The New York Times once dubbed Portland, “the most European of American cities.”
The inundation of bookstores, corner cafes and enough roundabouts to make a Parisian city planner dizzy might explain why the Rose City has such a reputation.
Undoubtedly, the Trail Blazers resemble their city.
This season, the Blazers’ locker room resembles the floor of the European Union with Nicolas Batum (France) and newcomers Sasha Pavlovic (Montenegro), Victor Claver (Spain) and Joel Freeland (England).
“You always think it’s the best of the best, which it is. Best players, best talent. Everybody very, very professional,” Freeland said, recalling how he imagined the NBA would be like.
Even before the world discovered the game and the game discovered names like Dirk, Pau and Detlef, the Blazers had shown a dedication in leaving the American shores to scout and recruit foreign-born talent.
In 1980, Perry Mirkovich (Canada) became the first international player drafted by the Blazers. By 1986, the organization stepped out as pioneers by drafting Arvydas Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic as the international wave was beginning to merge different cultures of the same game.
“They learn a different style of play in Europe,” said Blazers coach Terry Stotts, who played professional ball in France with the Chorale Roanne. “If you look even (at) stats of the best teams, they don’t have a star system. Certainly, they have best players on the team but they move the ball well and I think there’s a little bit more of a team approach.”
Even after the Blazers invested first-round draft picks in Claver (2009) and Freeland (2006), both players remained in Europe.
Freeland might have made the leap to the NBA sooner had he not signed multi-year contracts, each one burdened with hefty buyouts. Still, in his final year with Unicaja Malaga, the 6-foot-11, 232-pound Freeland showed some touch for a big man, attempting more than a dozen 3-pointers.
Now that he’s here, Freeland wants to develop that range as he goes through the process that every foreign-born player must master, the art of NBA assimilation.
“I knew that it was going to be tough, very tough but I think I’m ready to take that step,” Freeland said. “But being over there, being in Europe, it’s a completely different game.”
One day, Freeland will make that 90-minute drive to the coast — “my girlfriend’s been bugging me about going to the beach,” — but these days he’s consumed with fitting in with the American way of basketball.
“Everyone’s fighting for a position here in the NBA,” Freeland said. “To be a European player and come over here, you’ll just have to fight amongst everybody else. It’s very tough.”
Claver, on the other hand, has noticed other changes between life in Europe and the states. He looks down from his 13th floor apartment and watches the scenes of peaceful downtown Portland pass by.
“This area, I like more,” said Claver, speaking clearly yet slowly in his thick Spanish accent. “When you compare with Europe, there’s more traffic (there).”
To Claver, it is the traffic, not the game, that’s so different.
“It’s mostly the same,” Claver said of his experience in the NBA. “It’s basketball.”