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Monday, December 02, 2002

Sports

Rentzias’s Uphill Battle in the NBA


This is the first of two articles in which Alexander Kitroeff assesses the long-term prospects of the two Greek players in the NBA this season, Efthimios Rentzias of the Philadelphia 76ers and Iakovos “Jake” Tsakalidis of the Phoenix Suns.

  Before it began, the 2002-03 National Basketball Association season was unofficially billed as the year of the foreigner. Events during the summer seemed to conspire to force everyone to take notice of how international the NBA had become over the past few years. At the end of last season, the Sacramento Kings – relying on the skills of two Yugoslavs, Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, and a Turk, Hidayet Turkoglu – came very close to beating the Los Angeles Lakers in the final game of the Western Conference championship. At the same time, Spaniard Pau Gasol, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies, became the first foreigner to be named rookie of the year.

But the foreigner who really caught the media’s attention was the towering 7’5” center who moved from the Shanghai Sharks to the NBA. Yao Ming’s decision was talked about for months while the NBA successfully untangled the red tape of Chinese conditions attached to it. These were aimed at ensuring that China’s basketball organization would get a share of the star player’s income and could call upon him when he was needed for the country’s national team.

As with all newcomers to the NBA, Yao could not choose which team to join. Instead, his name was added to a pool of college and European players who wanted, and were good enough, to join an NBA team. Then, in an annual ritual televised live throughout the world, the teams – starting with those that did poorly in the previous season – chose from the available manpower. The Houston Rockets were the lucky ones with the first pick, with which they chose Yao. It marked the first time a foreign player who did not play college ball in the United States had gone first in the draft.

Yao did not attend the draft because he was training with the Chinese national team in Beijing, but an American television crew was present in China’s capital to relay live footage of him donning a Rockets baseball cap and exchanging high fives with his parents. In case anyone doubted his ability to adapt to the NBA, Yao made a statement in the best tradition of those clichés that abound in the world of professional sports: “This is a new start in my basketball career and life….I am confident I will learn from the NBA and improve myself.”

Those were roughly the same words uttered by Efthimios Rentzias when he became another foreign player to move to the NBA. Rentzias, who was born in Trikala and played for Thessaloniki’s PAOK, had spent the last few years playing for Barcelona, one of Europe’s basketball powerhouses. The Denver Nuggets drafted Rentzias in 1996, but he chose to stay in Europe. This summer, as the 76ers were urgently looking for players with shooting skills, they brought him to Philadelphia following a complicated arrangement, as well as an offer he chose not to refuse.

When greekworks.com spoke to Rentzias a little after his arrival in the United States, he sounded very happy to be in the NBA and as willing to learn as Yao Ming sounded on draft night. The NBA is a brave new world, even for experienced players from abroad. Language is an obvious obstacle, but what is even more difficult to penetrate is the style of play and the cultural values surrounding the players and the game.

Three weeks into the season, Yao Ming is adapting quickly, and is making a huge impression on his teammates, opponents, and fans. It was not easy at first; he struggled when he came off the bench in the first couple of weeks of November. Then, on November 17, in a road game against no less a team than the Los Angeles Lakers, Yao took nine shots and scored nine baskets, helping the Rockets to a rare victory against the NBA champions. Nursing a grievance against the US media for underrating their compatriot, the Chinese media celebrated Yao’s success. The major Internet news portal, Sina.com, declared that Yao had finally obliged his critics to shut up.

Back in Philadelphia meanwhile, Rentzias is having a harder time than Houston’s Chinese prodigy. At 6’11” and his team’s backup choice, he is not expected to make the same splash as Yao; at the moment, in fact, he is struggling to make even a small impression. Rentzias had his chance to show his skills in the preseason, but failed to rise to the occasion.

NBA preseasons are sink-or-swim tests for many new and unproven players. The need to maximize television and attendance income means that the regular season consists of 82 games played over less than four months, with half of the schedule on the road. If a new player cannot get his foot in the door early, he has to reconcile himself to sitting on the bench for very long stretches. The regular season’s pace does not permit experimentation. Only injuries to regular players create viable openings on starting lineups.

