MILAN, Italy --
Standing in the back of the lobby, dangling a pair of orange-trimmed sneakers from his long fingers and talking via cell phone to his mother, was
Leproux stares blankly at the vast navy-blazered sea of power brokers and says, "In the beginning they come in, and they are all hugging and kissing to greet each other. But now'' -- and here Leproux extends his hands before him in forceful demonstration -- "now you can see them saying to each other, 'No, you cannot do this to me!'
"Then you can see downstairs there are many couches arranged for them to have more private meetings and negotiations between the teams and the agents. And if they are serious, then each team has a private space or office where they can finish the deal.''
It is not unlike dynamics of the Red Light District in Amsterdam, I offer. "But here's the thing,'' I say, thumbing at the 19-year-old Batum standing next to me. "This guy has a chance to make more money in the NBA than any of the football players here. Here he is and they have no clue about his value.''
"Maybe in the future, yes,'' Leproux says. "But right now, I think there is more money here.''
"I want to be in the NBA next year,'' Batum tells me a few minutes later. He says he will definitely enter the draft in June, when he and
For Batum, the choice is simple: He could have joined the NBA last year but chose to wait; he doesn't plan to wait an additional year.
But the leaders of his French team are in a more nuanced predicament: acknowledging on the one hand that the best talents must seek the highest level of play, and yet wanting Batum to remain in Europe until he is a bigger star, to their benefit as well as his own.
"All of the team and all of the players wish the best for Nicolas to go to the draft and the NBA,'' Le Mans team president
Unlike his son, he was a thickly built player, a 6-7 rebounder who played under the basket. "Me, I am a wing, so we have not the same game,'' Batum says. "I think he is watching me.
"I try to finish what he begins. I play basketball also for him. If he is there, I think his wildest dream is to watch me go in the NBA. So I try to make that for him.''
His mother, a nanny, raised Batum and his sister, who was two months old when their father died. "My mother is very, very important in my life,'' he says. "I think if I go to the NBA, she will follow me next year with my sister. Every time I make a good game, she is there. She is telling me, 'You are good, you will be good next year.' She is trying to keep me comfortable, to just think about basketball. Don't think of the girls, the agent, the money. Just think basketball.''
"But now I understand everything. I try to listen to good people to help me -- my agent [
Per the routine, Batum is playing two concurrent seasons in Europe. In the French league, he ranks as one of the top players while averaging 12.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in 28.9 minutes for Le Mans. In the more challenging Euroleague, however, he has averaged 8.3 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 26 minutes. Batum has been the uncertain leader of one of the league's youngest teams; a good game is followed by a bad night, and up and down he goes.
"We must give him time,'' says his coach,
Batum's perimeter shooting is still at issue, and some scouts believe the unreliability of his jump shot may hurt him in the draft. But Batum maintains that he doesn't worry about where he is picked. "The most important thing is to go to the NBA,'' he says. "It don't matter the team. So if I am No. 1 or No. 10, it don't matter.''
And if it turns out that he moved to the NBA too early? Europeans who are buried on the bench, he says, should be willing to return home to renew their careers. "
But that would mean accepting less money, I warn him. "I say it every time: Basketball is not my job; it's my passion," he says.
"We all came to see the top two guys go at each other,'' an NBA scout says.
They focus on Batum instead. They watch Collet bench him after a disinterested beginning, then watch as he works himself into the game for 12 points (3-of-9 shooting), seven rebounds, four turnovers and three assists.
"He should have been in the draft last year, when he would have been a lottery pick,'' one international scout says. "Now I don't know where he'll end up. This is the sixth time I've watched him this year, and I have not seen him have a really good game yet. I know he's got it in him; I just haven't seen it.
"He should be making a big difference in the game, but he doesn't. He could be a hell of a player, but he's so passive. Every once in a while he'll do something, but then he disappears.''
But there are other perspectives. Over a stretch early in the second half, Batum makes a brief difference with a jumper, then a three-pointer, then a blocked shot to set up a teammate's three in transition as Le Mans opens up a 56-37 lead. They win 83-63 to finish 4-10 in the Euroleague, which will proceed to its second round without them.
"He has the ability to be an all-league defender after a couple of years,'' another scout says. "He has the wingspan of a pterodactyl, and even when he looks like he's loping, he's moving past other guys and just gobbling up space. He's going to be one of the top five athletes in the draft.
"There are times when he makes jump shots that he looks like a young
And if he were to stay in Europe for another year? "His agent is known for doing the unexpected, for making a deal with a team to put his guys into the draft early,'' the scout says. "Why hold him back? Then teams will spend more time looking for more holes in his game. He should come out this year.''
And so he will.
