BONN, Germany — On a chilly April evening in the former West German capital, six American basketball players file out of company cars and through the arena’s back entrance for a game that will define their season in the Basketball Bundesliga.
These archetypes of sports mythology — the military kid and the charming misfit, the big-league also-ran and the scrappy point guard, the grizzled lifer and the college hotshot — form the core of the home team, Telekom Baskets Bonn.
This evening’s game against Phoenix Hagen will entrench Bonn’s postseason hopes or nearly extinguish them. These six players grew up chasing a very different dream, thousands of miles away. But tonight they want only to see Telekom Baskets Bonn overtake Phoenix Hagen for a spot in the quarterfinal round of Germany’s top professional basketball division.
The game tips off, and Jared Jordan grabs control. From the time he could dribble, Jordan has orchestrated basketball games to the swirling notes in his head. His gift earned him the nickname “The Magician,” a historic NCAA career and comparisons to NBA MVP Steve Nash. It took him as far as Madison Square Garden, for a few fleeting preseason minutes as point guard of the New York Knicks, before he found a game he couldn’t control.
Six years later, Jordan’s mastery persists in a subdued form. The theatrical passes that inspired his nickname have been largely phased out; his game is now one of competence and confidence. His passes are crisp and well-considered. He shoots only when required, but does so without hesitancy. Jordan’s six first-quarter assists are more than any Hagen player will collect all game; his 15 at game’s end will pad his league-leading total.
This is not what failure looks like. Jordan travels Europe with his fiancé. He is well-paid and well-regarded among the world’s great playmakers. His disappointment has hardened into a dry wit.
“The NBA is a hard league to break into,” Jordan says in a sly deadpan. “I gave it a shot. That’s all you can really ask of yourself.”
Jordan plays the entire first quarter against Hagen; he will rest for less than three of the game’s 40 minutes. In a game of this import, he is indispensable.
That is not the case tonight for Jordan’s teammate, neighbor and carpool partner, Chris Ensminger. The 6-foot-10 center is an awkward fit against Hagen’s relentless fast break. Bonn coach Michael Koch summons Ensminger back to the bench after three ineffective minutes early in the second quarter. He’ll stay there for the balance of the game, watching as Hagen begins to sustain a lead.
Ensminger has seen far too much in his 17-year overseas career, including the last 14 in Germany, for this to faze him. His sharp-elbowed style has long cast him a Bundesliga villain. When he visited Bonn as a member of Bamberg-based rival Brose Baskets, Telekom fans showered him with derision. But this evening’s crowd of 5,450 is dotted by fans sporting replicas of Ensminger’s No. 5 jersey.
“He’s a guy that everybody hates,” Koch explains. “But you love him when he plays for you.”
Teammates and opponents call the tenured Ensminger a “Euro-American.” His sons attend German school and speak the native language fluently; the family recently visited Berlin by train.
“It’s basically our home,” Ensminger says.
At 39, Ensminger will soon transition to the sideline permanently as a coach. He is auditioning for that role on this night, punctuating huddles with encouragement and insight. But Bonn is faltering. At halftime, Hagen owns a 59-39 advantage. In the locker room, Koch’s stated plan is to “go at their pride.”
Koch has tangible strategies in mind in addition to motivational tactics. On the first possession of the second half, Bonn runs a play designed to create an open three-pointer for Robert Vaden, a scorer and shooter of such talent that Koch is still surprised to have signed him. Bonn has an annual budget of 650,000 euros ($845,000) to distribute among 12 players, a humble payroll compared to many teams in this or other European leagues.
“I honestly never thought we were going to get him,” Koch said. “I thought he was too expensive.”
Vaden rivals Jordan for the team’s highest profile: it was just two years ago that Vaden orbited the upstart young core of the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder. He starred in summer leagues and the NBA Development League, the prescribed routes for borderline players to grind their way onto an NBA roster. The effort ended when the Thunder traded Vaden to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who immediately waived him. He signed with Bonn in August of 2012.
Vaden’s life in Germany is buffered by work and technology. His travel is largely limited to that required by his profession; he spends most of his free time online and in contact with stateside family and friends.
Regardless, he says, Germany is “a little more homey” than his previous overseas stints in Slovakia and Italy.
“Obviously it’s not home, but it’s still comfortable,” Vaden says. “I can’t complain too much.”
Vaden converts the open shot he is offered to open the second half, and makes three more three-pointers over the next seven minutes. His burst of scoring coincides with a renewed Bonn defense that leaves the dynamic Hagen offense sputtering.
Despite Vaden’s heroics, the visitors take a four-point lead into the final 10 minutes.
Injuries to sharpshooters Benas Veikalas and Andrej Mangold have left Bonn’s perimeter rotation undermanned for this crucial game, and Vaden can’t compensate alone. Fortunately, reserve guard David McCray has spent a lifetime fitting in.
