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NO LONGER LA DOLCE VITA U.S. PLAYERS ARE FINDING EUROPE A MUCH TOUGHER PLACE TO EARN A LIVING

May 19, 1997
May 19, 1997

Table of Contents
May 19, 1997

Contents
Faces In The Crowd

NO LONGER LA DOLCE VITA U.S. PLAYERS ARE FINDING EUROPE A MUCH TOUGHER PLACE TO EARN A LIVING

To judge by his reception in Greece, you might think that
Dominique Wilkins was Odysseus himself--that he had spent a
career subduing not mere Hornets or Mavericks but real, live
Trojans. Some 5,000 people met Wilkins at the Athens airport
when he arrived in September 1995. Wheelie-popping cops on
motorbikes escorted him into town, and Athenians lining the
route set off celebratory flares. The next day some 13,000 fans
turned out for his first practice with Panathinaikos Athens, the
basketball team that was going to pay him $7 million over two
seasons.

This is an article from the May 19, 1997 issue Original Layout

But there would be drama to go with those drachmas. Even as
Panathinaikos president Paul Giannakopoulos granted Wilkins his
every wish, coach Bozidar Maljkovic regarded the team's new star
as uncooperative and defensively deficient. When Wilkins's
mother and then his father fell gravely ill during the season,
Giannakopoulos gave him permission to return to the U.S. each
time. Yet after Wilkins hurried back for one game, Maljkovic
refused to use him, invoking the rule that if you don't
practice, you don't play.

For publicly bellyaching about this--for saying he was "being
treated like crap"--Wilkins was fined $50,000 (which he never
paid). But by playoff time Panathinaikos's president, a
self-made pharmaceutical magnate, and its coach, an austere Serb
who believes in my-way-or-Yugo discipline, had worked an
effective good-cop, bad-cop routine on Wilkins. The Human
Highlight Film had turned himself into a sort of instructional
video. Giannakopoulos fulfilled his dream of winning a European
championship, and Wilkins, who shut down FC Barcelona star
Arturas Karnishovas in the final, won his first crown of any
kind, in Paris, the city where, coincidentally, he was born.

We could end our story there and declare it remarkable enough:
Dominique's D, Key to a Title. But that would miss the point--a
point driven home last fall when Wilkins refused to honor the
second year of his Greek contract, for which he was paid, and
instead returned to the NBA to play for the San Antonio Spurs
for the NBA veterans' minimum of $247,500. The days are gone
when a Bob McAdoo can flee to Italy in the twilight of his NBA
career and push through his 30s reliably scoring in double
figures. When Wilkins, a player with more career points than
Larry Bird, can't be content as a hoops expatriate, basketball
is, indeed, operating under a new world order.

The European season that concluded last month underscored that
truth. U.S. players of every stripe, from late NBA cuts still in
their 20s to aging have-jump-shot-will-travel vagabonds, are
becoming more and more rare. When the European Final Four
convened in Rome from April 22 to April 24, one of the
finalists, FC Barcelona, didn't suit up a single Yank, and the
U.S. stars of the three other clubs--Arriel McDonald of Greece's
Olimpija Ljubljana, Delaney Rudd of France's ASVEL
Lyon-Villeurbanne and David Rivers of Greece's champion
Olympiakos Piraeus--were all businesslike
12-to-19-points-per-game guards whom the NBA gave up on long ago.

Several years ago Saturday Night Live aired a skit featuring
Quincy Jones as a guest on a mock French TV talk show called
Jazz Perspectifs. The beret-wearing, Gauloise-sucking cohosts
and their similarly turned-out audience were so worshipful of
the man they called Le Q that Jones's every throat-clearing
occasioned hosannas. Continental hoops aficionados once reserved
the same sycophantic awe for expatriate U.S. basketteurs,
especially ones with a strain of NBA in their pedigrees. But
that was before Europeans could regularly flick on the TV and
see a real NBA game and before they themselves became
commonplace on teams in both the NBA and the NCAA. (Last season
15 Europeans played in the NBA and 131 Europeans suited up in
Division I.)

Given that demystification, it's logical that a player such as
Rudd, who is now in his fifth season in France, would thrive.
The European game--with its zone defenses, its 20-minute halves,
its 30-second shot clock--is much like U.S. college ball, only
with bigger, older and wiser players. That reminds Rudd of the
mid-1980s, when he piloted the offense at Wake Forest. The 6'2"
guard is adored in Lyon, where locals pronounce his name
dell-ah-NEE, and though he's 34 years old, he has just reupped
for two seasons at $425,000 a year. By contrast, Kenny Walker,
Willie Anderson and Tom Chambers, all of whom had more
impressive NBA resumes than Rudd, were recent flops in Italy,
Greece and Israel, respectively, and over the past two years
French clubs prematurely parted company with Rolando Blackman
and Vern Fleming, both former NBAers. During the 1995-96 season
things got so bad for U.S. players at Jet Services Lyon,
Villeurbanne's crosstown rival, that the team suited up nine
Americans. "I was afraid to become friends with them," says
Rudd, "because I wasn't sure how long they'd be around.

"If your team even starts to think about getting rid of you, you
don't talk back to your coach or curse out the refs. You shut
your mouth, because anything you say can and will be used
against you. Bottom line, this is not for everybody. So many
Americans sign up to play here because the price is right. But
you've got to let go of that NBA ego."

Thus an ACC footnote such as Rudd is a star, and former North
Carolina second-team All-America and NBA veteran J.R. Reid was
regarded as such a touriste after his first few games with
Paris-St. Germain this season that his coach cracked, "All he's
missing is a hat and a camera." Reid ultimately adjusted,
playing so well that NBA clubs are likely to give him another
shot in the fall. But the recent European leave-takings of other
U.S. expatriates look like entries in a truant officer's casebook.

