In the first part of his interview with TalkBasket.net, Julian Wright made a flashback to his U.S. career, including his time in college and the NBA. During the discussion, the retired athlete, who called himself undervalued for the most part of his trajectory, also recalled instances from his time overseas.
From 2012, when he signed with Maccabi Rishon in Israel, until 2019, the year in which his time in France with Paris Metropolitans came to an abrupt end, the 33-year-old joined no less than eight European teams, in addition to his short stint in Puerto Rico in 2015. Wright had his probably best seasons in Italy with Trento and Pallacanestro Reggiana, but he was also solid with Trabzonspor in Turkey.
Nevertheless, the most prestigious and decorated club he got the chance to play was Panathinaikos from Greece. The six-time Euroleague champs were going through a process of reconstruction during the 2014-15 campaign. Montenegrin coach Dusko Ivanovic was at the helm of the Greens and picked Julian in order to enhance his team’s athletic ability. The versatile forward took his time in Athens, getting himself prepared and into shape, before eventually signing a short-term contract with the Greek team. The timing proved to be unfortunate because Panathinaikos would often struggle in the Euroleague, while the Illinois native wasn’t getting sufficient playing time. After having stayed in Athens for three months, Wright left the city on New Year’s Eve.
Having spent almost half of his career in Europe entitles the former Kansas star to ponder on the positive and negative experiences he had, which led him to some interesting conclusions. For instance, the No.13 pick in the 2007 draft proposes the implementation of a collective bargaining agreement in Europe, in order to avoid the time-consuming and ineffective decisions made by the Basketball Arbitral Tribunal. He also recalls dealing with financially irresponsible teams, which made him want to be an expatriate guide for overseas ballers. When it comes to choosing the best teammates he ever had, Julian’s picks can be rather unpredictable.
In the end, winning teams depend a lot on leadership. By describing the character of two influential players who dominated the game on both sides of the Atlantic, Wright offers some insights on diametrically opposed concepts of leadership: the quiet and the vocal, the tacit and the outspoken, the humble and the condescending.
Some would add: “the John Stocktons and the Michael Jordans of this world.”
This is Julian Wright, Part II.
Q: In Greece we saw a considerably less athletic version of yourself. Panathinaikos coach Dusko Ivanovic had initially decided to let you go after you failed the medicals. How did you end up playing for Panathinaikos?
A: I was nursing an injury from playing in Russia during the 2013-14 season. Had a big bone bruise and didn’t want to come back too soon. I wasn’t in shape because I hadn’t gone into conditional running. I was starting to get in shape before I signed and then pulled my hamstring. Panathinaikos were about to sign somebody else and I asked to stay to rehab. After the first Euroleague game, I was fine, considering the way Ivanovic practices. It was a short-term contract and I heard from people it was a managerial decision to end it, even budget-wise. I had the rest of the year guaranteed on January 1. So, they let me go for that reason, but performance-wise, the coaching staff didn’t have an issue for me to leave. That’s what I heard. It’s business, but I enjoyed my time at Panathinaikos. I still get in touch with people who play for the team, coaches who are not there anymore, players and people from the community. My son was born in Athens, actually.
Q: How was Dusko for you? Did you get along? He is infamous for his excruciating practice sessions and for preferring low-post bigs to undersized centers.
A: A lot of times in my career, coaches and managers think that I’m capable of playing a certain way. i’ve always thought I’m best playing multiple positions. I practice and I prepare in my off-season based on how I think I will be used. My three-point percentage had been sub-30 in most of my career. So, I was not prepared to shoot five three-pointers in a game. One thing that I kept in mind with that coach is to not jump on pump-fakes. I used to always do that, until I played for coach Dusko. In terms of his practices, it was OK for me since I needed to be in shape. But I heard a few other players say: “I’ve lost two years of my career playing for him.”
Q: Who said that?
A: I cannot say. It’s almost consensus, but mostly U.S. players – not all. I’m always trying to get something from every coach and Dusko was a great basketball mind. Sometimes when it comes to some of the younger players, I tend to compare how they play with me, although it’s a different era.
Q: Where you ever close to returning to Panathinaikos?
A: Yes, when I was with Trento in Italy I had a really good year in 2015-16. They were looking to buy me out, but I talked with the GM Salvatore [Trainotti] from Trento. We were playing well and I just thought I should finish the season there and see if Panathinaikos were going to keep calling. Obviously, there’s injuries and Euroleague teams try to sign people during the year. I just took it as a compliment, that I was playing well enough. But the GM decided to keep me because he couldn’t find a player like me in the middle of the season. I was focused on that year and that’s how we both talked about it. I just liked the fact that [Trainotti] could have said no and not communicate to me why. It’s not that I was mad. I didn’t have a buy-out clause, but if the teams agreed to it, I’d go for it. Most of the time, a team wants to negotiate something during the year.
