For many American players who come to Europe at an early age, certain particularities surrounding the basketball reality in the “old continent” may seem odd. Transitioning from one style to another can take its toll, especially when it comes to athletes who sometimes miss basic elements needed overseas.
Europrobasket International Basketball Academy promises to fill in the gaps. The Academy is to be found in the largest and most technologically advanced basketball training facility in Europe, located in Valencia. It is called “L’ALqueria del Basket” and its owner, Valencia Basket, has made giant steps over the last years – as far as both the youth and the men’s team are concerned.
The complex made headlines last summer, when it hosted the ACB Liga Endesa 2020 Final Tournament. Valencia became the stage for 12 Spanish teams to play for the championship, not only because of the quality of their facilities, but also thanks to a project that emphasized its health plan, which was key considering the current COVID-19 pandemic. It was a plan that the NBA followed closely before deciding on a way to finish the season. This was only the beginning for an ambitious club and its owner, billionaire Juan Roig, who now aims to build a new arena with a capacity of 15,600 spectators for sporting events and a total of 16 basketball courts.
Europrobasket offers junior programs through a collaboration with Valencia Basket since 2017. The owner of the Academy is Brad Kanis, a retired basketball player born in Portland, Oregon. Kanis gathered heaps of overseas experience by playing in North and South America, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. He even tried Europe, towards the end of his short-lived career: ”I played in Kosovo to keep with my conditioning, just for fun. But it definitely helped with meeting some coaches”, he remembers.
Then came Spain and Europrobasket. “I finished the season in Morocco and I came over to Spain to check out the market and try out with some teams. Then, I decided that I wanted to give opportunities to players to work their way up to higher divisions, teach European basketball to Americans and try to get them adapted to playing in Europe. Guys that maybe got overlooked, D1-D3 players that don’t have any agent. They pay a fee to come and train with us and they get the chance to play professionally in Europe.”
However, the first attempt was anything but idyllic: “In 2015, I started the Academy in Girona – where Marc Gasol first played- but I didn’t like the way things were going with their Academy. There was only one court and we had to share it with them. We didn’t get enough gym time and had to turn down teams that wanted to come.”
Moving out was an inevitability, but it turned out for the best. “In 2017, Valencia Basket invited us to come see their facilities comprising thirteen courts, nine of which are indoor. Next door they are building a new arena. So, we moved our program in Valencia. Here, we have a team from a University in Canada, three-four high school teams at the same time. Valencia Basket have decided to bring a more international exposure to their facility. At any given program, we can have players, coaches and staff from 12-16 different countries.”
The Academy requires players to be at least 18 years or older, although occasionally they may have some 16 or 17-year-olds, accompanied by an adult. Facilities are typically available only during normal practice times and not on weekends. Europrobasket mainly focuses on training and preparing players for overseas opportunities. A professional staff comprising strengthening and conditioning coaches from Spain and head coaches from all over Europe teaches the basic rules and systems of basketball in the continent.
Getting a contract is by no means guaranteed; however, players with talent, basketball IQ, work ethic and character will hardly remain unsigned: “Right now, we have about 14-15 players, boys and girls”, says Kanis. “There’s a few more still waiting on their visas. When they come to me, they stay for about 3-12 weeks. So, I get to learn what kind of person they are, their characters and personalities. Most of them will not have a long future playing basketball in Europe. But the fact that they can play for a couple of years, building some kind of resume, can change their life. That’s why I started this whole thing and that’s what makes me excited and proud. When I get a call from an agent, me and the players share the same feeling. I am pretty proud of all of them, although it’s hard to follow every single one.”
Exposure and visibility are factors to be reckoned with, since a variety of teams, managers, coaches, agents or scouts across Europe are monitoring the Academy.
“I’ve kept a lot of my contacts in the US and I’ve worked to create more. So, I started getting players’ interest through coaches and trainers. I would help them get on to a team and then, their friends would come. A lot of it is based on word of mouth. A successful player might bring another two. Obviously, we have a website and social media in order to grow our brand. When players come, we value their skills, attitude and work ethic. We recommend them to teams that have openings. Now, teams and coaches contact me whenever they have an opening. In Spain, it’s eight different divisions and we place players in all of them. I’m pretty good about judging where a player could possible be successful.”
After they leave the Academy, players usually end up in Portugal and Spain, or even Ireland, Germany, Bosnia and the Czech Republic. Europeans are easier to find opportunities for because they have the European Union passport and they don’t need work visas.
