Sunday, March 20, 2005

Drew Nicholas Feature from Rome for Baltimore Sun, March 2005

The Baltimore Sun

March 15, 2005 Tuesday

Underestimated, he goes overseas;
Drew Nicholas: The former Terp hopes his stay in Italy's professional league will lead to a chance to make the NBA.



LENGTH: 1483 words


ROME - On the same blustery late February evening that the University of Maryland men's basketball team battled North Carolina in front of nearly 18,000 fans at Comcast Center, former Terrapins shooting guard Drew Nicholas took the court in Rome, six time zones and 4,500 miles away. His team, Basket Livorno, had traveled three hours by bus to the Ancient City to take on Lottomatica Roma, a team led by former UCLA star Tyus Edney.

As March Madness approaches in the United States, fans in Rome likely had little idea that they were about to watch two players who created two of the most famous moments in recent NCAA tournament history. Ten years ago, Edney's baseline-to-baseline dash and lay-in against Missouri saved UCLA's championship season; and Terps fans will never forget Nicholas' running, fadeaway three-pointer at the buzzer to give Maryland a dramatic first-round win over UNC-Wilmington in 2003.

These days, Nicholas, 23, is a rising star in European basketball, leading the well-regarded Italian League in scoring at 23 points a game.

By tip-off in Rome, fans filled the seats of the Palazetto Dello Sport to near capacity. But in this soccer-obsessed city, that meant a crowd just shy of 3,000 in a cozy, loud venue that American fans would more closely associate with minor league hockey than pro basketball. The seats, benches actually, had no back rests; the concession stands featured popcorn, sodas and Twix bars; and the halftime show consisted of a shoot-around by the team's teenage ball boys.

Still, with the boisterous Roman fans cheering, jeering, singing, whistling and waving flags, the game had plenty of energy and drama. On the court, Nicholas got off to a slow start, but ultimately found his game with an array of pull-up jumpers, drives and three-pointers, including a buzzer-beater at the end of the first half. To the dismay of the local fans, Livorno pulled away to win, 75-63, eliciting a shower of crumpled cans and programs onto the court.

Nicholas led all scorers with 18 points.

Initially overlooked by NBA scouts and top European clubs, Nicholas continues to surprise by putting up big numbers against formidable international competition. Much like his senior season at Maryland, when Nicholas emerged from Juan Dixon's shadow to average nearly 18 points per game, the 6-foot-3 shooting guard is proving all over again that he's much more than a role player.

"I've always had to be the patient one," he said. "I didn't start in high school until my junior year. I didn't start at Maryland until my senior year. But I've always said, `If you give me the minutes, the points will come.'"

Going overseas

Lounging in the lobby of the well-appointed Hotel Degli Aranci in Rome the night before the game, Nicholas discussed his decision to go overseas to earn a living, the pursuit of his ultimate dream to make it in the NBA, and the many challenges and surprises he's faced on and off the court in Italy. Since leaving College Park two years ago, he's added about 10 pounds of muscle, a basketball-and-crucifix tattoo on his right shoulder, and a proficiency in Italian strong enough to converse with just about anyone, as long as they don't speak too fast.

Although Nicholas has gained an appreciation for Italian culture and cuisine, he's become a regular at an American military base near his home to pick up the, uh, essentials.

"Gotta have my Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Chips Ahoy," he said.

The Long Island native said he's on the phone "all the time" with friends and family back home, and nearly every month, a visitor comes to stay for a few days.

More than anything, however, Nicholas makes it clear that he's in Italy to work, and he takes his job seriously. After going undrafted in 2003 and playing sparingly in the NBA Summer League with Orlando, the sixth man for Maryland's 2002 national championship team evaluated his options and decided to get his passport ready.

"I knew that I didn't want to stay around and do the CBA or NBDL thing because frankly, there's just no money there," he said. "So the next option for me was coming over here."

"Over here" initially meant a job with a second division, or "A2," Italian club, Fabriano, making less than six figures but plenty for a single guy with no expenses. American players overseas don't pay much taxes and typically receive a free, furnished apartment and car. In Fabriano, a small town about 100 miles north of Rome, Nicholas had little to do other than work out and play basketball.

