Alexander is living his dream.
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The Journey Less Traveled

NEW YORK, June 25, 2008 -- Joe Alexander's journey to the NBA is about to reach its destination.

But Joe Alexander's journey to the NBA is unlike that of any of the other 59 players who will be drafted Thursday night.

Alexander grew up in Maryland, which is not exactly a hoops hotbed, but that's not the unusual part. He went to West Virginia University, which hasn't had a first-round pick in 40 years, but that's not the unusual part either. He played there three years, and despite the one-and-done wave we're in the middle of, that's not the unusual part either.

Because when Alexander was 10, his father's job took his family to Beijing, about as far from Maryland as you can get, both literally and figuratively.

Surprisingly, Alexander says that the adjustment wasn't difficult. He attended the International School of Beijing for six years, integrated with other Americans, as well as students from all over the world. And his family lived in an ex-pat community.

"It was just like a community in the States," he says. "There was definitely a degree of separation [from the general Chinese population]."

Still, he grew to love Beijing, the cheap cabs that could take him anywhere in the city, and the food, Kung Pao chicken being his favorite. He met Yao Ming before we did, when the big man was playing for the Shanghai Sharks.

"It was a nice place to grow up," he admits.

Alexander was a basketball nut, a huge fan of Jason Williams and the Sacramento Kings, but he didn't get to watch much in Beijing. And he didn't get to play competitively until high school. In the Nike-run league that he played in as a freshman and sophomore, the competition level was good, and they played rough, which is just the way Alexander likes it.

"People who are on teams and get to play really value that opportunity," he says of the passionate ball players in China, "so they play hard and they play really physical over there too."

And he's one of those people that he's talking about. With his only real opportunity to ball in middle school being an informal after-school open gym, he didn't have the basketball background that you would expect going into high school. Fortunately, his high school squad wasn't that good.

"In America," he says, "I don't think I would have made some of the teams growing up, so I might have got discouraged. Since the competition level, at least at my school, was a little bit lower, I was able to develop more."

But when he was 16, Alexander decided to come back to the States. He left his dad and moved in with his mom back in Maryland. He says that his mom is a better cook, but it was his NBA dream that brought him back.

"I wanted to come back so that I could get college exposure," he says.

But apparently, two years at Linganore High School wasn't enough exposure to draw any interest from Division I schools. So he went to Hargrave Military Academy for one year. After that, it was three years at West Virginia University, where he improved every year, and seemingly every game of his junior season, leading the Mountaineers past Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

And now, he's one day away from living his dream.

When asked who's most responsible, other than himself, for getting him to the NBA, Alexander names his two brothers: John, 26 and Jeremy, 24. They beat him up in driveway battles and made him tougher.

"They had such a big impact on my life and my basketball career," he says. "They taught me how to work hard and how to play, really."

And he realizes that tomorrow night will mean almost as much to them as it does to him.

"It'll be, in part, like they're getting drafted."

Speculation is that the Bucks will take Alexander with the eighth pick on Thursday. Milwaukee is the only team of the eight that he worked out for that asked him back. The second visit, this past Monday, did not include a workout. It was just a conversation about Alexander's personality, on and off the floor.

"It was just a meeting where they got to know me better," Alexander says. "And I got the impression that they were impressed."

He's a confident kid and he believes he's a Scott Skiles type of player. Still, there's no guarantee that he'll be swapping jokes in Mandarin with Yi Jianlian in training camp come October. A lot of teams love his combination of smarts, athleticism and toughness. But Alexander isn't letting the uncertainty of the draft bother him.

"There's a lot of teams in my range that I would be very happy to go with," he says. That range, he believes, is picks 6-14. "I'm sitting in a good position, which makes it easier on me."

Alexander admits that he's hoping that he doesn't cry when his name is called. You can tell when he talks how much he has been dreaming of that moment. Even in Beijing, when he had no clue how good he was because he couldn't measure himself against real competition, he had his eyes on the NBA the whole time.

And his journey, unusual as it has been, has taken him here.

"It just confirms to me what hard work can do for you," Alexander says of the idea of shaking David Stern's hand on stage at the WaMu Theatre. "It doesn't matter where you're from or where you are at a particular time. Your future is gonna be determined by how focused you are and how hard you work."

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