The son of a U.S. serviceman and a German woman, McCray is not counted among the team’s six permitted non-German players. A child of divorce, his youth was split between the military bases of Mannheim and Heidelberg, his hometown of Speyer and sporadic visits to his father’s house in Augusta, Ga. This summer, he plans to take his wife and newborn son to Georgia to introduce grandfather to grandson.
“Hopefully we can make the trip,” McCray says. “We’re going to take a short vacation first to see how he takes flying. Then we’ll decide whether we go or not.”
McCray has proven fascinating to his American teammates. Most are puzzled by him at first, he says; he is eventually “accepted either way” by teammates of all backgrounds.
“I have some things that I’m more American, like the way I talk, and the way I look a little bit,” McCray says. “But sometimes the way I act is a little German because I grew up around here.”
McCray is emerging as a star tonight. He scores 16 of his career-high 23 points in the game’s final 10 minutes, making four of five three-point attempts in the quarter; the last puts Bonn up 81-76 with six minutes to play.
A recent German legend as a player, Koch now spends his summers in the bleachers at venues like the Las Vegas Summer League, scanning dozens of fringe NBA talents for his preferred set of attributes.
He wants a player unsullied by what he sees as the more individualized brand of pro basketball practiced stateside. But he also holds an affinity for the NCAA alpha male, a fearless scorer anxious to absorb a close game’s decisive late possessions. Until you meet Kyle Weems, Koch’s ideal American player seems a contradiction in terms.
Just months out of Missouri State University, Weems still projects the swagger of the big man on campus. The 23-year-old is a charismatic presence, lobbing harmless jokes and good-natured barbs at teammates and coaches of all nationalities.
Weems attributes his unflappable good mood to the presence of his longtime girlfriend, Jacque. The couple revels in their new cosmopolitan lifestyle; they shop and dine in Bonn’s vibrant downtown, walk the banks of the Rhine River by evening and travel to cities like Amsterdam, Brussels and Frankfurt, their journey chronicled in a stream of updates to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
“She’s the love of my life,” Weems said. “Whether I had a good day in the gym or a great day at the gym, I always know my day is great with her.”
This night in the gym is already trending toward great when Weems receives a pass in the corner with under two minutes to play in regulation. The 6-6 forward dashes baseline and soars to the rim for a stunning left-handed dunk, the highlight of his 17-point performance. The two points put Bonn ahead by one, 89-88.
As so many close games are, this game will be decided by free throws. Hagen opts to foul Jamel McLean, sending Bonn’s January signee to the free throw line with a two-point lead and 21 seconds left in regulation.
McLean is the latest in a long line of physical power forwards from Xavier University, a fraternity headlined by active NBA All-Star David West. His rugged game suits the tradition of roughnecks from ‘The X,’ his beloved alma mater; Koch compliments his new addition as “a beast.”
But a more delicate touch is required at the moment, and McLean knows it; he all but lives at the free-throw line during the team’s daily shootarounds. But the results remain inconsistent; he missed two free throws minutes earlier that would have snapped an 83-83 tie.
The loneliness of the free-throw line is not foreign to McLean, nor uncomfortable.
“I like being on my own,” he says.
McLean was a military kid, a life that shares certain qualities with the expatriate career he’s chosen. He spent a portion of his early childhood at Germany’s Ramstein Air Base and some of his teen years at Rotterdam, Netherlands. He played pro ball in Belgium and Italy before signing with Bonn.
Whatever lies outside, McLean has always craved the comforts of the U.S. He frequently plays the video game “Call of Duty,” often with Vaden, the team’s other unaccompanied American. He talks to his mother daily. Upon his arrival in Germany, he was overjoyed to find maple syrup and Pillsbury biscuits on local grocery shelves.
“It’s real American here,” McLean said. “It’s been a real easy transition.”
McLean releases the first of his free throws and nearly sinks to his knees as he follows its arc. It is good, as is the one that follows. Improbably, Bonn has a four-point lead. It will hold up for a 100-95 victory.
Weeks later, the win’s importance is evident. Bonn will go on to finish the season in seventh place with 18 wins and 16 losses, matching Hagen’s record and earning the higher seed via its two wins over Hagen. The best team to miss the playoffs, ninth-place Wurzburg, finishes a single game back at 17-17.
Euphoria grips the building. Bonn’s players stand at midcourt and wave their arms in ritualized unison with the crowd. German children rush to the barriers around the court to slap hands with their sweaty heroes. McCray, the game’s star, juggles dueling requests from television reporters and young fans.
An hour later, the arena is largely empty, and these six basketball stars fall back into routines. There are no after-parties planned, no celebrations beyond what has already occurred.
Jordan and his fiancee plan a late dinner at their downtown apartment. Ensminger takes his wife and children home. Weems finds a comfortable seat for Jacque before granting an interview in the Dome’s darkened media room. McCray is busy this evening: his childhood friend, Elias Harris, is visiting after seeing his NCAA Tournament run with Gonzaga end prematurely, and McCray’s son is fighting a mild flu. Vaden is active on Facebook within minutes of leaving the court. McLean lingers in the home locker room.
The next day’s shootaround is just a few hours away.