After a 0-4 start, Unics Kazan regrouped by winning three of its next six games, as well as bringing in two new players – Paul Stoll and Orlando Johnson – to step in for injured starters Coty Clarke and Anton Ponkrashov. One thing has not changed for Unics in the last three seasons: if the game is on the line, one of the most dangerous scorers in European basketball will be ready to make things happen. Keith Langford has been filling the baskets everywhere in his career and at age 33, he is leading the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague in scoring at 23.2 points per game, which is the best average for any player in over a decade; Lynn Greer averaged 25.1 points for Idea Slask Wroclaw in the 2003-04 season. Langford stepped up big in his team's first two wins against Fenerbahce Istanbul and Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade, was deadly in crunch time, and helped Unics reach the 100-point mark in a home triumph against EA7 Emporio Armani Milan last week. Not only is Langford scoring a lot, but is also helping on the boards (4.1 rpg.) and passing the ball (4.2 apg.). He believes his leadership skills have been polished over the years to become the player he is today, as he told Javier Gancedo of EuroLeague.net in this interview. "The thing about me is that I am not afraid to speak when it is necessary and tell the truth, from the first guy to the last one," Langford said. "I think these are the things that a leader has to do, but these are things you learn as your career goes on. I didn't start my career as a leader; I became a leader as I got older."
Hello, Keith. Unics comes off a great win against Milan, in which it reached 100 points for the first time in the EuroLeague. Could this game be a turning point for your team this season?
"From the outside, looking in, people can use this game as a turning point, but the real key is that we started to get healthy as a team. The guys that we got to replace injured players are starting to find their rhythm. If you take two starters away from it, I think any EuroLeague team will struggle and that was the case with us. We lost Anton Ponkrashov and Coty Clarke, and trying to play in the EuroLeague like that was tough. The turning point for us was being healthier and getting the guys that replaced Anton and Coty ready for EuroLeague competition."
Those two new players are playmaker Paul Stoll and swingman Orlando Johnson. What do you like about them and how can they make the team better?
"Orlando has great athleticism and ability to score. He has really good size for a perimeter player. For him, it was just a matter of making the adjustment and getting comfortable. Making it to the EuroLeague and making an impact is difficult. He needed a little bit of time and against Milan, we saw finally that he is turning the corner a little bit, which is definitely what we need. Paul has great ability to pass the ball and is also a good shooter. I think that him being a point guard is important. We have been with only one point guard for weeks and I had to play as backup point guard a lot. With Paul here, it just puts everyone in their natural order and everybody is able to play at their normal positions. We don't have to play mixed lineups to try to make up for the players we are missing."
Not only do you lead the EuroLeague in scoring, but you are playing with great consistency and hitting big shots in crunch time. Do you feel like you are playing some of your best-ever basketball lately?
"I mean, I am scoring the ball really well right now, but I think that, as a whole, I would like to say 'yes' - honestly, we haven't won as many games as I would like, but personally, I continue to try to get better and try to change little things about my game. For me, the thing is to find little things and continue to tweak and improve. It is a challenge and the goal, to try to make the next game better than my last. Hopefully, I can continue to play at this level and get even better."
You seem to have a very good connection with Coach Pashutin, too. Is that one of the reasons why you are playing so well - having the trust of teammates and coaches?
"Well, it is one of the reasons - having the trust of the organization. This is the first time I have been on a EuroLeague team I was able to consistently stay for more than one or two years. If you look at a lot of the guys who played well in the EuroLeague over the years, one thing that they had is that they have been consistently with the same organization and the same coach. It is funny; I might be the only guy who was an All-EuroLeague First Team choice and won the Alphonso Ford Trophy and had to change teams the next season. Being with Coach Pashutin is key for me and I would like to continue working with him. He understands and is able to give me the time off when I need it, let me rest. He understands individual things that I need in order to perform. I think our relationship is really important."
You are also one of the great leaders in the EuroLeague. What skills does a player need to be a leader?
