There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.
“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”
Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.
“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”
That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.
“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”
As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.
“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”
Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.
“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”
He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.
“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”
The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.
“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”
That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.
“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”
Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.
“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”
He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.
Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.
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