To judge by his reception in Greece, you might think that Dominique Wilkins was Odysseus himself—that he had spent a career subduing not mere Hornets or Mavericks but real, live Trojans. Some 5,000 people met Wilkins at the Athens airport when he arrived in September 1995. Wheelie-popping cops on motorbikes escorted him into town, and Athenians lining the route set off celebratory flares. The next day some 13,000 fans turned out for his first practice with Panathinaikos Athens, the basketball team that was going to pay him $7 million over two seasons.
But there would be drama to go with those drachmas. Even as Panathinaikos president Paul Giannakopoulos granted Wilkins his every wish, coach Bozidar Maljkovic regarded the team's new star as uncooperative and defensively deficient. When Wilkins's mother and then his father fell gravely ill during the season, Giannakopoulos gave him permission to return to the U.S. each time. Yet after Wilkins hurried back for one game, Maljkovic refused to use him, invoking the rule that if you don't practice, you don't play.
For publicly bellyaching about this—for saying he was "being treated like crap"—Wilkins was fined $50,000 (which he never paid). But by playoff time Panathinaikos's president, a self-made pharmaceutical magnate, and its coach, an austere Serb who believes in my-way-or-Yugo discipline, had worked an effective good-cop, bad-cop routine on Wilkins. The Human Highlight Film had turned himself into a sort of instructional video. Giannakopoulos fulfilled his dream of winning a European championship, and Wilkins, who shut down FC Barcelona star Arturas Karnishovas in the final, won his first crown of any kind, in Paris, the city where, coincidentally, he was born.
We could end our story there and declare it remarkable enough: Dominique's D, Key to a Title. But that would miss the point—a point driven home last fall when Wilkins refused to honor the second year of his Greek contract, for which he was paid, and instead returned to the NBA to play for the San Antonio Spurs for the NBA veterans' minimum of $247,500. The days are gone when a Bob McAdoo can flee to Italy in the twilight of his NBA career and push through his 30s reliably scoring in double figures. When Wilkins, a player with more career points than Larry Bird, can't be content as a hoops expatriate, basketball is, indeed, operating under a new world order.
The European season that concluded last month underscored that truth. U.S. players of every stripe, from late NBA cuts still in their 20s to aging have-jump-shot-will-travel vagabonds, are becoming more and more rare. When the European Final Four convened in Rome from April 22 to April 24, one of the finalists, FC Barcelona, didn't suit up a single Yank, and the U.S. stars of the three other clubs—Arriel McDonald of Greece's Olimpija Ljubljana, Delaney Rudd of France's ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne and David Rivers of Greece's champion Olympiakos Piraeus—were all businesslike 12-to-19-points-per-game guards whom the NBA gave up on long ago.
Several years ago Saturday Night Live aired a skit featuring Quincy Jones as a guest on a mock French TV talk show called Jazz Perspectifs. The beret-wearing, Gauloise-sucking cohosts and their similarly turned-out audience were so worshipful of the man they called Le Q that Jones's every throat-clearing occasioned hosannas. Continental hoops aficionados once reserved the same sycophantic awe for expatriate U.S. basketteurs, especially ones with a strain of NBA in their pedigrees. But that was before Europeans could regularly flick on the TV and see a real NBA game and before they themselves became commonplace on teams in both the NBA and the NCAA. (Last season 15 Europeans played in the NBA and 131 Europeans suited up in Division I.)
Given that demystification, it's logical that a player such as Rudd, who is now in his fifth season in France, would thrive. The European game—with its zone defenses, its 20-minute halves, its 30-second shot clock—is much like U.S. college ball, only with bigger, older and wiser players. That reminds Rudd of the mid-1980s, when he piloted the offense at Wake Forest. The 6'2" guard is adored in Lyon, where locals pronounce his name dell-ah-NEE, and though he's 34 years old, he has just re-upped for two seasons at $425,000 a year. By contrast, Kenny Walker, Willie Anderson and Tom Chambers, all of whom had more impressive NBA résumés than Rudd, were recent flops in Italy, Greece and Israel, respectively, and over the past two years French clubs prematurely parted company with Rolando Blackman and Vern Fleming, both former NBAers. During the 1995-96 season things got so bad for U.S. players at Jet Services Lyon, Villeurbanne's crosstown rival, that the team suited up nine Americans. "I was afraid to become friends with them," says Rudd, "because I wasn't sure how long they'd be around.
"If your team even starts to think about getting rid of you, you don't talk back to your coach or curse out the refs. You shut your mouth, because anything you say can and will be used against you. Bottom line, this is not for everybody. So many Americans sign up to play here because the price is right. But you've got to let go of that NBA ego."
Thus an ACC footnote such as Rudd is a star, and former North Carolina second-team All-America and NBA veteran J.R. Reid was regarded as such a touriste after his first few games with Paris-St. Germain this season that his coach cracked, "All he's missing is a hat and a camera." Reid ultimately adjusted, playing so well that NBA clubs are likely to give him another shot in the fall. But the recent European leave-takings of other U.S. expatriates look like entries in a truant officer's casebook.
Former North Carolina guard Jeff McInnis was released by his Greek club, Panionios, after he tried to attack a teammate with a steel object following an altercation in practice. When Jerry (Ice) Reynolds told officials of Polti Cantu, a club in Italy's top division, Serie A, last January that it was too cold inside the arena for him to practice, management took inspiration from Reynolds's nickname and cut him.