Q: You never stayed with a team for more than one year. Where did you have the best time playing at?
A: I really enjoyed my time in Israel. It was great. I played for two different teams in two seasons. Most people spoke English, food was really good, I got to spend time by the beach, the weather was warm. Their league was not the toughest, but I knew I could play a lot more loose and that’s why I had a lot more fun. I also enjoyed Athens.
Q: Apart from basketball, which other adjustments did you have to make while being overseas, in terms of lifestyle, language, habits, teammates?
A: It was a smooth adjustment for me. I took everything in. I enjoyed playing in different countries, picking up language, food, culture. Most of the people my age, my teammates, spoke either perfect or decent English so that I could understand them. But I enjoyed the experience because I wanted to learn more about their language and food. So, I asked them things. Being in smaller cities was a bit tough for my family because they didn’t have a lot to do. For myself, there wasn’t anything like a culture shock or nervousness.
Q: In March 2019, you took to social media explaining why you left Levallois Metropolitan and accusing them of unethical treatment because they refused to pay for your daughter’s tuition fees. Have you worked things out with them?
A: No, I have not. I have moved on at this point. I’m not going to waste any more energy on that. I tried to speak with the management about it. So, we’ll just keep it at that. They didn’t do anything against me for leaving. For me, that feels as if they know they did something wrong because they didn’t take any legal action.
Q: Was that the only negative experience you had while in Europe?
A: Not really, but I can say that I enjoyed my time in France, apart from that issue. We were staying five minutes from Paris, had a lot do as a family, my daughter was in school and my son was learning French. The only negative experience has pretty much been late or no payment. BC Krasnye Krilia, based on Samara, Russia, folded as a team and owed me money. Same situation at Trabzonspor in Turkey. I sued them and won the case, but they folded as well. Other than that, living and playing in Europe was great. The fans and the environment, even if you’re playing away, are unique. There’s nothing like it, not even in the States. Maybe in some colleges, but over there it’s mostly fans screaming and jumping. You go to an arena in Europe and they’re all screaming and throwing things at you! It’s more passionate, but the management of financial things makes it a little tough at times.
Q: It’s kind of ironic what French media outlet “Le Parisien” wrote in an article published in October 2018: “Paris-based clubs try to lure foreign players they wouldn’t otherwise afford to sign, with fancy apartments or top-notch international schools for their children, in order to make up for lower paychecks.” You and then-teammate Roko Ukic expressed an opinion. How was the situation in France and other countries?
A: It’s an issue that a lot of players need to talk about and deal with. I would pose the question: Is a player comfortable with playing for less if they know they’re going to get all their money? That’s a tough thing for someone’s pride because some teams may not be able to pay them all their money. Some sign with one team, knowing that it’s not easy to find a decent job in the middle of the season. So, they pay you until January- February and then something happens and you got to get yourself ready for next year.
I think players should do their research as much as possible. Now, with social media, I reach out to players and ask those who played somewhere before. It’s kind of selfish that people from the generation before us didn’t warn us about things happening since the 1970s. My wife is a doctor in sports management. She has done interviews and people have admitted to these things. We can’t wait for the BAT (Editor’s Note: The Basketball Arbitral Tribunal: an independent body, officially recognized by FIBA, providing services for the resolution of disputes between players, agents, coaches and clubs through arbitration) to handle our cases. Players should have some kind of union, collective bargaining agreement. It’s important for players to get to the bottom of this and ask: “Can you pay me this amount for the whole year? I’ll take $80,000 less because I know I can budget accordingly.” That’s some of the things I’ve thought about since I retired.
Q: On your LinkedIn account, you wrote that your life lessons as an expatriate can guide athletes abroad or High School/collegiate players. Could you elaborate on this? Because apart from generic advice, like “Embrace the experience, be open minded,” we rarely listen to overseas ballers give more profound advice to their peers. What would you suggest?
A: It’s important for players to think about the place they would want to live. It’s ten months of your life. Sometimes they go for the money and end up miserable wherever they end up signing. So, I say: “Don’t just go for the money because you won’t get those years back”. A lot of times, people in the States don’t really think about these things. I want to help people think more about the experience and less about who’s the highest bidder.
