Nothing Can Keep Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois Away From the N.B.A.
Nothing Can Keep Real Madrid’s Thibaut Courtois Away From the N.B.A.
Given his club and his country, plus his physical stature, they don’t come much bigger in global soccer than Courtois.
I am a stocky 5-foot-9 scribe who was moved to celebrate when I was once charitably described as a “cool nerd” by Steve Nash, the N.B.A.’s two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner. I never imagined someone like Courtois and I could have much in common.
Then I met Courtois on a recent Zoom call arranged by N.B.A. Europe to promote his weekly “NBA 2K Sundays” video game duels against fellow soccer and basketball players, which are broadcast weekly on Courtois’s Twitch channel. Courtois showed up for the occasion in a black game-worn Jose Calderon Atlanta Hawks jersey, even though the retired Calderon spent just 247 minutes on the floor with the Hawks, during the 2016-17 season.
Another surprise: Courtois didn’t seem to mind the grief he was getting, from me and everyone else on the call, that there would most likely be zero demand in the United States — or even Calderon’s native Spain — for a keepsake from Calderon’s 17 games as a Hawk.
“He gave it to me as a present,” Courtois said proudly.
Over the next few minutes, it was refreshing — and reassuring — to hear stories from an international soccer star from a country with a modest basketball tradition about how closely he follows the N.B.A. Like a certain newsletter curator who is constantly bartering with his family for permission to sneak over to England for as much Premier League intake as he can muster, Courtois is constantly looking for openings in his playing schedule to jet to the United States to see some hoops.
In December, when Real Madrid granted its players a one-week vacation, Courtois went to Miami to see the Heat play twice, including a game against the Philadelphia 76ers and Courtois’s pal Joel Embiid. Early in the second quarter, Miami’s Tyler Herro leapt into the baseline seats in pursuit of a loose ball.
“He jumped and I caught him,” Courtois said.
Herro didn’t appear to realize in the moment who Courtois was, but the 27-year-old goalkeeper has been making such junkets at least once a season for the past four years.
The tradition peaked in February 2017. Chelsea’s players were promised extra time off by their manager, Antonio Conte, if they beat their London rivals Arsenal in a 12:30 p.m. kickoff on Feb. 4, 2017.
After Chelsea’s resounding 3-1 victory, Courtois headed straight for the airport to fly to New York. The flight made good time, and he got to see LeBron James score 32 points in the Cleveland Cavaliers’ victory over the Knicks at Madison Square Garden that same night when he had expected to catch only the second half.
The next day, Courtois flew to Houston to watch his first Super Bowl, in which the New England Patriots famously overturned a 28-3 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons. On Feb. 6, 2017, Courtois then flew back to New York to see the Knicks host the Lakers, which furthered his friendship with the devoted Chelsea fan Larry Nance Jr., who was then playing for Los Angeles before being traded to the Cavaliers.
“Nice trip,” Courtois said, smiling at the memory.
Soccer players’ close tracking of basketball, and vice versa, certainly isn’t new. NBA 2K and EA’s FIFA, as two of the world’s most popular video game franchises, have only strengthened the ties between the two sports.
But Courtois’s willingness to regularly expose himself to otherworldly jet lag on his N.B.A. excursions is an uncommon level of devotion. With no particular favorite team, Courtois embodies the modern breed of N.B.A. fan whose attachments are based more on specific players than franchises.
Courtois was introduced to Embiid by the former 76ers guard Sergio Rodriguez. He likes to watch the Dallas Mavericks because of a fondness for the European duo Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. He credits the Golden State Warriors’ recent run of three championships in five consecutive trips to the finals with drawing him deeper into N.B.A. fandom. Along with those from Calderon and Nance, Courtois has game-worn jerseys in his collection from Charlotte’s Willy Hernangomez and Utah’s Rudy Gobert. He is a big Trae Young fan because, well, he just likes watching Trae Young.
He just likes watching the N.B.A. — at home, on his phone and, of course, live.
“If I had two days off, I would really fly to New York or anywhere to see it,” Courtois said.
So as I wrote about the soccer-loving Nance and New Orleans’s Josh Hart in March, Courtois finds himself trying to fill multiple sporting voids in his life because of the coronavirus outbreak. Real Madrid’s title chases in La Liga and the Champions League have been placed on indefinite pause — and the same holds for Courtois’s go-to pastime.
A big part of staying busy has been “NBA 2K Sundays,” which extends to its sixth week this Sunday when Courtois takes on Nance. Courtois got off to a 4-0 start, including comfortable victories over his Belgian national-team teammate Romelu Lukaku of Inter Milan and Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero. Then he ran into the Atlanta Hawks’ John Collins: Wearing a retro Belgium World Cup shirt that won him big points here at Newsletter HQ, Collins used the All-Time Lakers to rout Courtois’s All-Time Bulls.