"No one there spoke English," he said. "Nobody. And the nearest McDonald's was like, 45 minutes away."

Sustained by the fact that he was playing basketball for a living and motivated to prove everyone wrong who underestimated him, Nicholas went out and averaged 28 points a game. He also learned a few things about living on his own.

Maryland coach Gary Williams has kept an eye on Nicholas' progress.

"Drew got to play against Juan Dixon in practice every day and became a very hard worker," Williams said. "He's one of those guys that gradually got really good, and he's obviously continued to improve."

Moving up

Nicholas' performance for Fabriano brought attention from Livorno, a team that plays in "A1," the top Italian league. Saddled by a limited budget, general manager Claudio Crippa told Nicholas that the team's only goal this season was to avoid a demotion to A2 - the fate of the bottom two teams in the league.

Livorno offered Nicholas a nice bump in salary, plus bonus incentives and perks, including a spacious two-bedroom apartment and car. Perhaps most enticing, Crippa told Nicholas he'd have the green light to shoot and score as much as possible.

Nicholas jumped at the chance to star, and has done so game after game.

On Sunday night, in a win over Lauretana, Nicholas scored 35, including 25 in the first half. On March 6, Livorno hosted Benetton Treviso, one of the most successful franchises in European basketball, which entered the game with a league-best 20-3 record. Before a packed home crowd of 8,000, Nicholas scored 30 points, including five three-pointers to lead Livorno to a 76-71 upset.

In no small part due to Nicholas' play, Livorno is fighting for a playoff spot this season with a 12-13 record after going 11-23 last year.

"Drew is the perfect player for Europe because at this point in his life, he needs to be on the court," said Crippa, a 15-year veteran of European basketball.

"Maybe he could be a 12th man on an NBA team, but why? You want to play? European basketball is perfect."

His agent, Doug Neustadt of Virginia-based Octagon, said Nicholas' stock is on the rise.

"Drew doesn't care that he wasn't a McDonald's All-American, or that he wasn't drafted. Every step along the way people have knocked him, and every step of the way he's been successful by putting up numbers, working hard, and being a factor in helping his team win."

How it works

Most professional teams in Europe carry two or three American players, with a maximum of four per team from countries outside of the continent. On Livorno, for example, Nicholas has two American teammates: small forward Preston Shumpert, a 6-foot-7 sharpshooter from Syracuse, and Aloysius Anagonye, a muscular, 6-8 power forward from Michigan State. The remainder of the team is made up of Italians and other Europeans.

The American trio averages 52 of the team's 82 points per game.

"The Americans typically make the most money and carry the most responsibility," said Neustadt, who specializes in finding jobs for American players overseas.

The Italian League season runs from October through April. Each of the 18 teams plays a 34-game regular season consisting of home and away dates against each other, mostly on Sunday nights.

Next year, Nicholas figures he's unlikely to return to Livorno because he first wants to give the NBA Summer League a shot, and then anticipates offers from higher-profile teams in Italy or Spain.

The ultimate goal

With the recent dethroning of USA Basketball in the Summer Olympics and the increasing popularity and success of international players in the NBA, more NBA general managers view success in Europe with respect.

Every year, the NBA plucks away a few Italian League stars, such as Manu Ginobili, an Argentine who played three years in Italy before joining the San Antonio Spurs.

So Nicholas, who won't turn 24 until May, hopes the big numbers he's putting up will persuade NBA general managers to at least take a closer look. And if the call from "the League" never comes, Nicholas has certainly found a comfort zone overseas.

"You know, a lot of people never thought I would even get to this point," he said. "People are always saying, `OK, fine, he's done it here, but can he do it at the next level?' Like right now, I'm sure there are people saying, `Maybe he's not good enough for the NBA.' It all ties back into waiting my turn and being patient. Things will happen for the right reasons."


