A Different World
A SLAM intern gets a taste of Brandon Jennings’ life in Rome.
by Adam Fleischer
The unknown can be a funny thing.
Occasionally, we turn away from it, put off or overwhelmed. Other times, we are enticed by it, hoping to fill the void where our uncertainties lie. Doing the unknown can force us to deal with things that we didn’t think we were ready to and discover things about ourselves and our surroundings that we didn’t know we were able to.
Growing up in the United States for nearly 20 years before uprooting yourself and your way of life in order to live in a foreign country for a little under a year may be the very definition of doing the unknown. Leaving behind family, friends, and the comfort of typically unchanging daily routines is both daunting and exciting. Less than one quarter into my five-month stay in Madrid, I found myself in Rome for the weekend to check the countless historic sites and unparalleled grub. And, this past Sunday, I was fortunate enough to catch some Italian League ball and have my unknown cross paths with that of Brandon Jennings.
Never before had I been to a game outside of the States, so there was plenty of unknown—fused with both anxiety and excitement—as I exited the surprisingly sub par metro in Rome and was greeted by Palalottomatica Roma, home to Jennings’ European team, Lottomatica Virtus Roma. My actual knowledge of European ball is admittedly limited, based mostly on stereotypes, what I’ve seen from guys who come across the pond to play in the League, and my experience playing pick up over here in Spain: everyone likes to shoot, even the big guys; the lane is wider, so post play is different and there is less going on around the basket; it is not as much of an individual game, with a greater emphasis on ball movement rather than dribble penetration; flailing or flopping is relatively common. These beliefs were about to be put to the test as I watched Lottomatica Roma square off against Angelico Biella.
Brandon’s mother Alice Knox, a longtime friend of SLAM’s, was kind enough to leave some tickets at the box office for me and a few of my friends, which I was able to secure after working my way past the undeniable reality of a language barrier. Once inside the stadium, we made our way through the relatively quiet corridors towards the seats, passing stands with standard refreshments like popcorn and pizza along the way. Making my way to our mid-level seating, I noticed that the top tier was entirely empty while my section and below were each reasonably full (I later found out that there were 4,450 people in attendance).
Peeping the program pre tip-off, I noticed some familiar names. Former Michigan State Spartan Andre Hutson was also on Lottomatica Roma, as was former Penn standout and two-time Ivy League Player of the Year Ibrahim Jaaber as well as Primoz Brezec. The only other former NBA player in the game was Reece Gaines who, along with former Terp James Gist (whose rights are owned by the Spurs), led the Angelico Biella starting unit. As has been the case for much of the season, from what I understand, Jennings didn’t get the start on this evening, forced to wait eagerly from the bench for his number to be called.
From the first whistle, the crowd was into it. Maybe not as much so as at an NBA or college game, nor as much as at a soccer game over here, but there’s no denying that the fans who decided show on this night weren’t messing around. Probably the two biggest differences within the aesthetic of the crowd compared to what I’m used to were the lack of team jerseys sported by fans (I was hoping to buy one but only saw one dude sporting one) and that there was one particular section that seemed to be home to the most enthusiastic fans, sort of like a student section at a college game. Their brief, indecipherable (for me, at least), repetitive chants at the beginning of the game reminded me of the right field stands at Yankee Stadium, but expectedly had different significance, since none of the players nonchalantly waved to acknowledge the section. I wish I could have figured out what they were chanting, but unfortunately, Italian isn’t my thing.
Early on, the parallels to certain aspects of the college game continued, as Biella was switching from man to zone on alternating possessions. Plus, rather than one guy occasionally pressing the ball like we see in the pros, Roma applied cohesive team full court pressure, in the form of a trap, something that I’ve seen few times since the Rick Pitino-plagued Celtic days of my early youth.
Exceedingly antsy to see Jennings, whose position was fittingly listed as “Playmaker” in the program, get into the game, I was glad to see him get ready to check in with about four to go in the 10-minute quarter. As he entered the game, I scanned the courtside seats, hoping to spot his mother by her mannerisms so I could later find and thank her. Dribbling at the top of the key, he committed a cardinal sin and left his feet with nowhere to go, resulting in an intercepted pass and a lay up accompanied by a questionable flagrant call against him down the other end. And, just like that, Jennings was back on the bench after barely getting the chance to break a sweat in 1:45 of burn.
Seeing this substitution made me, in some ways, sick to my stomach. It seemed that he was being given a very short leash. I never like to see coaches do this at any level—although I’m most familiar with it in high school ball—because it often causes a player to be tentative and never allows him to get into a rhythm if he thinks one or two mistakes will win him a seat on the pine. I couldn’t really tell if this was the case, and later on it didn’t as much seem so, but I hope it’s not.
