Basketball: Greer makes career, home playing in France

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Posted: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 11:36 pm | Updated: 11:25 am, Thu Feb 5, 2015.

STRASBOURG, France — The Statue of Liberty looks out of place here. The iconic American sculpture, a gift from the French, has no business outside of a laser tag arcade in the suburbs of Strasbourg, France.

And yet, here it is. The dark gray imitation of “La Liberte Eclairant le Monde” stands more than 10 feet high, perched atop a concrete oval structure on the edge of a strip-mall parking lot, the torch extending well over the 6-foot-6 man nearby.

Ricardo Greer is here to set up for his son’s eighth birthday party.

The former Pitt Panther has spent 10 of the last 11 years playing basketball in this country. In that time, he’s won the French Pro A League (Ligue Nationale de Basket, or LNB) twice, won MVP once, and has made numerous All-Star teams. These are enough accolades to make him one of the best, if not the best, Americans to ever play in France.

But at the age of 36, the end of his career is near.

He speaks French now, but knew none when he came over in 2002 for his first season. He remedied this problem by watching a lot of French television with the subtitles turned on, an easy task for a single man in an unfamiliar land.

His familiarity with another romance language, Spanish (his first language as a Dominican-American), also helped.

Fast forward to the present, and he’s able to converse with fans after games while exchanging customary pecks on the cheeks. He can also speak to his French coaches, team staff and teammates in their native tongue, and he can interact with autograph seekers he comes across in public.

But that trilingual ability is of little help at the moment.

It’s a bit after 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and the store is shuttered with no signs of life evident, despite the listed opening time having passed and a reservation set for 2:30 p.m. No one is picking up when Greer calls the phone number on the side of the building. His son and his son’s friend run around the mostly empty parking lot before going inside the adjacent toy store.

This isn’t the only task Greer has today. Strasbourg Illkirch-Graffenstaden Basket, better known as SIG Basket, has practice at 4 p.m.

This is life for Greer now: balancing raising a family with a professional basketball career. This is a reality he’s comfortable with.

Playing the game

In a Euroleague game the night before against Anadolu Efes Istanbul, Greer started and displayed the versatility he is known for. He compiled 10 points, five assists and four rebounds in 30 minutes while splitting his time down low, beyond the 3-point line (he shot 2-for-2 from distance) and everywhere in between.

Greer, who attended Pitt from 1997 to 2001, is seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list, seventh in field goals made, sixth in rebounds, 12th in assists, fifth in steals, the program’s all-time leader in offensive rebounds and one of only seven four-year starters in the men’s team’s history.

Under coach Ben Howland, Greer helped lead the school into its current era of success. His senior year, Pitt made the Big East championship game and went to the NIT Sweet Sixteen.

The next year, the streak of 10 straight NCAA Tournament appearances began.

As both the oldest active player in Pro-A and one of the longest tenured, Greer is averaging 7.6 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.4 turnovers in 25.8 minutes per game. While in the Euroleague, his stats amount to 24.7 minutes, 7.3 points, 3 turnovers and 4.3 assists and rebounds per game.

At the moment, SIG Basket occupies fifth place out of 16 teams in Pro A with a record of 3-2. The team is in last place in its Euroleague group, failing to win one of the three games it has played.

While Greer says he hasn’t acquired a taste for the national cuisine and has a rotation of four or five restaurants to which he sticks, he’s happy with his life in Europe.

“I’ve been here for 12 years. I’ve had great experiences, met great people, started a family,” Greer said. “At the end of the day, the NBA is great, but Europe is great, also. Not too many people can say they can leave college and make ‘X’ amount of money just out of college.”

He has enjoyed the experience of living in France, but his Australian wife is “not a big fan” to hear Greer say so. Both his son and younger daughter were born here, go to school here and speak the language fluently in addition to Spanish and English.

“Now, as they get older, it’s a little harder because they’re more wanting to stay in the States,” Greer, who lives in Orlando during the offseason, said. “But as my career’s ending, it’s a perfect situation where soon they’ll be able to go to school in the States and it’ll be done.”

Greer wants to pursue a career coaching when his time playing ends, which is something former Pitt teammate Brandin Knight has done as an assistant at their alma mater.

Another ’90s era Pitt player, Orlando Antigua, preceded Knight in that role. Antigua currently works under John Calipari at Kentucky and is the head coach of the Dominican Republic national team. Greer, who returned to the squad after a four-year hiatus to play for Antigua this past summer, has plans to serve on his staff at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain this coming year.

