Tuesday April 29th, 2008

The Euroleague Final Four that opens Friday in Madrid is, in my opinion, the world's top basketball event. I've attended more than a half-dozen of them and found the event to combine the unpredictability of the NCAA tournament with a quality of play that exceeds that of many NBA teams.

In February, I spent a week with CSKA Moscow for a story that appeared in last week's Sports Illustrated. CSKA, the team of the Red Army dating back to the Soviet era, is favored this weekend to win its second European championship in three years. Put CSKA in the NBA and it would finish ahead of teams like Miami, Seattle, Memphis, Minnesota and the Knicks. Athletically, CSKA would have difficulty, but its level of teamwork and the experience and depth of its roster would surely enable it to prevail against rebuilding NBA franchises.

Here are five people who have helped CSKA emerge as the world's best basketball team not in the NBA ...

1. J.R. Holden. The 31-year-old American has become the best point guard in Europe, according to CSKA coach Ettore Messina, who doesn't make such claims casually.

Holden is as surprised as anyone by this ascension. Raised in Pittsburgh and schooled in West Virginia, where he earned but two college scholarship offers, Holden graduated from Bucknell in 1998 with a degree in business management and was interviewing for a financial services job when a basketball agent from Finland called with an entirely unexpected offer of a five-day, $400 tryout with a team in Riga, Latvia.

"I'd never made $400 in a week,'' Holden said. "I said, 'I'll be at the airport tomorrow.' '' He packed up a large green trunk and told his mother he was flying to Latvia.

"I said, 'Mom, I'm going to play in this professional basketball league overseas,' " Holden recalled. "She's like, 'You're going overseas to play basketball? Who does that?' '' Then he told her about the $400. "She said, 'Be safe and call me when you get there.' ''

Over the next four years, the 6-foot-1 Holden worked his way up through the leagues of Belgium and Greece to sign with CSKA in 2002. He has established himself while sharing the backcourt with 30-year-old Theo Papaloukas, a 6-5 Greek point guard who will be celebrated this weekend as one of the top 35 players in the 50-year history of the European club championship.

"He's very quiet, very reserved,'' Messina said of Holden. "I owe him a lot for the patience that he has, because sometimes in my rotation I am giving more attention to other players, and I took for granted this contribution from him. And I put him a little bit on the side in terms of attention [in the offense], and he never quit or never showed any sign of being angry or whatever. He managed to keep everything inside and still do his job. Honestly, I've learned a lot from him.''

Russia offered Holden a passport in order for him to serve as point guard of its national team, and this summer he'll be opposing the United States at the Olympics in Beijing. The Russians earned the invitation last summer by upsetting the host Spaniards in the final of the European national championships. Trailing by one point in the final minute, Holden stole the ball from Pau Gasol, then tried to pass it to a Russian teammate. He passed it right back. Andrei Kirilenko, the eventual tournament MVP, was waving Holden to the basket.

"So now I was thinking, OK, it's one-on-one, let's just do what we do best,'' Holden said. His contested jump shot with 2.1 seconds left gave Russia a shocking 60-59 victory in Europe, one that promised to maintain political interest and money in Russian basketball for years to come. It made little difference to the Russians that the championship had been won by an African-American point guard and coach David Blatt, a Jewish American who had spent 21 years playing or coaching in Israel.

In February, I followed CSKA to the Final Four of the Russian Cup in Kazan, which is headquarters of the vast Russian oil and natural gas reserves. The team was exhausted, worn down by a month of travel and the demands of being expected to win every game, which is a burden NBA teams don't face. CSKA was on the verge of losing the semifinal when Holden nailed a jumper in the final seconds to steal the victory. As he walked into the team hotel an hour later, there was no telling from his expression whether he had made or missed the shot.

"Some people shy away from these situations,'' he said. "You have to be able to accept not being the hero. If I miss this shot, am I going to be able to take it? Some people can, and some people can't.''

2. David Andersen. The 6-11 Andersen is a European free agent this summer whose NBA rights belong to the Hawks, who drafted him in the second round in 2002. He would be an excellent complement to Al Horford's post game because Andersen can stray out to the perimeter as a face-up jump shooter, and he has the playmaking skills associated with European big men.

Andersen is an Australian with a European passport (one side of his family comes from the Danish city of Aalborg). He lives with his younger brother Grant in a Moscow apartment provided by the club; the unit once belonged to an Army general, as evidenced by its unusually thick doors and video security system.

"It's solid, man,'' Andersen said. "CSKA looks after its players very well -- bomb-proof doors.''

Andersen joined Bologna in the Italian league as an 18-year-old, which means he's been playing major European basketball for a decade. He spurned scholarship offers from UCLA and other colleges to ultimately establish himself as one of the best big men in Europe. He makes $1.65 million net -- the "net'' meaning that the club pays his taxes, rent and even provides him with a car and driver. Therefore, a competitive offer from the NBA would have to be $2.4 million, but Andersen's price is likely to rise higher as the top clubs bid for him this summer.

