Armenia Is Only the Beginning for Isaiah Lamb

On Tuesday, October 15, 2019, Isaiah Lamb was looking for a professional basketball team to play for. By Friday of that week, the former Marist basketball player was in Armenia — a small country on the eastern border of Turkey and the northern border of Iran — ready to begin his professional basketball career. 

“In May, when I graduated, I was getting a lot of agents talking to me and giving me offers for places to go,” he said. “And it was just so much so fast and I didn’t really know the timing of this signing period… no one ever told me about it.” For the time being, he focused on himself and his athletic company, LoLamb, as well as getting his certification to be a personal trainer. “I was gonna let basketball come to me, and it was, but I wasn’t taking the opportunities.”

Offers from teams from countries around the globe such as Germany, Dubai, Denmark, and Iceland came and went. Late summer, maybe early fall, Lamb started reaching out to other agents; many were surprised that a Division I player didn’t yet have a team. In the end, Lamb decided to take up an offer from an agent named Mahammit Mehmeti to play for Aragats, a club that plays in the Armenia Basketball League A and the Eurasian League. The Eurasian League hosts teams from Armenia, Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. 

Lamb says he and Mehmeti talk on a daily basis, although that’s typical and important in a player-agent relationship. “For basketball, your agent is supposed to be like your best friend,” he said. “If you have a problem with the team…money issues or if you don’t like it here, you can let him know. Maybe you can go somewhere else, maybe you can get out of the contract.”

The two have already begun planning for Lamb to play in a new country next year. Mehmeti “understands that this league is a pretty good league for players that are playing their first pro years, like their first pro contract.” Lamb though, is looking to play in a more talented league next year. Spain, France, and Iceland are among the places they have discussed. For now, Armenia will certainly do.

Lamb took the offer on Wednesday, October 16, and flew out less than 24 hours later. His flight, which he said lasted “pretty much a whole day,” arrived in Armenia late at night but he couldn’t sleep. “My body was tired, but my mind was so ready to go,” he recalled. He was eager to finally get a chance to play basketball. At the same time, he was nervous. “I didn’t know what to expect. I already assumed everyone was so good because, you know, they’re playing pro. Come to find out, I’m just as good as them, if not better.” 

Through Lamb’s first 17 games in the Armenian league, he has thrived with Aragats, the reigning champion of the Armenian league. His per-game averages of 22.1 points and nine rebounds rank second and first on the team, respectively. He was named a league All-Star and received two Player of the Week awards from EuroBasket – one in December and one just last week.

“It was really exciting to get noticed,” he said. He explained that EuroBasket is the website for overseas pro basketball, so it was an unusual place to find an Armenian league player’s name amongst the player of the week crop. “It’s a nice accomplishment… That really gives me a lot of confidence because it makes me know that what I’m doing over here is not going unnoticed.” 

The success didn’t come right off the bat. Lamb remembers playing poorly in his first game. In a 103-78 loss, Lamb scored nine points on 33-percent shooting from the field and was one-for-six from three. “I was so anxious to play that I didn’t play that well,” he said. “I was so jittery and ready to go, but I wasn’t really feeling the best as far as my body. I think it was mostly my sleep schedule.

“It wasn’t really a good showing and it kind of knocked my confidence down a little bit because I was expecting myself to do really good and I was just so amped up to play” he continued “I talked with my parents back home and they said ‘Don’t get down, you know. It’s your first game there. You can’t put that much pressure on yourself’ and I really did because I thought I was gonna play really, really good.”

He bounced back the very next game, posting 24 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals on 10-of-18 field goal shooting in a 97-72 win. “I got the first game out the way, and the second game became a lot easier,” he said. “I was a lot more focused the second game.”

The rest of Lamb’s season has been a lot more like his second game. He has 12 games with at least 20 points (including 10 of his last 12 games) and just one game with less than 10 points. The Armenian league doesn’t have a “Rookie of the Year” award, but it does have a Player of the Year Award. Lamb said winning it “would be nice, but I’m not necessarily shooting for it.”

Aragats is currently first in the standings with a 16-3 record. Lamb says that head coach Tigran Gyokchyan constantly talks about winning the championship again. “I think we’re in a really good position to win the championship again as long as we don’t get too relaxed or too cocky or anything… we’ve been winning pretty easily so far. Hopefully, we can just keep it up.”