But all that’s in the future.

In the present, he’s at the point where the contracts that used to be two to three years in length, long for Americans playing in Europe and a reflection of his reputation and longevity in Pro A, have reverted back to one-year deals. It’s an issue Antigua is familiar with.

“Some guys retire or leave the overseas contract because they can’t get adjusted to being 10 months out of the year outside the U.S.” Antigua said. “Or they’re having difficulties dealing with the culture, and the atmosphere, and the demands of what a contract requires overseas: two-a-day practices for over two months and playing only once or twice a week.”

“You’ve got to have a certain mental makeup and certain personality to be able to deal with that and succeed and thrive,” he added.

Greer seems to have that mental makeup, as he’s come a long way since a stint with the London Towers 10 years ago, during which monthly salaries were handed to him and his teammates all in cash before practice. This arrangement made Greer so uncomfortable that he demanded they bring his payments to where he lived or else pay by some other method.

A long road

So how did a man from Washington Heights in New York come to spend almost all of his working life in France?

Early on, there were no indications that he would. His first season in the country and second as a professional — 2002-2003 playing for STB Le Havre in Le Havre, France — ended before the new year when he tore a calf muscle.

Two seasons later, he would come back to France.

Much of the credit for why he returned, as Greer explains it, lies with his brother Jeff Greer, who is two years younger.

“My brother was here,” Ricardo Greer said, “It was just an experience where you can’t pass that up to play with your younger brother. We played against each other in college. He went to Rutgers. Then when we came to Europe our first year, played against each other and then six years we played with each other and won championships together.”

“You can’t pass that up for anything. I don’t care what anybody says, if you have a chance to play with your sibling and experience Europe with them and your families together, that’s a dream come true to me,” he said.

After that season in London, he joined Jeff at BCM Gravelines-Dunkerque in Gravelines, France. They would link up twice more: for three years in Nancy, France, and two in Strasbourg. Last year — the pair’s last time playing together — Strasbourg was a finalist in the playoffs and a finalist in a cup competition.

The first team Ricardo Greer played for in Europe was BC Kyiv in 2001.

“It was just a shellshock to me, coming from college. In college, you’re taken care of, you’ve got your old surroundings, you feel great,” Greer said. “[And then] it’s not fun no more. It’s a job. You have three, four, five bad games, they send you home. In college, you have four years to play basketball. It was tough.”

For Greer, the adjustment was made more difficult by the fact that he knew no one and he had just one American, English-speaking teammate, fellow rookie Anthony Evans from the University of Georgia.

That season would also be memorable for not getting paid what he was due by the team. A problem he has never experienced in France.

His only prior time in Europe before becoming a pro came in 1995, when he traveled to France for a tournament as a member of the Gauchos, a renowned New York Amateur Athletic Union organization. On that trip, former NBA player Stephon Marbury was his roommate.

Much of what helped pull Ricardo through these difficult experiences early on was a sense of duty to provide for his family back home.

“That was my biggest thing: I’m making money now. I don’t care where the hell I’m at.” Greer said. “I’m gonna make a point to stick and to continue to do what I have to do.”

That bullishness has allowed him to enjoy the good times and move beyond the few unfavorable circumstances in which he has found himself.

“I’ve loved it. I might be in different ideal situations because I’ve always had a good coach and a good situation. But at the end of the day, home is where you make it.” Greer said. “It’s not always about ‘Oh, I gotta be in the perfect situation. I gotta do this, I gotta do that. If you just think, ‘This is what I have to do to get myself right,’ you’re good, man.”

The fascination held by most male professional basketball players of reaching the NBA, while understandable, can work against them abroad.

“A lot of these young kids come over here and think ‘Oh, Europe. Oh, I need to get back to the league. This is my way back to the league.’ If that’s your mindset — you’re using this [solely] to get back to the NBA — That’s not gonna happen,” Greer explained.

This wisdom mirrors what Antigua wanted to make clear to Greer when he was just starting out abroad.

“You’ve got to try to take advantage of the opportunities that are in front of you. We all had dreams and aspirations of trying to make it to the NBA. He would’ve been one of those fringe, borderline guys that could’ve had an NBA career, and for whatever reason it didn’t come about,” Antigua said in a phone interview. “He had the opportunity to go overseas, and he’s maximized that opportunity there.”

For the other year spent away from France, Greer relocated across the English Channel to play for the now-defunct London Towers from 2003 to 2004 — a time notable for the fact that he met his wife there.