"I think you can become a leader over time. A lot of it depends on how are the guys on your team. The leader doesn't have to be the best player every time. Typically, people try to make the best player of the team the leader, but that is not always true. It’s the guy who has the biggest presence and the biggest voice - it can be multiple guys. Even for our team, Kostas Kaimakoglou is probably more of a vocal leader in our team. The thing about me is that I am not afraid to speak when it is necessary and tell the truth, from the first guy to the last one. For me, being able to be willing to encourage my teammates as well as get on them when something goes wrong - I am the first to take responsibility when something goes wrong as well. I think these are the things that a leader has to do, but these are things you learn as your career goes on. I didn't start my career as a leader; I became a leader as I got older."
Speaking of leaders, you will play against Olympiacos Piraeus next week. How much are you looking forward to playing against Vassilis Spanoulis? What do you like about him?
"I am looking forward to it because the last time I was able to play against him, when I was in Milan a few years ago, we were fortunate enough to win. At that time, I was looking forward to the challenge as well because I don't really think I was ever told I was ready to play against him head to head. I am really looking forward to this game, even though I don't think there will be a lot of head-to-head matchups. I am not sure if I will guard him or he will guard me; maybe in certain moments, but I think both coaches will have different strategies. I am looking forward to it because it is a great opportunity to play against a great player. With him, the thing that I enjoy the most is his consistency. Anyone who does it year after year, year in, year out, and continues to make themselves relevant and better, you have to respect that. His consistency throughout the years has been impressive."
This is your third season in Kazan. What do you like so much about the club and the city to stick around for so long?
"Well, my priority is basketball. I get a lot of questions every time I meet people in the basketball world and old teammates: they ask me 'why are you in Kazan?' and for me, the first thing is basketball. I have had the opportunity to join other clubs, but like we talked about before, I feel like I am a leader and I would rather fight against the best. If I can make some small accomplishments, I am fine with that. This is a personal challenge - try to get Kazan in the EuroLeague and try to make a push to be successful in the competition. It is going step by step, but I enjoy everything. As far as the city, honestly, I feel like it is one of the best-kept secrets in Eastern Europe. In my first year, I didn't really know too much, but as the years have gone on, the city has really opened up for me and I enjoy it. They treat me good, they pay me well; I don't have any issues about being here."
It is no surprise that you are excelling in a year in which you will play every good EuroLeague player out there. As a great competitor, how do you like the new format - more games, always against the best?
"Man, I enjoy it, because I think that in years past, guys were able to... I will just say this: every award that everyone gets this year will be very warranted. I don't think there is any arguing that can be made on who the best player is, the five or 10 best players in the EuroLeague, or the eight best teams. There is no debate because there is no draw or anything like that. As you can see, expect from CSKA, everybody is one or two games from switching positions. I just think it is a great format. Not taking away what happened in the past, but for the first time in the history of the EuroLeague, I think you are going to see what everyone is truly made of. You have to play everybody, you have to travel, you have to play all the difficult games and have tough schedules. Everyone has the same problems and the same issues. It will be very interesting to see who is left standing at the end."
Of course, you are one of the top candidates to win the Alphonso Ford Top Scoring Trophy for the second time in your career. You showed great respect for Alphonso Ford and contacted his son on Twitter when you won the first time. How special would it be for you to win it again?
"Obviously, that goes without saying. Our relationship started with our agent. I think that words can't describe how important it would be. Even that being said, it is not like I go out every game and focus on how I need to do to win the Alphonso Ford Trophy or how I need to score this many points. I am just basically trying to use what I do best on the floor to help my team win. If the Alphonso Ford Trophy is the product of me doing that, then it is that much better. At the same time, I would be lying if I said it wasn't in the back of my mind somewhere."
You still have 20 games left, but after a 0-4 start, Unics is on its way up. What would make it a good season for your team?
"Like I said in the pre-season, I think that part of our success is even being here. I think that the tough thing about us being in the EuroLeague is that Unics, as an organization, has not been at this level very consistency. I think that trying to establish a presence, a style and an image in the EuroLeague is important. For me, personally, I don't think that making the playoffs is unrealistic and everybody on my team should think the same way. Like I said before, everyone is only separated by a couple of games and we have seen earlier on in the season that if it weren't for a few mistakes, we would rank a lot higher than we are right now. As a team, we have to keep getting better. Like you said, there are 20 games left and we will have a chance to creep up during the season and see what happens."