Some weeks ago Fenerbahce player and EuroLeague champion, Nikola Kalinic, started a twitter rant on things he doesn’t like about European basketball: amongst other things the long season; that there’s no summer break for national team players; problems with doping tests; that the ball is changed two times a week; that there’s no possibility to complain about refs. Many others counted themselves in afterwards: Kyle Hines, Aaron Jackson, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Matt Janning, Boki Nachbar – and also Keith Langford. Simon Linder of basketball.de talked to last seasons’ EuroLeague top scorer.
basketball.de: After Nikola Kalinic started his twitter rant you were one of the first guys to count themselves in. Can you explain why you did that and tell us what the most significant problems of European basketball are right now?
Keith Langford: The first thing is that it was very important that one of the prominent European players stepped up and said something. I think the things Nikola Kalinic said have been an issue especially for American players in Europe for a while. And until now it looks like that the officials of European basketball don’t see any reason to listen to what we have to say. E.g. they never invite any American players to speak at the EuroLeague summer meeting. That a European player stepped up now and said something was quite a big first step.
And there’s also a second thing?
Yes. The problem is that there’s no easy answer to these issues. There are many problems but there is just no regulation because nobody ever tries to improve something about it. They only see and show the bright side of professional sports. And at the end of the day everybody wants the money: players, teams, league officials. Everybody pays attention to that but nobody takes a look at the small details which are very important for players.
Doesn’t it all start with the different ‘culture of conflict’ in European basketball? That nobody wants anybody to talk about things and especially problems in public? So nobody wanted to be the person that steps up and talks about things first. Nikola Kalinic finally was the man to do so and guys like you or Kyle Hines and Aaron Jackson went on and mentioned many more problems.
The culture is part of it, but I think anywhere in the world there’s a culture and the people are comfortable with it. It’s just a matter of who’s the one to step up and say something. Because those people risk something and that’s why it is so important that there is a European player – especially a European champion – who says something.
If an American would have done that, they would probably try to get rid of him and find another US player. Because anyone who wants to change something risks a lot. And people have families to feed and contracts to fulfill. For the person that steps up and starts the conversation there’s going to be a lot of issues, a lot of negative backslash he has to deal with – from fans, from teams, from other players, even from the league officials.
This remembers me of a thing you already wrote in a letter to your younger self some time ago. You went from Milano to Kazan because you said you searched for a situation where you were able to ‘just hoop’. Many players don’t even get the chance to search for a situation that fits for them, they just have to take the money for the next month or the next year. They are probably happy to have guys like you with a large public interest to step up against league officials and push things in the name of everybody…
I think the first part of this is about Americans on bigger European teams. Every few years there is a couple of Americans playing for CSKA, one or two playing for Madrid or for the other top four or five teams in Europe. I’m one of these guys you like or you don’t like. You love the way I play or you hate it.
I had opportunities to play for teams I named but they were always like ‘you can come here but you’ll only have this kind of role’. That felt like they wanted to put limits on what I’ve been able to accomplish and I just don’t like that. So my decision to go to Kazan was because I was able to play for what I’m worth as a player there. I just didn’t want to go to team up somewhere and take half the money just to say that I was playing in Spain or on a big team. That is not important to me.
And on the second part of your question: Off course it is essential that someone like me steps up. I have to do this while I’m still having a voice because I have more years behind me than ahead in my career. We have to make it more comfortable for the players and the factors we were talking about can limit us playing our best basketball. So hopefully I can help trying to fix that.
When we take a look at European basketball right now, the things we were talking about are not the only issues we have. There is also the EuroLeague vs FIBA debate, the problem with more and more games also in EuroCup, the national team games during the season and so on. As a European I also see other leagues outside Europe getting more and more attractive: the Chinese CBA because of loads of money and the short season, or the G-League with a better chance to make the jump into the NBA and the possibility to live at home.
So shouldn’t it be a major interest of European league officials to listen to what players are complaining about? Because if they don’t the best Americans will just go to China or maybe into the G-League. What do you think they would have to improve so that European basketball could get as attractive as it was some years ago?
That’s a slippery slope, a tricky question. Honestly at the end of the day the officials in Europe don’t really have to change anything because Europe still has the biggest platform for hundreds, probably even a low thousands of Americans to come to Europe and make a significant amount of money. And we are talking about six figures to seven figures per year. There are only so many jobs in China and so many jobs in the G-League. As long as there is a league to play that can replace the aspects financially then a lot of guys will just deal with the conditions.
I just think that it would be wise to stop having issues with teams and players fighting on contracts because of difficult conditions players can’t deal with. That would help getting a better product. We just have to change these small things. And a lot of these small things wouldn’t even take money to solve the problem. It would just take to pay attention to some things. It would just take to listen. So it’s just about how much they care about the game and if they really want to improve the quality of the basketball played in Europe.
So it’s more about the quality of basketball in Europe and not so much about the competition with leagues on other continents?
I don’t think there’s anything that would stop the machine of European basketball, that would stop players from coming over. Not everybody can go to Australia or China or to other leagues. The EuroLeague is the second best league in the world. So the key is just to improve what you have and not let it go away.
Can you name some other issues we haven’t talked about yet?
When you look at the NBA, there’s the Collective Bargaining Agreement. That means the owners and the league periodically sit down and speak with the players about general conditions. We don’t have anything like that in Europe. There’s no regulation about practice for example. That is absolutely unacceptable. Even during this EuroLeague season there is lots of practice, sometimes two times a day. There has to be a regulation on how many hours a week you have to practice.
