A Devil in Russia
CSKA Moscow’s Trajan Langdon on Mikhail Prokhorov, Ricky Rubio and more.
by Brendan Bowers / @StepienRules
It’s been about eight years since Trajan Langdon last took the floor for the Cleveland Cavaliers team that selected him 11th overall in the 1999 NBA Draft, but don’t think the former Assassin from Alaska simply hung up high-tops since leaving the states. Quite the contrary actually.
Competing on the highest level outside the Association in the meantime, all Trajan’s done since leaping across the pond is hang a career stat-line on the board that reads: Euroleague All-Decade Team. Well that, as well stashing several million Euros in the bank along the way towards countless cups, championships, and tournament titles.
Fresh off leading CSKA Moscow to its fifth-straight trip to the Euroleage Final Four — since Mikhail Prokhorov signed him to the club in 2005 — SLAMonline had a chance to catch up with Trajan, and our Q and A is below:
SLAM: How has this last season been for you?
Trajan Langdon: I think it’s been a good season for us and I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. After losing the head coach we’ve had here over the last four years and several key players, I think a lot of people didn’t expect too much out of our team this year, and to get back to the Final Four where we’ve [CSKA Moscow] been every year for the past seven years before this, and then eight straight years now, is I think a great accomplishment for this team. I thought we played the eventual champions [FC Barcelona] as tough as anybody’s played them all year in that semi-final game [of the Euroleague tournament], we just couldn’t hit key shots when we needed too, they made plays, and in the end they were the better team. But I think overall we had a very successful year, and with the Russian finals coming up, hopefully we can finish it up the right way.
SLAM: Looking back now, eight years in to your career overseas, can you talk about what the overall experience has been like for you, playing first in Italy, then Turkey, and now in Russia?
TL: The interesting thing for me is that it’s been a blessing in disguise coming over here because it’s really opened my eyes to the world. I guess I almost take it for granted to some degree now, but being able to fly on a weekly basis to Germany, or to France, or to Spain, or to Greece, and to get that experience of another culture — even if it’s just for two days at a time — is something that a lot of people in the United States never get to experience, and I feel grateful to have had those opportunities. I’ve had the chance in my eight years here to see a lot of different things, and to meet a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures. So, that’s one thing that’s been great, and I also think the basketball here has been a lot better than I expected, and it’s getting better every year. For me, thinking about traveling, and seeing the world, and meeting different people, is something that I want to continue to do throughout my life, whether it’s for work or for vacation, and it’s not something that I have a fear of at this point. I think a lot of people, if they have never done it before, may have a fear of it, whereas I have come to embrace it, and I think it’s something I really am fortunate to have experienced.
SLAM: What expectations did you have for both your career, as well as European basketball in general, when you first left to play professionally overseas?
TL: Before signing in Italy my first year, I had three experiences playing with USA Basketball in terms of traveling and playing teams from around the world, so I knew the basketball was good, and I knew the talent was good. At what level it was in terms of team structure and an organization, I really didn’t know. But I was surprised to find out relatively quickly that it is set up real well over here. And with that, some teams have money, and other teams don’t, and usually those teams that do have money and can get the best players are the ones that compete at a high level year after year. But my first year, and my second year, I was coming over here to play, and make some money, and try to get back to the NBA. Upon coming back and signing a longer term deal with CSKA though, I knew then that European basketball was the place for me. At that time, I was pretty much committed here, and I didn’t think about returning and playing in the NBA anymore after that. But in terms of the things I’ve been able to accomplish both individually and team wise, I never would have thought that upon getting on that first plane and going to Treviso, Italy.
SLAM: You signed in 2005 with a CSKA team owned by Mikhail Prokhorov at the time, can you talk about your experiences with him, and a little bit about what he’s like as an owner?
TL: When I signed I had no idea who he was, or who the owner was. I had heard his name a couple times during my first year as the guy who had ownership of Norilsk Nickel and was putting a lot of money in to the team, and was a big basketball fan, but other than that I honestly don’t think I saw him or met him first until we won the Final Four in Prague that first year. From that point, there were very limited times that I saw the man during my first three years. I saw him after we won in Madrid, and he came to a couple home games throughout the years after that. But I played at CSKA for the first three years, and those three years were the years he basically financed the budget for the team, and I had limited contact with him in that time, and after that, for the past two years, he has stepped aside. In terms of CSKA Basketball though, he kind of stayed to the back, and I think that’s kind of his style. He hires people, and he lets those people run the different things that he owns. He puts people in place that he trusts, and he stands back and tries to help from a distance, but he doesn’t really put himself in the middle of the mix of whatever business it happens to be.
SLAM: How do you think he’ll do with the Nets, and in the NBA as a whole?
