two have also discussed branching out and orchestrating a local AAU basketball program.
“We just want to combined what we’ve learned and be able to teach that to the kids,” Penland said.