Lamb says he is still adjusting to living in Armenia. He said of his sleeping schedule: “I pretty much got the hang of it, but not quite. I still find myself staying up really late.” Talking to friends and family back home, who he hasn’t seen since he flew out in October, is the primary reason for being awake so late. Lamb says he talks with his parents “at certain hours of the night because they might not be up early in the morning if I text them when I wake up.” 

The only other person in Lamb’s life somewhat geographically close to him is his girlfriend, Lovisa Henningsdottir, a former Marist basketball player who now plays professionally in Iceland, her home country. He estimates the flight he took to see her for New Year’s Eve was around 18 hours long. 

The new time zone was another big adjustment; Armenia Standard Time is nine hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. The Baltimore native had lived by EST his whole life. Lamb had his first practice the day after his arrival, but he didn’t get any sleep beforehand. “I remember after practice, I slept all day. My sleep schedule was so messed up; I stayed up all night, practiced, slept all day. And then I was doing that for a couple of weeks.” 

From what Lamb described about life in Armenia, its culture bears very little resemblance to American culture and is something he is still getting used to. “Most people here have never even seen an American…let alone a black guy, so I get a lot of stares.” He added that over time he has grown to feel understandably uncomfortable with the staring.

“The culture is so different as far as personal space,” he said. “Normally, in America, we’re known for giving each other some space unless you know the person. But here, when you meet someone, they kiss each other on the cheek. It’s just something to get used to.” 

The language barrier is another obstacle. “Most people here do not speak English. So I actually have to use Google translate to talk to a lot of people here unless they’re young or in college, where they’re learning English,” he said. “Other than that, Google translate has been my best friend for the past few months.”

One aspect of Armenian culture that Lamb enjoys is the food. “A lot of it’s organic and natural, not a lot of fatty foods,” he said. “But they do have fatty restaurants, of course, like your burgers, fries, and stuff. I don’t really eat a lot of fast food, so I’m fine with the food here.” The natural ingredients are key for Lamb; they help him keep his body in top condition for basketball. Additionally, he describes himself as a big cooking guy. “I like to cook,” he said.

As for Aragats, the team’s culture is quite different from Marist’s. Lamb says the Red Foxes’ team dynamic “was a lot more family-oriented. Everyone hung out, like the whole team. At Marist, we ate together. Even though people didn’t live together, we hung out outside classes. Some of us had classes [together] so we were always with each other.

“Here, it’s not so much. Besides practice, games, and sometimes after games, we don’t hang out as much as college. And if we do, it’ll be just me and the [two other] Americans… not the whole team.”

Those two other Americans — Tavin Cummings from Concordia College and Alabama, and Di’Mar Hill from Faulkner University — live with Lamb and Kirill Osminin, the team’s lone Russian. The remaining five teammates are Armenian. Lamb says the bond between him and his housemates is pretty good.

Lamb noted that the professional team’s structure is looser than the college team. “In college, you’re a student, you’re younger…you have to follow everything the coach says. Whatever the coach says goes. School is involved, so if you’re doing bad in school, you can’t play. So it’s a lot more structured in rules.”

In Armenia, he described, you’re a professional athlete. “Everyone’s grown,” he said. The coach isn’t much older than some of the players on the squad; the rules and regulations are a bit more lenient; practice is similar, drills, stretching, running, “stuff like that… you get a little more leeway when you’re a professional basketball player.

During games, Lamb says he is played more freely with Aragats than with Marist. “When I was in college, like I said: it was structure, system, certain players can’t take certain shots. You’re very limited in college to running plays, doing exactly what the coach wants and doing what he says.”

“But here,” Lamb noted, “in games, you just play basketball. You listen to the coach, take what he has. His information, and implement it into your game. However, you’re on the court so you can kinda decide what you want to do.” Lamb says his status as one of the best players in the league allows him to “pretty much do anything I want on the court and the coach trusts me and my ability. That wasn’t necessarily the case in college; I had to listen to what he said and what he wants.”

Lamb’s freedom on the court with Aragats doesn’t confine him to a particular role. At Marist, leadership and defense were his main tasks, with his scoring coming “within the offense”, meaning he didn’t get many plays designed for him to take a shot. Now, he says he does “a little bit of everything. I’m a big rebounder; I lead the team in rebounds. I’m one of the leaders. I play the shooting guard position, so obviously I’m shooting the ball a lot; I’m second in scoring right now.”