TL: I think he’s somebody who always wants to succeed, and I think he’ll do whatever it takes to succeed at a high level. I think once he commits to something he is a guy that doesn’t get in to something if he doesn’t want to see it do well. I think he will do whatever it takes to try to get the Nets to be a contender and a team that can compete every year at a high level. I don’t know how long it will take to get there, but I think he will spare no time and no resources to get them [the Nets] there. Like he did here, I think he will try to hire and bring in people that he trusts, and that he feels can get the job done running the organization. I know that he’s definitely excited about it, obviously it’s a new adventure for him, and I think it’ll be great for the NBA as well, having a different kind of owner there, and especially so for the Nets franchise.
SLAM: Your CSKA team beat the Clippers in an exhibition game a couple years back, can you talk about the talent levels of the top European clubs as compared to some of the lower level NBA teams?
TL: I definitely think the better three or four teams in the Euroleague every year could compete in a game against the bottom three or four teams in the NBA. But in terms of talent across the board in both leagues, it’s difficult. The top three or four teams could maybe compete against some teams on a given night, and obviously if you play European rules it could benefit the European teams, and if you play NBA rules it could benefit the NBA teams, so even saying that it’s tricky. But on any given night if a team gets hot, you could beat somebody. I think the Barcelona team this year was really good. They could have competed against a lot of NBA teams. They had the size, they had the quickness, they had depth, and I thought they were really good this year. I also think some of our past CSKA teams could’ve competed against some NBA teams as well, and I think we showed that in those types of exhibition games you mentioned. We did beat the Clippers one year, and we played Toronto tough last year up in Toronto. Orlando beat us pretty good this past year, but in Toronto we played them tough and gave them a good fight for 48 minutes. Now all that said, over the course of an 82-game season, it would definitely wear down a European club because the depth on European teams just isn’t as much as it is on NBA rosters.
SLAM: You mentioned that Barcelona team from this year, after competing against Ricky Rubio recently, how do you think he’d do in the NBA?
TL: We played against them three years ago when he was 16, and now playing against him at 19 I think he’s made strides as a player. I think just being 19, its amazing the poise he has on the floor. Playing at such a level, with such good players, he’s able to run the show, he doesn’t force a lot, he has poise, he has composure, and he has an amazing ability to see the floor and make plays. I think there’s definitely some things, like anybody who’s 19, that he’s going to have to work on in order to play at the next level – in terms of the NBA – but can he play there? Absolutely. Whether he chooses to or not we’ll see, and how good he’ll be, we’ll see. But in terms of helping a club at that level, there’s nothing even to think about there, definitely he can.
SLAM: How about your former Duke Coach, his name’s be in the news in relation to some NBA vacancies, do you see him making the jump?
TL: I think before he might have thought about it, but I’ve read some statements like you just referred to about some vacancies and his name coming up and I saw a quote from Grant Hill where he said that he’s [Coach K] got a great situation at Duke, he just won a National Championship, and like Grant said, he gets his fix of the NBA players by coaching the best ones every summer on Team USA. So I think he gets his NBA fix with that, while also doing what he loves and that’s coaching at Duke University on the collegiate level. I just don’t see him leaving that, I think he’s the best college basketball coach right now, and for him to going in to the NBA where if you don’t succeed in two straight years you’ll be fired, then that’s a situation where he can’t go back to Duke. So, I don’t see him leaving where he is now, it’s a great place for him, he’s done a great job there, and will continue to do a great job there.
SLAM: What about you, where do you see yourself going from here? You just averaged a career high in points per game this season, and recently posted a career high game with 32 on May 9. How much longer do you plan to play?
TL: After we finish up here, I think I have two more good years in me. Individually and team-wise I’ve been happy with what I’ve been able to do, as well as what we’ve been able to accomplish this year, and going forward, I just plan to take it year to year. If I feel good I’ll keep playing and if not I’ll shut it down. I want to stop playing when I can still compete. I don’t want to play when I’m struggling out there and I’m not having fun. Fortunately now I’m still having fun, I can still compete, and help teams play at a high level, and I have a great situation here at CSKA Moscow. We’ll see if anything else arises, and if something else does arise I’ll look in to it, but right now I have a great situation here.
Note: Currently, Trajan’s CSKA club is competing for the Russian championship after sweeping their semi-final match-up 3-0. They won the Russian Cup this season, and his teams have also won the Russian National Championships the last four seasons as well. During Langdon’s tenure, CSKA won the Euroleague in 2006, lost in the finals in 2007, won again in 2008, and lost in the finals last season (2009). Trajan won the Italian League title in 2003 playing for Bennetton Treviso, and won the Turkish League in 2004 playing for Efes Pilson. He played for MBC Dynamo Moscow – the team they just swept in the semis of the Russian League – during the ‘04-05 season prior to joining CSKA that following year.