"Istanbul was Constantinople, Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople, Been a long time gone, Constantinople, Why did Constantinople get the works? That's nobody's business but the Turks"
The bouncy back and forth tune of Istanbul, made famous by They Might Be Giants, perfectly captures the history of the city and how it feels trying to understand it. From the Greeks to the Romans, the Ottomans, Persians, and Crusaders, not to mention Alexander the Great, seemingly everyone took their turn controlling the city. I came away from Istanbul intellectually dizzy, dates and numbers swimming around in my head, trying to keep track of all the churches and the mosques and the churches that became mosques and who built what when and why. I swear, anyone who wants to understand ancient history just needs to wrap their head around this one city and they'll be fine.
The idea that studying Turkey is a key to understanding larger events is still true today. Currently, Turkey forms one of the front lines in the Syrian refugee crisis and has been, to some degree, caught in between the posturings of other world powers. And just as this unique position of old has affected every building in the city, Turkey's current position affects almost every aspect of day to day life - including basketball.
When I spoke with Errick McCollum, CJ McCollum's brother and current starting point guard for the Turkish club Galatasaray, he was in Russia preparing for a Eurocup game against Nizhny Novgorod. They had gotten in late the night before because some of his Turkish teammates were delayed at the border, caught in the geopolitical strife between the two countries.
International travel is one of the most obvious differences when playing abroad - Galatasaray's Eurocup group has teams from Greece, Russia, Israel, and Lithuania - but it's far from the only deviation. The crowds go crazy with non-stop chanting, controlled fireworks, and sometimes just straight up fire. This energy spills over into intense rivalries and a game to game pressure unheard of in the NBA. Instead of playing every other day they'll have maybe two games a week. Fewer games and intense fans means each loss is considered a disaster. There's no defensive three seconds so the paint is always crowded. If the player you're defending gets by you you're taught to foul rather than call for help or expect backline defenders to rotate. As a result, little point guards don't dribble through open lanes unencumbered like in today's modern NBA and the Moda Center would be considered something akin to a retirement home by comparison.
Perhaps because of this pressure and tactical difficulty, or perhaps simply from cultural differences, coaches change the starting lineup from game to game depending on matchups. McCollum is leading his team with 20.3 points per game in Eurocup and yet has only started 13 of their 20 games. This has taken some time to get used to but Errick has been playing abroad long enough to feel comfortable with alternative styles of play.
Often the bigger adjustment is off the court, where McCollum seems to be doing just fine in his first season in Turkey. Istanbul is a major metropolitan city where the prominence of Turkish culture doesn't preclude the existence of Western comforts. The food is great (who doesn't like spiced meats and baklava?) and the people are friendly and often English speaking. Many are Muslim but relatively few follow the five pillars devoutly. If you do see a woman wearing a burqa - the full length Muslim black robes covering everything but the eyes - she'll probably be holding a selfie stick and aggressively cutting you in line at the Topkapi Palace to get a sweet video for her Snapchat Story (OK maybe that was just me). In many ways, the similarities are more startling than the differences. If it weren't for the strange names, you'd think Errick were right at home.
"I just butcher the other team names," he said. "I even mess up my teammates' names all the time. It took me like two months before I could even say their names right."
In Istanbul, the biggest challenge hasn't been adjusting to a new way of life but rather conveying the normalcy to friends back home who don't understand other parts of the world.
"People don't realize how big Europe really is. People will ask me ‘Are you ok?' and I'm like ‘That's nowhere near me.'"
You'd be hard pressed to find someone more qualified to appreciate the physical distance between places than McCollum. He's played in four different countries in six different leagues, never playing for the same team two years in a row. A big role on a top club in one of the best leagues in Europe didn't happen overnight. Starting out in Israel, McCollum was the only foreigner in the entire league to come from a Division II school. He felt lucky to get that contract but never got the playing time he needed to prove he belonged. Those minutes came in the second division (analogous to the minor leagues) where McCollum spent the next season building his reputation. What would have been a difficult road for many, McCollum took his lumps in stride, went where he knew he'd get an opportunity, and kept his confidence high. He would end up dominating, picking up a scoring title, and climbing his way back into the first division in Greece.
And that was when McCollum's career really changed. Errick not only played significant minutes the second time around, he was the league's top scorer and earned a spot on the All-League team. Looking at McCollum's bio, it's hard to imagine his earlier struggles. It's littered with scoring titles in multiple continents and an All-Star berth, not to mention leading his team in every major statistical category his senior year at Goshen College. McCollum has a lot to be proud of, but no accolade holds as much meaning as that year in Greece when he established himself as one of the top young guards abroad.
"It was like I had arrived," he said.
Pretty much the only thing McCollum hasn't done on an individual level is play in the NBA. He took his shot in Summer League the year before last with the Denver Nuggets. Unfortunately, his stat line reads eerily similar to his first year abroad. McCollum only saw the court in four games and averaged less than five minutes per contest. But unlike his rookie season, when McCollum felt lucky just to get a professional contract coming out of a Division II school, this time he felt slighted.
"I didn't get a fair opportunity (in Summer League). There were guys playing over me that didn't play at or near the level I play at...It's the politics of the game."
