Don’t call it a comeback: The inspiring tale of Sebastien Bellin

Photo by Regina Hoffmann/EB via Getty Images   Photo by Ketevan Kardava/Getty Images   Photo courtesy of Sebastien Bellin
Photo by Regina Hoffmann/EB via Getty Images Photo by Ketevan Kardava/Getty Images Photo courtesy of Sebastien Bellin /

Sebastien Bellin, who once squared off against Kobe Bryant, is about to take on a far greater challenge. It would be wise not to bet against him.

Sebastien Bellin leads a charmed life.

Whether you’re sitting with him for a few minutes or a few hours, this much, above all else, becomes clear. Regularly jet-setting around the globe, Bellin bounces from New York, where we met, to Michigan, where his family’s lake house is located, to Belgium, where his team plays, to all corners of the earth in the interest of unearthing the perfect pieces for a roster he is in charge of building. He is a man who feels lucky to be in the position he’s in — father of two beautiful daughters, husband to a woman he freely admits puts up with more than she should, and general manager of one of the most successful basketball teams in the world.

Mostly though, Sebastien Bellin feels lucky just to be alive, because by all accounts, he shouldn’t be. But then again, if he’s being honest, luck has little to do with it.

“Well…I did play against Kobe.”

Bellin had to think for a minute before the lightbulb went off when I asked him to name the best player he’d ever faced off against on a basketball court. I’d expected him to remember some NBA has-been who finished his career in Europe, where Bellin played professionally for 15 seasons before taking over as GM of Proximus Spirou in February.

Nope. He squared off against the Mamba himself, back before either was old enough to drive.

“He was impossible to guard, even then. Too quick for bigs and too big for small guys. He’d just back them down or shoot over them,” Bellin recalls over two decades later.

The game against Bryant came when they were both still in high school. Bellin, living in Belgium at the time but considering transferring to the states for his senior year, was allowed to play with St. Joseph’s High School in Connecticut for an invitational tournament. If there were any scouts present, they likely weren’t paying much attention to Sebastien.

Like Kobe, most of the next two decades of Bellin’s life would be spent on the basketball court, but unlike the future MVP, Bellin’s journey would cover quite a bit more ground. After playing two years for Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Bellin transferred to Oakland University in Michigan just in time to help them win the Mid-Continent Conference Championship in their first year as a Division I school (unfortunately as a transitioning program, they weren’t eligible to compete in tournament play). More importantly, he met the woman who would wind up becoming his wife, Sarah.

Then, a year before three of the top four picks in the NBA Draft would wind up being players who skipped college entirely, Bellin himself decided to leave school a year early to turn pro…and go play in Italy. Thanks to a court decision known as the Bosman ruling, member athletes of the European Union (to which Bellin belonged as a result of having spent much of his life in Belgium) were freed up to join international clubs outside of their home country. Bellin wasted no time, and when an Italian club came calling, off he went.

It was a leap of faith, of sorts, but one grounded in the type of sound decision making that would come to define Bellin’s life and career.

After one season in Italy, Bellin became a fixture in the Belgian League for 14 years, where he was named captain of the National Team in 2010. His measured approach to the game — “step by step” is one of his favorite mottos — is the same one he takes in building a team, which is part of the reason why, after he retired, he was hired by a franchise that has won the Belgian League championship 10 times over the last 22 years.

Bellin was an easy choice to take over the Proximus job this year, despite the fact (and perhaps because) he was never a player who put up much in the way of stats. Then again, Bellin has never been about numbers. “Quality over quantity” is an ethos this man has lived by for as long as he can remember.

“I tell my girls (daughters Cecelia, 10, and Vanessa, 8) all the time, and they roll their eyes at me: what do you put in your backpack? Most people fill their backpack with as much stuff as possible — houses, cars, etc. — and they get dragged down. But people who fill their backpack with only the most important things, they zoom through life. That’s how you have to be.”

Zooming through life is exactly what Bellin was doing on March 22, 2016. He was at the Brussels Airport, about to return home to Michigan for Easter from a business trip that doubled as a kind of inverse recruiting visit. Always someone willing to lend a hand, Bellin was trying to find a home for Max Hooper, a senior at Oakland who wanted to play overseas.

After he had checked in, an explosion rocked the airport and Bellin started running towards the armed security personnel. He was on his way there when the second bomb went off. This time, he wasn’t as fortunate.

Bellin lay on the floor of the airport with his legs shattered. He wasn’t about to sit and hope for someone to find and rescue him. Instead, he sprang into action, as much as his immobile body allowed him to. He needed to create his own luck, and to do so, his mind immediately turned back to basketball.

“What’s my game plan?” Bellin thought, in the process of losing more than half the blood in his body. He knew he needed a step by step approach to save his own life. Step one: limit the bleeding, which he did by making himself a tourniquet out of a scarf and finding a nearby piece of luggage that he used to elevate his legs. Step two: get help, which meant getting to the front of the airport where there was at least the chance an ambulance could discover him.

