The remarkable journey of Real Madrid center Walter “Edy” Tavares from the beaches of Cape Verde to the heights of world basketball is the riveting subject of the latest edition of The Crossover podcast with Joe Arlauckas.
Just 10 years ago, at age 17, Tavares had never touched a basketball nor seen a game played, even on TV.
He was helping at his mother’s small store while his father was away at sea but otherwise hanging out on the beaches of his island, Maio, which did not have a basketball court.
“I was in the store every day and otherwise on the beach because there was nothing else to do,” Tavares says.
A traveler noticed his 2.15-meter stature and brought word back to a basketball coach in Gran Canaria, Spain, with whom he was acquainted.
Eventually, coaches from Gran Canaria travelled the 1,600 kilometers to see if Tavares was for real by giving him a tryout. But, first they had to fit his size 17 feet into a size 13 shoe lest Tavares have to play in the sandals he had always worn for lack of footwear his size.
“I had zero idea of what I would do,” Tavares recalls. “I didn’t know if I would shoot the ball or kick the ball…I just wanted to do my best, to show them I wanted this opportunity to try to learn how to play basketball.”
A decade later, having grown to 2.21 meters, Tavares has become one of the best defenders in the sport.
After helping Real Madrid win the 2017-18 EuroLeague title, he was voted both Best Defender and All-EuroLeague Second Team last season.
He currently owns the second-highest average and per-minute rate of blocked shots in EuroLeague history and has signed with Real until 2024.
His success is a tribute to the perseverance that Tavares showed since arriving alone in Gran Canaria at 17 to go against would-be pros who had been playing basketball since they were young.
“At the end of every practice we did in Gran Canaria – for three, six months, the whole year – I thought, ‘I wanna quit.’ Every day,” he recalled.
“No family, no friends. I didn’t have anything to offer. I was trying to learn to play basketball, that’s it. People said, ‘They only brought you because you’re so tall. You’re not going to succeed.’ I had problems. I had a blood problem. I had no coordination. I had no power in my body because I was super skinny.”
In nightly phone calls, his mother encouraged Tavares to simply give his best and not worry about anything else. But, progress was slow.
“You try and try and try and feel no result. You feel, ‘What do I have to do to make them proud?’ Tavares recalled. “Some coaches were laughing, seeing me on the court saying, ‘This guy can’t play basketball.'”
In 2014, when he was 22, Tavares debuted for Gran Canaria in the 7DAYS EuroCup, leading the team to a runner-up finish as a selection to the All-EuroCup Second Team.
After a couple of years in the NBA and its G-League, Real came calling due to injury problems in the late fall of 2017.
Tavares helped turn the season around, and when the injured players came back, Real marched to the 2018 title.
“I think I was lucky to play basketball, to get to the Final Four, to get to the final and win,” he says. “A lot of people who play their whole life in the EuroLeague to try to get to the Final Four and win, and here I was in my first year winning it. I was crazy. I was screaming for two days. It was hard to believe.”