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Away Game

A Love of Basketball Keeps Roddie Anderson's Life in Czech

R. Zlatoslovack/MFD
R. Zlatoslovack/MFD
R. Zlatoslovack/MFD
R. Zlatoslovack/MFD
Anderson's Opava squad has twice come within a game of claiming the Czech league's championship trophy.

By George Cerny | Posted 6/6/2001

Roddie Anderson always wanted to be here. He is a professional basketball player, leading his team into the final round of the playoffs. He stands with his teammates, waiting for the first game to begin, facing the red, white, and blue flag, listening to the national anthem.

But Roddie Anderson never wanted to be here. The flag is not the Stars and Stripes, and Francis Scott Key did not write this anthem. It is the tricolor of the Czech Republic, and the anthem is Frantisek Skroup's "Kde Domov Muj?"--"Where Is My Home?" Anderson is the starting point guard for Opava, on this May day one of two contenders for the championship of the Czech Basketball League.

For 10 months of the year Anderson is away from his family and friends, living far from where his heart is. "I'm a Baltimore guy," he says--but only when the long season is over does he get to go back home. "I'm anxious about both winning the title," he says in an interview during the best-of-seven championship series, "and getting out of here."

I never wanted to leave home," Anderson says. "Home" could mean Baltimore, where he was born and where his mother lives; it could mean California, where he moved in adolescence, and where his fiancée lives. It does not mean a industrial city of 62,500 in the Czech Republic.

Anderson, 29, grew up in West Baltimore's Liberty Heights neighborhood, a self-professed basketball junkie. But it was in California, where he moved with his mother after his junior year at Forest Park High School, that he came into his own on the court. After finishing high school, he enrolled at Columbia Junior College in Columbia, Calif., whose basketball team he led to a 63-7 record in two years. Anderson was named the state's junior-college player of the year in 1992-'93 and the most valuable player of that season's California ju-co tournament.

From Columbia, he was recruited to play at Utah State by Larry Eustachy, a hard-driving strategist who'd go on to win NCAA Coach of the Year honors at Iowa State in 2000. Anderson was a starting guard for the Aggies, averaging 33 minutes a game in his senior year, during which the team went 21-8 and was invited to the National Invitation Tournament.

"I was blessed with great coaches," Anderson says of his earlier playing days. "After Eustachy, I was prepared for anything in basketball." That came in handy, because his basketball future was not to turn out as expected.

"When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be Michael Jordan. I was going to the NBA. It didn't work out that way." After graduating from Utah State in 1995 with a degree in exercise science, Anderson was not drafted, nor was he invited to any National Basketball Association team's training camp.

For a quality college player who doesn't make it to the NBA, there are two options: a lower-level league such as the Continental Basketball Association (which went bankrupt earlier this year), from which some players eventually make it to the bigs, or playing abroad. Nearly every country in Europe, from Spain to Turkey, has a pro-basketball league, and almost every team tries to get at least one American on its roster. While the European teams' salaries are a pittance by NBA standards (Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, whose dad played ball in Italy, bought 50 percent of his father's old squad last year), they are better than those in the CBA and similar U.S. leagues.

Anderson didn't want to leave home, but if we wanted to keep playing ball, leaving home was the best option. He became a roundball gypsy, going first to Australia, then to France. Although the competition was not up to the level he faced even in college, Anderson says he continued to improve and looked forward to another shot at the NBA. "I was constantly working on things and learning things . . . especially in France. My game got better. I gained more confidence in my game."

Two years ago, he took that shot: His French agent got him a tryout with the Charlotte Hornets. But he was cut in training camp before the season began.

"I was cut on a Wednesday. I called my agent. On Friday, I had the offer" to play in the Czech Republic, he says. "And I've been here ever since."

Anderson is philosophical about his brush with the NBA. "When I was a kid, it was all I could think about. I'd be crazy to say I would turn it down if they wanted me," he says. "But it's not my dream [anymore]. I feel I am blessed to be able to keep playing basketball. Wherever I play, I am blessed."

Opava is fairly typical of the small industrial cities of Central Europe: grim, polluted, and dull. Prague and the beautiful countrysides of Bohemia and South Moravia fill up with tourists each summer, but no one goes to Opava unless they live or work there.

North Moravia, the Czech region that includes Opava and borders Poland and the Slovak Republic, has largely missed out on the economic gains the country has made since the fall of communism in 1989. Opava's small city center does contain some charming old buildings, but they look neglected. Unlike in bustling, booming Prague, nothing here looks new. The slowly crumbling churches give way to more rapidly crumbling apartment buildings and small factories, which give way to the barren countryside that separates Opava from the next town just like it.

"You've been here two hours?" Anderson asks a visitor. "You've probably seen everything. Twice."