As Jennings headed back to the bench, I began to again focus more on the game than an individual player. The pace was pretty fast, with the ball moving up and down the floor frequently—sometimes ending in turnovers, others in easy buckets, and oftentimes pull-up threes. In the half-court sets, there was a good deal of backdoor cuts which was pretty cool to see and is probably underutilized in the pros, while the low-post game was rather nonexistent and marked by the semi-domination of Biella forward and former Iowa Hawkeye Greg Brunner.
With four to go in the half and the score close to even, Jennings returned to action. Before long, he proved that short leash or not, there would be no tentativeness on this night. He forced a turnover with his full-court pressure, got his team an easy bucket with a full-court pass off a make, and followed that up with a steal on the very next possession, helping his squad to a four-point lead at the half.
It was unclear if the mass exodus by the crowd out of the stands during halftime was more drastic than during NBA games or if it just seemed so because of the amount of empty seats that it left. Whatever the case, I decided to take part and made my way past some relaxed security and down onto the seating next to the court after dropping “I work for SLAM Magazine,” which the guards may or may not have understood. I introduced myself to the woman whom, through close but not creepy observation, I had decided was his mother, and luckily was spot on. After thanking her for her help with getting the tickets (we could have bought them since it wasn’t sold out, but she hooked it up for free), she invited me to sit down and we talked for a bit about the game, the countless SLAMs that are at her house, and how she’s liking life abroad. Before long, the second half was underway and she said it was cool if I continued to kick it next to her.
In the third, her son picked up where he left off to end the half, to say the least. He was out there to start the quarter and quickly showed that he deserved the spot. Jennings was constantly wreaking havoc on D with his active hands—causing deflections, diving for loose balls—and was getting it done on offense, too, hitting some easy lay ins and finding open guys on multiple occasions. Roma began to break things open in the third with a run fueled by Jennings, who had his teammates and the crowd, including Mom and me, on their feet. The young’n closed out the period with a lay up followed by a steal that transformed into an assist at the buzzer.
After another steal and a sick fall away over two dudes off the glass, Jennings saw his first breather of the half with 8 to go in the game. Biella began to chip away behind some stellar defense and, after returning for two minutes, the man I was there to see was out again with 1:45 to go and his team leading by seven. To me, it was curious, since he was making things happen out there; but his mother knows the team and took the move in stride, telling me “We gotta put someone in who can score, and Sani [Becirovic] can score.” She was right, as Sani soon hit a foul line jumper as the clock ticked towards zero and a Roma victory (the two most surprising realizations of the night for me were clock-related: when there’s under a minute, it goes out two decimal places to the hundredths; and the shot clock is 24 seconds which, for some reason, I wasn’t expecting).
When he was given the opportunity to go out there and do his thing, Jennings was really getting it done. His quickness was often nullified on the offensive end by the opposing zone and a struggle to penetrate, but in the open court his knowledge of the game and awareness were both evident and his athleticism and anticipation shone through on defense. He had a good shooting night overall, going 6-6 from inside the arc; however, he could be aided by improving his three point shot a bit—where he was 0-2 on the night—both in general and specifically against European teams that play zone. He ended the contest with 13 points and an astonishing 10 steals.
After the game, I hung around for a bit with Jennings’ mother, who was continuing to show love, as we waited for Brandon to come out of the locker room so he and I could talk for a few minutes. Once he emerged, we chatted for a while about how he was dealing with some of the unknowns that he was facing on a daily basis. Despite what seemed to me to be a twisted quote in the New York Times story a few weeks back suggesting he regretted his decision, Brandon and his mother both agree that what he’s doing now—having the chance to live and work in a foreign country—is literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. And, in terms of that quote which was apparently ESPN bottomline-worthy, he approached it as he’s approaching this season as a whole when it comes to ball, life, and the media—as a learning experience. When it came to on the court stuff, he says some of the differences in the game most evident to him are the fact that teams can sub after a made basket, not just during a dead ball, as well as the physicality, which he’s working on by hitting the weights most days to get stronger and stay fresh.
We then got to talk about some of our shared unknowns, that we each continue to try to tackle head on. We both long to watch the NBA, which he remedies with International League Pass on his computer, while I struggle to have morning-after NBA.com highlights and the occasional 2 am trip to a bar for a nationally televised 8 pm eastern tip. We’re both attempting to deal with large time differences to stay in contact with loved ones back home, although I’ve gotta say that his nine hours back to the West Coast has gotta be tougher than my six back home in the East. I figured we’d each be having some trouble dealing with our connections back home to people and sports, but I was most surprised to hear our shared struggles with laundry. I can’t speak on Europe in its entirety, but our respective current home countries each don’t use dryers, something that has been taking some getting used to. That gave me a good laugh.
There’s no doubt that Jennings’ decision to go to Europe thrust him into what, at times, could be a difficult situation—dealing with all sorts of unfamiliar tasks and situations on a daily basis. There’s similarly little doubt, though, that the experience he’s getting now is going to benefit him in the ways he counted and more, and that we’ll all soon get to enjoy watching him when he brings his game back to the States as much as I did on Sunday night.