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Shades of Fran Vazquez in Ricky Rubio story?

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Shades of Fran Vazquez in Ricky Rubio story?

Shades of Fran Vazquez in Ricky Rubio story?
posted by Tania Ganguli on Sep 2, 2009 11:32:45 AM
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In September of 2005, the Sentinel sent George Diaz to Spain to write about Fran Vazquez, the Spanish player the Magic drafted a few months before, who shunned the NBA to stay in Spain. Vazquez was expected to stay in Spain for at least another year, but then signed a four-year deal with a Spanish club.

Diaz returned from Spain with some insight as to why this happened. Players staying overseas wasn't unheard of, but first-round draft picks typically didn't do that.

The answer? The move was too overwhelming.

I couldn't help but think back to that now that the Ricky Rubio saga is over and Rubio is staying in Spain for at least two years. The Associated Press story quotes Rubio saying "it was impossible for the Minnesota Timberwolves to pay my buyout clause, so I wanted to stay home."

The truth is, the Timberwolves had figured out a plan they thought solved the buyout problem. NBA guidelines only allowed them to pay $500,000 of his $5 million buyout but, according to the AP, team president David Kahn had worked out a combination of endorsement deals and sponsorships that he thought made the deal attractive to both Rubio and Joventut, the Spanish club with Rubio's rights.

Rubio told the AP the whole deal just got too complicated and said twice his goal is the NBA. Maybe the teenager wasn't ready for it yet.

Click below to read Diaz's story on Fran Vazquez

The RUNAWAY draft pick
Fran Vazquez, the Magic's selection who never signed, tries to explain his story.

SAN FERNANDO, Spain -- Fran Vazquez walks through the streets of Spain with no worries.

A small-town young man who doesn't own a drivers license, Vazquez has taken his walking shoes and said adios to the Orlando Magic.

Vazquez, 22, made a curious, if not controversial, decision to forgo the NBA, recently signing a four-year deal to play for a local professional team in Spain. The Magic are the jilted suitor, wondering why he ignored the intoxicating pull of dollars and destiny in another country.

He had no devious plans at play shortly after the Magic selected him with the 11th pick in the first round of the NBA draft last June. But doubts would begin to build the minute he stepped foot on American soil, escalating with the tug of an influential girlfriend, an agent who stood to make significant financial gains if he stayed home, and finally, an unexpected offer making him the richest professional basketball player in Spain.

The runaway Magic draft pick sends his regrets.

"I know that my decision could affect some people within the [Magic] organization," Vazquez said after practicing with the Spanish national team recently. "I ask forgiveness if my decision has affected some people in a bad way. All I ask is for more time to improve so when I go there [to Orlando], the fans will say, `That's a great player they signed.' "

Should that day never come, the Magic likely will want to look back and wonder what went wrong. How, after scouting him eight times prior to the draft, did Magic officials fail to identify any of those concerns?

"I don't think it's a mistake," said Dave Twardzik, the Magic's co-assistant general manager. "When he comes over, he's going to play for us."

That's assuming, of course, he wants to come back.

With Vazquez prepared to fulfill the terms of his contract in Spain -- and the possibility of a prohibitive buyout clause complicating matters -- the Magic could own the rights to a player whose scouting report consists of one word: Worthless.

The first troubling steps occurred on the streets of Manhattan.

Vazquez came there with his girlfriend, Ana Toral, for three days in conjunction with the NBA draft on June 28.

Before shaking hands with NBA Commissioner David Stern, Vazquez got a new suit from the league as part of the deal, something he could use because it's a sharp upgrade from the only one he owns.

Despite the fashionable pose, Vazquez remains a small-town man at heart. He comes from a village of 2,000 people in Chantada, nestled in the Galicia region of Spain along the northwestern coastline. It is part of the Spanish Outback called Espana Profundo. Agriculture is the main industry.

His father, who died of skin cancer in March 2004, painted cars. His mother is a domestic worker. Although Vazquez has traveled throughout Europe for competitions, the United States was foreign territory.

The frenetic energy of Manhattan overwhelmed him.

"Yes, I was a little scared," he said, looking back. "It's not just changing cities, it's changing countries. I was thinking I would have to adapt as quickly as possible to a different lifestyle."

"Manhattan shocked us quite a bit," Toral said. "Everybody was running down the streets, and we were just looking at them [wide-eyed]."

They would come to Central Florida a day later, staying overnight at the Westin Grand Bohemian in downtown Orlando.

Vazquez seemed pleased to be in Orlando, less overwhelmed after the madness of Manhattan. He took pictures of Magic forward Grant Hill's locker. Toral received a number of Magic T-shirts and assorted memorabilia.

Weeks later, Vazquez would be featured on the cover of Magic Magazine, heralding the "Coming to America" theme.

But overseas events would cause all of those plans to unravel.

Somebody wanted to make Fran Vazquez a very rich man, hoping that the pile of euros would make the Magic disappear.

The sale appears innocuous. A small Spanish land-development company called Akasvayu, looking to broaden its reach, has bought the sponsorship rights to Girona. The franchise is struggling, never finishing higher than eighth in a decade. The team plays in a nondescript 5,000-seat arena.

