Hoops Around the Globe - Spain

Toronto Raptors point guard Jose Calderon is from Villanueva de la Serena, a small town outside of Madrid, Spain, and began his career with a team called Tao in the Northern Basque region of Spain as a 13-year-old.

Now in his third year in the NBA, Calderon has taken advantage of increased playing time this season and shown himself to be not just capable, but outstanding at running an NBA team.

Calderon ranks fifth in the league in assists with 8.7 per evening, trailing only Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Jason Kidd and Deron Williams, and leads the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. He also averages 12.7 points on 53.9 percent shooting, and makes 92 percent of his free throws, a true model of efficiency.

In continuing our series on international basketball, we spoke to Calderon about what it's like growing up with a basketball in Spain.

Raptors Point Guard Jose Calderon
MT: As in most countries, we know that soccer is by far the biggest sport in your native Spain. Why did you start playing basketball?
Calderon: For me it was really easy, because my dad was a basketball player. He played for many years in the second division. He was never a professional because he was always working (other jobs), but he played like 20 years in second division. So I lived with a basketball, not a soccer ball.

MT: Though you must have played some soccer?
Calderon: Sure, I played soccer because all of my friends did. So when I started practicing basketball, I also practiced soccer because I wanted to be with my friends from school. For like two years, I was practicing both sports at the same time.

MT: The two-time MVP at your position, Steve Nash, has talked about how playing soccer growing up has helped him quite a bit, like with seeing different angles on the court.
Calderon: Yes. I think it helps. In soccer, you never pass the ball to where the guy is. You pass the ball to the open space and lead your teammate. So in some situations (in basketball), like on fast breaks, you have to pass the ball to where your guy is going to be in the next seconds. It can help for sure.

MT: When you began to get better, was it tough to find good competition in Spain?
Calderon: You know what, I never thought being in the NBA or being professional until I was about 13 years old. One (club) team in Spain, Tau (in Vitoria), signed me at that age. So the thing is, it's kind of different because we don't have the university or college basketball there. We were playing against other club teams like Barcelona or Madrid when I was 15-years-old, 17-years-old.

MT: Basically, professional teams have youth club teams that produce and cultivate talent, until you're ready to join the full professional squad. So you were signed at 13, but didn't actually play professionally until you were 17.
Calderon: Yes, I spent four years playing on the Under 15, Under 16, you know? Then after when I was 17, they signed me to a three-year contract. But I never played with them. I was with Tao, but they (loaned me) to a different team in the First Division. I went to a team where I could get more minutes.

MT: When you report to that team, you also go to school in that city at the same time, one might guess?
Calderon: Yeah, school was like eight kilometers from home. I was by myself with three other players in an apartment. We lived together, went to school, practiced and played with the team.

MT: Got it. So when was the first time you played with another player that's in the NBA now? Was it Pau Gasol?
Calderon: Pau and I started playing together when we were maybe 14-years-old. Because in 1998, I was 16, and we won the European Championship. Pau was one year older than me, and so was Juan Carlos Navarro (now on Memphis) and other guys not in the NBA yet. We've been together for a long time. Since we were kids, every summer we've played together for the national team.

The terrific point guard leads the league with a 5.31 assist-to-turnover ratio.
MT: Your basketball story is obviously markedly different from your teammate T.J. Ford, for example, who went through the American school system before being drafted. How can you compare the two paths?
Calderon: I think it's different. It's two different ways to see basketball. Starting to play professionally when I was 17 worked out good for me because I was playing guys bigger than me who were much older and had been playing a lot longer than me. So I had to learn quicker. The difference between them (American high school and college players) and me is that they are playing against guys almost the same age. I think that's the biggest difference. But other than that, the basketball they play in college or high school (in America) is closer to the NBA than how we play. So you have good things and bad things at the same time. It's all basketball, just different ways to see basketball.

MT: When did players and coaches start telling you that you were good enough to go play in the NBA?
Calderon: I never thought about the NBA. Like now, I liked to just go day-by-day. When I was playing there I was playing in a real good system for me. The Raptor's (former general manager) Rob Babcock (now Minnesota's assistant general manager) was the guy that signed me. He just called my agents and they had an offer for me. I don't know, I just felt I was ready to come here and here I am right now.