Storied Prague, the Czech Republic's capital, largest city, and tourist magnet, is a Western city. You can get Irish beer and bagels and Pizza Hut. American music is everywhere. If you want to, you can go days without having to speak a word of Czech. Opava, 236 miles away, is very much in Eastern Europe. Few people speak English. Western popular culture penetrates here, but slowly.

"I remember when I was home riding with my mother and my sister listening to the radio," Anderson recalls. "There was a rap song that I hadn't heard before, and I told them how much I liked the new song. My mom told me it wasn't new, it had been out for months. When your mother has heard a rap song before you, you know you've been away too long."

Anderson gets CNN, which is usually on in his apartment, but beyond that his television generally picks up only the Czech Republic's three stations and some German broadcasts. Most foreign programs are dubbed. "I've always hated that, dubbing," he says. "I'll watch a movie in French, or in Czech, but not if it's an American movie. I just hate it when they have Clint Eastwood or Denzel Washington talking in another language." To compensate, he watches a lot of DVDs, collected during his trips back home.

As worldwide an event as the Super Bowl is, Anderson, a Ravens fan, wasn't able to watch as his hometown team won the title in January. "I followed the game on the Internet. I could get the play-by-play. Had to support my boys." And when the University of Maryland men's basketball team made its first-ever run to the Final Four, "I saw maybe five minutes of the tournament on German television. Just snatches of it really."

If Anderson has not completely taken to Opava, it has taken to him. Even if he weren't one of the stars of the successful local team, he'd stand out, being the only 6-foot-3 black man in town. Children greet him on the street and wave to him from classroom windows. He spends a lot of time signing autographs.

"The people are very nice," he says, but other aspects of Czech life are more difficult. "I learned French when I was playing there, but Czech is hard," he says of the language, the difficulty of which is a source of perverse pride to many natives. "My Czech is terrible. I try to speak what I know of it, out of respect, and my teammates are great about speaking English to me. But it's hard. . . .

"I surprise them sometimes. I actually understand what they're saying. But basically, I know slim to none."

Diet is another challenge. "I don't eat pork"--the main staple of the Czech table--"and I don't really trust the red meat here" (a position anyone who's ever looked in the window of a Czech butcher shop will appreciate). "I eat a lot of chicken. There's a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Ostrava," a large industrial city about 20 miles away. "If you ever told me that I'd drive half an hour each way to go to a Kentucky Fried Chicken. . . . [And] I'd kill for some Buffalo wings."

Crab cakes?

"No, no, please, don't even say that. Don't mention those. Unless you brought some."

The hardest part of the distance from home is the long separation from his family, especially his 9-year-old daughter, Telischa, who lives with her mother in Baltimore. He calls home after every game. But the loneliness will be eased next season. Anderson and his fiancée, Kelly White, will marry in July, and she'll return to Europe with him next season.

"That will help me out a lot," Anderson says. "She's been here before to visit me. She isn't really too keen about it, but she's coming. We're just young and crazy in love."

Anderson says White, an former pro-softball player, understands "that I had to keep playing and follow my career wherever it takes me." She plans to look for work teaching English when she moves overseas.

His main companion now is his dog, Lexus, a giant Rottweiler that would be intimidating if she weren't so affectionate. "Watch out, she'll lick you to death," he warns. His life in Opava follows a very set course; he compares it to the movie Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray wakes up on Feb. 2, over and over again. "Ten to 12, practice. Go home, walk my dog, get on the Internet, check things back home. Evening practice. Come home. Walk my dog," Anderson says. "Exact same thing every day."

Home is in a panelak, one of the gigantic communist-era housing blocks that surround almost every Czech city. "First time I saw it, I thought it was the projects: I'm supposed to live here? It looked like the Murphy Homes, but it's nicer on the inside."

It is the sparsely furnished apartment of somebody who is ready to leave in a hurry. Only the many photographs indicate that this is someone's home rather than a place to crash for a few nights. I ask him how long it takes him to pack. "Shit, I'm a professional. Forty-five minutes. An hour tops. I'm a pro," he says. "But it takes longer when I'm packing to come back [to Opava]. I take my time then."

Basketball is not the national game of the Czech Republic. Not even close. Soccer is far more popular, and ice hockey is the national passion. When the Czech national hockey team won the world championship in May, thousands of people took to the streets in Prague. The basketball finals, going on at the same time and involving Prague's team, attracted little attention. Few games were televised, and newspapers gave more space to the NBA playoffs than to the Czech league's.

The pro games here are like something out of the movie Hoosiers, transplanted to Central Europe. Opava's team plays its home games in what looks like a high school gym--a small school that's not a basketball power. It holds maybe 600 people, and the arrangements are informal. ("Sit anywhere," I'm told when I arrive for a playoff game. "It doesn't really matter.") Until a few hours before the games, local school teams practice--even during the finals. After the games, kids mill about the court, horsing around and shooting.

