NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- On Thursday nights here at the A.E. Mascaro Unit of the Boys & Girls Club, an athletically unexceptional gaggle of men gather to play a brand of pickup basketball one would indisputably describe as "bad."
They are, by and large, working professionals in their late 30s through early 60s -- lawyers and teachers, salesmen and stockbrokers looking to pass the time and work up a sweat. Unlike, say, your average YMCA game, on Mascaro's rickety wood court fouls are rarely called and whines are never heard. Sure,
It is here, in a dimly lit gymnasium full of aged hacks, where one would be hard pressed to uncover any sort of serendipitous find.
And it is here, in a dimly lit gymnasium full of aged hacks, where the trailblazer resides.
He's the guy with the short brown hair; the guy driving to the lane with ease and hitting
What few people here know, however, is that Luftig is far from an ordinary player. In the modern era of global hoops, where the details of the Polish Basketball League clash between Anwil and Polonia can be had by a kid in Hattiesburg, Miss., mere seconds after the final whistle, the world is an incredibly small place. Just look at the NBA, where rosters are filled with players from all around the globe.
Yet 17 years ago, when the Internet was an infant and scouts still thought inside the box, Luftig took a monumental international step, becoming the first American to play professionally in Lithuania.
And he'd never logged a single minute of college ball.
Not a one.
In 1992, Luftig, a Hartsdale, N.Y., native who had recently graduated from Brandeis University outside of Boston, was living in San Francisco, working for direct mail advertising company he and a colleague had started. One night, while sitting at home, he received a call from
Indeed, upon stepping into the tavern Luftig spotted Nelson, the current Dallas Mavericks general manager who, at the time, was serving as an assistant coach and administrator with the Lithuanian national basketball team. "He was hawking tie-died T-shirts in the bar as part of a fund-raider," recalls Luftig. "I can remember it like it was yesterday."
An unabashed hoops junkie who, to this day, can break down
Nelson sent a friend to watch Luftig play, then called a few days later with an offer -- a couple of hundred dollars per month, plus room and board. "A month later I was on the plane to Lithuania," he says. "How weird is that?"
Plenty weird. Just two years earlier, Lithuania had become the first Soviet republic to declare its independence. As a result, the country was poor, desolate and isolated. Luftig was assigned to the team in Silute, a small town on Lithuania's west boarder. "My teammates had seen some NBA on TV," he says, "and they had this image of what an American basketball player looks like."
Michael Jordan -- yes.
Larry Luftig 6-feet, 195 pounds -- eh, not so much.
The season was a strange one. Siran played its games on Saturdays and Sundays in a decrepit gymnasium that shook with the wind. Luftig wound up living with his coach,
Mostly, Luftig looked around and took notice. Although
Now, in the closing days of 2009, Lithuania is a basketball hotbed. Its players are scattered throughout college basketball, its youngsters dream of becoming the next
And Larry Luftig, the Jordan of Mascaro, can watch from afar and smile.