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July 30, 2014

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Foreign teams scout NBA Summer League for next star players

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Justin M. Bowen

Walter Szczerbiak — a three-time European champion for Real Madrid, the 59-year-old father of NBA player Wally Szczerbiak and an executive for Spain’s elite basketball league — peruses the talent and takes notes on the NBA Summer League on Thursday at Cox Pavilion.

Julius Erving battled Larry Bird in a HORSE competition. Well, a kid in a white Erving No. 6 jersey challenged his buddy, wearing a green Bird No. 33 jersey.

A vendor tried to get anyone within earshot to try his La Veneto Italian ice. Steve Nash, Tony Parker and LeBron James jerseys were going for $100 a pop at a stand.

The competition on the Cox Pavilion and Thomas & Mack Center courts has paled in comparison to what has transpired in the horseshoe-shaped concourse between the two arenas.

This is where Erving and Bird go at it on a hoop whose front rim bends dramatically up, where the Italian ice guy tries to push orange vanilla, his favorite flavor.

This is where the real action has been taking place at the NBA Summer League since last Friday.

This is where Walter Szczerbiak, a former star in Spain and an executive with the elite Spanish ACB League, has been eating his tiny pepperoni pizzas – and listening – all week.

“A lot of stuff is happening,” he said. “It’s a who’s-who of general managers and people who make decisions and pull strings.”

This is where grown men lean into each other and whisper sweet-somethings. The more noise around them, the better. They’re leery of eavesdroppers ... then again, they need to hear each other.

They exchange business cards and figures – in dollars, euros and yuan, and cell-phone digits.

Most of it is in English. There’s plenty of Spanish, and some Italian and Hebrew. He looked great, one scout said in Spanish. He wants to come back.

“En Espanol,” a scout, not wanting English-speaking bystanders to hear, said to another.

The most-heard words have been, "To be honest..."

Most of the NBA teams have squads here, giving their brass a chance to see young talent in competitive situations running something resembling their systems.

The reality is that the vast majority of these players will be heading to distant lands.

Foreign general managers, coaches, agents and scouts all hope to gain an edge on signing the wealth of talent that will slip through NBA fingers and require a passport to continue their careers.

“It’s a showcase for us,” said one Spanish scout.

Szczerbiak, the 59-year-old father of NBAer Wally Szczerbiak, is quite familiar with the drill. The senior Szczerbiak played at George Washington, but he starred during a golden run at Real Madrid.

Before he left for Spain, the 6-foot-4 forward played for the Pittsburgh Condors in the ABA and teamed with the real Julius Erving – before he became widely known as Dr. J – at the famed Rucker Park in New York.

They became close friends. Erving once sent a limousine for Szczerbiak and his wife to join him at a tennis tournament in Westport, Conn.

“He wanted to come to Spain,” Szczerbiak said.

The Buffalo Braves offered Szczerbiak a one-year deal, after he averaged 6.3 points for the Condors. He would have played with Bob McAdoo in Buffalo.

However, after a solid tryout for Real Madrid in an exhibition game against Indiana University, the Spanish club pitched a five-year, no-cut contract with options that favored Szczerbiak.

“I had a great game,” he said of playing the Hoosiers. “I was in great physical and mental condition.”

In five of Szczerbiak’s seven seasons, Real played in the European League championship series, winning titles in 1974, 1978 and 1980.

“We were the Maccabi Tel Aviv of Spain,” Szczerbiak said. “Spain also had a great showing at the Olympics in Spain in 1984. Basketball has been big in Spain for a long time.

“When Barcelona hosted the Olympics in 1992, with the Dream Team, Spain lost to Angola. The perception was that it set Spanish basketball back 10 years.”

The defeat to the U.S. in the gold-medal game in China last summer regained a large measure of respect for Spain.

Most compelling about Szczerbiak’s career at Real Madrid was that it crossed two eras, as Francisco Franco’s authoritarian dictatorship ended in November 1975.

“Under Franco, it was safe and cheap,” he said. “With democracy came crime and inflation. Cars got broken into. My wife got pick-pocketed a few times.”

Szczerbiak began working for the ACB, headquartered in Barcelona, in 1986.

He coordinates video and other research on players from 120 collegiate and professional teams in the U.S., and he is the ACB’s direct link to NBA commissioner David Stern.

In February 2008, no doubt for his efforts on and off the Spanish courts, Szczerbiak was named one of the 50 most-influential figures in European basketball over the previous half century.

Thursday, every NBA coach that walked by Szczerbiak shook his hand and said hello.

A year ago, Szczerbiak sent a review of Georgia Tech rookie Anthony Morrow to the home office in Barcelona. “I wrote up a good report,” he said.

Thursday night, Morrow, for the Golden State Warriors, torched New Orleans for a Summer League-record 47 points.

Late Thursday night, Szczerbiak returned to his room at the New York-New York to review the tidy notes he’s been keeping on players at the Summer League.

A few, no doubt, will be watching it rain in Spain next season.

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