Trajan Langdon attends NBA games for a living now, walking among the fans to his seat as a scout for the San Antonio Spurs. Occasionally a fan will recognize him, recalling his glory days at Duke that ended nearly a decade and a half ago, and flood him with questions.
What happened to a promising NBA career? What happened after his first few uneven years with the Cavaliers? And where has he been the past 10 years?
Langdon smiles, and understands the sentiment. For those who don’t follow professional basketball to the east beyond Madison Square Garden, these are legitimate questions.
But those whose basketball minds expand beyond the Atlantic Ocean understand that Langdon relinquished his dreams of NBA stardom for a stellar eight-year career in Europe, the final six with CSKA Moscow, where he led the club to two Euroleague championships.
Langdon, the sharpshooting guard taken 11th overall in the 1999 draft, was limited to 119 NBA games, the last in 2002. He is the equivalent of a baseball player who bolts the major leagues for a better opportunity in Japan. Langdon finished his playing career as a Euroleague legend, an example of an American player who headed overseas not at the tail end of his career but during his prime, spurning NBA opportunity for the comfort and competition of Europe.
After three years with the Cavaliers and two years in Europe, Langdon returned to the NBA with the Clippers in 2004. But he received limited time during training camp and was waived. It was then that he came to a realization.
“I just knew at that point I had a decision to go play in Moscow or to go play in the — I guess it wasn’t the D-League at the time — but the ABL [American Basketball League] and try to see if I could get in,” he said.
“Well this was it — either stay and try to get back or go someplace where they want me and thrive and be a big part of any team I’m on. At that point, I figured this is about basketball. What do I really want to do? I want to play basketball and I want to play. I figured at that point the best place I could do that was Europe.”
In NBA circles, Langdon was considered a supreme shooter who lacked the athleticism to thrive at shooting guard. Even great college players have NBA limits, and the league frowns upon spot-up shooters who can’t create their own shot.
It was humbling, especially for a player who starred in college for one of the nation’s most prestigious schools.
“The older I got, I realized that it wasn’t about the fame, it was about the game,” he said. “It wasn’t about what other people think. That didn’t make me as a player or person. I ran across a lot of people who said, ‘What happened man? What are you doing over there?’ ”
There are a handful of players overseas who pass on NBA opportunity or perhaps nonguaranteed contracts for the security of Europe. Bo McCalebb, a guard for Fenerbahce Ulker, had an opportunity to pursue a job with the Spurs but chose to sign a three-year deal with the Turkish team. He is considered one of the top point guards in Europe and was encouraged to stay there as a front-line player rather than returning to the US as an NBA backup.
Langdon said playing in Europe allowed him to experience new cultures, especially during his six years in Moscow. Like most of us, all he knew were stereotypes of the city, but he learned to understand and enjoy Russian culture.
“It’s 15 million people there, you can get anything you need there, the language is difficult, but in terms of getting what you want, it’s like New York,” he said. “The people there are harsh at the beginning. They are just not going to embrace you immediately, especially if you are new.
“For me, with the players, it wasn’t about being a person of color at all, it was more about being an American than anything.”
Langdon said his Russian teammates were slow to embrace him because they were unsure whether he would commit to the team or bolt for the NBA at the first call.
“There was a level of mistrust at first because they don’t know if you are going to stick around,” he said. “Once I signed my contract extension with CSKA, they began to act differently towards me because I made a commitment to being there.”
That commitment entailed living there for most of the calendar year; many American players have to decide whether to uproot their families and bring them over or live alone. Langdon’s transition to Moscow became smoother when he met a Russian woman whom he eventually married.
“Once I was in Moscow after my first year, I was very comfortable there,” he said. “I think it was much more difficult for teammates and friends who had family [in the States]. If you can figure out that ‘my life is actually pretty good,’ and don’t compare it to life in America, you’ll be OK. If you complain about ‘oh it’s not what it is in [the States],’ it’s not going to work.
“That’s why it’s not for everybody. People don’t realize how difficult it is until you actually get over there.”
Langdon had one final chance to crack an NBA roster but he turned down a couple of training camp invites and signed his final contract with CSKA Moscow.
“To be one of the top guys in Europe, to trade that in and come back and be a role player or even sit on the bench and not get minutes every night, I wasn’t willing to do that,” he said. “I just wanted to maximize my time on the court and my enjoyment of the game. And I did that.
“For me, it was to play for the love of the game and to win, and for me to do that, Europe was the best pathway. That would be the answer as why I chose the path of Europe instead of trying to get back into the NBA. And I made the right choice.”
CLIMBING THE WALL
Wizards await guard’s return
John Wall has yet to make an appearance this season, so there has been no chance for the Wizards guard — and former No. 1 overall pick — to bond with his teammates, including new additions that include rookie Bradley Beal, center Emeka Okafor, and swingman Trevor Ariza.
Wall, just 22 years old, has already taken on the mantle of team leader after years of tumult and controversy in Washington following the Gilbert Arenas era. Like Rajon Rondo in Boston, Wall gathered his teammates for informal workouts two weeks before training camp began.
A couple of weeks later, he was diagnosed with a stress injury in his left knee, and he may not be ready until near the end of December. So the Wizards wait for him to return, hoping he can help them take that next major step toward respectability.