But if the Opava fans are few, they are passionate--"The best in the Czech Republic," Anderson says. The hall usually sells out and fills with yelling and whistling fans decked out in the team colors, yellow and blue. At halftime, a quartet of cheerleaders takes the floor and make a sincere attempt to remain in sync as they do steps to '80s pop. In their yellow and blue, they look a bit like the Laker Girls--or would, if the Laker Girls were organized by Humbert Humbert; the Opava cheerleaders don't look far removed from puberty.

If the milieu is radically different for Anderson, a veteran of high-end Division 1 college hoops, the Opava fans "have the same intensity" as their U.S. counterparts, he says. Like all hometown rooters, they unload on the officials, and with better reason than most: Czech referees are, at best, inconsistent. After one strange call in Opava's semifinal series against Kunin, the entire gym erupted in cries of "Co?!"--"What?" A young woman sitting next to me stretched it out to five syllables--"Co-o-o-o?!" while pointing her index finger at her temple, an Eastern European gesture used to indicate insanity.

The style of play is also very different from what Anderson is used to. The Czech pro game is built on set offenses; there's little of the fast-breaking or improvisational playmaking common in the States. Like Opava's gym, it's a throwback to an earlier style, with the point guard bringing the ball up the court slowly and signaling with his hands to instruct teammates. "There's no creativity," Anderson says. "Its almost like we're robots out there. They're completely lost if I don't call a play." On defense, Czech players rarely fight through picks or screens, don't bang a lot under the glass, and concede easy layups.

This is not Anderson's style. "My game is penetration, and creativity. My game is defense. I love to get physical," he says. "I love the bump and grind. They give up easy layups. Don't let it be easy. You can crack them. Fight through it, don't let the pick slow you down.

"Czech players are not as physical. They're not as athletic. But they're great shooters. There are guys here who can shoot with anyone."

The Opava-Kunin series offered an instructive example of the culture clash on the court, as Anderson faced off against Antoine Stokes, a player from Washington, D.C. There seemed to be two very different games going on at the same time--Anderson and Stokes playing tight, frenetic defense on each other up and down the court while the Czech players stood in their set positions, waiting to see how it would turn out.

Last year, in his first season in Opava, Anderson set the Czech league on fire. He was named most valuable player, leading the league in assists and steals and averaging more than 30 minutes a game. (Like U.S. college games, Czech-league games run 40 minutes.) Opava made it to the finals for the first time in four years and went up 3-2 before dropping the last two games to Prague to lose the series.

After that disappointment, the team brought in a new coach, Frantisek Rón. In his second season, under Rón's system, Anderson's minutes and numbers declined. "I didn't know what he wanted [at first]," the player says. "But I sacrificed my game for the team. I did what I was told to do."

Opava also signed a new point guard, Pavel Benes. Benes is a classic Czech player--a good shooter, comfortable with a highly structured offense. He is also a much better free-throw shooter than Anderson, who has struggled from the line since he started playing in the Czech Republic. But Benes lacks Anderson's athleticism or defensive intensity. Opposing teams play them differently--defending Benes close to keep him from shooting but not worrying about his ability to make a move by them, but giving Anderson plenty of space so they can react if the much quicker player tries to blow past them. "We're two different teams, depending on who has the point," Anderson says.

Anderson says he and Benes have a friendly off-court relationship, but Rón prefers the Czech style and thus the Czech player, especially when the game is on the line. Rón usually starts Anderson, brings Benes in early in the second quarter, returns to Anderson for most of the third, then has Benes finish the game. This has been frustrating for Anderson, who relishes crunch time, and who has been on the court at the end of close games his whole life.

"I'm no good to any team on the bench. But I take what they give me," he says. "It's a job now. I'll always love the game, but this is a job. It's what I do to take care of my family."

The 2001 finals are a rematch of last year's, with Opava again facing defending champ Prague. They enter the series closely matched. The two teams split their four regular-season games, and both blew through their semifinal opponents, winning their series in five games.

Prague is a shooter's team, good at snapping quick passes around the court to find the open man. But it lacks muscle, and, like all shooting teams, is helpless if the shooters get cold. Opava is the more balanced squad. Benes and Yugoslav guard Dejan Vukosavljevic can shoot with anyone. By Czech standards, Opava plays tight defense, especially when Anderson is on court to pressure the ball. And it has a good inside game, led by Jirí Trnka, perhaps the most dominating center in the league. But Trnka is injured and largely relegated to the bench, and Prague is favored by many people in the press box to repeat.