LOAD-DATE: March 15, 2005


Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Tyus Edney Feature for LA Times from March 2005

Los Angeles Times

March 14, 2005 Monday

Home Edition

SECTION: SPECIAL SECTION; Sports Desk; Part S; Pg. 17

LENGTH: 1453 words



Still Going End to End;

Edney's heart and hustle have helped make him one of the most popular players in Europe.

BYLINE: Greg Abel, Special to The Times



Ten years ago this month, Tyus Edney sprinted from one end of a basketball court to the other, flew in the air and banked in a game-winning shot. His heroics saved a season, inspired a championship and created one of the most electric and enduring memories in NCAA tournament history.

Not bad for 4.8 seconds of work.

On the eve of the 2005 NCAA men's basketball tournament, Edney's dash to beat Missouri and rescue UCLA in a second-round game in 1995 holds up as one of the quintessential "shining moments" of all time.

"It doesn't seem like 10 years ago, it seems like yesterday when you think about it," Edney said.

But it has been a decade since the team featuring Edney, Ed and Charles O'Bannon, Toby Bailey, George Zidek, J.R. Henderson and Cameron Dollar gave UCLA its only national championship since the John Wooden era. Edney, now 32 and playing for Lottomatica Roma in the Italian League, still looks as if he could pass for a sophomore -- OK, maybe a senior -- on the current edition of the Bruins.

But youthful appearance aside, the 5-foot-10 point guard has grown up to become a man of the world with an international basketball resume that includes multiple championships, all-star teams and most-valuable-player awards in the Italian League and EuroLeague, which brings together the best teams on the continent. After a couple of trips back and forth between the NBA and Europe, Edney has settled comfortably into his role as one of the most popular and successful U.S. players overseas.

"Tyus is huge in Europe," said Ed O'Bannon, who retired this year from professional basketball after playing the previous three seasons in Poland. "His style, his size, the fact that his teams always win; he's somewhat of a novelty, a celebrity. When my teammates overseas found out that I played with him, it would be like someone in the States finding

out that you played with Michael Jordan."

After four years in Italy, Edney speaks fluent Italian and is engaged to be married to his Italian-Brazilian fiancée, Ainoa, with whom he has a 1-year-old son, Tyus Jr. The couple and their child live in a spacious apartment in central Rome with a balcony that overlooks the famous dome of St. Peter's.

Sure, he sometimes misses the perks and status of the NBA, his family and friends back home and the familiarity of life in the U.S., but Edney has embraced his Italian lifestyle with no regrets.

"I like it here," Edney said. "Over here, I play more and it's a great atmosphere. I could have been a guy who bounced around in the NBA until maybe I stuck somewhere, but I didn't like the uncertainty."

Edney's NBA career began with great promise. A second-round draft pick by the Sacramento Kings in 1995, he started 60 games as a rookie and averaged 10.8 points and 6.1 assists, helping Sacramento make its first playoff appearance in nine years. But in his second season, he lost his starting spot and his minutes were reduced. He landed in Boston in Year 3 and played in 52 games, averaging 12 minutes and 5.3 points.

When NBA owners locked out the players in 1998, Edney decided to give overseas basketball a shot. He joined former UCLA teammate Zidek on a Lithuanian team, BC Zalgiris Kaunus. Edney's quickness and confident playmaking made him an instant success. The team won the 1999 EuroLeague championship, Europe's most prominent title, and an overseas star was born.

The next season, Benetton Basket Treviso picked him up, and Edney became

an Italian League fan favorite.

"The thing that sets him apart is his heart," said Donn Nelson, player personnel director for the Dallas Mavericks, and a consultant for the Lithuanian national team. "Whatever team he plays for, whether it's UCLA, or Zalgiris, or Benetton Treviso -- that team is in the running for a championship."

The NBA and Edney gave each other one more shot in 2000-01, when he signed with the Indiana Pacers. His line for the season: 24 games, zero starts, 4.4 points a game. He returned to Treviso the next season and didn't look back. For the first time in his professional career, he found stability as Treviso's point guard and unquestioned leader.