Like you, I'm amazed by McMillan's success with his young team, but I disagree with your conclusion. Rivers' mission was more difficult. So far, he has been able to marry three stars who were used to neither sharing nor winning in recent years. The Celtics used to be a shallow, one-dimensional offensive team, but now they're leading the league in defense with Pierce and
I'll have no complaints if the Blazers keep this up and McMillan wins the award, but my perspective is different from yours. McMillan entered the season with no expectations and therefore no pressure. Contrast that with Rivers, who looked like he was in a no-win situation: His recast team was expected to do well, and if it failed, then the blame would go to the coach. The Celtics needed a strong start more than any other team, but nobody expected them to be this good. Rivers has exceeded expectations.
I wouldn't bring Araujo into your argument. He was "destroyed'' the moment the Raptors made the mistake of picking him No. 8 in the 2004 draft, turning his Toronto career into a mini-referendum on GM
You can't move Bosh to small forward to make life easier for someone like Bargnani. Bosh is the Raptors' best player, the foundation for everything they do. Not only would Toronto be messing with its strength, but a rash move like that also would send a bad message to the entire team by awarding the power forward minutes to Bargnani instead of making him earn them.
I don't have the impression that the Raptors want to rob Bargnani of his identity as a perimeter shooter. Instead, they want to supplement his skills with the ability to post up, exploit mismatches inside and become a versatile complement to Bosh. The question here is whether they need a big-man coach like Boston's
I'd actually say that Mitchell is an excellent interview -- a bit difficult at first, obviously, but smart and entertaining as he warms up.
I've written about a lot of sports in more countries than I can remember visiting, and I tell friends that among all of the professional leagues, the NBA players are the best to deal with. That's probably because most of them have attended college and have learned how to carry themselves in diverse social settings, and also because well-spoken stars like
Some coaches severely limit their access to the press, such as
Does anyone have worse luck? Hill's recent bout of appendicitis sidelined him for two weeks. If he can regain his strength, his latest misfortune may serve to shorten his season -- and that may enable him to remain fresh throughout the playoffs, with his health playing a key role for the Suns.
Fans in Europe don't need to be told when to cheer for their team by scoreboard "noise meters'' or Hollywood movie clips. They bring their own trumpets and bass drums and sing homemade songs in honor of their favorite players.
But let's be reasonable too. If NBA crowds seem to be dumbed down by comparison, it's because the NBA has marketed itself as less of a discriminating sport and more of a mainstream entertainment in order to sell more tickets. One thing European basketball needs is to sell more tickets.
The downside of intensive fan support is that the Europeans can get carried away. There's a reason that the team benches are protected by curved housings of Plexiglas that look like bus stops. In many countries, outraged fans will throw heated coins at players, light up flares (that sometimes ignite their own seats) and force riot teams of police to surround the court in their outfits of helmets and shields. I remember attending the equivalent of a Euroleague playoff game between the top two teams in Athens, and afterward the players from the losing team were warned against returning to their homes that night. The next day one of the players reported that his house had been stoned by unhappy fans.
The result is more pressure on the players to perform at the highest levels. As much as some NBA teams hate to lose, they don't feel anything like the pressure of the top teams in Europe.
Americans train less with their college teams because of NCAA rules limiting practice hours in hope of providing student-athletes with time for their studies. That rule is a noble though half-hearted attempt at emphasizing the priority of academics, and it's issues like those that make our system more complicated than the straightforward basketball structure of the European clubs. Another issue in the United States is the role of AAU and other summer basketball programs, in which the younger players play in games rather than practice as the Europeans do. The AAU programs have enhanced the advantages of the Europeans in training their players in the fundamentals.
If the top clubs were to form an exclusive European league in which they only played each other -- essentially an NBA of Europe -- then perhaps they could draw international sponsorship.
The problem is that the idea is too late. All of the best European players have fled overseas to the money and prestige of the NBA.
So now European basketball must find a profitable model that isn't based on having the best European players. The NCAA has succeeded in doing this around the huge success of its March Madness tournament. Likewise must European basketball come up with a formula that suits its best interests, but it won't be easy given the old-world Olympic-styled politics that continue to haunt the sport.
The issue goes back to the days -- as recently as the 1990s -- when the home team was held responsible for the "hospitality'' of the referees. There wasn't money to cover the costs of the officials, so the home team was expected to take care of their needs. As a result, many European clubs would take the referees out to dinner the night before the game, in addition to providing them with a complimentary gift (which, believe it or not, was entitled within the FIBA rules). I remember a player telling me that he happened to see the closet where his European club kept its store of gifts to be provided to referees -- it was stacked with expensive watches, pens and jewelry.
When it comes to impartiality and not playing favorites, the NBA referees are the ideal. No other basketball country comes close.
Note the crucial difference between fixing games in the NBA and Europe. Former NBA referee
"He keeps having good games,'' the scout says. "He's a true 6-11, he's long and lean and he has a good sense of timing for rebounds and blocking shots. He's skinny and needs to get stronger, but he has the kind of body that can bulk up.
"At the start of the year, he was on nobody's list. But he has been having good performances.''
Asik had nine rebounds and two blocks in a recent Euroleague game at Panathinaikos. Overall, he is averaging 6.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 18 minutes per Euroleague game.
"His style of play is a little bit like