Shortly after the NBA draft, team officials for Akasvayu started plotting strategy. They began to target a series of players, Vazquez among them. Under Spanish-league rules, a player does not have to fulfill the terms of his contract assuming another team pays a buyout fee stipulated in the contract. The price was $1.44 million, set by Unicaja Malaga, the team that Vazquez played for the past two seasons.

Shortly after leaving Orlando, Vazquez took a 10-day vacation in Cancun, Mexico, with Toral before returning to Spain in mid-July. Vazquez said he still had every intention of signing with the Magic. He planned to move to Orlando with Toral and her family.

But when he returned to Spain, Jose Cobelo, Vazquez's agent in Spain, was waiting for him with the staggering offer from Akasvayu: $8.31 million over four years.

There would be much to reconsider.

"I didn't expect this offer at all," Vazquez said.

Neither did the Magic nor Marc Cornstein, the U.S.-based agent for Vazquez who had been working in conjunction with Cobelo. European players generally have two agents to ease the transition overseas.

There was only one agent at play now, and that was Cobelo. Cornstein was bounced from the circle of trust, and by association, the Magic.

"I dealt primarily with Marc because that's the way we do business," said Scott Herring, the administrator of basketball operations for the Magic. " I think it got to a point that Marc was frustrated because Cobelo was not responding. At one point, he said, `Here's the contact information for Cobelo.' "

It would cast suspicions within the media and the Magic organization that Cobelo tweaked his client to stay. If Vazquez had signed with Orlando, Cobelo and Cornstein would have split a standard agent's fee of 3 percent. In Spain, Cobelo gets a 10 percent commission for himself.

Vazquez said he didn't receive any extra pressure from Cobelo, reiterating that the decision was made between he and his girlfriend.

Cornstein did not respond to repeated phone calls and an e-mail requesting an interview.

Beyond Cobelo, there was a familiar voice talking to Vazquez, his girlfriend.

The opinions about Toral are harsh among the Spanish media and basketball community, pointing to her influence in persuading Vazquez to stay in Spain. She appears to have a say in everything involving Vazquez, including his interaction with the media. She sat down with Vazquez a few minutes into an interview with an Orlando Sentinel reporter and stayed for the duration, though she was cordial and did not try to interfere.

The perception is not always so benign.

"I recently asked the players on the national team how many tickets they needed for the [international] games," said Manolo Rubia, the team manager of Unicaja Malaga (and who has the same role with the national team).

"Everybody said, two, three, six, whatever. Fran said, `I'll have to ask Ana.' He can't even decide how many tickets he wants for himself. Orlando is not losing anything."

Whatever sway Toral had, it would not be good for the Magic. They never saw it coming.

Team officials read about the news via Internet reports in Spain on July 28.

A day later, Vazquez posed for pictures for his new team, Girona Akasvayu.

The headlines in one of the Spanish papers blared the news:

BOMBAZO: FRAN VAZQUEZ, CUATRO ANOS AL AKASVAYU

(BOMB: FRAN VAZQUEZ FOUR YEARS TO AKASVAYU)

Vazquez goes to Girona among a cadre of players signed recently, including point guard Raul Lopez, who played two seasons with the Utah Jazz.

The team had been so bad it did not qualify to play against other European teams and only will compete once a week within Spain this season.

"We want Girona to compete for titles this year," Joseph Amat, the businessman who runs Akasvayu, told reporters in Spain. "In my business, second is worthless."

The Magic have just finished second.

The presence of Vazquez on the Spanish national team reflects his unexpected rise as a player.

"It's unbelievable considering this kid was nobody a year-and-a-half ago," said a European basketball official who asked for anonymity because of his ties to several teams.

Vazquez remains a prospect with great potential but an uneven resume.

He has been playing since he was 13 and selected to join a developmental league called "21st Century." It identifies big kids who want to play basketball and places them in a national program that allows kids to go to school and play basketball in the afternoons. Vazquez had been a soccer goalie, but his size intrigued youth-league basketball coaches. He didn't play the first year to allow him to learn the game.

Nine years later, he would average 10.9 points, 6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks in 34 Spanish-league games last season, and 12.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in nine playoff games.

"He's not a player like Pau Gasol, for example, who progressed significantly in a year-and-a-half," said Jose Luis Llorente, a veteran player who represented Spain in the 1984 Olympics and is now president of the players' association in the country.

"Pau [as he is referred to in Spain] went from one year not playing to being the best player in the league, then Rookie of the Year. Fran's evolution has been slower but steadier. He's a great worker. All trainers who have worked with him say he has a great work ethic. I think he will reach his peak in two to three years."

The Magic were smitten by that potential as well.

"What you see when you watch him play is a guy who is good athlete who finishes strongly around the basket and does not mind contact at all," Twardzik said.

"He's a physical player with a good feel for help defense [sliding over to cover other players] who can step outside and knock down a 15-16 foot jump shot. And the upside to his game is that he's going to get stronger."

