It was supposed to be a friendly game, a scrimmage against a local rival.
But to make it to his first European basketball game as a pro, Ibrahim Jaaber and his new teammates needed an escort from an armored bus. Seated among them were police officers donning bulletproof shields and complete riot gear.
“OK, ‘friendly,’ game, I misunderstood,” Jaaber said. “I thought for a second that I was shipped off to the wrong place.”
There was no mistake, of course, and Jaaber would soon fit in quite well. Now 4,000 miles and 30 months removed from the last truly iconic moment in Penn sports — when he led the Quakers to their third straight Ivy League title and an NCAA Tournament date with Texas A&M; — he has emerged as a star Euroleague guard.
During a brief stint in the Greek League, he dropped his first 40-point game at any level. He averaged a conference-high 22.4 points per game before Egaleo traded him to Lottomatica Virtus Roma, an Italian club.
He’s been there since, leading Roma last year with 14.9 points per game while also averaging 2.6 assists (second) and 2.5 steals (tied for second). That was plenty to pique the interest of NBA scouts who were already in Italy to follow Brandon Jennings, his roommate and teammate.
The Milwaukee Bucks selected Jennings 10th overall in the 2009 Draft and signed him to a two-year, $4.5 million contract.
But as NBA teams reached out to Jaaber, he repeatedly turned them down. After all, he pointed out, he has one year remaining on the two-year extension he signed with Roma in June 2008.
And while he did not specify what he is paid, he said that after taking into account tax differences and other perks of playing overseas, “it wouldn’t be in my best interest” to play for the NBA minimum salary, which will be $457,588 in 2009-10.
“It’s definitely a dream of mine, something that I want to do eventually,” said Jaaber, whose Draft window has expired. (He would have to sign a free-agent contract to join an NBA team.)
“But at the same time, I have a great responsibility to my family. I have a big family. So I always have to consider them.
“I don’t think it’s a question of, ‘Can I play in the NBA?’ It’s just a matter of finding the right team, finding the interest, finding the right situation. So it would be my call. The only thing I can do is look at the offer and accept it if it’s a good one.”
Jennings, 20, agreed that Jaaber is NBA material.
“He’s a great defender,” Jennings said. “If you need somebody to go out there to shut somebody down, I think he’s the guy I would call for.”
Until that call comes, though, Jaaber is keeping himself plenty busy.
He said he wakes up around 5 a.m. each day to pray — he has been a practicing Muslim since birth — then jumps into some morning literature. The self-proclaimed history and mystery buff is in the middle of The Invisible Man, Watchmen and 1984 (“It’s the year I was born in, so I feel like I’m supposed to read it,” he said).
But he’s also been known to tap into the reading lists of his father and of Steve Danley, his former Penn teammate who doubled as a New York Times writer and Marshall Scholar.
And when he’s not reading, he’s working on amateur photography and much more serious spoken-word beats. He has a recording studio in Harlem and is trying to use his music projects to obtain a Master’s degree.
“He’s really involved in his music,” Jennings said. “He’s a pretty good rapper so far.”
To complete the Renaissance Man persona, Jaaber has been traveling and taking language classes, finally assuaging his guilt by learning some Italian.
And, because of the lack of fast food in Europe, he is teaching himself how to cook.
“The kitchen is still intact,” he said. “It hasn’t burned, as of yet.”
Nor have his ties to Penn. Mark Zoller, a Quakers teammate, spent a week visiting him in Rome last year. And over the summer, Jaaber came back to campus, stopped at the Palestra — “you know, had to visit my home” — and spoke with coach Glen Miller and hoops seniors Justin Reilly and Darren Smith.
“I try to keep a close relationship with those guys as well, because hopefully some of those guys will be coming and playing overseas,” Jaaber said. “They’ll need some good advice.”
Mentorship is nothing new; Jennings said Jaaber was “like a big brother” who helped him adjust, both on the court (how to guard an opponent) and off (how to save money).
That’s why Jaaber — who attended Jennings’ Draft party in New York — was so happy when the California native was picked.
A reunion in the NBA could be in the works sometime down the line. Jaaber doesn’t see himself playing in Europe for more than another five years, but a return to the States could extend his career longer.
“I never doubted NBA possibilities or NBA potential,” Jaaber said. “But [Jennings’ selection] kind of diminished, from any outside perspective, any doubt of if I’m capable enough to play in the NBA.
“That was his window. My window was closed. I didn’t get drafted. But there will be windows in the future.”Comments powered by Disqus
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