Yet Courtois did supply the evening’s standout revelation when he told a story about throwing down a dunk at AmericanAirlines Arena during his recent Miami trip.
“When you play them, it’s quite nice to have that interaction,” Courtois said.
I admit it: I am frequently guilty of hunting down crossover stories for our Tuesdays together which allow me to explore connections between my two other sporting obsessions (soccer and tennis) and the N.B.A. But it’s likewise because I am fascinated by world-class athletes who still allow themselves to lapse into sports-nerdy behavior with another sport — like Nance tweeting about his fondness for the intense soccer simulation game Football Manager, which is all about running a club rather than replicating game action.
Also: My 13-year-old son, Aaron, is a goalkeeper, which has completely changed the way I watch soccer. It has made me take keen interest in a position that I had never deeply studied before.
Most of all, though, I just wanted to talk with Courtois to find out if he really is as crazed about basketball as people had told me — and to see how he was coping without the game(s) we both love.
The Calderon Atlanta Hawks throwback jersey said it all.
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line. Letters may be lightly edited.)
Q: I don’t disagree, but I think the “best decade” for the N.B.A. is whichever lined up with your formative years as a young fan. I’m hypernostalgic for the 1990s even though I know the basketball wasn’t great all the time. — Kristofer Habbas (Phoenix)
Stein: Thank you, Kristofer, for getting me.
During a round of N.B.A. Twitter hysteria on Sunday night, which coincided with two new episodes of “The Last Dance” documentary, I followed up a comment by my good pal Marc J. Spears from The Undefeated about the majesty of the 1980s by proclaiming it the undisputed greatest decade in N.B.A. history.
It was not a tweet I dispatched in hopes of sparking deep debate. I’m in complete agreement with Mr. Habbas: N.B.A. fans are bound to have unreservedly deep attachments to whichever decade coincided with the events that stoked and cemented their fandom. So there’s little sense arguing about it.
I fell in love with the N.B.A. in the mid-1970s as a young kid in Western New York, and in the summer of 1978 I had to endure the departure of my beloved Buffalo Braves to San Diego and our family’s move to the West Coast. It was a lot for a 9-year-old to take, but the 1980s were around the corner, about to make the league irresistible — even for a bewildered young fan who had abruptly lost his favorite team. (And, for the record, I could not just bring myself to adopt the San Diego Clippers as a replacement despite living only an hour north of them. Even with Randy Smith and Swen Nater on the original Clippers roster, it was Braves or bust for me.)
I know I’ve previously waxed annoyingly about the sport’s revolutionary surge of popularity in that time, thanks largely to the greatness and global appeal of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and all those “Fannnnntastic” commercials set to The Pointer Sisters’ “Hot Together” — but I can’t help it. The 1980s footage in “The Last Dance” has swept me up in the moment as much as or more than any of the new stuff.
But I also understand that children of the 1990s and early 2000s feel just as passionately about the era they grew up in as I do about my teen years. It’s totally natural and, I swear, my tweet was really all in fun. Kristofer knows.
Q: You don’t know the context of that era. There were genuine fears of a court invasion by the Detroit fans that could have endangered the safety of Celtics players. — @5mintillZeitnot from Twitter
Stein: Wrong. I am very aware of the “context of that era” and how the Boston-Detroit series ended in 1988 compared to the Detroit-Chicago series in 1991.
Maybe I didn’t spell it out well on Twitter, which happens sometimes, but I will expound here on why I believe Isiah Thomas has a legitimate complaint about the unrelenting manner in which his Pistons have been criticized for nearly 30 years for walking off the court without shaking the Bulls’ hands — while the Celtics who lost the 1988 Eastern Conference finals to Detroit have scarcely been questioned for doing the same.
Security concerns have been cited as the reason some Celtics players left the court with time still left on the clock in their Game 6 elimination at Detroit in 1988. Jon Jennings, who worked on the Celtics’ staff as a video coordinator that season, explained in a story on Monday by The Boston Globe’s Adam Himmelsbach that Boston Coach K.C. Jones and his assistants, Jimmy Rodgers and Chris Ford, came up with the idea to get the Celtics’ stars to the locker room before the final buzzer.
The problem: None of this was well-explained at the time or, frankly, for years after. Jennings’ comments — in 2020 — may be the most detailed on the matter.
John Salley, one of Thomas’ Detroit teammates, appeared on ESPN’s “SportsCenter” with Scott Van Pelt on Sunday night and described the Celtics’ actions in the same way that Thomas did. So this was not just “Isiah’s theory.” Those Pistons believed most of the Celtics snubbed them at the final buzzer and there hasn’t been much of a rush from Boston to correct them.