Q: Drawing from your quote: “Unfortunately, it’s every man for themselves overseas”, how can players get help?
A: Even if half of the players started a union, that could change the whole ecosystem and the course of how things take place. A collective bargaining agreement could provoke some type of shift. Not necessarily a power shift asking for more money, but for regulations. Teams are not being regulated the best way. If they don’t pay someone, they get sanctioned and can’t sign anybody. That’s not really getting down to the situation.
Most times, people think they’re the best players in Europe and take their chances, hoping they will get their money. In this way, there’s no infrastructure for the next generation of players. FIBA sanctions is not regulation. it’s a slap on the wrist, like saying: “We know there are teams who operate in a foul manner and we’ll sanction them.” You wouldn’t say to an alcoholic that the next time he comes in drunk, we’ll just pour the alcohol out. He’s going to buy more. That’s not corrective behavior.
Q: Apart from a high salary, what can attract a player to the Chinese League?
A: I think there needs to be more player development in China. They compete really well and have great intentions, but there still needs to be the right approach to the development and players need to get coached. That would raise the competition level. They love basketball and have a lot of people interested in playing the game. I had a driver there who used to watch NBA games and lots of basketball clips. They bring in trainers and coaches from the US and Europe, but they don’t study the game the right way instead of watching the highlights. Young kids are watching clips of their favorite players, but that’s not field study; that’s not development. They will need to bring in the right kind of people, not just players.
Q: You once said: “I want to be one of the greatest teammates a guy could ever play with”. To which degree did you achieve that in your career? Did you ever feel you were a bad teammate?
A: I don’t feel like I was a bad teammate at all. My personality was to communicate with everyone. Not as an actor, but “read” different personalities. That’s part of leadership.
In Europe I was a leader in each team; not the captain, but a leader who had a lot of responsibility. Of course, it wasn’t like that at Panathinaikos, also because I didn’t have the time. In the locker-room, it was about mutual respect: talking basketball and the management of personalities. I felt like a bridge between domestic and non-domestic players. In the beginning of practice, you usually see domestic and foreign players standing on different sides of the court. I thought I could bridge that gap by walking up and down, going to both sides and talking for three-four minutes. It’s not an experiment that always goes well.
I studied communication at University and tried to implement that in my time overseas. International and interpersonal communication has a lot to do with building trust in preseason. I was not always an extension of the coach, but I tried to lead by example. In the best teams, we always had the best chemistry.
Q: Who was the best teammate you ever had?
A: That’s a tough one. It’s hard to say because I didn’t have one bad locker-room. If I had to choose, I’d say Hilton Armstrong. He went to the University of Connecticut, then to New Orleans where we played together. He was a great teammate, very funny. The thing that I loved about him was that he was motivating other teammates, even if he wasn’t playing a lot. It was really contagious. We’d spend a lot of time together on the road, in food, going to the mall.
In terms of Europe, I’d say Anton Ponkrashov. He played for Unics Kazan last year. We were together at Krasnye Krylia and had many conversations because he used to show the foreigners over: where to stay, where to eat etc. He actually thought I should shoot left-handed.
I had a lot of great teammates in the NBA as well, who taught me things when I was younger. I played with Peja Stojakovic in New Orleans. I was always around him and although we played the same position, he didn’t see me as a threat. He’d teach me about the game.
Q: How was Dimitris Diamantidis as a teammate in Panathinaikos?
A: When the issue is leadership, I bring him up. I believe he was a great teammate as well: down-to-earth, very humble. That’s what I took the most from him. I really enjoyed playing with him because he made the game easy for everybody else. Just playing with a living legend was great. He was professional and spoke to people when he was spoken to. Those things are always refreshing. Being a superstar is no excuse for acting in a certain way, thinking that you’re a better person than anyone else because you can score a basketball. People respected and listened to him. He was definitely a pleasure to be around as a teammate, but I saw him as a leader in my three months there.
Q: And Chris Paul, by comparison? You played with him for three years in the NBA.
A: I’d say his leadership style is different. You could see that in the “Last Dance” with Michael Jordan: some players who are that good tend to break other people down psychologically in order to help their team because their expectations are based on how they would do things. He was respected in the locker-room and was pleasant to be around as well. But when it came to certain things within the team, I think that passion got in the way at times. Based on him being a competitor, sometimes you got to take certain things with that. I think of him as someone who was genuine and sincere, but sometimes he was also tough on some people. I can handle it, but I think that some people were told certain things a lot. Everybody gets motivated differently. That’s the main thing.