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Hoop dreams: Darryl Middleton's journey from basketball stardom to master chef

By James Masters and Olivia Yasukawa, CNN
March 12, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
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Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
Darryl Middleton: Cooking up a storm
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Darryl Middleton is one of the USA's most successful basketball players outside the NBA
  • Has played for 15 different European clubs in five countries over past 25 years
  • Helped Marc Gasol become one of the NBA's top stars
  • One of the oldest active players playing outside of the U.S.

CNN's Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Click here for videos and features.

(CNN) -- He was an outstanding talent who never made it in the NBA, before he established himself as one of the most famous American players in European basketball history.

But basketball is just one of the many talents in Darryl Middleton's locker. He's a co-owner of a Spanish restaurant where he also cooks.

Middleton has come a long way since he had a dream of becoming a U.S. basketball star. As he puts it: "Everybody wants to go to the NBA."

In 1988, drafted in the third round by the Atlanta Hawks with the 68th overall pick, Middleton appeared to have the world at his feet.

But those feet could not dance their way past his new teammates -- the way was blocked.

"I knew it would be difficult because the team that drafted me had too many good players," Middleton told CNN's Human to Hero series.

Nicknamed 'Future'

So Middleton packed his bags, left the U.S. and headed for Turkey to begin a 25-year odyssey where he would change clubs 15 times and play in five different countries.

One of the most successful Americans to ever play in Europe, he was the MVP in the Spanish league in 1992, 1993 and 2000 and won the Euroleague with Greek side Panathinaikos in 2002.

Not bad for a man who didn't pick up a basketball until the age of 15.

"When I first started I was playing as if I had two left feet," he said. "I had to learn because everyone else my age was already playing.

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"I would stand on the side and dribble the ball by myself while everybody else was dunking and jumping. It was embarrassing."

That embarrassment was the driving force behind Middleton's determination to succeed.

Instead of moping on the sideline, he began an intensive program of training to help propel him towards the top of the roster.

He started to tape NBA games and take notes on the way players moved, which foot they jumped off and then tried to replicate those steps in training.

Each day he would get up and go to the park in the summer and play in the morning or practice by himself, sometimes playing for five different teams around New York.

His extra work did not go unnoticed.

Nicknamed 'Future' by his high school coach, who clearly believed his student had talent, Middleton began to fulfill his promise.

Uzi machine guns

He won a scholarship to Baylor University and his draft to the Hawks followed almost expectantly -- but that's where it all began to unravel and he headed to Europe.

Forget that he couldn't even pronounce the names of half the teams his agent was suggesting -- he boarded a plane for Turkey to embark on an adventure he's still living.

Middleton readily admits he didn't know that they even played basketball in Turkey, and when he touched down to be greeted by armed guards wielding Uzi machine guns, he realized that he was entering a very different world.

My plan was never to be a chef or to cook but you need something else, you need a hobby.
Darryl Middleton

Not that it seemed to bother him on the court. Playing in Mersin, a large city and a port on the Mediterranean coast of southern Turkey, he was voted MVP in 1988 and began to enjoy life after adapting to life away from home.

"I had never left the States and being in Turkey at that time was strange," said Middleton.

"The people was good to me but still, I was away from home, the food was different, they spoke another language, and I didn't know what they were saying.

"The coach helped me a lot. He took care of me, treated me like family and that helped. Normally that doesn't happen in New York -- the coaches just bring you into the team and you're on your own."

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Mersin was the first stop on a tour which would take in Italy, Spain, Greece and Russia. It was in Greece with Panathinaikos where Middleton won the Euroleague in 2002 on top of four Greek league titles and two domestic cups.

Master chef

Further success followed in Spain with Girona where he won the FIBA EuroCup in 2007 some 12 years after helping FC Barcelona win two league titles.

Voted MVP in the Spanish league three times during his career, it's no real surprise that Middleton chose to remain in Europe than return to the U.S.

He considers himself European, speaks Spanish and while he continues to play at the age of 47, he has turned his hand to a new love of his -- cooking.

Middleton co-owns a restaurant in Alicante on the Mediterranean coast, where he produces some impressive tasting cuisine.

He can make a mean dessert and his big hands so used to the shape of a ball have become more delicate in their approach to rolling cannelloni.

It was only when he arrived in Barcelona in the 1990s that he discovered he was just as capable of creating souffles as the was netting three-pointers.

"My plan was never to be a chef or to cook but you need something else, you need a hobby," he said.

"That was a good hobby for me. I love to cook, I always cooked for my players. I go home to the U.S. and cook all the time so I ended up just loving it.

"Every year, I go back to cookery school whenever I can and just try different things.

"I'm at the restaurant 10 hours a day and it's good to see people come, eat something and love it. That's a good feeling.

"It's like basketball -- people come to the game, you play, you do well and then after that, they congratulate you. It's kind of the same. Putting a smile on someone's face."

Hoop mentor

Now 47, Middleton knows he won't be putting smiles on people's faces for much longer with a basketball.

After an adventure which began in Turkey over two decade ago, he is more likely to be found perfecting his apple pie or cheesecake rather than shooting hoops.

Not that he's retired -- not yet. He still trains three days a week with Benidorm, a team which plays outside of the top league.

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Now he finds himself giving advice to the next generation, just as he did with Marc Gasol, a former teammate who plays for Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA.

Voted an NBA all-star in 2012 and awarded the best defensive player of the year gong in 2013, Gasol first met Middleton at Girona.

"When Marc first came to play with us he was overweight," jokes Middleton. "But he definitely had something.

"He came to our team in Girona and I liked him. He worked hard every day and I worked with him.

"I beat him up every day, sometimes I hit him. He was about to fight me because I just love competing.

"I love to make a guy get better and better and Marc was of those players I helped. I was very proud of him when he want to the NBA - he's one of the best centers there."

While Gasol has gone on to establish himself as one of basketball's biggest names in the U.S. Middleton has no desire to return across the Atlantic.

Now a 'grandpa' figure to those he plays with, he is happy to spend the rest of his time by the tranquil waters of the Mediterranean while basking in the Spanish sun.

"This is a great life," he says. "The food is great, the food in the States, I'm not too much crazy for anymore.

"I don't eat fried foods or fast foods. I'm more European now - even the way I dress or talk. I just love it here."

Raise a glass of Rioja -- this is one odyssey which won't be ending any time soon.

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