Jose Calderon ran the ball up the floor and called out a play. His teammates, unsure of the directive, stood still. Nothing happened.
This was back in 2005. Calderon had moved from his home country of Spain to play for the Toronto Raptors in the NBA. He had mastered basketball in Europe. English, though, was another story. The point guard had knowledge of the language, but his accent and limited vocabulary made it difficult to communicate on the court.
“That was the problem in the beginning,” Calderon told Basketball Insiders. “A few times I just called plays and nobody moved because they didn’t know [what I was saying].”
Calderon spent his rookie season balancing the workload of adjusting to life in the NBA with picking up a second language. Even when he spoke English, he often encountered confusion with his pronunciation. Teammates frequently asked “What?” when he talked to them.
He was undeterred. Calderon knew if he wanted to succeed in the league, he would have to overcome the barrier.
“I think there’s some point in your head like, you learn or you won’t be able to perform here,” Calderon said. “It looks easy when you say, ok the NBA is calling. You think, this is nice, go [there]. But actually you change everything, it’s different.”
As a quick fix, the Raptors created hand signals for Calderon to use on each play. Physical communication, in addition to verbal, offered an immediate alternative.
For a long-term solution, he enrolled in English classes—an hour here, an hour there when his basketball schedule permitted. Calderon also watched English-language television shows with Spanish subtitles. “The Wire,” “Lost,” “24” and “Prison Break” were his favorites. He found the combination of seeing and hearing the words to be most helpful.
After a year, Calderon began feeling comfortable.
Nine seasons later, that initial transition is a distant memory as Calderon has developed into a reliable, veteran point guard on the New York Knicks. The person who was once unable to communicate plays is now revered as an on-the-court coach by his teammates and staff.
The Knicks acquired Calderon this summer in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks. Head coach Derek Fisher, who competed against Calderon at the point as a player, has been quickly impressed during training camp.
“He’s unflappable,” Fisher said. “You always saw that over the years, that he doesn’t allow his opponent to speed him up. He plays at a pace that he’s comfortable playing at. He understands the change of pace, how to get shots for himself, but it’s very important to him that he facilitates offense for his teammates.
“As he gains more confidence in what we’re doing offensively and how he can take advantage of things for himself and create opportunities for other players, I think you’ll see even more of his leadership grow wherein a lot of situations we’ll be able to just trust what he sees on the floor and we won’t have to do a lot from the sidelines and let the players play the game.”
His new teammates are getting to know Calderon, who many describe as quiet and focused. Amar’e Stoudemire often talks with him to discuss the Knicks’ offensive and defensive strategies. He referred to Calderon as a “pretty down-to-earth, solid guy.”
This assessment comes as no surprise to those who have been around Calderon in the past. Samuel Dalembert and Shane Larkin also came to the Knicks in the trade with the Mavericks, where Calderon played one season.
The veteran Dalembert knows a thing or two about top guards – he played with Allen Iverson for years. He sees unique qualities in Calderon that make him effective in his role. Calderon maintains an open line of dialogue to get everyone on the same page. After calling plays, he tells his teammates what he was looking for in that instant so they know what do to the next time. Calderon’s attitude also helps the team.
“He’s one of the best point guards understanding the game,” Dalembert said. “It’s not just about being a leader; sometimes it’s about [having a] positive attitude. A lot of guys I’ve been around who are considered a leader, usually they don’t have that positivity because sometimes you drain down. When something happens, he’s very calm. He says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’”
Larkin found this approachability to be valuable last season as a rookie. There is no air of superiority with Calderon. He learned from veterans his first year on the Raptors and pays it forward to help anyone who asks.
“He’s such a poised leader,” said Larkin. “There are a lot of things you can take from him, especially as a younger point guard like myself. Being able to watch his floor game, how he gets everybody in the right positions, how he plays his game and is never out of control. There’s just a quiet confidence about him. There’s a lot of stuff you can learn just from watching him.”
Before a recent preseason game against the Boston Celtics, Calderon sat unassumingly at his locker with a book in hand. The avid reader consumes literature in both Spanish and English. Now he watches television mostly in English, occasionally with subtitles to help his children become bilingual.
The student has become the teacher. Nearly 10 years after struggling to call plays, Calderon has conquered more than a language.
“I’m a team guy,” he said. “I’m going to try to run the team, try to get my teammates comfortable out there, get them the ball when they’re open, maybe be a little bit of a coach on the court, keep everybody happy.”
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