The series starts on Prague's floor, in a communist-era architectural monstrosity that appears to have been designed by someone who had never seen a basketball game. The court is surrounded on three sides by a cagelike set of bleachers, with thick bars keeping the sections apart and more bars obstructing at least part of the court from nearly every vantage point. The fourth side, behind the players' benches, has no seating, just dozens of advertisements. It's as if the Czech finals are being played in front of a giant billboard.

The arena is located directly under a massive concrete bridge known locally as Sebevrazda Most--Suicide Bridge--for the number of people who have jumped off of it. After game one, Opava's players can understand the feeling: They are routed, 90-64. The home-court advantage may have definitely come into play: The Opava players arrived on game day via bus, a six-and-a-half-hour ride. "We just had time to put our uniforms on," Anderson says afterward. "We've got to play better tomorrow."

They do. In game two, Prague's offense can't get started, and Benes gets hot in the third quarter. The Opava fans, many of whom made the long trip to Prague, are ecstatic, and both the arena and the pubs around it are filled with sound of their drums and their singing chant of "hail, hail Opava."

Back home, Opava keeps the momentum going, winning games three and four to take a commanding lead. But even with his team in control of the series, Anderson is growing more frustrated. In the fourth game he plays a nearly flawless first quarter, shooting three for three, pulling down three rebounds, doling out a pair of assists, running the court with authority on offense and causing mayhem on defense. And still, he comes out for Benes.

As Anderson watches the second half, Opava's lead starts to slip away. He gets in for two minutes at the end of the third quarter, but he knows that is all he is going to get. He is clearly upset, knocking away hand checks and pounding the ball into the floor. Opava barely manages to hold its lead until Trnka, hurt but still capable of dominating, saves the game in the final quarter. Anderson plays just 14 minutes.

"I can't get on the fucking court. I don't know why, or what I have to do. I can't get on the court. I just want this over with," he explodes after the game. "I need to get out of here. I want to be able to understand what people around me are saying, to eat food that I understand."

But the homecoming will be delayed. Back in Prague, with Opava playing for the title, Anderson gets significant playing time and helps his team to a narrow lead into the third quarter. He even hits his free throws. But a foul under the basket sends him crashing to the floor, landing hard on his shoulder. All he can do for the remainder of the game is ice his shoulder and watch as Prague, led by its American player, Dan Cyrulik, shoots its way back into the game. Opava loses in overtime, 89-84. Anderson calls home to tell his family he won't be on the next plane out.

"I felt helpless," he says of the game's final minutes. "I don't know if they're just starting me to say that they are using me or what, but I need to get in these games. I've been on teams since I was 12 or 13 and I've always played at the end."

Coach Rón is as frustrated as the players. "We know who their shooters are but we don't stop them," he says. As Cyrulik rained down three-pointers, he says, "my players shriveled psychologically."

Given a new lease on life, the Prague squad takes advantage, crushing Opava 74-57 in game six. "We just couldn't score. Our defense was good, but we just couldn't score," Anderson says. "It's not over, but now it's hard. We've got to show some heart."

But the tide has turned, irreversibly. Opava comes out strong in the deciding game; with both teams shooting poorly, Opava's stronger defense and inside play takes the team to a 37-33 lead. But Prague regains its touch in the second half and pulls away for an 84-76 win. For Prague, another come-from-behind championship; for Opava, another deflating failure.

"I couldn't believe it. They just came out firing" in the second half, Anderson comments afterward. "It was just a long, frustrating year."

The frustration has taken its toll on both Anderson and his team of the past two seasons. After the series, Czech newspapers quote Opava's general manager as saying the team is "considering" trading or releasing Anderson. He says he isn't surprised: "I knew if we didn't win it, they'd blame the American." Back in the States now, he doubts that he'll be back in the Czech league next season. "I don't think anyone in the Czech Republic will be able to pay my contract," he says.

So where to next? "Whoever is going to pay me."

Anderson estimates that he can play another four years. "In a perfect world, I'll play someplace warm, on the ocean. Spain, Greece, or maybe Italy. In a perfect world. . . . Right now, I'm just trying to enjoy every day that I'm home."

He has other prospects. Last September, he used some of his basketball earnings to purchase a gym in Northwest Baltimore called the Ball House, a full-service fitness center with weights, aerobics, and, of course, basketball courts, which he hopes to open in a few months.

But he hopes that his main vocation will remain organized basketball. A student of the game, he kept notes on his college practices. He says he has been offered college-level assistant-coaching jobs. "I'd like to teach people how the game should be played," he says.

But, for all the homesickness and the frustration of conforming to a different kind of basketball, Anderson says he'd miss playing if he stopped now.

"When I retire, I'm not going to travel anymore. Maybe to the Bahamas or something, for a vacation, but not Europe. It never interested me. I'm a Baltimore guy.

"But I've got to get this ball out of me first."

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