Really Long Shot
The slightly crooked basketball hoop in his family's Congress Park back yard holds many memories and meanings for Kevin Fletcher. Dribbling a ball under that basket one hot afternoon last week, Kevin thought about the times his driveway suddenly turned into the gleaming floor of the L.A. Forum. About the times he had become Magic Johnson, pulling up to sink the jumper that won the game. Slam-dunking the ball now with the ease of a business executive dropping a crumpled piece of paper in the trash, he thought about his first three years of high school, when he didn't play any hoops. None. He thought about his incredible teenage growth spurt -- eight inches in a single year, a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk number, Ripley's Believe It or Not stuff -- that virtually forced him onto the basketball court at East High School as a senior.
He remembered his college days, when he was a big man in a small world. He thought about loss. He contemplated what might have been . . .and what still could be. Then he pulled up and feathered the ball sweetly over the rim from twelve feet. Nothing but net. Buzzer-beater. Game.
Kevin Fletcher plays basketball in Portugal now. Or rather, he did play in Portugal. For two seasons. Less than three weeks ago he signed a contract to play in Poland, which represents progress. The Portuguese he learned, the friends he made, the neighborhood restaurants he got to know, will now slip into his back pages. Chalk it up to paying dues. To experience. To seeing the world. When he lands next week in Gdansk, Lech Walesa's port city on the Baltic, he won't know his new coach's name. He won't know a word of Polish. Or the name of a single teammate. It's hard enough deciphering what the team is called. His contract says it is Starogardski Klub Sportowy Sportowa S.A., but maybe there's a nickname. In any event, Poland is a move up. "In Europe," Kevin says, "you're constantly trying to move up."
Fletcher is one of an estimated 700 American basketball players chasing their hoop dreams across the hardwood floors of Europe. For the most part, they are former Division I stars, like Kentucky's Heshimu Evans, who didn't have quite the skills or the size to go straight from college to the Bulls, the Spurs or the Nuggets. There are some older, ex-NBA guys, like former Golden State Warrior Chris Porter, trying to work their way back into the bigtime.
At 24, Kevin Fletcher is a different type. After playing only one year at East High for coach Rudy Carey, he enrolled at a Division II school, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he grew into a 6'10" power forward with dominant big-man moves. As a senior, he led his team in scoring with 19.4 points per game and topped the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference with ten rebounds. He holds the school record for blocked shots. But Division II is no ticket to the NBA. Just ask the former players at Metro State who won two national championships over the past six years but barely attracted the attention of the scouts.
For Fletcher, who dominated in the Springs, going pro in Europe and hoping for a look from the NBA was a good alternative. Many players go to home-grown feeder leagues like the Continental Basketball Association and the three-year-old National Basketball Development League -- because the NBA keeps close tabs on them and the top players sometimes get ten-day call-ups when big-league stars are injured. But CBA and NBDL pay is terrible, and life can be grim in towns like Rockford, Gary and Roanoke.
Hoping to salt a few bucks away for the future and undertake an adventure, Fletcher chose Portugal instead.
"It's a different game," he says. "There are a lot of older guys who who've been playing there a long time who know a lot of tricks and know the way games are reffed in Europe [stricter traveling calls, for one thing]. I was big, but I got taken advantage of in the first few months. You learn. You adapt."
As a raw 22-year-old playing for Casino Figueria Ginasio, in the coastal city of Figueria de Foz (population: 45,000), Fletcher scored 16.3 points per game and brought down 6.5 rebounds. When he moved on to Aveiro Basket, in Aveiro (population: 150,000) last season, he averaged 18.9 points and 10.9 boards. That was good enough for his agent, New Jersey-based Michael Hart, to make a deal in Poland, where Fletcher's salary will nearly double (up from $35,000 to $60,000, not including bonuses), and his new team, like the others, will provide him a free apartment and a car. In Gdansk, he will also get a closer look from NBA scouts who now scour Europe, South America and the Far East looking for the next Vlade Divac or Yao Ming. The NBA's newest hunting ground is Africa, where one astonished Atlanta Hawks employee recently reported finding thirty seven-footers with good basketball skills that might be developed by top U.S. coaching.
But is the NBA also looking for a 6'10", 250-pound American power forward with a great work ethic and two years of hard knocks in the Portuguese league? Can a guy who was one of just four players the Denver Nuggets picked from a 250-man open tryout last summer to participate in their annual rookie/free-agent camp get a second shot at the bigs?
Kevin Fletcher hopes so. "This is a pivotal year for me," he says. "I've always been able to move on to the next level, and [Poland] is another big test. If I do well, I can start earning $100,000 or more and maybe get noticed, but I'll have to cut it in a better league."
Polish basketball is competitive -- Fletcher will face players like former Temple star Lynn Greer -- but the very best European teams are in Spain, the former Yugoslavia, Greece and Italy -- a lesson the supposedly invincible U.S. Olympic basketball team learned the hard way on August 3 when the Italians blasted them 95-78 in an exhibition game. If things go right, Fletcher could find himself in Madrid or Rome in the next few years, on a club even more closely monitored by the NBA. "I need to tighten up my big-man game," he says, "to improve my post moves, and finishing around the basket. I have to develop. To go on [to the NBA], it would take a collision of luck, hard work and preparation. But it's not out of my dreams yet. I'm still striving for it, and my agent tells me to stay focused."
Still, if it doesn't happen, if Fletcher's back-door route to professional basketball ends in Gdansk or Trevisia or Barcelona, that won't be the worst thing in the world. "What I've learned in Europe," he says, "is that when you're away from home ten months a year, you have to adopt an entire life, not just play basketball. You have to make friends and get some things going other than basketball. In Portugal, we played before crowds of 1,000, sometimes 1,500, but because you're in the paper every day and you're a big American, you get noticed. But that's not everything. I learned all I could about the people, the language, the culture. I enjoyed that, and it helped me grow as a person. In Poland, I'll do the same thing. Another adventure."
Still, the old desires endure, tempered by some doubts and second thoughts. Home for the summer -- "my schedule is a little like a teacher's," Fletcher says -- he's been playing in three summer leagues, working out at the gym and helping his mother, Jeanny Busacca, by working in the yard. That's where his old hoop is, and when he looks at it, mixed memories come flooding back. "The thing is," he says, "in the period in my life when I was growing most, I was playing least. So it's a reminder of lost time that might have helped me in my career and my life, to get me to a better place than I am now as far as basketball goes. A Division I school. Maybe an NBA career. There could have been other opportunities, so I'm trying to make up for that now by working hard. Maybe I can get there another way. But if I don't, I'm happy where I am. Not satisfied. I still have the hunger, but I'm happy where I am. It's a dream job. Wherever you are, you try to have a complete life."
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