There is humility in Wall that is refreshing. He understands that he was expected to make a Derrick Rose-like impact on the Wizards and it has yet to happen. He has been inconsistent, and the team around him has been terrible and decaying. This season was supposed to be different, and Wall can’t wait to join the show.
“Just not playing basketball period is tough,” he said. “This is my first time ever really being out for a long time, and not being able to come back — and especially you start with new coaches and new teammates — it’s very tough. But it’s something you’ve got to deal with.”
Wall averaged 16.3 points, 8.2 assists, and 3.8 turnovers in his first two seasons, showing flashes of brilliance but also struggling with the franchise-player role bestowed on him when the Wizards drafted him after a stellar freshman season at Kentucky.
“I hurt my first year listening to my body and not my heart,” he said when asked about returning too soon. “I came back injured [as a rookie] and I still played OK but I didn’t play like I wanted to, so I know to take my time this time.”
That patience is a sign of maturity. Wall has endured a great deal of losing and disappointment the past two years. Washington has not made the advances other downtrodden clubs have. The Wizards finally rid themselves of Arenas and then fired coach Flip Saunders toward the end of last season. Interim coach Randy Wittman retained the job after Washington won its final six games.
The Wizards began this season 0-4 with two close losses to the Celtics. They are still trying to gain cohesion, which is difficult to do without their best player.
Allen reflects on free agency
The specifics of Kevin Garnett’s three-year contract were revealed by shamsports.com, and as expected, the final year is not fully guaranteed. According to the website, only $6 million is guaranteed for the 2014-15 season unless Garnett remains on the roster after July 14, 2014. The first two years of the deal are guaranteed and include a no-trade clause. Only four NBA players — Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan — have no-trade clauses.
The Celtics offered Ray Allen a no-trade clause in the two-year, $12 million deal he turned down to sign with the Heat. (By the way, Allen’s deal with Miami has a player option after this season, meaning he could elect to be a free agent again next summer.)
Speaking of Allen, he still laments his departure from Boston and the impression that the Celtics were desperately trying to sign him before he spurned them. But he points out that the Celtics could have signed him to an extension during the season when he was struggling with ankle problems.
Allen was asked whether the experience has changed him.
“When franchises change and they move in different directions, it forces you to always stay ahead of the curve and know you may have to move in that direction yourself,” Allen said. “So that’s all it does.
“You have that opportunity to figure out if there’s going to be a better situation for you. And there’s a lot of situations that are different.”
Allen said he sensed hesitation from the Celtics during the season, especially when they attempted to deal him at the trade deadline. But president of basketball operations Danny Ainge explained to the Globe recently that the decision to retool instead of rebuild began when Garnett decided to sign an extension. If Garnett had decided to leave, Ainge said, it’s highly likely that the team would have gone considerably younger, meaning Allen would not have returned anyway.
“Did it change me at all? I don’t think it changed me,” said Allen. “I’ve always been the type that I am a loyal guy. If the organization throughout the course of the season wants me to come back, I would say, ‘Let’s sign a contract before we get to free agency,’ so we never have to worry about what’s going on, because a team can entice me to go somewhere else.
“It’s always a tough decision when either way you don’t feel like you could go wrong. It’s not a cut-and-dry example. Being in this situation, whether our negotiations were on par or not, it wasn’t like Miami was the clear-cut favorite. I had a couple of other teams I had to bring into consideration.”
Early display by Seraphin
The Wizards will have a decision on their hands if Frenchman Kevin Seraphin continues to develop as he has the past six months. The Washington bench completely outplayed their starters in the two meetings with the Celtics, and Seraphin was a force in the games, averaging 17.5 points and 8 rebounds. Emeka Okafor, the starting center acquired in a deal with New Orleans, averaged 2.5 points and 4 rebounds. Seraphin could eventually emerge as the starter, even if Nene returns.
Former Boston University standout Darryl Partin was a fourth-round pick of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBADL. The Maine Red Claws, the Celtics’ affiliate, acquired Micah Downs, who was in training camp with Boston, and Shelvin Mack, a former second-round pick of the Wizards. The Red Claws also drafted Jeremiah Rivers, Doc’s son, in the fifth round . . . Hornets coach Monty Williams said publicly what a lot of NBA coaches are thinking — that the rules on concussions are too strict, limiting players who may have suffered minor head injuries to wait perhaps several days to return. The policy, instituted two years ago, mandates that an NBA-sanctioned doctor must clear players who suffered possible concussions to return. That was the case when Mickael Pietrus of the Celtics missed a month last season. Anthony Davis sustained a mild concussion in the Hornets’ victory over Utah Nov. 2 and could return any day, but Williams expressed anger that Davis missed a game in his native Chicago . . . The Warriors are banking that Andrew Bogut can regain his prowess as a dominant defensive center after they acquired him last March for Monta Ellis and shut him down for seven months for ankle surgery. But the club announced that Bogut won’t play for another 7-10 days after looking like a shell of himself during the first 10 days of the season. Bogut, a former No. 1 overall pick, looked to be laboring each time down the court. The Warriors expected him to fill in at center after the team iced the ineffective Andris Biedrins, who is due $9 million per season over the next two years. He has an early termination option that he most likely won’t exercise after this season.