Twardzik and Sam Foggin, the team's international scout based in Naples, Fla., combined to see him play eight times. Despite the physical potential, they never got into his head. Vazquez did not take any psychological profiles that are now common among high-profile prospects. Although the NBA administers those tests on a voluntary basis during the predraft camp in Chicago, Vazquez didn't participate in those workouts.

Perhaps a closer peek into his psyche would have revealed a naive nature, seeing if there was any reluctance to play overseas, and would have provided other insights.

"If a top law firm is recruiting the top minds in law school in the country, you would never hire somebody who you couldn't interview or talk to," the European basketball official said. "You would have a picture of what the kid thinks like before offering him a contract."

Collectively, the decision was reached to take Vazquez in the draft. The Magic took him over safer domestic picks, including power forward Sean May, forward Danny Granger and swingman Antoine Wright.

Although Vazquez did not participate in summer-league games in Las Vegas after the draft, Magic officials said there were no worries. A buyout of the contract with Unicaja Malaga was imminent.

It would all unravel within a month.

After failing to get in personal contact with their runaway draft pick, Twardzik, Foggin and an interpreter went to Malaga for a face-to-face on Aug. 3. They met at the Hotel Malaga Palacio, with Vazquez -- joined by Gorka Arrinda, who owns an agency of sports agents, including Cobelo.

It was not meant as an intervention to try to get Vazquez to change his mind, though that's what Vazquez feared when they met for two hours in the morning.

"I was surprised because I thought they were going to be angry and throw a fit," Vazquez said. "It was completely different. We talked as friends. They listened to my opinions and I listened to theirs, and well, we finished the night laughing and dining.

"They know when I'm prepared, I will go there, and they've accepted that."

Twardzik said the Magic "fully expect him to play in the NBA," though they will have to work out an arrangement with Akasvayu to allow Vazquez to play overseas.

Media outlets in Spain have reported that the out clause is set at $3.6 million, of which of the Magic can pay only $500,000 based on the NBA's new collective-bargaining agreement for signing players overseas with existing contracts. Vazquez would have to pay the difference.

Twardzik puts the buyout clause at "a little over a million dollars," based on representatives for Vazquez. Cobelo did not respond to repeated e-mails or numerous calls seeking a clarification.

"If I want to leave, then we can reach an agreement," said Vazquez, who said he is unclear on the exact terms of the clause in his contract.

Should Vazquez never play here, it would be yet another in a series of unfortunate events for a franchise that allowed Shaquille O'Neal -- one of the most dominant players of this generation -- to slip away without compensation in 1996.

The repercussions reverberate far beyond Orlando. Here, thousands of miles away from Central Florida, many fans and insiders still can't believe that Vazquez could be so provincial, if not foolish.

It's a bit unfathomable to fans in Spain that Vazquez and his team now are creating the biggest buzz since Gasol. The expectations build around Vazquez, who gets more money than anyone else.

"It would be like the Magic signing [Allen] Iverson, and they are paying him more than anybody, and he starts to play badly, he's going to get squeezed by the press," Rubia said. "Same here."

Sitting in the hotel lobby where the Spanish national basketball team is training, Vazquez acknowledged there will be "a thousand eyes on me at times." He smiled, finding it difficult to articulate on just how crazy life has been since he shook hands with David Stern on June 28.

There have been cheers and jeers, suspected chicanery and a bit of chaos, and lots of dollars and euros bandied about.

The reticent kid from a quaint city in Spain seems overwhelmed by it all. There is no big-picture perspective, just the calming acceptance that for now, he'll step on soil that has a familiar feel.

A few tangible memories of the United States remain. He wore that new suit recently to a friend's wedding.

And he still has pictures of his day in Orlando. He can't say whether he will come back.

"From what I saw in 24 hours, Orlando was a nice city," he said. "It was quiet and comfortable. I took those pictures in the locker room to have a memory. If I play there, I can always look back and say, `The first day here, this is what I saw.' "


Slam
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Ricky Rubio

At the time Vazquez was not ready for the NBA and it could be argued he is still not ready. He had to grow into his body and learn to play with his athleticism. Fran is still developing as a player but right now he is used as a defensive presence from Barcelona. And his new teammate on Barcelona is Ricky Rubio who it seems like culturally was not ready for a move from Spain to the NBA. Rubio wanted to stay atleast 2 more years in Spain to work on his game and stay close to home in Barcelona. Personally I just think he really didn't want to go to Minnesota. Check out how this will effect Barcelona? Minnesota? Ricky's Career? On this Podcast: http://podcast.euroleagueadventures.com/2009/09/02/ricky-rubio-finally-i...

- Slam

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when the magic drafted him

we all thought he was coming over to play for us. he came to tour the city to see what is it like. but he brought that controlling girl with him. so she told him no to orlando for awhile. so he went back to play overseas. its been four years now. and he still hasnt came over yet. and hes going on 25 i think. so by the time he comes over i think he will be 26 or 27. but in my mind i dont think hes never gonna come over. so we mind as well trade his rights.

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