While running the point for Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2013-14 season, Tyrese Rice learned just how real the game of basketball can get.
In the Euroleague Final Four semifinal, Rice scored the game-winner with five seconds left in a comeback win against heavy favorite CSKA Moscow. The Mediolanum Forum was past lit.
In the championship game, Maccabi defeated Real Madrid in another thriller in OT. Rice cooked in the fourth quarter and OT, scoring 21 of his 26, earning his first ring and Final Four MVP honors. He was carried off the court on one of his teammates’ shoulders. It was like a scene from a movie.
But it was a meeting he had after the game with team owners and the family’s matriarch that blew the former Boston College standout’s mind. “They didn’t want to tell me,” says the 28-year-old Richmond, VA, native. “When I made the game-winner, against CSKA Moscow, [the woman’s] husband got so excited he had a heart attack and died. Right there, watching the game.”
Rice was beyond speechless. “She was like, ‘Look, we want you to understand that we as a family are still happy and proud of this moment. We know he was as happy as he could probably ever be in his life [when he passed].’”
“For that to happen, and for his family to really just kind of take me in, like, ‘We’re proud of you,’ I just had to take it in stride.”
Rice’s story is similar to many Americans who’ve spent time in the European ranks, yet different in so many ways. Undrafted in ’09 after four productive years at Boston College, Rice made his professional debut in Greece (Panionios) in ’09. The speedy 6-1 lead guard cut his teeth during one-year stints in Germany (Artland Dragons), Lithuania (Lietuvos Rytas) and Germany (FC Bayern Munich) again before getting the call from Tel Aviv, then coached by current Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt, in 2013.
At each stop, the single father has his No. 1 fan, his 9-year-old son Ashawn, by his side. Teams know they’re a package deal.
“I think it’s most important for a little boy to be with his father,” reasons Rice, saying all teams have been accommodating.
Following his magical playoff run with Maccabi in 2014, the sharpshooter with a ridiculous handle was a hot commodity. He signed a lucrative three-year deal with Russian power BC Khimki last summer and proved to be a sound investment. Rice led the team in points (15.8) and assists (5.8), and guided the franchise to a Eurocup championship win, earning the Eurocup MVP and Eurocup finals MVP. See a pattern? He’s now one of 14 people to win the Euroleague and Eurocup championship, ever. And the only person to do it in back-to-back seasons.
With that résumé and a constantly growing trophy case, it’d be easy for him to rest on his laurels. But that’s not in his DNA. Plus there’s the bigger picture. Rice admits he often watches NBA games and wonders why he hasn’t gotten his shot. Even after proving he can carry a team on Europe’s biggest stage, twice. It’s one hell of a motivator.
“We can be at a bar. If somebody asks me about the NBA too many times that night, I leave and go to the gym,” he says with a laugh. “I find motivation in almost anything. Until I know I’ve put everything forward that I can, then I won’t stop trying.”
“[Tyrese’s] name is well known [in Europe],” says five-year NBA vet Eric Maynor, who spent last season playing in Italy. “I’ve always thought he should be in the NBA. It confuses me that he never really got the chance.”
Rice isn’t standing next to his phone waiting on a call from his agent, though. While he may be underappreciated by NBA GMs, the love he gets across the pond is real and reaching superstar status—he recently re-upped with Khimki for $7.9 million per, making him the highest paid American-born player in Europe.
“I [put in] years of work, years of sacrifice and had bumps and bruises in the road,” says Rice. “I’m the type of person that believes if you put a certain amount of work in, and have a certain attitude toward things and your heart is always in the right place, then good things happen to you.”
Modesty aside, Rice is becoming something of a legend overseas after going back-to-back like MJ. But don’t tell him that. He scoffs at the title. Almost.
“I don’t throw that word around lightly,” he says. “If I can go out and win another [championship], three times in a row, then maybe we can talk.”