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April 20, 2014

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NBA Day 10: Have passports and visas, will travel

On an elevator ride inside Cox Pavilion this week, Warren LeGarie heard people speaking Chinese, Italian and Spanish.

Sitting anywhere in Cox, or walking over to the Thomas & Mack Center, fans likely heard several languages at the NBA Summer League over the past 10 days.

That’s just what Warren LeGarie, the executive director of the league, envisioned five years ago when he started the league with six teams.

This year, 21 teams participated in what has become a must-attend basketball bazaar for international basketball personnel.

Former UNLV shooter Romel Beck might return to Sicily to play in the top Italian league this season. Matt Lojeski, out of Hawaii, played for Okapi Aalstar in Belgium last season. Maccabi Tel Aviv is wooing guard Bobby Brown.

“It’s the United Nations of summer leagues,” said LeGarie, who speaks Italian and Spanish, and is picking up some Japanese.

That flexibility has become important, because more than 400 agents, scouts, general managers, coaches and representatives of teams from around the world came to Las Vegas to evaluate talent.

Many speak English. But when LeGarie can speak in someone else’s tongue, a stronger relationship is forged.

"This is the center of the basketball universe," said Liron Fanan, a Maccabi Tel Aviv executive who is improving her Italian and Russian by the week.

The summer league aim is to connect players with the best club, coach and situation. Often, that is not in this country. LeGarie said about 30 percent of the players in the summer league will wind up in the NBA this season. That leaves many looking for work.

They could opt for a D-League contract, to remain a call-up away from the world’s top league. Keeping that dream alive, however, comes at a cost. Average D-League salaries are less than $20,000.

Overseas, players can earns six figures, with apartments and vehicles thrown into the deal.

“If you don’t make an NBA team, it isn’t the end of the world,” said Beck, who’s been playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers at the summer league.

“I’ve had a lovely experience. I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve seen so many places and done so many things. You can set yourself up with the possibility of making a lot of money in Europe.”

He was traded from Cimberio Varese to Pierrel Capo d’Orlando midway through the season, which enabled him to capitalize on his fastbreak style in an up-tempo system.

“We got a lot of easy points, and I think I stood out in the second half of the season,” Beck said. “We made the A1 playoffs, the first time the team did that. It was a great situation for me.”

His agent has fielded offers from teams in Croatia and Russia, as well as Italy, and Beck might play again for the Mexican national team in a tournament next month in Cancun.

Lojeski has opt-out and buy-out provisions in his contract with Okapo Aalstar that allow him to play for larger teams in France or Italy, or even the NBA, if they want him.

He heard Dutch, French or German last season depending on where his team was playing in Belgium.

“I became a lot more mentally tough,” he said. “You have to find a way to grind it out. I think I became a better person. I grew up and matured.”

He became wise to the euro, which has been pummeling the dollar. A night out at 50 euros actually cost him 75 dollars. So he often shopped at a local market and cooked his own meat and pasta.

Beck and Lojeski say young players should hire agents who do their homework.

“Before I got to Belgium, one team went bankrupt,” Lojeski said. “Players who were guaranteed $300,000 didn’t have anywhere to go. That’s where you have to be careful.

“Agents are responsible for making sure you’re with an organization that has money, is professional about it and will pay you on time.”

Brown, a guard out of Cal State Fullerton playing for New Orleans this summer, was with a club in Berlin last season and is excited that Maccabi, a well-known European team, is after him.

It’s also taking a serious look at Daniel Ewing, a guard from Duke who is playing for Toronto at the summer league.

“I haven’t heard anything yet,” Brown said. “That’s a good ball club and a good city. It’s always good that someone is interested in you. Obviously, I’m doing something right out here on the court.”

Fanan works in operations and community relations for Maccabi and is the daughter of Moni Fanan, the well-known longtime general manager for the Tel Aviv team who recently retired.

Will Bynum, playing for Detroit this summer, was Maccabi’s point guard last season but he has signed a deal in Bologna, Italy.

Maccabi also courted Brandon Jennings, the high school player who opted to play in Europe instead of attend college in the states, before he inked a contract with Virtus Roma in Italy.

Liron Fanan is so savvy on the global stage that she helps LeGarie organize the summer league in Las Vegas.

“This is a great opportunity for coaches, scouts and GMs from all around the world to see everyone in the same place,” she said. “They can talk on the phone 20 times, but to see each other face-to-face is much better.”

Basketball’s growing popularity in Europe should benefit American players, she said. Terrence Morris, the former Maryland star, played for Maccabi last season for $600,000.

In May, he signed a deal with CSKA Moscow for $2.5 million.

Argentine swingman Carlos Delfino played in the NBA for a few seasons and recently signed a three-year, $30 million deal with Khimki BC in Russia.

Beck just might be tempted by a bunch of Russian rubles.

“Europe is better for some of the guys who are not getting a lot of minutes or money in the states,” Fanan said. “It’s getting big and might be a better situation for them.”

The summer situation in Las Vegas is only getting bigger, too, because of the growing international interest in the league.

Attendance has doubled from last season, which makes LeGarie beam.

“Standards are high in Las Vegas,” he said. “You have to bring something legitimate for them to buy into it. They’ve responded to it. We had a lot of ambition and dreams five years ago.

“We still have a lot of ambition, and more dreams.”

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