Bend It Like Basketball: The Mostly True Stories of Why Our Euro Heroes Don't Play Soccer

It is a well known fact that the US lacks the ability to play quality soccer. Our men's national team is really bad. To be honest, the only way I know we are so bad is because Alexi Lalas called them names (“Soft tattooed millionaires”) and told me they are bad. I know I should pretend to like soccer like everyone else in the US, but it’s pretty obvious that we focus elsewhere athletically.

But there are some Europeans who defy all odds and play sports other than soccer.

We should be thankful for the European gems, past and present, that dazzle us on the court. Their style of play is exciting and under appreciated. Most of these guys come into the NBA after playing professional basketball for years, but are never taken as seriously as the young “one-and-done” prospects that are basically still in high school. 

Part of me believes that some of these Euro-ballers did not choose basketball, rather it was chosen for them. Not because most of them are giant humans, but because no one would let them play soccer.

I want to add that these players are loved and appreciated (and safe) and that this list is mostly arbitrary with little factual info to back it up. If you see someone's name and think, “Hey, they are GOOD at soccer I know because I played with them!” I will say, “Please email me some cool stories because that’s awesome.”

So, here are a few guys that probably ended up playing basketball because they weren’t very good at soccer, aka, their friends wouldn’t let them play soccer at recess.

Sasha Kaun

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This, my dear friends, is the quintessential name drop if you are even remotely interested in the NBA. Kaun’s journey to the NBA is not unlike so many of his European brethren. He is all about the grind. After playing 4 years of college basketball at Kansas and winning the National Title in 2008 alongside the one-two punch of Cole Aldrich and Mario Chalmers, Kaun was drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics (their last pick before moving to OKC -- very cool info) 56th overall; his draft rights were then traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

From there Kaun signed a deal with the Russian team CSKA Moscow and dominated. If you look up a Sasha Kaun highlight reel, it is littered with two-handed throw downs on lesser Russian big boys. Kaun later returns to the NBA and actually became an NBA Champion with the Cavs in 2016. Very cool story - very appreciated story.

But the question is, did this Russian boy have aspirations of soccer glory? I think so.

I can see the scene unfolding before my eyes.

Young Sasha methodically puts on his shin guards, laces up his cleats. He’s wearing a plain cotton shirt and blue Umbro shorts that are different from the other boys on his team because they didn’t make uniforms big enough for young Sasha. He stands behind the team, young boys nervously look back at the giant man that is twice the size of their coach. But Sasha is used to this treatment, he is unfazed by the side glances because he is ready for his time to show that big boys can play soccer too.

He paces the sidelines, stretches out his legs, even does a near perfect shuttle run right in front of his coach, but still no playing time for Sasha. Under these circumstances, most boys would crumble, most boys would quit; but guess what? Sasha isn’t most boys.

He trains harder, watches game film, surely this would lead him to playing time on the pitch. But it didn’t, Sasha never played a single minute of soccer in his life. His coach had a sit-down meeting with him at a local hot spot. They both ordered coffee - black. Coach looked at him, and said, “You aren’t gonna make it kid.” Sasha, awestruck, responded, “I’ve put in the time, I’ve given my life to this, I..” 

“Save it kid, big boys aren’t meant to play soccer. But there is a game you can play, but you aren’t going to like it.” Coach puts out his cigarette on the table. “Have you ever seen the movie Space Jam? Where those monsters steal talent from other big boys like you?”

“Of course.”

“Do you remember how big those boys were playing basketball?” 

“I had no idea that was a sports movie.”

“Well that is your shot kid. Play the basketball, then you will know your destiny.” Coach called the waitress over while pulling his wallet very haphazardly out of his back pocket. He tossed a couple bucks on the table and lit another cigarette out of the side of his mouth. Coach takes a drag.

“Kid ya got talent, your shuttle run is near perfect, but I can’t have you on my team, play basketball.” Coach gets up and leaves the diner. Sasha closes his eyes, single tear falls down his cheek. When he opens his eyes, a new man sits across from him.

“Hi, I’m Bill Self, coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, will you play basketball with me?”

And the rest is history. Believe it or not: Sasha Kaun was born to ball, and ball he did. But he did have dreams of soccer glory. Enough so that he ended up marrying a former soccer player at Kansas. Although he achieved the highest Basketball honor in a Championship ring with fellow Russian big man, Tinafey Mosgoff, the memories are close and the tears don’t fade away. Sasha just wants to kick it around with his pals.

(Fat) Marc Gasol

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Marc is the champion of our hearts and the lifeblood of a city; a city built for a Euro-baller such as he. Even without the Grind Father Tony Allen, Marc still brings the grit and grind to Memphis. I am not sure if anyone can have legitimate reason to dislike Marc, there is a lot to like about this wonderful Spaniard.

He is a small-market guy; a superstar that has stuck with a team that doesn’t have a legacy of winning or the glamor of a big city. He’s never asked out of his situation, always bringing his best game even if the team was stuck in a mediocre rut.

But there was a time when Marc was not the handsome and fit man that he is today. In fact, a quick Google search reveals a boy struggling with his growing body. Marc is not unlike every growing boy, awkward stages are not only expected, but ACCEPTED.