With several regulars on the injured list in the preseason, coach Larry Brown was able to give Rentzias an opportunity to swim. His biggest break came on October 14, when the Sixers went up against the Washington Wizards. The presence of Michael Jordan sitting on the Washington bench in street clothes indicated that this was a night for the newcomers on both teams to show their worth. Rentzias got to play 22 minutes, but his only baskets came from free throws. He was 0-5 from the field, including a shot that could have won the game for Philadelphia with only seconds remaining on the clock.

Rentzias was inevitably dejected after the game. He blamed himself for missing the final shot. The Greek player did not look for excuses, although he admitted that the pace of preseason preparations was more intense than those at PAOK and Barcelona. The ice packs around both knees and his left foot in the locker room after the game bore witness to his efforts on the court, but his pained facial expression showed an understanding of the brutal logic of survival in preseason games.

Rentzias also spoke about how physical the game is in the NBA compared to Europe. He said that physical play in Europe was usually dirty play, albeit tolerated by referees. In the NBA, he saw a faster, more body-crunching type of basketball that, nonetheless, remained within the rules of the game. Physical play in the NBA is the trademark of Eastern teams, and sets them apart from their Western counterparts, who favor a more open, attacking, and running type of basketball. It is perhaps no coincidence that most of the 50 or so foreigners in the NBA are thriving on teams that play a Western-style game.

The Philadelphia 76ers epitomize the Eastern paradigm. This is primarily because their coach, Larry Brown, who will be Team USA’s coach at the Athens Olympics in 2004, is philosophically committed to defensively oriented basketball, which crimps the running style and replaces it with closer man-to-man defense. Brown’s basketball worldview aside, however, Rentzias’s team is based in a city that favors the physical over finesse in sport.

Philadelphia fans have a blue-collar ethos that celebrates grinding effort rather than talented artistry. It is no accident that the City of Brotherly Love is basically a football town: of the four major professional teams, it’s the Eagles that arouse most passion and generate most coverage in the local media. Part of the popularity of hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers is due to players who traditionally play a form of football on ice in front of fans who reserve their loudest cheers for body checks rather than speed and dexterous stickhandling.

The 76ers have come a long way since their start in the 1963-64 season, 39 years ago, when Eagles and local college-football coverage would push them to the margins of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports pages. The respect they’ve gained since then, however, is partially due to playing by Philadelphia’s rules: even their gifted superstar, Allen Iverson, plays like a fearless gladiator, frequently crashing to the floor after he improbably weaves through opponents twice his size. The Sixers have adopted their hometown’s preference for bruising effort by its sports heroes, and they stress the physical over finesse. The Philadelphia Inquirer admiringly talks of the team’s toughness, and the 76ers post-game show dwells on the baskets the team scored by outhustling its opponents in under-the-basket melees.

Perhaps Rentzias needs to get into the swing of the physical game, and show it in his team’s practices. Otherwise, he’ll be reduced to coming in late in games when the result is a foregone conclusion. That’s what happened on November 8 against Cleveland – when he officially became the third Greek to play in the NBA – and he took two shots, one of which was a three-point basket. But a week later, when he came on very near the end against the Washington Wizards, the bad luck that had plagued him in the preseason game against the same team returned. Rentzias took three shots, but none of them went in.

For the moment, therefore, Rentzias’s prospects look bleak. He is working hard to adapt to the new basketball world in which he found himself less than six months ago. But he is racing against time, fighting an uphill battle: if he remains limited to coming in late in the game, he may be too cold to confirm his reputation as a lethal shooter. Clearly, he has to earn the right to come off the bench earlier and join the physical fray – and come out on top.

A quick look around the league will show that Rentzias is not the only non-American player patiently waiting on the bench. About a third of them are seeing very little playing time. It may be, unofficially, the year of the foreigner, and the likes of Yao Ming and Sacramento’s foreign legion may well be the toasts of the basketball world at the end of the season – but spare a thought for the foreign players who are still trying to make their mark in defensively minded NBA teams.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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