The outside atmosphere of the games is quite different as well. The crowds at the Armenian league games pale in comparison to those at McCann Arena. Crowds for the Eurasian League games are modest, but none of it means much to Lamb. “It doesn’t really matter to me who shows up or who doesn’t. I don’t really play for the fans, definitely not here because I don’t know anyone in the stands.” Lamb said that the All-Star weekend “was pretty much a full stadium” but that otherwise, there are about 50 fans in the gym for Armenian league games. 

Last October, Lamb told Center Field’s Doug Johnston that he’s using basketball to “to take me all over the world, to see and experience things that I may have never been able to do before, and to make money.” He says that playing with Aragats “is just the first stepping stone.” It’s his first overseas contract, the first spot on the map he can scratch off. But he wants to play as long as he can. “Once I stop, I won’t be able to do it again.” 

Lamb isn’t necessarily looking to get to the NBA, though. “If it happens, it happens…If I go to the NBA, that means I’m doing that for life,” he said. “Like, that’s my full-time job. People in the NBA can’t run a business as well and get into real estate and all these other things that I’m getting involved with.” 

In the long term, Lamb is more concerned with being an entrepreneur than an athlete. “I don’t consider myself just a basketball player; I do a lot more than that,” he said. “I’m just using basketball for something on my resume, a way to make money, and something that I’ve always wanted to do growing up.” He said he has always wanted to start his own business and he did so in 2018.

His Lo-Lamb Company sells workout apparel and focuses on calisthenics workouts. Lamb designed his company around calisthenics because it’s how he worked out in his youth. “Growing up, I didn’t have the money or the resources to go to a gym and use weights, so I always did body-weight exercises, also known as ‘calisthenics.’

I looked into popular calisthenic equipment and core sliders were something that I’ve been using — but haven’t really been noticing — along the way. And I said that I wanted a private brand, my own core sliders, and turn this into something that’ll fit the niche of home exercise equipment.” On top of core sliders, he believes that resistance bands jump rope, “the basic stuff,” is all you need. “It worked back then, it’s gonna work now.” Nothing fancy.

As far as business skills are concerned, Lamb says he was self-taught but that he also has a couple of mentors he can reach out to. Kevin David, an entrepreneur that now teaches online business courses, was particularly helpful. Lamb said he told David that he was looking to start a brand and that no one close to him had any knowledge about starting a business. David gave him his course for free under the promise that Lamb would eventually pay him back.

Lamb is still the sole proprietor of Lo-Lamb despite moving halfway across the world. In fact, he says it was tougher to manage the company in college than it is now. One change he made is shifting over to drop-shipping for merchandise orders, in which another company handles the shipping and processing. 

Lamb has done his best to spread the word about Lo-Lamb in Armenia. He brought some core sliders with him and said that his American housemates workout at home with them. Initially, Lamb wanted to sponsor Aragats. “The team has restaurants and local stores on the jerseys as sponsors,” he explained, “and I asked the president if it was possible that I could sponsor the team and have my logo on the jerseys, and he said yes.” 

Unfortunately, Lamb didn’t think the market in Armenia was worth it, so he decided not to sponsor the team. “It would be good on a resumé to say I sponsor a team, but it’s Armenia, so I don’t really think the people here are into the fitness aspect, as it would be in Spain or Germany or other countries that are a little more ‘Americanized’ than here.” 

Lamb still has plans for his company to grow. He wants Lo-Lamb to be a household name, the “website you go to for home [workout] equipment or for building lean muscle, not being big or bulky. If you wanna be healthy, you go to Lo-Lamb.” Also, he wants to build a team once he’s home, saying “I have a lot of ideas with it but it’s hard to do it myself.”

Lamb is also seeking to become more than just a business owner. He recently received his certification in personal training from the International Sports Sciences Association, an online certification program, in addition to his CPR certification. Once he’s back home, he plans to earn a nutritionist certification. 

Being a professional basketball player and entrepreneur hasn’t made Lamb forget where he came from. In fact, Lamb said he reflects on the times he was homeless a lot. “As far as my upbringing, and how I didn’t have certain opportunities growing up, and now I’m putting myself in a good position to succeed in the future. I’m proud of myself in that way. 

“But I just feel like I have such a long way to go, and it’s hard for someone like me to see the future like it’s being so bright… I feel like I just have to keep working hard and keep making progress.”

Edited by Mackenzie Meaney & Will Bjarnar

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