Excerpted from ‘To Win is Not Enough: My Life, My Basketball’ by Sarunas Jasikevicius with Pietro Scibetta. Published by ADD Editore. Book can be purchased online at Amazon.
I know I have a reputation for being a party animal, even though imagination is often bigger than reality. Moreover, you cannot play at a high level for many years without sleeping, eating and working out the right way. I must say that, after my second season in Maccabi, I experienced perhaps the most carefree period of my life. I needed it, after being absorbed by basketball so deeply in previous years. I was just back from a three-year dream for any player. If you think about it, it was crazy: three times in the Euroleague, European champions with the National Team, cups and championships with Maccabi and Barcelona.
Beautiful. Beautiful. But I’d had enough.
That’s why I set up for a nice little program that included a long vacation away from Europe and the places where they could recognize me as a player. I just needed to be Sarunas, to relax and enjoy what I had accomplished. I also broke up with a model, Lihi.
During that summer of 2005, I became a free agent and although I could ask for anything of any team in Europe, in my head now there were only three letters: NBA. Maurizio Balducci and Doug Neustadt, his partner in the U.S., told me that there would be concrete offers, and those were not just words. It was great to be at the center of attention of some American franchises: I had made a big name for myself internationally, a name that they respected.
There were intense weeks of contacts, phone calls, and conference calls. I remember a beautiful speech by Jerry Sloan, who wanted me for the Utah Jazz to share the position of playmaker with a young man named Deron Williams… Portland was also interested, Nate McMillan made clear how much he wanted me; they had lots of salary cap space and they even offered me a five-year contract.
However, I had my own ideas. Weird, right?
Let’s say after several seasons, I had grown attached to the idea of winning. I wanted to win even in the U.S. or at least to have the chance.
In that sense, the two most realistic options seemed to be Cleveland or Indiana. Well, the Cavs had LeBron and, in a sense, I felt already at home with Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Anderson Varejao, respectively my best friend and my Brazilian godson. I remember Varejao for his shyness. When he arrived to Barcelona at age 18, thanks to Nacho Rodriguez, they gave him a nickname – Pipa – so we called him Pipa since then. He really seemed like a strange guy.
For the first three months, he did not touch a drop of alcohol in order to respect a promise made to his father. Then he found a way to catch up! For him, I was almost a father figure, we were both single at the time, and it was fun to spend time with him. He had an incredible sense of humor, he had no limits when it came to jokes, and soon he learned to enjoy life.
For a Brazilian, he was not a big soccer fan, but he became friends with some of his fellow citizens in Barça: Thiago Motta, Fabio Rochemback and Ronaldinho. There were rumors that Pesic’s daughter, Ivana, liked him very much. How could we not tease him about it? Even a tough guy like Pesic did not miss the chance. Once, at the airport after a victory, he said, “Varejao, don’t look too much at Ivana.” We would call him the favorite. “Well, you are playing only because you’re dating the coach’s daughter.” Obviously we were just kidding.
Had I signed with Cleveland, maybe I would not have played more than anywhere else, but for sure I’d have a great time. I liked Varejao also for another reason: he knew his strengths and weaknesses on the basketball court. Maybe not everybody loved his attitude, but who cares. Rasheed Wallace accused him of being an artist of flopping.
The reply of Pipa was legendary: “Me? No flop, samba.”
Although I had friends there, I did not choose Cleveland. Larry Bird had an eye on me for quite some time. He came to follow the European Championship in Sweden, and then to Tel Aviv. When I learned that he would arrive in Israel, I spent two crazy weeks searching for a restaurant to go to dinner with him, a place where journalists and fans would not jump on him.
Finally, I found a place that frankly was not up to Larry’s standards, but what else could I do? We had dinner together after a game, he sat down in front of me and asked, “Sarunas, what are we going to drink?” “Well, after a game, a beer does the trick.” He said, “Perfect, just my kind of guy.”
I found him to be a very simple man. He could not tell me much, because of the NBA rules on transfers and signings; however, he made it clear that from July 1, they would be there for the contract negotiations.
And they were.
The Pacers treated me as one of their priorities, accepting and enduring even my usual indecision. Maurizio was used to my behavior, but I think I drove Doug crazy! Coach Rick Carlisle was in charge of the recruitment. He could talk about basketball for hours and hours. I felt at ease with him, and to be honest, I was even enjoying this stage. I liked to feel wanted.
Even Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cavs, had sent me some nice messages, but I liked Carlisle’s words to the point that I did not realize that I was using my Israeli cell phone while I was in Barcelona; I had set a record: $10,000 for a month of phone calls… It’s not to brag, but that bill was unethical! I spoke with Donnie Walsh a few times, the “engine” of the franchise, while Bird never tried to force my choice, “The important thing is that you do what makes you happy.”
They had an important coach, a wonderful organization and they were talented enough, as a team, to compete with anyone. In addition, they offered me a good contract: three years and $12 million, evenly distributed. So reluctantly, I said no to Ilgauskas and the Cavs believing, however, I made the right choice. I had gathered a lot of information about the teams and their prospects. Indiana, at that time, was a constant presence in the playoffs (they were in 13 playoffs the previous 14 seasons). They also played the final against the Lakers a few years earlier. In short, in the Eastern Conference you would always have to deal with them.
On the team, there were positive expectations for me, and when I arrived I was showered with attention from the media. Number 13 was already taken, so I chose to play with the number 3 in honor of Drazen Petrovic, the one who inspired me as a boy, and who had been a pioneer of the “global game” in the NBA. They were expecting a star, given my recent history in Europe and the status that I had earned. I thought I could be a rather important piece of a team that was thinking big. Meanwhile, I continued to goof around, thinking I could get in shape once in the training camp. Instead…
I got injured. How? In a crazy way.
I love going to concerts, and Barcelona is unrivaled in Europe when it comes to live music. I went to see Madonna, Rihanna, 50 Cent, Julio Iglesias (old family passion), Bruce Springsteen… and then U2 came to town in August 2005. It was the birthday of the wife of my friend Darius Maskoliunas. We had a late lunch at the Port Olimpic and then we went to the concert together. I sang, I danced, and I jumped. That’s it… I jumped. And the next day, I could not even walk. I had to take the medical exam with the Pacers, and arriving in these conditions was certainly not a great start. I could not even do the treadmill, let alone running. Despite this, the Pacers’ medical staff surprised me.
You can buy To Win is Not Enough: My Life, My basketball on Amazon.