By Michael E. Miller
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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.
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."
Zidek compares Diaz's experience to his own. "Obviously he's a twenty-year-old kid, first time out of the U.S., so of course it must have been a shock for him, just as it was for me when I was eighteen years old and came to L.A.... We've had no complaints from him. He comes in and does his work like he is expected. He's a good professional."
Diaz says he is learning to deal with day-to-day obstacles like language, weather, and food he is plainly disgusted by the typical Czech fare of fatty meat, thick cream sauce, and doughy slabs of starch and working to meld his slash-to-the-hoop game with a bruising foreign style that revolves around the twin poles of inside beef and outside shooting.
The team, accustomed to hosting imported talent, takes good care of him. He has a rent-free apartment in Podebrady, a similarly small town near Nymburk. And the presence of fellow American rookie Walker Russell, a graduate of Alabama's Jacksonville State, tempers the provincial isolation. Diaz says he gets along well with his European teammates, most of whom speak at least some English. He has asked his colleagues for basic Czech tutoring, but they just "teach me all bad words." (He politely declines to share.)
Nymburk's chanting, drum-pounding fans seem taken with Diaz's explosively quick game, though when they hail him on the street, he can't offer much response. ("They smile, so I smile back," he says. "That's all I can do.") After the buzzer, kids seek his autograph. His No. 6 jersey, which retails for 690 Czech crowns (about $31.50), is already a big seller, reports the lady who hawks merchandise courtside. When Diaz pops a jumper from the baseline in a close contest, the 1200-strong crowd shakes the rafters, and the Czech announcer lets loose a credible "Gee-YER-mo DI-az!"
It's not the BankUnited Center, not ACC intensity, not the NBA. Still, Diaz says he is looking forward, not back: "This is where I'm at now. I can't do nothing about it."
Reached by phone November 14, six nights after the Riga loss, he strikes a more philosophical note. Maybe it's being over the flu. Maybe it's being in sunny Athens, where Nymburk has another FIBA match that night. (They would lose.) Or maybe it's just having another week under his belt, another week of adjusting, of keeping his focus on the game.
"It's different. I'm on a different team, different environment, different players, but basketball's never gonna change," he notes. On the court, he says, he doesn't think about being so far from home, or from where he wants to be. "You just want to win. It's the same thing when the game is on the line."