In 2010, he also spent about 10 days in Croatia as a member of KK Zadar before a disagreement with then-head-coach Daniel Jusup signaled the need to find a more amiable situation as soon as possible.

“It was a bad experience because I had my wife and my kids there,” Greer explained.

That was the only other negative from his time abroad, Greer mentioned. And it quickly became a positive when he signed to return to Strasbourg on the same day they began negotiations. His brother signed with the team the next season.

Ricardo Greer has adjusted well to life in France, thanks in part to the environment he entered in Le Havre.

“I was blessed to come to France when I came because I had a great bunch of older guys that took me under their wing and helped me out tremendously,” Greer said.

The setup wouldn’t last because of that unfortunate injury.

But the impressions those and other veterans made and the lessons learned from them over the years are evident now, as he attempts to continue the cycle and help the next bunch of American expats trying to make it in the same way.

It’s a process based in cultural adjustment revolving around two often-intersecting themes: basketball and life.

“As I got older, all I try to do is help these young guys understand you can score 25 points — your team loses, you’re not gonna get that job you’re expecting to get cause you’re a loser,” he said. “It’s all about winning in Europe. At the end of the day, you win, you’re part of a team that wins championships, contracts will keep coming in.”

Experience pays

Such distinctions are often subtle nuances that unaware newcomers might not pick up on, and Greer understands that.

“Coming over here, I know it’s difficult because it’s a different life,” he said. “Even in London they speak English, but it’s still different.”

One of those young players is forward Tim Abromaitis, who faced Pitt as a member of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish from 2007 to 2012. His second year as a pro is also his second in France after going undrafted in the 2012 NBA draft.

“It’s definitely a shock when you first get here, the first week or two,” Abromaitis said. “Coming here I didn’t know any French, didn’t really know how to work any of the appliances, that kind of thing. You kind of figure it out pretty quick. It gets easier as you go along.”

“It’s great to have Ricardo and Lou [34-year-old American Louis Campbell] here as the fathers of the team. They’re almost that old. They’re really helpful with anything, any little needs. Just with a new style, new team. They know what’s going on and give little pointers here and there.”

Head coach Vincent Collet joined Strasbourg two seasons ago, and he has coached against Greer every year but one since the player has been in France.

“To keep the spirits of the team, he does that very well,” Collet said. “He’s always involved with everything with the team. He’s the kind of guy who will invite teammates at home for a Halloween party, for instance, or Thanksgiving. He always does that, naturally.”

“I think year after year he’s [taken on] more and more leadership. He knows how important it is to keep the team together. The season is long, many games, sometimes good periods, sometimes difficult periods. That’s very important that he helps the team to stay together.”

Collet played in Pro A from its inception in 1987 until he retired in 1998. He’s stayed around as a coach, beginning in 2000, and has coached the French National Team since 2009. He has no doubts about the legacy the big man, whom he calls his “second point guard,” will leave when he decides to retire.

“[Greer] has been one of the best players for this league the last 20 years,“ Collet said. “He would remain as one of the best players for this league ... because I think many people like him, for sure the fans of Strasbourg, and Nancy because that was his club.”

“Even the other clubs have respect for him because he’s a good guy. I think he will be in the Hall of Fame of the LNB.”

An example of this off-the-court role comes when driving back to laser tag after practice. Ricardo helps brainstorm surprise party ideas with teammate Alexis Ajinca, as Ajinca’s fiance’s 25th birthday is coming up.

The two players have known each other since 2006, when they were teammates on EB Pau Orthez in Pau, France, and Ajinca was 18 years old.

The 7-foot-2 Frenchman rides shotgun in Greer’s small gray Renault hatchback, his frame resembling a slinky, stretched as far as the seat will allow, as the two pitch ideas back and forth during the 15-minute journey.  

A consensus has not been reached and plans have not been made to continue the discussion during the team’s mid-week road trip to Lithuania for Euroleague — the better to keep their final decision a secret.

What the elder Greer has achieved provides reassurance for those pursuing the same foreign career choice, one that often has little short-term security and seems designed to encourage doubt.

“When you come over here, you’re not really sure how long you want to do it for or can be 100 percent sure you’re taking the right route with it,” Abromaitis said. “But when you look at somebody like that, [you see] it’s definitely possible to have a good career over here. He’s made a lot of money and been really successful. So if I can follow that path, I’d be more than happy.”

So although that Statue of Liberty may not look right standing atop that nondescript patch of earth, Greer fits in France.

“You make home where you want it,” Greer said.

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