Errick still has a bitter taste in his mouth from that experience, which is why he refused the numerous Summer League offers he received this past year. The international season is long, usually nine or 10 months, leaving just a few weeks to enjoy time with his family in the states. Throw in the risk of injury and the fact that participating in Summer League means waiting on international offers - offers that might not be there when the non-guaranteed NBA audition ends - and it doesn't make sense for McCollum to pursue the NBA at all costs.
"I've had a very good career overseas," he said. "I'm comfortable overseas...I didn't have to prove myself in Summer League."
That doesn't mean he's written off the NBA entirely. Every competitor wants to play in the best league in the world and coming home would mean a lot more time with family and friends. McCollum is simply waiting for more of a guarantee than Summer League offers and with more money than is typically available for end-of-rotation players. For most of the top players in Europe, coming to the states on a minimum contract means making two to three times less money once you factor in higher taxes and greater expenses. That's a lot to ask when playing in the NBA comes with the expectation of a smaller role. Less money and fewer minutes? That's a tough pill for any professional basketball player to swallow.
But all of that may be changing.
I asked Errick if players abroad were paying attention to the NBA's incoming TV deal but I couldn't even finish my sentence before he started his response.
"For sure. Foooooor sure," he said, drawing out the ‘o' for added emphasis.
Fundamentally, more money for the league means higher contracts for the players. If that money trickles down to role players and end-of-the-rotation guys it could make a big difference for people like McCollum.
"Guys are going to be more likely to play (in the NBA) than in a high league in Europe. You might see older veterans come over to finish out their careers in the NBA...There's a lot of good Americans out there playing abroad."
Will Errick be one of those veterans spending his twilight years in the NBA? He's not sure, but the important thing is that he's happy where he is now. He's established himself to the point where he doesn't have to chase the NBA. He's content to the let the NBA chase him and content to watch his brother tear up the league until he gets there.
"I'm only 27 so if the right opportunity presented itself I'd listen but I'm blessed to play where I'm at now," McCollum said.
Many in the Trail Blazers organization have made a point of emphasizing that they haven't been surprised by CJ's breakout year, that they all knew he was this good and all he needed was an opportunity. You can not only add Errick's voice to that chorus but slot him into one of the first chairs. McCollum knew from his own career how quickly things can change and expected his brother to break out just like he did. What he didn't expect was that the team's success would mirror his brother's.
"The biggest surprise for me is the team's record," he said. "That they would be in every game. It's just crazy to think that they've let five to six games slip. It they get half of those games they'd potentially be in sixth place in the playoffs....I think they've got something there. I think they have a backcourt to build on."
Could that backcourt ever include Errick? It's not impossible but it would be very unlikely. Numerous factors would have to line up just perfectly before Errick was ever signing his name on a freshly printed contract and taking photos with Neil Olshey. But even then, there'd still be one serious issue to resolve: Who gets to wear No. 3?
This is no trivial thing. CJ and Errick were late bloomers, skinny, scrawny, and short for most of their youth. Its tough to believe an NBA dream is possible when you're always the smallest kid on the court.
"We watched Allen Iverson. It was easy to root for Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant but we couldn't relate to them. We needed someone that looked like us, Errick said. "We just liked how he fought. It gave you hope. You see you're not physically blessed with size and weight but you can still play at a professional level."
That number is more than just a number. It's a symbol for the lifelong belief that they could make it regardless of what adversity life threw their way, a belief that would have been easy for either of them to lose had it not been for their hard work and relationship with each other.
So when I asked Errick who would get the number if he ever joined the Blazers, you could hear the gears turning in his head, mixing with the sound of laughter coming in over the phone.
"He gotta change his number."
Classic big brother.
Errick eventually relents, saying that since CJ has established himself in the NBA he could keep it, but, all jokes aside, the McCollums have shown an amazing ability to avoid the worst pitfalls of sibling rivalries. Errick emphasizes that he's simply happy for his brother and doesn't get caught up comparing their careers. If anything, he sees their success as intertwined, feeling that he shares in his brother's exploits.
"When he got drafted, it was like I got drafted too. As a family, it was like we made it."
A nice thought, this statement gives the impression that Errick is in some ways riding on the coattails of his brother, that since CJ made it, Errick made it too, but it's important to remember that the reverse is also true.
It's hard not to notice the similarity in their paths to success. The biggest, baddest players at their respective schools, they came out of college with big expectations only to struggle without minutes or a meaningful opportunity. Then, when that opportunity finally came, they took off and haven't looked back. Errick went through this roller coaster a few years before CJ, breaking out in Greece during CJ's first season with the Blazers. This gave Errick the foundation he needed to counsel CJ through what will, hopefully, be the most difficult two years of CJ's career. It's always easier to give advice that comes from first hand experience and it's easier to accept it as well. The fact that CJ has shown so much maturity dealing with injuries and limited minutes has a lot to do with Errick's support and the tracks he laid down for CJ to follow.
"I've had to work my way up from the bottom," he said. "That's what I preached to my brother. Your opportunity will arise. Gotta keep working"
When you look at it that way, it's hard to say who's really riding whose coattails and it's obvious that what Errick said couldn't be more true: The McCollums have made it together - as a family.
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