"It's always been a dream of mine, ever since I was young,'' he said of playing in the NBA. "In Australia, European basketball is not really known; I'm pretty sure hardly anyone in Australia is aware that I play on one of the premier European teams. Playing in the NBA would put me more on the map with the people in Australia.''

Andersen seems like the type who could enjoy himself anywhere.

"Sometimes you're on the roads,'' he said of living in Moscow, "and you see the big black Mercedes followed by another big black four-wheel drive with the security detail, and they're hanging out the sides [of the car windows] with their machine guns. Don't know who they are, but they're weaving back and forth through traffic and the car is sticking right to the ass of the other car and you see the guys sitting in the back window with their guns. I'm like, Steer clear of that.''

I asked Andersen for his best story about basketball in Europe.

"When we won the championship [with Bologna] in Italy, the fans went crazy and rushed the floor, and guys are cutting down the nets literally two seconds after the game's done,'' he said. "Not even before the game's over they're rushing the court, and we were trying to get off the floor and literally people were trying to rip our shirts off our backs. We nearly had to fight people off us, it was a riot kind of thing. I remember Marko Jaric, who plays in the NBA [now with the Timberwolves], he was the unfortunate one to be caught in the middle of the court when everyone rushed it, and he came into the locker room with nothing but his little jock strap. No shoes on, nothing. We had fans yelling back [through] the window outside our locker room, 'Hey, give us something!' And we'd drop out a sock or something out the window, and they'd all cheer.''

3. Trajan Langdon. After his All-America career at Duke, the 6-3 shooting guard was a first-round pick (No. 11) in 1999 by the Cavaliers. After averaging 5.4 points in 119 games over three years, he became a free agent and moved to the Italian club Benetton-Treviso, where the coach was Messina and the general manager was Maurizio Gherardini, who has since become VP and assistant GM of the Toronto Raptors. Langdon moved to Efes Pilsen in the Turkish league for the following season.

"Those were good years, but a lot of my focus was on getting back to the NBA,'' he said. "I thought there was still some interest from some teams. I always thought there was room in the league for a guy who knew how to play, for someone who could defend and shot the ball well. I thought it would be about timing and being in the right place at the right time. I was trying to be patient.''

But he had a frustrating contract negotiation with the SuperSonics, and after a disappointing summer league with the Clippers in 2004, he began to think of himself as a European player.

"At that point, it ended,'' he said of the NBA dream. "I got it out of my blood, my system. It was not for me. It was not my calling.'' Committing to the life of an expatriate American in Europe "enabled me to relax and play, not trying to prove what I can do to play in the NBA.''

He spent 2004-05 with Dynamo-Moscow. When Messina moved to CSKA in 2005, he persuaded Langdon to play for him there.

"I was extremely ignorant about the country and the city,'' Langdon said. "I had a lot of friends telling me to take food, toilet paper, things like that. And telling me you have to be very careful about getting a tetanus shot; they said you can catch tuberculosis from the water systems. Then I came over here and wow, I realized it's a big city and basically there's anything you would want here. You can get in trouble here just like in any of the big cities in the U.S.

"I tried to get people to come over and visit, and nobody would want to come. Nobody.''

Langdon is known among his American teammates Holden and Marcus Goree as the gourmet who seeks out the best restaurants in Moscow.

"I'm trying to learn the language,'' said Langdon, an Alaskan who grew up shooting baskets from his snowy driveway through a frozen net. "I feel very comfortable here. The organization is top-notch; they take care of people here better than in the NBA in terms of helping you with anything. They really look after you, and make it comfortable for you to perform at your best.''

The European game demands versatility from its best players, and Messina lauds Langdon for working hard to develop his total game.

"The NBA has the best athletes and talent, but little things aren't observed enough because it's about entertainment,'' Langdon said. "In the NBA, it's about bringing in the most money; over here, it's about who wins. You can make a lot of money in the NBA without winning, but you can't do that in Europe. If you don't win a lot of games over here, you're not going to make money.''

Langdon said he doesn't regret his decision to move to Europe.

"Once you get overseas, that NBA door closes if you're a fringe player,'' he said. "If I would have known that then, I don't know if I would have gone. I'm glad I didn't know that. Coming here was the best thing for me.''

4. Vera Vakulenko. In the stands behind the team bench sits Vakulenko, vice president of CSKA and loyal assistant to progressive club president Sergey Kuschenko, with whom she has worked for more than two decades. She is the highest-ranking woman with responsibility over a major basketball club outside the NBA. This season the club's young GM, Andrei Vatutin, has emerged as a potential successor to Kuschenko, but few executives in European basketball are more well-known within the sport than Vakulenko. Kuschenko envisions the big picture and Vakulenko tirelessly fixes the myriad problems that might get in the way, all the while serving as his interpreter of English, which she speaks immaculately.