When a young player first joins Europrobasket, he learns that “it’s not easy, like winning the lottery. Players in Europe are very intelligent and American players have to adapt to a more team-oriented style. Around 70% of our players come from the US. No1 is the character of the player. Most teams in Europe would agree with that. They won’t tolerate those who don’t treat it as a job, don’t respect their teammates and get into conflicts with coaches.”
The percentage of players that land a pro contract with a team is inextricably linked to their level and attitude. Exceedingly high expectations and self-evaluation might blur one’s perspective: “We get a lot of players that believe they should be playing professionally. That should not be a matter of belief, but of talent level. Our program is pretty open for those who want to learn, make a career out of it or prepare for the season. Most people know that pays can be low, but it’s also difficult to be at a high level. Teams are expecting a lot, even from athletes who get a few hundred euros a month.”
In terms of placements, percentages vary across the gender spectrum: “95% of the players that should be and could be playing on teams, are already there. 30% of our girls have signed a contract, while the boys’ percentage is lower. Girls are more realistic about their level and that’s why there’s a lot of opportunities out there for them. Guys, on the other hand, want to be millionaires and dream big”, Kanis explains.
An article on Europrobasket website cites seven skills that all import players should have. Decoding what it takes to succeed in Europe is not that simple, especially for American imports, who are in a disadvantage compared to their European peers: “Some players who come to Europe at an early age, are missing important pieces in their game because when they were growing up, they used to play for their father’s or their uncle’s team. Their coaches had no idea what they were doing; they could be math teachers who had just read a book about coaching and then became coaches at an amateur level. That’s what happens in the US when you bounce around from AAU teams to high school teams without a structure. Playing against a very structured team like Zalgiris – who have a pro coaching staff, a sports director, a president – you understand that their players are learning what they should at each age.”
A common misconception among many US players about overseas basketball is simply based on ignorance. “Overseas” is a very broad concept which includes totally different styles and basketball realities. “That’s very true”, Kanis concedes. “In the US, there’s NBA, NCAA and there’s overseas basketball which can be Bolivia or 4th Division in Mexico. I’d like my players to know what the differences are; that there are higher and lower levels and that not all levels are respected as the same. For instance, I try to explain to my players that a First Division team in the Middle East, South America or Asia can be compared to a 3rd Division team in Spain. They have to understand that the basketball level in countries like Spain, Italy, France, Greece is very high.”
The facility in Valencia is the largest in Europe. However, homegrown players that make it to the Spanish club’s first team are few and far between. “Their priority is to develop Spanish players. It’s not like Barcelona or Real Madrid that bring players from all over the world. You don’t see as many big names coming from this club. But the first team is a different story. In order to compete, they’re going to need international players. For their Junior Program, they’re accepting kids only from the Valencia area.”
Nevertheless, the club is not actively involved in the project of the Academy, but “they’re open to collaborate with us. The type of levels that they are dealing with are way above the level of the players that are typically in our program.”
In the ‘90s and 00’s, Valencia hosted a great soccer team that played two consecutive UEFA Champions League finals. According to Kanis, basketball in the region has been getting some more ground over the last years: “I’ve only been in Spain for five years, but I know that Valencia is putting a lot of effort into basketball. Juan Roig, the main sponsor for the club, is building a new facility for their kids in order to have all of them in one place. They want to host big events and clinics. I have met him many times. His contribution to Valencia and the club is very important. The new arena could keep them in the Euroleague for a longer time, possibly getting them a 10-year license.”
Maciej Lampe, a veteran NBA and Euroleague player, has participated in several training programs. Brad Kanis says his presence in the facilties benefitted greatly Europrobasket and its players: “We had him in Girona. He hasn’t been to the facilities in Valencia, but having someone like him around is helpful as the program director and players get to see his work ethic and all the effort he puts in. His whole day revolves around maintaining his body and getting his workout, riding bikes and swimming. It was definitely a big bonus for our guys.”
Born in 1983, Kanis went undrafted, but joined the Houston Rockets Summer League team in 2008. How close did he get to playing in the NBA? “I don’t know if I had quite the level for that. I had some problems with my family growing up and I didn’t think I was going to play basketball; my sister passed away in high school. My main focus was school and when I played at college, I had a full-time job and it was difficult to focus on playing. When I did focus, I was 22 and I got the opportunity to train with the Houston Rockets for a summer. I was working with Yao Ming and then went to minicamp and the Summer League in Las Vegas. It was always my dream to play, but I wasn’t quite there”, he acknowledges.