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Sergio Magnifico: The Magic of El Chacho continued

Playing against America's No. 1 prep team, Oak Hill Academy, which featured among others, Josh Smith, now of the Atlanta Hawks and Rajon Rando, the Boston Celtics' rookie, Rodriguez held his own, scoring 15 points and doling out five assists. He might have had 20 assists if his teammates had managed to convert the open looks that Sergio gave them.

This game, according to Spanish basketball writer Juan Antonio Hinojo, was a confirmation of Sergio's status as an emerging young superstar. "No one else from Sergio's team was capable of beating the American defenders one on one, except Sergio. The Americans' quick hands were just too tough for them, and they were afraid to dribble," Hinojo wrote.

So from the fifth minute of the game to the end, Sergio was given the ball with instructions to break down Oak Hill's defense all by himself. From that point on, Rodriguez played 40 minutes of basically one-on-one basketball as his team held its own against Oak Hill.

Sergio would split the defense, often passing the ball to open shooters. He wreaked havoc," Hinojo reported. "Everything Estudiantes did started with Rodriguez. Somehow the Spanish team managed to get to halftime down by just 2 points.

The entire game Rodríguez was playing with a huge amount of flair- behind the back passes, using screens to throw split passes between two defenders (ala Manu Ginobili), dribbling between his legs and then taking the ball with the same hand and then behind the back, Hinojo reported,

Rodríguez just wanted to prove to Josh Smith, Rajon Rondo and the rest of the talented Oak Hill team that he was one of them.

He's risen to those challenges often in his brief career. "I get rush when I make good play," he admits. "I not try to show people up, just show people who I am with basketball," he says.

Writer Luis Fernandez of draftexpress.com, has offered the best description we've seen of Sergio Rodriguez, the player:

"Not a superb athlete," writes Fernandez,,"nor a physical freak, Sergio fills the bill for the basic tools required to carry his game to the next level.

"At 6-foot-3, he has good size to handle the position while showing a nice enough frame for a point guard. Even if there’s still significant work to do, his body development in the past few years has been noticeable.

"He won’t blow by anybody with his athleticism, but he’s a fairly quick guy and he let’s his skills do the rest.

"While there is nothing particularly special regarding his physical profile, what really sets him apart from virtually every other youngster we've seen is his skill set," Fernandez wrote.

"To start with, Sergio is a terrific ball-handler. More in the line to what we usually see in American playmakers, he dominates the ball. High dribble, low dribble, crossover, behind-the-back dribble, he’s mastered every single variant at a young age with both hands.

"But he’s not an exhibitionist; it’s only a matter of gaining advantages through this skill. He’s really quick driving the ball, and creative in order to get to where he wants.

"With these credentials, it’s very hard to stop him whenever to decides to step into the lane. He’s a great one-on-one player. Even if he’s not that explosive, he has a nice first step, terrific footwork, and the ability to easily change gears.

"Sergio might sometimes produce the wrong impression, the feeling that he’s out of control, and that he’s not that smart on the court. But he’s a highly intelligent player who only needs to find confidence and his rhythm playing the game in order to be effective.

"He’s absolutely nuts about basketball," Fernandez writes, "which is easy to tell watching him play. Indeed he’s a guy who loves big games, the decisive moments, and who never hides when the ball burns for other players in clutch situations."

Like many European players whose dream has been to play in the NBA some day, Sergio also has studied the history of the game. "Bob Cousy," he exclaims with a smile. "He was the first really great playmaker," he adds. "I know about him."

Unlike Cousy, though, and Nash, and White Chocolate, Sergio does these sleight-of-hand tricks without possessing large hands. Indeed, he may be the only great ball-handler in the NBA who can't palm a basketball, his hands only slightly larger than this writer's hands.

But it's what he does with those small hands that has most basketball fans in Oregon going bonkers.

"Sergio is the real deal," adds Pritchard, himself a star point guard at the University of Kansas. "I understand point guards. They can't fool me. Other players may be able to fool me, but point guards can't. We expect big things from Sergio," he added.

Even after Portland spent $3 million of owner Paul Allen's money to persuade Phoenix to sell Portland the draft rights (a 27th pick of the first round) to Sergio, Pritchard's aggressive draft-day moves were further justified as Sergio helped lead Spain to the World Basketball championships.

While not a starter, Rodriguez, nevertheless, was a make-weight difference for Spain, scoring 14 points in 15 minutes in Spain’s semifinal upset victory over of the favored Argentina team.

The best example of Sergio's impact on an NBA game, though, came Jan. 14 against Denver. In a magical second quarter in which he scored 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting to go along with 6 assists, Rodriguez turned the game completely around from a 12-point Blazer deficit to a seven-point halftime lead.

For the game, Sergio scored 23 points (11 of 14 shooting), had four rebounds, three steals and 10 assists in 30 minutes of playing time.

That performance drew unprecedented rave notices from Portland's most discerning basketball writer -- columnist Dwight Jaynes of the Portland Tribune. Of Sergio's second quarter magic, Jaynes wrote:

"Rodriguez picked the game up in his two hands and turned it upside down. He managed...to change the entire tempo and flow of the game. No one else on the Portland roster is capable of doing anything like it for two minutes, let alone 12."