During a timeout, she points out the role of the cheerleaders.

"If we are winning, the dancers are more free,'' she explained. "But if we are losing, or if the score is close, they are more aggressive. Of course! They are supporting the team.''

As if Vakulenko has waved her magic wand, the dancers suddenly move in exaggerated military lockstep to the end of the floor where the visiting players are huddled around their coach. In a taunting way, the ladies dance closer and closer toward the enemy, finishing their routine as the music dies with an index finger slash slowly across each of their throats in a way that would earn a 15-yard penalty from the NFL.

"Do you see?'' Vakulenko said proudly. "They are supporting.''

In the 1930s, when Vakulenko's mother was 6 years old, the KGB came in the middle of the night to her family's farm in the Krasnodar region of southeast Russia and told them they had one hour to pack all of their belongings. The five children with their parents and grandparents were taken to a train for a three-week voyage in winter without heat. They were abandoned in the forest in the Soviet region of Perm.

"My grandfather was a good craftsman,'' Vakulenko said. "He managed to dig a hole, a kind of room in the ground, where they could have shelter. They were eating roots of trees and some things they could find in the ground, and my grandfather managed to keep all of the family alive. And slowly they moved to a village where my grandfather managed to get a job.''

This was how Vakulenko happened to be born and raised in Perm, a city of military factories in the Ural mountains that was closed to foreigners during the Soviet era. Vakulenko learned to speak English from a teacher who himself had learned it from textbooks, as there were no foreigners with whom to speak.

Her other love was for Western music -- the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Elvis -- which was difficult to obtain in the Soviet Union. But after graduating from college to become a professor of language at the local college, Vakulenko used her grasp of English to earn a government position as a censor of music. She got away with censoring as little as she could, and that was how she met Sergey, who was a deejay in Perm.

"But he was a different kind of deejay than you may think,'' Vakulenko said. They would sign up to hold "discos,'' as they called them, in the local "Palace of Culture,'' which was a simple, large building in Perm with rooms that could be used by the public. Kuschenko would spin his records while providing brief lectures and interpretations of who these musicians were and what their music meant. His audiences ingested the music as if they were sipping reds and whites at a wine-tasting party. Kuschenko's love for music has helped him bring entertainment to Russian basketball, and brings hope that the Russian league will someday become a mainstream entertainment.

5. Ettore Messina. While NBA teams hope to pace themselves through the 82-game regular season with an eye toward peaking for the playoffs, Messina's team faces a different mission. Its season of 65 to 70 games is broken into a variety of tournaments played concurrently: a game in the Russian Super League each weekend, followed by a midweek game in the Russian Cup (a home-and-away knockout competition) or the cutthroat Euroleague, which is the biggest prize outside the NBA. Because each of those competitions involves a relatively small number of games, the outcome of each contest is of far more importance than just about any regular-season game in the NBA short of a playoff race in April. The pressure to win, week after week, is a relentless fact of life in European basketball, which explains why Euroleague players are paid for their contributions to victory more so than for their individual statistics.

"I always tell my players one thing: I have a very good feeling if the player is playing for the team or not,'' Messina said. "Because you can pass the ball willingly or reluctantly. You can play for the team because you must, or because you really feel it is the best way to enjoy basketball. I am not better than other coaches technically, but I can put the team together because I feel this.''

And yet the balance of winning is more delicate than even Messina can surmise. In his first season at CSKA, Messina led the club to its fourth straight Final Four. CSKA had been upset in the semifinals the previous three years.

On the eve of that Final Four, held in Prague, Messina rushed to the hospital where his 16-month-old son was being treated after suffering the appearance of an epileptic seizure (he was diagnosed with a rare fever). Ettore and his wife spent all of that week with their baby, Philip; Messina left the hospital only to coach his team in practice or in the games. In the semifinal, CSKA recovered from an early 7-0 deficit to beat Barcelona.

"Coach was a lot more laid back and relaxed,'' said American guard David Vanterpool, who was captain of that CSKA team. "He wasn't yelling and screaming like his normal self. He was relaxed, and he calmed us down a lot.''

The rest of the players didn't realize the severity of Philip Messina's illness until after they had upset heavily favored Maccabi Tel Aviv in the final. Messina congratulated them briefly on their success before returning to the hospital, where Philip would remain for two more days before his release. It was the first European championship for CSKA in 36 years.

Now CSKA is favored to win the Final Four again, amid more personal distress for Messina. His younger brother Attilio died in April, just two months after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. Messina missed several practices with his team while shuttling back and forth from Moscow to his brother's bedside in Bologna. Should his team prevail, Messina's celebration will be ambivalent. As much as he has focused on the needs of his team, he is in mourning.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.