Why has a U.S. passport, once a reliable predictor of overseas basketball success, practically become a liability? One reason may be that Yugoslav coaches have been on the bench of every European club champion since 1988, and they brook no bull, winning any power struggle, with a. U.S. prima donna. "If an American player doesn't understand how serious this is, he must be fired," says Olympiakos coach Dusan Ivkovic, a Serb who guided his team to this season's European title after cutting Willie Anderson in December, reportedly for dozing off in practice. "It's not like the NBA, where you can lose by 30 and be laughing after the game. In Europe, sometimes one game is your life."
Other reasons for the American eclipse:
•U.S. players simply aren't necessary anymore. In September 1995, in a sort of Continental Curt Flood case, the advocate general of the European Court of Justice ruled in favor of a Belgian soccer player named Jean-Marc Bosman, which led to the abolition of all restraints on the movement of European Community nationals among sports clubs chartered in 15 member and three affiliated countries. In 1990 Bosman, at the end of his contract with FC Liège, in Belgium, had an offer from a French team, Dunkerque. Though Liege had offered Bosman a new contract at a reduced salary, the team demanded a much higher compensation payment from Dunkerque. Dunkerque refused to pay and Bosman filed suit against Liège. Since the Bosman decision, the top basketball teams have been able to fill out their lineups with talented players from Europe, without having to look to the U.S.
•Someone took down those signs in European gyms that read DÉFENSE DE DÉFENSE—no defense allowed. In 1993 Maljkovic, then coaching the French team CSP Limoges, used defense and ball control to win the fourth of his five European titles. Meanwhile, the average points scored in a game in France's Ligue Nationale de Basket fell by 9.1 points over two seasons, from 1991 to 1993. Today if an ex-NBA expat arrives thinking offense first, his game will get lost in the translation.
•A pronounced power shift eastward has left many U.S. players on a more unfamiliar fringe of the Continent. During the 1980s the European game was centered in the western Mediterranean, in Italy and Spain, where Americans found handsome salaries and a relatively stable basketball culture. But in the early '90s the money and power moved east, to Greece and Turkey, where club front offices are notorious for making capricious decisions. Last December, Ulker Istanbul simply fired its star, former Oregon State player Teoman Alibegovic, because he wasn't playing well, and terminated his contract even though it was guaranteed. "We only pay players if they deserve it," Ulker's president told Alibegovic's agent.
Many other Americans have met a similar fate in Greece and Turkey. But none has lived a tale with more twists than John Salley has. Last fall, after Wilkins refused to play the second season for which he was contracted, Panathinaikos brought in the 32-year-old, 6'11" Salley, who had put in time with the Detroit Pistons, the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls and the Toronto Raptors.
Salley's problems began as soon as he stepped off the plane in Athens. "They were supposed to provide me with a house, and when I got there, I had to stay in a hotel," he says. He and Maljkovic didn't exactly bond, either. "I didn't understand this guy, the way he would yell at you like you were in high school, calling guys names.
"One hilarious thing was that the coach would speak in Croatian or whatever it was"—Serbian, actually—"and that would be translated into Greek and then by another guy into English. A 10-minute film meeting would turn into an hour-and-a-half session. It was a riot."
Scarcely a month into the season Salley reached his limit. Salley says that when he signed his one-year, $1 million deal, he had secured permission to make three in-season trips to Los Angeles for meetings related to a TV talk show he was planning in the U.S. After his first such trip, last October, Panathinaikos was scheduled to play the night Salley was to arrive back in Greece, but when he flew into Paris, he learned that his connection to Athens was delayed. Panicked, he chartered a jet, and at the Athens airport he hired a helicopter to ferry him to the arena. Some 24 hours after his journey began, and less than 20 minutes before tipoff, Salley burst into the locker room.
Both Giannakopoulos and Maljkovic had been kept abreast of his progress, but they reverted to their usual roles. Giannakopoulos fixed Salley with a hug. Maljkovic refused to let him play. "I was pissed," Salley says. "After doing all that to get to the game and keep my promise, they basically broke theirs.