For a sense of the animosity between those teams, here is a quote from Danny Ainge found in Michael Wilbon’s Game 6 story from The Washington Post in June 1988:
“Can I wish them good luck?” Ainge said. “No. It’s just hard for me to root for them, that’s all. I don’t like the Detroit Pistons. We put up a good effort and got beat by a better team. I will say that. They’ve proven they’re the better team. But it’s tough to lose to anybody, and losing to the Detroit Pistons makes it even worse.”
I totally get that the “Bad Boys” Pistons, after embracing their villainous reputation to the hilt and using it as the platform for back-to-back championships, aren’t going to win an ounce of sympathy now claiming that history has treated them unfairly. But Isiah, as he admitted in a Monday interview with ESPN, has indeed “paid a heavy price” for what happened at the end of one game in 1991 — from what all parties seem to agree was a scheme hatched by Bill Laimbeer.
Compared to what the 1987-88 Celtics faced for what, at the very least, can be classified as a similar transgression, there is a massive inequity in the reaction, even accounting for how nasty the Bad Boys could be.
Q: I used PonTel in the 1990s and 2000s to start my love affair with the N.B.A. in the United Kingdom. I waited eagerly every week for the tape to drop through the letter box. I, too, was a Bulls fan. One thing, though: It’s a Swiss company, rather than German. — @elyuw from Twitter
Stein: In last week’s newsletter about Toronto’s Nick Nurse studying Phil Jackson game film while he was coaching in England in the 1990s — long before Nurse ever dreamed of coaching in the N.B.A. — I identified PonTel as the German distributor to which Nurse subscribed for the regular shipment of Bulls games on VHS tapes.
A few of you wrote in to note that PonTel is actually in Switzerland, where it continues to operate as a licensed distributor of recorded N.B.A., N.F.L. and Major League Baseball coverage for audiences in Europe, Asia and Australia.
But there are a couple of pertinent clarifications for the handful of readers who have posed questions on this topic over the past week:
PonTel actually opened in Germany in the 1980s before, according to the company, moving to Switzerland in 1994.
Nurse said the shipments were often made via German DHL, even if the tapes were actually dispatched from Switzerland, which added to the confusion.
Dennis Rodman’s last N.B.A. stint came 20 years ago with the Dallas Mavericks: 35 days with his hometown team in the 1999-2000 season. The Mavericks’ courtship of Rodman began in January 2000, shortly after Mark Cuban reached an agreement to buy the team from Ross Perot Jr., but Rodman’s signing was delayed for more than a week while he attended the Super Bowl to satisfy a pre-existing promotional contract. Here are a Dallas Morning News game story from Rodman’s Mavericks debut on Feb. 9, 2000, and a Sunday night Twitter thread with more details about Rodman’s final season in the N.B.A.
One question “The Last Dance” certainly will not pose given Michael Jordan’s level of control over the project: How is M.J. coping with mediocrity in N.B.A. management after all his on-court success? Charlotte reached the playoffs in 2009-10, less than two months after Jordan became the Hornets’ majority owner, but they have qualified for the N.B.A. postseason only twice since despite residing in the (easier) Eastern Conference. When the N.B.A. suspended this season on March 11 in response to the coronavirus crisis, Charlotte was 23-42 and seven games out of the East’s final playoff spot, with 17 games left on its schedule.
Tim Floyd, who replaced Phil Jackson as the Bulls’ coach starting with the N.B.A.’s lockout-shortened season in 1999, told ESPN Radio (104.5 FM) in Baton Rouge, La., recently that Jerry Krause, Chicago’s general manager of that era, had begun courting him in 1989. In the interview, Floyd also said Krause wanted to oust Jackson and hire him in the summer of 1996 — after the Bulls had gone 72-10 and won the fourth of their six championships in eight years.
The N.B.A. maintained bank-shot data for the final 13 seasons of Tim Duncan’s career, during which Duncan averaged 72.7 converted bank shots per season. Here are four elite power players of today with their bank-shot totals for this season in parentheses: Anthony Davis (7), Giannis Antetokounmpo (6), Joel Embiid (6) and Karl-Anthony Towns (6).
Taiwan Beer has been pushed to a Game 7 in the Super Basketball League finals by the Yulon Luxgen Dinos, despite being spotted a 1-0 lead to start the series by league rules after finishing in first place in both halves of Taiwan’s S.B.L. season. Led by 46 points from the former Central Michigan star Marcus Keene, Yulon won Game 6 on Tuesday in what is the only widely recognized professional basketball league that remains active during the coronavirus crisis. FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, has joined Taiwan’s Eleven Sports (via Twitch) in broadcasting S.B.L. finals games (via YouTube).