With Edney running the show, Treviso won consecutive Italian League championships and made the EuroLeague Final Four in 2002 and 2003. Current Phoenix Sun Coach Mike D'Antoni coached Treviso and Edney in 2001-02; the team went 28-8.

Charles O'Bannon, who had a short-lived NBA career with the Detroit Pistons and now plays in Japan, joined the team late in the season. The team also featured former Michigan State star Charlie Bell and future NBA draft picks Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Bostjan Nachbar.

"That was the best year," Edney said. "It was run and gun."

Said D'Antoni: "That game-winning drive that Tyus had in the NCAA tournament? That's not unusual for him. After getting to know him and watching him play, Tyus has an innate ability to rise to the occasion in big moments."

Thinking for a moment, D'Antoni added: "Did he tell you about the shot against Tel Aviv?"

In the 2003 EuroLeague quarterfinals in Thessalonika, Greece, Treviso trailed Maccabi Tel Aviv by two with two seconds left. A long inbounds pass came to Edney near midcourt. He jumped, caught the ball and heaved a shot at the buzzer. Final score: Treviso 84, Tel Aviv 83.

"The thing about it was, I didn't land and then shoot the ball. I jumped and caught it and shot in one motion," he said, a slight smile crossing his face. "That was probably my best shot ever. That was crazy."

This season has been unusual for Edney. For the first time in his European career, he is struggling through a difficult season. His new team, Lottomatica Roma, is 12-13 and fighting to hold onto the eighth and final playoff spot in the Italian League.

He had his first-ever surgery in December, an arthroscopic procedure to remove loose cartilage from his left knee. Since then, he has worked hard to get back to his normal, ultra-quick self but admits that the strength hasn't fully returned. His scoring average is down to 11.7 from his typical 15 or 16 a game.

"The last few years, Tyus has been the best point guard in Europe," said Roberto Brunamonti, general manager of Roma and an Italian basketball legend who played on several Olympic teams. "But he is the type of player who needs to be 100 %."

At midseason, Roma replaced its coach and brought in the famously demanding and successful Svetislav Pesic, who led Yugoslavia to the 2002 world championship in Indianapolis.

In late February against visiting Basket Livorno, Roma let a close game slip away in the final minutes and lost, 75-63. The stands of the Palazetto Dello Sport were nearly full, but in soccer-mad Rome, that meant roughly 3,000 fans who sat on concrete benches. Still, they were an emotional group who sang, clapped, whistled and waved banners throughout the game.

With a few seconds left in the game and the result no longer in doubt, fans littered the court with crumpled soda cans and programs, jeering the home team.

"Here," Edney said. "It can get personal."

This season's struggles aside, Edney is a man at peace with his place in the world. He doesn't spend any time thinking about what might have been in the NBA. He has enjoyed the comfortable setup his Italian teams provide -- stability, playing time and a salary that can approach $1 million but goes further because it's largely untaxed. American players

overseas also typically receive a car and furnished apartment.

"When guys go to Europe and get comfortable with the lifestyle and a team, you can have a nice long career over there," Nelson said.

And the basketball isn't bad either. It's no secret that the NBA has become enamored of international players in recent years, adding credibility and interest to the various European leagues. Add the recent uprising by international teams in the Olympics to the mix, and you have a basketball culture that can no longer be viewed as minor league.

"When I saw the players on the national teams, knowing what they can do and seeing them do it, it didn't surprise me that America lost in the Olympics," Edney said. "But I think maybe Americans don't really, really respect that a lot of guys over here can play."

The lifestyle in European basketball might not be as flashy as in the NBA, but it suits the inquisitive Edney just fine. Perhaps as much as any physical talents, his open mind has helped him succeed overseas.

"Sometimes it's difficult for Americans to adjust because half their mind is thinking about trying to get to the NBA and the other half is here, just getting through the season instead of learning the culture or trying to see things," he said. "For me, it has always been fun to

learn a new culture and a new language. I think you grow and learn to adapt."


Edney now plays for Lottomatica Roma in the Italian League. PHOTOGRAPHER:

Agenzia Ciamillo-Castoria

LOAD-DATE: March 14, 2005