It is said that not every story has a happy ending. We like to think otherwise, especially in the world of sports, where underdogs are always the story of the day. From last season’s Tampa Bay Rays to July’s Tom Watson to nearly every sports movie created, it is always the collective hope of the viewing public that the underdog succeed.
Carl English fits the profile of underdog better than most. Coming from a small town in Newfoundland and dealing with tragedy at a young age, his development as a person and basketball player is a great story. Like most other serious ballers, English played NCAA Division-I ball and tried his luck at the NBA. When he didn’t make the Indiana Pacers in 2003 or the Seattle Supersonics in 2004, he jumped from the D-League to Euroleague Basketball. In Croatia, then in Spain, and over the past few years on the Canadian national team, he has developed his game to become a premier international player.
Nearly 18 months ago, English sat down for an interview. It was an extremely personal look at his past, at his basketball career, and at what he thought was his path to the NBA.
As English continued to shine in the Spanish ACB league back then, Canadian basketball fans began to take notice. The interview received a lot of feedback indicating that Canadian fans were behind him and wanted to see him achieve his dream of making the NBA. English, too, intimated that the NBA was his ultimate dream and his ultimate goal.
“Hopefully this will be the year, and I’ll do some NBA things this summer. If I’ve been doing it at the highest European level, why can’t I do it in the NBA? I just need someone to take a chance on me,” English explained in March, 2008. “The NBA has been my goal since Day 1 and I still believe I can attain that goal. Every day that I play over here and every practice, that’s the goal in my mind.”
English’s main chance to impress NBA scouts was at that summer’s Olympic Qualifying event. Led by new coach Leo Rautins and shrouded in the unfortunate controversy surrounding Samuel Dalembert, the team failed to qualify and failed to meet their lofty expectations. English, likewise, did not secure an NBA contract for the 2008-09 season, and he went back to the Spanish ACB league.
In February of 2009, I caught up with English for a second time. He spoke of the national team’s failure and his continued march toward the NBA. At the time of the interview, English was performing at an extremely high level for Kalise Gran Canaria and was hoping to impress scouts at the King’s Cup. He once again shared that his ultimate goal was the NBA, but there was a tone of uncertainty in his message.
After all, English had built a life chasing the NBA dream and at this point, at age 28, he was at a career crossroads. While the Euroleague is a great place to hone your skills and try to get noticed by the NBA, a life that far from home is a taxing one. He also recently had his first child, an understandably huge step in his life. With a growing family to support and a life to build, English was clear that he felt his time was running out to catch on in the NBA. He had consistently signed one-year contracts in Europe to keep the NBA option open each offseason which led to certain lack of stability, especially in a poor international economy.
“With the season I’m having right now, I’m getting a lot of recognition. This is the best season in club history and I’m leading us, everything is going really well. There are a lot of big teams (like Barcelona) that would be interested,” English explained in February. “Before I’ve signed with smaller teams on shorter deals in case an NBA deal came along, so if I can’t get something guaranteed in the NBA this year I’ll sign something with a big club here. Every year I’ve played for a contract, (so) it would be a lot more care free, a lot more security.”
There was strong reason for NBA fans to get excited about English as the most recent NBA season progressed. Jay Triano was installed as the head coach of the Toronto Raptors, and while personnel decisions are the final decision of general manager Bryan Colangelo, Triano was extremely familiar with English’s game after several years together on the national team. When the NBA season finished, the Raptors appeared to have a few holes that English could potentially fill. Around the league, there has been increased European movement over the past few years, and it seemed within the realm of possibility that English would be noticed by the Raptors or another NBA squad. This, to him, really did seem to be his last chance at the NBA.
“I’d always have it in the back of my mind if I never got my full shot. I don’t want to give up on it but at the same time I’m not going to go to training camp without a contract,” said English. “I’ve proven myself in every level I’ve went to, and now I’m playing in the next thing to the NBA, where guys go back and forth all the time. I’m playing at the highest level and playing great. If I can’t get noticed from that, so be it, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing.”
Unfortunately for many, the NBA’s financial landscape has made it difficult for European players looking to come to the NBA this offseason. A decreasing salary cap and luxury tax threshhold, combined with an apparent universal desire to save for the free agent class of 2010 has created a tough bargaining situation for teams and players alike. Several restricted free agents remain without firm offers, many unrestricted free agents remain unsigned, and there is a clear desire on the part of management for shorter contracts, especially if they can be kept at or below the Mid-Level Exception. Lamar Odom and the Lakers remain at a standstill, 23-year old starting-calibre point guard Ramon Sessions still has not received a contract, Knicks restricted free agents David Lee and Nate Robinson are without ‘suitable’ offers, Allen Iverson and Stephon Marbury are without teams, and Josh Childress has returned to Greece for another season.
If this hadn’t stacked the odds against English far enough, one of the few large free agent contracts given out was handed out by the Raptors, his best shot at making an NBA roster. While the signing of Hedo Turkoglu itself didn’t have a great impact on English, the four-team trade that was masterminded to make it happen did.
In scenario one, the Raptors signed Turkoglu and were nearly out of cap space with only Demar DeRozan, Quincy Douby, and Marcus Banks to man the shooting guard position. But in the scenario that unfolded, however, the Raptors maneuvered a sign-and-trade to get Turkoglu, thereby freeing up extra cap space and bringing in swingmen Antoine Wright and Devean George. Wright is a capable shooting guard with a friendly contract, and it is now widely assumed that the Raptors will re-sign swingman Carlos Delfino with their added cap flexibility.
Obviously, in one fell swoop the Raptors roster had changed. Four open spots had become one, maybe zero. English was still on the Raptors’ Las Vegas Summer League Roster, a great chance to prove his NBA mettle, but with time-sensitive offers on the table from strong European teams and a less than certain 2009-10 NBA future, the decision for was clear.
On July 10, English took a flight from Las Vegas to Spain to sign a contract with European powerhouse Tau Ceramica. The deal, it seems, provides the English family with financial security moving forwards. For the time being, English’s NBA dreams are on hold once again. He has made no secret of his desire to make it to the NBA, something he feels he’s never been given a fair chance to do. But he has also made it clear that he is happy overseas and appreciates that at the end of the day he is making a good living playing basketball.
For now, the dream is on hold once again. However, there is always next season, as English was quick to remind me. In a summer where many NBA teams are planning around signing big-name talent, there may be teams who miss out and have to look outside the box for talented players. Playing with a top Euroleague team like Tau Ceramica will give English an even bigger stage to prove his worth to the basketball world.