He found someone to put him on a luggage cart and wheel him outside. A few minutes went by when no one came, but Bellin never doubted his decision. There was no point in being afraid, because as Bellin says, “fear only drains you of your energy.” He was out of danger. Now he had to trust the game plan he came up with.

It worked. A fireman saw him and called an ambulance, which got him to the hospital in enough time to not only save his life, but his legs as well – legs he’s now putting to a new use. A little more than two and a half years after surviving the worst terrorist attack in Belgium’s history, Bellin is taking the same step by step approach that defined his career and saved his life, applying it something his doctors might not have dreamed he’d ever do: running.

Bellin has already run two races earlier this year — a 10-miler in Antwerp that he completed in just under two hours and a 20k in Brussels where he clocked in at two hours and 24 minutes. He is now preparing to run the Brussels Marathon on Oct. 28, exactly 950 days after the bombing.

Why is he doing it? Ostensibly it’s for charity, as Bellin is raising money for Humanity & Inclusion, an organization that helps less fortunate individuals, some of whom were injured in similar fashion to Bellin.

More importantly though, he’s doing it to teach his daughters a lesson.

Some people exude positivity, but only as a mask. It is something they wear on the outside to hide a darker reality that lies within, one that is often of the person’s own making. Bellin, on the other hand, despite having every reason to harbor a dark side, sees every challenge as an opportunity in the making.

He didn’t know his attackers and certainly never did anything that ran counter to their cause, short of leading a happy, fulfilling existence. If there were ever anyone who had an excuse to put on a false front to hide lingering anger or negativity towards the outside world, it would be Bellin…and yet, he’s not having any of it. He wants his daughters to know that despite what happened to him — something that others might call bad luck — he’s not only going to tell them that everything will be ok. He’s going to show them.

“I want to serve as a small example of what a person can do. Despite what happened, I can run a marathon; I can run a company; I can be the GM of a basketball team.”

The alternative, at least to Bellin, is simply untenable. He told me of a woman he has remained close with who suffered similar injuries that day at the airport. She is still unable to walk, which Bellin believes is at least in part to a negative outlook. “It’s hard to heal off of negative energy.”

Bellin might be the only bombing survivor in history who is grateful to have been a part of it, because in his mind, it is part of a past that has gotten him to this point. Now 40, he feels as if his life is just beginning. In addition to being a consultant for Playsight, a company that uses innovative technology to film basketball games from multiple angles and aids teams with their player development, and the founder of ArQ, a nutrition company which specializes in all-natural, plant-based supplements, Bellin’s role as general manager of Proximus Spirou allows him to transfer his ethos about life into the practice of team-building.

Bellin readily admits that while you need a 20 point per game scorer somewhere on your roster, finding players with the most talent isn’t always the way to go. Instead, he looks for players who approach the game as he does training for the marathon — ones who manage every mile and take the same step-by-step approach to the game that he takes to building a team.

He views previous experiences with successful teams as a huge plus: “Have you played in big games, huge moments? Those are the ones who win championships.”

It’s not hard to see the parallels to his own life. For Bellin, the best type of player is one who embraces all of life’s unique experiences — both good and bad — just as he has. He looks at a player’s past decision making, not just on the court, but off it as well. Did they sign on to play with a team that was offering a few dollars more but which clearly wasn’t the best situation? If so, that’s not the type of open-minded, forward-thinking individual he wants on his roster. He’d rather someone who didn’t view getting every last dollar as the be all, end all.

To drive this point home, Bellin quotes the Dalai Lama, because of course he does. When asked what surprised him about humanity the most, Bellin relays that the wise old sage replied as follows: “Man. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”

For Bellin, there is only the present moment. He refuses to put endpoints on anything. He prefers the term reference points. According to him, running the marathon in October won’t be the end of the road, but merely another leg of a journey that leads to a place not yet known.

Despite this mentality though, one thing is for certain: Bellin hasn’t forgotten the past.

Speaking of the first thing he remembers after he came to his senses following the explosion, he says very matter-of-factly: “I see the dead woman next to me every day.” He points to the carpet next to the table at which we’re seated, in the middle of a chic midtown lounge, which might as well be a universe away from airport where he saw the woman in the flesh. He points as if she is right there in front of us.

Does it make him upset? Angry even, just a little, even for a fleeting moment? Of course not. It keeps him grounded – remembering that despite all he does to make his life what it is, he still needed a little bit of luck to be where he is today.

“I look at the woman…and I’ve learned to thank her.”

To help support #TeamBellin, please visit Also be sure to catch the 48 Hours special on his journey, airing Friday, Aug. 31, at 10 p.m. on CBS.