Those who read my first blog might remember that I was really looking forward to Khimki’s road game against Crvena Zvezda, and going back to Belgrade earlier this month was great. It was great just to be back in Belgrade. I built quite a relationship with a lot of people inside and outside of the club there. So, being back in Belgrade as a whole, without thinking about basketball, is always good for me. As far as being able to play there, it was emotional because the club did so much for me.
Coming from the NBA, Zvezda was the only club that showed interested in me here. It is where I was able to grow as a player. And even leaving after my second season to AX Milan, and not having a successful season there, Zvezda was more than happy to have me back for a third season. I feel that I owe that club so much just based on the opportunities presented to me as a player and as a person. As far as the great relationships that I have with the kids in Belgrade, and management, and anyone that I ever met has always been very welcoming. There were a lot of different emotions going through my mind throughout the time we were there.
I kind of knew I would have a warm welcome. I’ve seen so many players come back to play against Zvezda in Belgrade, like Maik Zirbes or seeing Nikola Kalinic come back, so I had the expectations that fans would be excited to see me back. I have a deeper bond than basketball with a lot of fans through social media, ever since I got there the first time. Social media has the influence now for everything that you do, so from me learning Serbian to the sound-bites I posted in which I was saying things in Serbian, it kind of grew. People knew that I embraced the culture. So, I expected a nice welcome, but I did not know how it would feel.
I tried to put a game-face on, because at the end of the day I still had a job to do as a member of Khimki, but on a different side I was up and down. From the moment I stepped up for the warmups, I had so many good memories from being on that court. So it was mentally a little tough to try to be focused on the game as well as embrace everything. To be completely honest, I even started singing one of the Zvezda anthems before the game. It was a brief moment, but it’s no wonder. I played more than 200 games for Crvena Zvezda, more than a hundred of them in Hala Pionir, where we practiced every day. I just had a comfortable feeling being in that gym, and I kind of got caught up in there with the fans a little bit pre-game, but I quickly cut myself from singing.
It was also great we got to Belgrade on Sunday for a game on Tuesday, so on Sunday night I went to dinner with some friends to the part of the city called Dedinje. I got a chance to catch up with them. The next day was a normal preparation for the game more than anything. But I got an extra day just to relax, and I have a dog in Belgrade, an English bulldog named Fatboy, so I had a chance to see him, too.
I am now learning Serbian online. My girlfriend is Serbian, although her English is perfect, but at the same time I have so many friends and former teammates, people I met and their kids growing up, who are all Serbian. Most of my social media followers, people who contact me, are Serbian and write in Serbian. And I have a Serbian passport. So I always thought it would be cool to learn to speak Serbian. Just this Monday I had my first class and it was cool. I know a lot of phrases from living there three years, but grammar is the part I need to improve. I study it through Oxford Academy, a learning program in Belgrade. I was tested to see how much I know so far and I am excited to continue to learn and hopefully within a year or two be fluent.
I plan to return to Belgrade this year, and before I go back to the United States after the season I will surely go there. I know people would like to point out that Final Four is in Belgrade, and of course, it would be great to play there with Khimki, too. However, I have an experience with Crvena Zvezda from last year, when our chances to go to the playoffs came down to the last game of the regular season. We had a great run, in December we won seven EuroLeague games in a row, but still fell short of the playoffs, letting our last three games slip away. After that experience, I don’t have expectations of what we can possibly do. Our goal right now is to finish the season strong and make the playoffs. Until that happens, I don’t even want talk about Khimki’s chances of going to Belgrade just because of my experience last year.
However, last week I think we played our best game of the season against Olympiacos. Defensively we were really locked in. We played Olympiacos at the beginning of the season and they really destroyed us on both ends of the floor, and it was important for us to stay locked in and we did that the way we pressured the ball, the way we had help side, and we were rebounding the ball really well. We were able to get out in transition and get a lot of easy buckets. We just moved the ball so well, that was our best game of the season for sure.
And we are still yet to play a single game with full roster. I guess we will have to see how good we can be with full roster. We haven’t seen it yet. We didn’t even get a glimpse of it in practice. Thomas Robinson is hurt, and when Thomas was healthy, Tyler Honeycutt went down in preseason.
Now we are coming together, which is good. In the beginning it is always tough when you have eight new players, new coaches, it is a whole new environment, but I think we are finding our niche individually, and we are trying to come together piece by piece. When Thomas comes back we will be at full strength roster-wise, but at the same time, the chemistry has to be there. Robinson brings a lot to the table for us. He is athletic, rebounds the ball really well and definitely helps us on the defensive end. It is all about him coming back and getting into game shape, so we finish the EuroLeague season at full strength.
Against Olympiacos I had my season-high in scoring, too. I know people see me as a defender first, and it is a pride thing. I was a scorer in college, I am proud to still be the all-time leading scorer at Hofstra University. I got the ball all the time and the offense kind of ran through me, so that was the system there. But when you come to Europe, you play with and against guys who have all been that guy, too. So on a team, you need to have everyone accept their role and help contribute to the team.
When I came to Europe, I played for a defensive-minded coach, Dejan Radonjic, and practiced with guys like Branko Lazic and Nemanja Dangubic, really good on-ball defenders. Dejan was really adamant on defense, especially in practice, and if you didn’t do your job he was on you, whether on film or in practice. So in the beginning, I played my hardest on defense, just so he wouldn’t say anything to me about it. And when you play with guys like Lazic, who you might see diving in the front row and giving his all on the defensive end, it would be selfish of you if you didn’t do the same. So that’s how I got the reputation. But for me, now, it's just a pride thing. I want to be able to help my team. Anybody can score. Anybody can get hot. In the summertime, anybody can work on their offensive game, but you can’t really work on your defense. It is a pride thing. It’s a feel. It’s a mental thing if you want to stop your opponent. Once I understood that, I began to take pride in it.
But of course it still feels good to hit 4 threes against Olympiacos. When you play good on offense, it pushes your confidence even more on defense, because you want to get back on offense. At Khimki we got a lot of great scorers, a lot of guys who can create. Alexey Shved. We got James Anderson, guys who can get to the paint and score. So I don’t really have to do much. I can just make sure I am spacing the floor and if open, be comfortable and ready to shoot the ball knowing that my job here, and previously in Milan, is to be a defensive guy. It is easier for me, it is less pressure. I don’t have to worry if I am missing shots, and sometimes when you miss shots it can get mental for you. For me, my mental part is on the other end. If a guy gets going, it a lot more frustrating than what I am doing on the offensive end.