Shiver and Shoot

A UM star headed for the NBA detours to the Czech Republic

Guillermo Diaz lives in a small medieval town with a cobblestone square, an ancient castle, and a Gothic church. He works in another one. But before he explains, let him tell you about the weather.

"I can't go out — it's too cold," he says, visibly shuddering. "Hits me in the face real good."

It's actually quite balmy for a November night in Nymburk, Czech Republic — 50-odd degrees, no biting wind whipping up the Elbe river. But for a 21-year-old who has lived only in San Juan and Miami, that's a whole new ball game.

Guillermo Diaz (right) drives to the hoop
Dana Wilson
Guillermo Diaz (right) drives to the hoop

A few months ago Diaz didn't think he'd have to worry about dressing for winter. The former University of Miami basketball star, who opted out of his senior year, expected to be living in Los Angeles after the Clippers picked him in the second round of the NBA draft this past June.

Though he spent the summer with the Clippers, Diaz was not invited to the preseason training camp. Loaded with guaranteed-contract guards, the team told the Miamian there was no place for him ... yet.

A standout volleyball player in his native Puerto Rico (thanks to a startling 40-inch vertical leap), Diaz began playing organized hoop only after moving to Florida at age sixteen. But he was an immediate impact player with the Hurricanes, a two-time All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection who led the team in scoring during his sophomore and junior years. Elite European leagues like Spain, Greece, and Russia are loaded with similar talents — major-conference college stars, NBA picks deemed not quite ready for the show.

But by late September, the top overseas teams had set their rosters. "We were late," Diaz says. He was short on options.

Enter Jiri "George" Zidek. A genial seven-footer who starred on UCLA's 1995 national championship squad and played three NBA campaigns, the Czech native serves as assistant general manager for the Nymburk team and scouts Europe for the Clippers on the side. When Diaz became available, Zidek jumped at the chance to bring his team and the Czech National Basketball League (NBL) their highest-profile import to date. Within days of getting the bad news from L.A., Diaz was on a transatlantic flight.

Zidek frankly acknowledges his squad's good fortune: "We would not be able to attract a player of Guillermo's caliber in June." The Czech Republic is a middle rung on the international basketball ladder, and the Americans who have played here since the fall of Communism have mostly been journeymen or rookies from smaller schools.

But given Zidek's stateside ties, "it was a good place for me," Diaz says. The Clippers retain his draft rights and have assured him a shot at making next year's team, he says. "At least [in Nymburk] somebody can take care of me that the Clippers can trust. It was much better than going to a strange place."

Not that it isn't a little strange going from South Florida to landlocked Central Bohemia. An unassuming town of 14,000 about 30 miles east of Prague, Nymburk is the unlikely basketball capital of the Czech Republic.

Soccer and hockey rule here; in most of the country, basketball is an athletic afterthought. But Nymburk, too small to field big-league teams in the national pastimes, has taken to hoop with March Madness-like relish. Owned by a deep-pocketed homeboy lawyer with a basketball jones, the team has outspent and outplayed squads from much larger cities to claim the last three NBL titles. It has earned a regular berth in the prestigious, Europe-wide International Basketball Federation (FIBA) club tournament.

Reportedly the highest-paid player in the Czech league (his high school coach told the Miami Herald Diaz is making $255,000), Diaz has performed as advertised. At press time, he was averaging 21.2 points, second in the league, as Nymburk got off to a 10-0 start in NBL play.

On a recent evening, though, before a rabid home crowd, Nymburk suffered a demoralizing 93-87 FIBA loss to a squad from the Latvian capital, Riga. Laid low by flu ("He is still dressing for Miami weather," Zidek dryly noted) and four quick, mostly questionable first-half fouls, Diaz was rendered largely irrelevant on defense and scored only thirteen points.

"Sometimes you just don't know what to do. It's like, is this really happening?" he said after the game. He was talking about the refereeing, but the subject could easily have been the sudden swerve in his career and life.

Shy, soft-spoken, and deceptively slight, with a tight burr of hair supplanting the chrome pate he sported as a Hurricane, Diaz still seems dazed by his new surroundings. He smiles throughout an interview, chuckles as if pondering the very oddity of answering questions in Nymburk's sprawling, Communist-era sportovní centrum, but he rarely makes eye contact. Asked about his biggest adjustment, he takes a long pause before answering, "Everything."

"But now I'm used to it," he adds, "so it's okay."

He doesn't look so sure.

"No, no, no," he protests. "There's stuff I need to do in my life, you know? I mean, nothing's gonna be like the States, but I have to make the adjustment. I'm just here for work. To play basketball. That's what I'm here for."

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