And although I, and so many others want Marc to feel safe and appreciated, I believe Marc was pushed to basketball due to his awkward frame and also the presence of his less awkward/more handsome older bro, Pau.

“Father, it happened again. Pau won’t let me play.” Marc drops his gym bag on the floor of the kitchen as he walks to the living room couch. He lets his long arms go limp, kicks off his soccer cleats and falls headlong as if being tasered in the back, head crashes into several decorative pillows.

Marc turns and opens a Capri Sun. He jams the straw right in the middle of the pouch, a little more forcefully than intended - Capri juice spews everywhere. Mr. Gasol stops what he’s doing, throws a rag to Marc and throws and arm around his neck. Mr. Gasol has always supported Marc, even though no one else does.

“What happened this time?” questioned Mr. Gasol. 

Marc, sopping up the Tropical Blast Capri juice, replies, “It’s Pau and his pals. They poke fun at me and Pau never helps. He doesn’t say anything. None of them let me play, all I want to do is make you proud.”

“You do and you will.” Mr. Gasol hands Marc another Capri Sun, this time with straw intact. “Pau is just a handsome boy, sure he kind of looks like an IT computer nerd, but he is the best of us. You need to be the best version of yourself, Marc.”

Marc drinks his Tropical Blast - one gulp. “Maybe I can try playing basketball.” The moment he mentioned it, he knew it was wrong. Mr. Gasol slaps his juice out of his hand, hitting a stack of important receipts.

“You will never play. I have seen you run around playing soccer, your belly is a problem.”

“Yes I will play, my belly will not be an issue.” Just as Marc stated this, Pau walks into the room.

“Hey family, I just won the Rookie of the Year award in the United States of America playing Basketball. I am sorry for being a rude influence, Marc. We all know your belly is an issue on the soccer field, but maybe, just maybe you can be a basketball player in the US. Will you come with me?”

Marc and Mr. Gasol turn to look at each other, and as if by fate, mutter the same exact sentence, “Here we go sports fans. God help our family and my belly.”

Marc is amazing. Everyone should love this Euro-baller.

Milos Teodosic

I despise the Clippers as an organization. I know I wasn’t alive when the Clippers were in San Diego (or Buffalo) but it makes absolutely no sense for them to play in LA. I feel like Clippers fans only ironically support the franchise or because they just want to be different. It is clear that the Lakers own LA.

I know the Clippers have had more success in the past decade than ever before, they were even exciting to watch at some points. Landing Chris Paul was absurd at the time and gave them a legitimate shot at a deep playoff run, but it never really panned out. Between the weird power struggles of Blake, DeAndre and CP, nothing really great ever happened.

Chris Paul is one of the greatest true point guards to play the game and when he left, the vacuum of power needed to be filled. Enter Milos Teodosic.

I irrationally love Milos Teodosic. He is so raw and he shows flashes of amazing playmaking abilities. I see him as a hybrid between Ricky Rubio and a toll booth operator and it’s amazing.

Milos has had a pretty remarkable career in the Euro-leagues, and absolutely deserves the playing time he is getting. He’s not Chris Paul, this much is true. I also think since this post is about soccer it’s fair to point out Chris Paul made his dominance and skill level very apparent when he “megged” Milos in LA in front of the hometown “fans”. But the question remains, did Milos choose basketball, or was it chosen for him?

“Does that boy have a beard?” This question is muttered by several youth soccer coaches as they squint their eyes and watch the rambunctious young boy run up and down the pitch. Today is the day when all the boys in Serbia gather to be placed on different youth soccer teams. But to tell you the truth, the tryout didn’t matter, Milos was just happy to be outside. Milos is what the people in Serbia call a “Mole-Boy”. There is a lot of old Serbian lore surrounding this type of person, but all the casual reader needs to know is that Mole-Boys were outcasts socially and were only allowed outside 3 times a year. Milos knew his chances were slim, but you know the age-old Mole-Boy motto, “If you can’t beat them, live underground.”

But this day was different, yes, Milos was covered head to toe in dirt as usual, he didn’t have shoes on, but he was outside. He felt alive. This is what he was meant to do, finally he realized it. He was supposed to live above ground with the other people of earth. At that moment Doctor Rivers of the LA Clippers, walked up the the pitch. He slowly peeled the other coaches out of the way to get a better look at this young Serbian national. His eyes did not blink, they could not blink. Doc, astonished, muttered a few simple words, “Well I’ll be darned.”

Doc walked out on the pitch, right in the middle of the game, picked up the ball and threw it into a near by fire pit. Doc did this while maintaining eye-contact with Milos. The other boys screamed and stomped their feet, but Milos continued to look into the hypnotic stare of Doctor Rivers. They slowly walked closer together. “Ya did it kid, you passed the test. You want to play basketball with my son and others?”

“What is basketball?”

“You never cease to amaze me kid.” Doc smiles, puts Milos into a playful headlock and they travel back to LA together. The rest is history. God bless Serbia.

Many more important men could have made this list, but these are just a few boys that I believe chose basketball over soccer. Not because of their size or their love of the game, but because their friends and others believed they had no business kicking it with the soccer boys.

 

 

Jimmy DevineComment