Denver superstar Allen Iverson was also impressed with Sergio's performance that night. “If you can judge him off of tonight’s game, I mean, wow. It’s a long, grueling season, but if he stays with it, the sky’s the limit for him," Iverson told Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune.

Sergio's goals as a player are unspecified at the moment. Like all NBA rookies, he would like to play more, but, on the other hand, he says he is very patient. "I need to improve in every aspect of the game and I think I am improving, learning the NBA game, understanding what is expected of me, doing what the coach (Nate McMillan) wants us to do," Sergio says.

Denver Coach George Karl, not easily impressed by young players, especially those who learned the game in the European schools, nevertheless thought Rodriguez may be one of those "once-a-decade" kind of players.

“He was a dominating player against us,” Karl says. “He controlled their offense and our defense in the second quarter. He looks like he’s going to be a player. We wanted him to go to the rim more than shoot a jump shot, but he’s clever. He finds guys open.

"A big part of NBA basketball is the pick-and-roll, and he seems to have a knack for it already, which for a young player is unusual.”

Sergio just beams when he hears respected NBA coaches say such things. "I think I do my best in an up-tempo kind of game, where we just get out on the floor, fill the lanes and run before opponents are ready.

"But I also think I can do okay in half-court game. I've learned the two-man, pick-and-roll very well and love to play it with my teammates here." he said.

Rodriguez loves his Blazer teammates, a real plus since he was warned by observers in Spain to beware of bad player attitudes in NBA clubhouses, back-biting between competitors for playing time and petty jealousies.

"In Spain, people talk about the locker room in the NBA -- that it’s very difficult because the player looks only for himself," Sergio said in an interview with the Tribune's Kerry Eggers. "That’s not true here.”

"I think I've worked well with all the players here," he added. "I think they like playing with me, too" he said. That's an understatement.

Blazer center Joel Przybilla was one of the first to recognize this. In an interview with Eggers, Przybilla said, "He gets people the ball in the right places. The first time I played with him in a pickup game, I called a couple of buddies and said, ‘He’s gonna be a player, man.’ He’s so unselfish. He’s so under control already. His future in this league is just unbelievable.”

Growing up in Spain, Rodriguez was preparing for a life in basketball when most adolescent boys in America were discovering girls.

His parents, Sergio Sr. and Consuela, are both teachers and have encouraged his pursuit of the game. His younger brother, Javier, now 14, is a member of Spain's national select under-14 team.

Sergio’s home in the Canary Islands, with 70-degree temperatures year-round, is a tropical paradise, with a population under one million. It is a winter playground for wealthy Europeans looking to get away from snowy winters. Despite the Hawaii-like appeal, Sergio left it and his family at age 14 to attend Siglo XXI, a basketball academy in Bilbao the capitol of the Basque country in northern Spain, where it rains in winter about as often as it does in Oregon.

Siglo XXI, which no longer exists, was promoted by the Spanish Federation and some Spanish regions in the mold of the very successful French INSEP (where San Antonio playmaker and Frenchmen Tony Parker learned his game). The school allowed kids to combine studies and intense basketball practice. A controversial project, some people considered the school to be the best talent developers in Spain, while others blamed it for spoiling talented kids.

Sergio spent three seasons there, from 2000 to 2003, years for which he always has good words. "I learned a lot of basketball there and also did well with good grades in my studies. My parents (the teachers) made sure I kept up my studies," he said, not suggesting what would have happened had he slacked off.

So far, the only things limiting Sergio's playing time with the Blazers are his occasional lapses on defense -- a shortcoming which he is working steadily to improve -- and his understanding of the English language.

Sergio is only now learning the English language. He endured a 30-minute interview with me in English and while he showed that he understood all of my questions, I must confess that my ear didn't understand all of his answers without the help of an interpreter -- Trail Blazer Video Coordinator Kaleb Canales.

Sergio says he gets plenty of support from the Spanish community in Portland, has found a couple of restaurants where he can get his favorite Spanish food dishes, yet he still longs for home sometimes.

"People always ask me if I’m homesick," he says. "I do miss my country, but you have to understand that I left my parents at age 14 to attend a basketball academy, which wasn’t close to my home.

"So, really, this is nothing new. I always dreamed of playing in the NBA, so any sacrifice I’m making now is very worth it." His mother, whom he cites as his greatest influence in life, visited him in October and the entire Rodriguez family came to see him for two weeks over Christmas.

For a while, Sergio took English lessons, first from a professional teacher, then from a friend. “But it’s difficult with our schedule and travel,” he says. His best teacher, he told the Tribune's Eggers, is speaking the language with his coaches and teammates.

"I can understand almost everything that is being said, but it’s not my language. Basketball is a universal language and I can speak basketball," he argues in his defense.

And basketball speaks to him, too . . . almost every waking hour of every day of his life.

Wayne Thompson was The Oregonian's Blazers beat writer from 1970-73 and sports editor from 1977-1979. You can email Wayne at mlou4jazz@aol.com.

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