MT: Fast forward to now, when you're fifth in the NBA in assists.
Calderon: Yeah, it's the worst way for me to start because my teammate T.J. (Ford) went down, but what can I say, I feel comfortable right now. I've been playing with some of my teammates for three years now. I know them and we're playing really good, and I feel great. You can't succeed without your teammates because they're the ones that you pass the ball to. Everybody asks me about the assist-turnover ratio (5.6, tops in the NBA) but my teammates are the ones who have to catch the ball. It's teamwork.

MT: Have you always taken good care of the ball? It must have been a focal point growing up?
Calderon: That's what I've always tried to do. For me every play with the ball is important, so if the pass isn't there, why would you throw the ball? I prefer to look for another option.

MT: Several NBA teams are playing in what might be called an international style in the last few years, namely Phoenix, Golden State, Memphis and especially your Raptors. Has that helped your transition?
Calderon: Yes. I think the NBA wanted to change a little bit, because everybody was talking about it being to individualistic. The players play by themselves, or not like a team. Now teams try to play more like a team. This is a team sport, so we do need to play with everybody. I think in that way the NBA maybe is a little closer to European style at this time. But at the same, European basketball is more like the NBA than (it used to be). I think the style in basketball is getting closer around the world, but they're still different styles.

MT: Got it. How about in terms of culture? What from Spain do you most miss?
Calderon: Toronto is not warm like it is in Spain, but even so, it's still a great city. The only thing I miss is just my family and friends because I can find food or whatever in Toronto. You can buy anything so there's no problem with that.

MT: Your English is excellent. How was it when you first got to the NBA?
Calderon: When I arrived here I couldn't understand my coaches or teammates. Now I'm feeling more comfortable and can understand most everything. But still sometimes when I try to explain something, I can't find the words. That's still difficult at times. Sometimes pronunciation on some words is impossible, but it's mostly OK.

MT: OK Jose, thanks a lot for your time.
Calderon: No problem, thanks.

Calderon averaged 10.5 points, 8.5 assists and 1.5 turnovers in two games against Minnesota this season.
Wolves Assistant GM Rob Babcock
MT: Can you walk me through the experience you had in scouting Toronto point guard Jose Calderon?
Babcock: It was a process. I actually started scouting him when I was still with Minnesota six years ago. I saw him at international tournaments and things like that. I already had reports on him and when I got to Toronto. Scott Howard, who was our director of international player personnel there, had seen him before too. We indicated that this was someone who we wanted to follow. We saw him play like three times and I got some DVD's on him, so we followed his progress. He was playing in the Euro League Final Four in Moscow, so I went to see him with Scott over there and got to see him play two times in a row. Based off of all that and we did all the research and everything, we keyed him as the guy that we wanted to sign as free agent. So that's kind of the background going into it. As soon as free agency came July 1, he was the first guy we made a call on. We brought him over for an initial visit.

MT: And your Spanish speaking helped give you and edge, correct?
Babcock: I speak Spanish from my years coaching in Mexico City and he didn't speak barely any English at that time, so yes, I think that helped a great deal. We just hit it off right from the beginning. He's a great guy. I was very impressed with him and I knew that coming in. His philosophy of how to play the game was right in line with how the game should be played. We synced right in, and his agent George Bass is a really good guy, as are the rest of his people.

MT: So was he on a lot of other team's radars? There aren't really any secrets out there anymore...
Babcock: Everybody knew him. There were probably 15 teams at that Final Four in Moscow. We were fortunate enough to get him.

MT: Looking at his numbers this year, he's leading the league in assists-to-turnovers, shooting the ball great, and so forth. Did you expect him to get this good this quickly?
Babcock: He's a good basketball player. To be honest, I thought he would be a starter in this league. I thought it would take him a year or two to become a starter. I didn't think he would improve as quickly as he did; he adjusted so quickly in just one year. In his second season he addressed his weaknesses. He's a true professional and he works his butt off; He got stronger and he worked on his shooting. He's a competitive guy, he's a professional, he loves to play and he knows how to play. He's got leadership ability and he's a true point guard. He really knows how to run a team. I thought he had legitimate consideration for the All-Star game this year as well as he's played. To get to that level in just his third season, that's pretty impressive. It shows how hard he works and how talented he is in learning everything about the NBA that quickly.

MT: What tools did you see when you scouted him?
Babcock: I saw that he had the physical abilities, I mean he's a good athlete. He's got good size for a point guard and he's got the vision and everything. He had so much international experience playing in tough situations and I saw him perform under pressure in tough situations and get the job done. I knew that he knew how to handle himself and handle his team. That's the thing that really set him apart. He really understands the coach, what's going on and how it works.