The EuroLeague has to sit down with the best of the best physical therapists, the best of the best nutritionists, the best of the best physical conditioning coaches in Europe. They have to figure out what is the best regulation to get the best product. Sometimes we deal with inappropriate conditions of travelling or accommodation. And there is also no regulation on the physical well-being – what wouldn’t cost any money for example!
And that’s most likely a thing that would help European national players too…
Sure. You have European guys who are playing the year around, from the national teams to EuroLeague to domestic leagues. This is ridiculous because some of the great players have to walk away from the game when they are 35 or 36. Maybe they could have played a few more years if they would have had time to regenerate their bodies.
Another thing you have to regulate is when players need to arrive for practice. Preseason is entirely slow. Often you have six weeks in preseason to prepare for a ten-month season. I think this is ridiculous. It’s just too much strain and stress on the body. And you can’t do anything because of the threat of losing your money. Also if they don’t pay the players it has to be allowed to leave the club. We need an automatic letter of clearance then.
We are talking about standards and if your team is a EuroLeague club your standards of travelling, your standards of day-to-day business operations, your standards of professionalism have to be set by the EuroLeague. And if you’re a EuroCup team it should be a little less to the EuroLeague and so on. But if you’re a EuroLeague team, you have to operate at a certain level and this is just not happening all across Europe.
Although I wouldn’t do that, at this point many would probably say, ‘you make so much money so how can you complain’…
I think you have to look at it in different perspectives. If I’d came to your job and tell you to write an article but I wouldn’t give you a laptop and give you a typewriter instead, but you’d have to compete with people who have laptops and email, you most likely couldn’t do your job at the best of your ability either. And this is the thing we are talking about.
I think I get it. But that seems to me like you kind of need something like a labor union. Something like the NBPA. Why don’t you just take these guys who started the conversation on twitter and found a players’ union?
Years ago I started to talk about that. I wrote something on twitter about having a union for players. The thing about the union is that you have to have solidarity. And having solidarity across so many countries that are involved in basketball is nearly impossible.
It’s not only EuroLeague, it’s not only EuroCup or Basketball Champions League, it’s all the leagues under FIBA rules, from the depth leagues all the way up to the ACB. And you would have to integrate all the American players, maybe also the Europeans. You can’t start and have one- or two-hundred people operating under better conditions and then you have a guy that is playing in Portugal or in a second division in another country and he’s left behind.
Sounds very difficult…
Yes, you have to have time to sit down and sort it out. I don’t want anyone to be left behind. We have to make sure that the conditions will apply to everybody across the board. This is a thing that will need a lot of attention and I can’t afford that while I’m playing.
And you don’t only need time, you would also need money I guess?
That’s the second thing. Everybody would have to pay monthly, because a union needs money to be effective. We would have to operate union habits. We would have to have people with knowledge of law, of contracts and many other different things. And then you would have to think about if guys that make more money have to pay more. How do you navigate that? You would have to sort all these things out. But most important is the third thing…
Tell us about it!
The question is: Is the EuroLeague going to recognize it? Is the FIBA going to recognize a players union? You can put it together but if FIBA and EuroLeague don’t recognize your union everybody has to come together and be willing not to play. And I don’t know how many people across the board are willing to do that.
So all this is a lot more difficult than I thought before I tweeted it the first time years ago. But it’s one of the things I’d like to do when I finished playing. But right now I’m just happy and proud of the guys that spoke up because it was necessary. But unfortunately nobody of us has sufficient time to push things while playing a ten-month season every year.
Sounds like a great undertaking for you after you have finished your career. Maybe it could also be an option for the best fifteen or twenty American players to come together and go to the EuroLeague and argue like ‘If you don’t listen to us, we have to think about signing in China for the next season’. Maybe the others will follow when you get the best players together. Don’t you think so?
I agree with that, but it’s only a part of it. The difficult aspect of it is that many guys are already in Europe and they are sacrificing so much like being away from their families and away from home. It needs someone who’s not playing anymore and who’s dedicated enough to step up and say ‘I don’t play anymore and now it’s my job to fight for these players’.
It would be asking a lot for guys currently playing in Europe to put their contract or their well-being with the team at risk to do that. It has to be organized by someone who is already done. And I don’t think it would help if the top fifteen players are saying ‘okay, we’re not going to play’. If it does, okay fine, but I think it needs more than that.
One last issue I’d like to ask you about is doping tests. Nikola Kalinic mentioned it in his tweets. Some years ago ratiopharm ulm Point Guard Per Günther talked about being tested very early in the morning after coming back late from a road trip and then having to do things that make you feel losing your human dignity. Are these measures necessary to have a clean game? And did you experience something like that too? To me this is quite a thing that’s not only about you as a basketball player but also about you as a human being.
Right. Well, I think doping tests are one of the things you signed off for being an athlete. This is my opinion. Off course there are difficult aspects of the job, but when it comes to doping and when it comes to the demands of keeping a clean game it’s just one of the things athletes have to endure. If you want to play this is one of the uncomfortable things you have to deal with. I just think that there’s a list of those type of things, and doping tests and things like that are part of it.
But my personal experience doesn’t show any problems with that, so I haven’t experienced what Nikola Kalinic or Per Günther were talking about. But just from the outside looking in and the few doping tests that I have done I just can say that it wasn’t a horrible experience. I would be lying if I said that this needs a dramatic change. In my opinion the other things I mentioned are way more important right now.
Thank you, Keith.