Friday November 20th, 2009

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, Barry Nesson, the 60-year-old point guard, isn't as quick as he once was. And yeah, Randy Lopachin, a 59-year-old center with long arms and Kwame Brown hands, might drop an entry pass or two. But even at the worst moments, when the rims clang a familiar song of ineptitude, nobody gets upset. "We're not stars," says Richard Grayson, the game's longtime organizer. "We're pretty much the Washington Generals."

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 Danilo Gallinari-range jumpers; the guy Grayson rightly describes as "the Michael Jordan of this court."

Not that Larry Luftig sees himself as such. A 40-year-old bond trader for the Royal Bank of Canada, Mascaro's top player does his best not to draw attention. He shows up every Thursday at 9 p.m., smiles as he walks onto the court, then -- for the ensuing two hours -- lights everyone up. No mess, no fuss, no trash talk, no biggie.

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 Hal Abrams, a friend who owned a bar called Dooley's. "You've gotta get down here," Abrams said. "Donnie Nelson is selling T-shirts."

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 Shea Seals' strengths and weaknesses, Luftig approached Nelson and asked if he could help him play professionally in Lithuania. "How could he refuse?" Luftig cracks. "I was a hot commodity." Indeed, Luftig had averaged 15 points per game as a senior at mighty Woodlands High, and was playing in a regular intramural league at the University of San Francisco. He also had 10 fingers, knew all the words to Ice Ice Baby and could walk and chew gum without choking. At the time, it was more than enough.

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.

Patrick Ewing -- yes.

Clyde Drexler -- yes.

Karl Malone -- 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, Stepas Kairys, who provided him with a ruthless (and seemingly endless) diet of potatoes, borscht and, Luftig says, "some type of meat thing." In preparation for third-world conditions, before leaving for the airport Luftig packed his suitcase with 25 rolls of toilet paper ("Came in handy," he says). He didn't play much, scoring a career-high 11 points in one game, but regularly dunked in the layup line.

Mostly, Luftig looked around and took notice. Although Sarunas Marciulionis had debuted with the Golden State Warriors three years earlier, very little was known in America about the depth and talent of Lithuania's basketball players. "What I saw," he says, "was very impressive." Among the players Luftig faced were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, now a Cleveland center, as well as future college stars Sarunas Jasikevicius (Maryland) and Kestutis Marciulionis (Delaware). There was crisp passing and good ball movement and uncanny instincts and a nation anxious to bust loose.

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 LeBron, the next Kobe, the next Shaq.

And Larry Luftig, the Jordan of Mascaro, can watch from afar and smile.

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.