Former North Carolina guard Jeff McInnis was released by his
Greek club, Panionios, after he tried to attack a teammate with
a steel object following an altercation in practice. When Jerry
(Ice) Reynolds told officials of Polti Cantu, a club in Italy's
top division, Serie A, last January that it was too cold inside
the arena for him to practice, management took inspiration from
Reynolds's nickname and cut him.

Why has a U.S. passport, once a reliable predictor of overseas
basketball success, practically become a liability? One reason
may be that Yugoslav coaches have been on the bench of every
European club champion since 1988, and they brook no bull,
winning any power struggle with a U.S. prima donna. "If an
American player doesn't understand how serious this is, he must
be fired," says Olympiakos coach Dusan Ivkovic, a Serb who
guided his team to this season's European title after cutting
Willie Anderson in December, reportedly for dozing off in
practice. "It's not like the NBA, where you can lose by 30 and
be laughing after the game. In Europe, sometimes one game is
your life."

Other reasons for the American eclipse:

--U.S. players simply aren't necessary anymore. In September
1995, in a sort of Continental Curt Flood case, the advocate
general of the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of a
Belgian soccer player named Jean-Marc Bosman, which led to the
abolition of all restraints on the movement of European
Community nationals among sports clubs chartered in 15 member
and three affiliated countries. In 1990 Bosman, at the end of
his contract with FC Liege, in Belgium, had an offer from a
French team, Dunkerque. Though Liege had offered Bosman a new
contract at a reduced salary, the team demanded a much higher
compensation payment from Dunkerque. Dunkerque refused to pay
and Bosman filed suit against Liege. Since the Bosman decision,
the top basketball teams have been able to fill out their
lineups with talented players from Europe, without having to
look to the U.S.

--Someone took down those signs in European gyms that read
DEFENSE DE DEFENSE--no defense allowed. In 1993 Maljkovic, then
coaching the French team CSP Limoges, used defense and ball
control to win the fourth of his five European titles.
Meanwhile, the average points scored in a game in France's Ligue
Nationale de Basket fell by 9.1 points over two seasons, from
1991 to 1993. Today if an ex-NBA expat arrives thinking offense
first, his game will get lost in the translation.

--A pronounced power shift eastward has left many U.S. players
on a more unfamiliar fringe of the Continent. During the 1980s
the European game was centered in the western Mediterranean, in
Italy and Spain, where Americans found handsome salaries and a
relatively stable basketball culture. But in the early '90s the
money and power moved east, to Greece and Turkey, where club
front offices are notorious for making capricious decisions.
Last December, Ulker Istanbul simply fired its star, former
Oregon State player Teoman Alibegovic, because he wasn't playing
well, and terminated his contract even though it was guaranteed.
"We only pay players if they deserve it," Ulker's president told
Alibegovic's agent.

Many other Americans have met a similar fate in Greece and
Turkey. But none has lived a tale with more twists than John
Salley has. Last fall, after Wilkins refused to play the second
season for which he was contracted, Panathinaikos brought in the
32-year-old, 6'11" Salley, who had put in time with the Detroit
Pistons, the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls and the Toronto
Raptors.

Salley's problems began as soon as he stepped off the plane in
Athens. "They were supposed to provide me with a house, and when
I got there, I had to stay in a hotel," he says. He and
Maljkovic didn't exactly bond, either. "I didn't understand this
guy, the way he would yell at you like you were in high school,
calling guys names.

"One hilarious thing was that the coach would speak in Croatian
or whatever it was"--Serbian, actually--"and that would be
translated into Greek and then by another guy into English. A
10-minute film meeting would turn into an hour-and-a-half
session. It was a riot."

Scarcely a month into the season Salley reached his limit.
Salley says that when he signed his one-year, $1 million deal,
he had secured permission to make three in-season trips to Los
Angeles for meetings related to a TV talk show he was planning
in the U.S. After his first such trip, last October,
Panathinaikos was scheduled to play the night Salley was to
arrive back in Greece, but when he flew into Paris, he learned
that his connection to Athens was delayed. Panicked, he
chartered a jet, and at the Athens airport he hired a helicopter
to ferry him to the arena. Some 24 hours after his journey
began, and less than 20 minutes before tipoff, Salley burst into
the locker room.

Both Giannakopoulos and Maljkovic had been kept abreast of his
progress, but they reverted to their usual roles. Giannakopoulos
fixed Salley with a hug. Maljkovic refused to let him play. "I
was pissed," Salley says. "After doing all that to get to the
game and keep my promise, they basically broke theirs.

"I thought, I don't need this," he says. And so within days
after his return from California, Salley ignored
Giannakopoulos's beseeching messages to call, left behind
thousands of dollars worth of electronic equipment and other
personal effects and, likening his bolt for freedom to something
out of The Shawshank Redemption, boarded a plane for London and
then the U.S.

"When I got to London, I was so happy I got out and kissed the
ground," Salley says. "I mean, I'm of African heritage. But I'm
a true American through and through."

COLOR PHOTO: DIMITRI IUNDT/TEMPSPORT Former Wake Forest star Rudd, who plays for Lyon, tells compatriots to leave their NBA egos back home. [Delaney Rudd in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Fans in Turkey are demonstrative, those in Greece warmed to Wilkins (right), and the "sportifs" in Paris were won over by Reid (bottom). [Man waving Turkish flag]COLOR PHOTO: PRESSE SPORTS [See caption above--Dominique Wilkins in game]COLOR PHOTO: JEROME PREVOST/TEMPSPORT [See caption above--J.R. Reid in game]COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Rivers was a Euro All-Star in December and helped his team, Olympiakos, to this year's title. [David Rivers in game]