With his team or his family, Argentine cherishes exploration
POSTED: Jan 23, 2016 3:25 PM ET
Scola Nails It
DeMar DeRozan flies up the court and feeds Luis Scola for the corner triple to end the first half.
TORONTO — The newest goal is an hour and a half away. Those minutes can be hard to find during the NBA season. But Luis Scola is adamant.
"I won't waver, says the Raptors 35-year-old power forward. "I don't care if they trade me. I won't go to a new team before I see Niagara."
Is he joking? His smile reveals nothing more than his sincerity. The three great falls, formed 10,000 years ago, are the latest subject of his curiosity. Their name -- Niagara -- rolls and hops exotically to the cadence of his Argentine accent.
"As soon as I got here, the first thing I want to do is go to Niagara," says Scola, who is midway through his first season in Toronto. "And every time I have a day off there's something happening, and I didn't have a chance to go there yet. Niagara. I have to go there."
It is not as if he has been wasting these first four months in Canada. Scola was able to tour the country in October as the Raptors they played preseason games from Montreal to Vancouver.
"Montreal is beautiful," says Scola. "Vancouver, when I got there, I was like, what is this place? We spent there a week in training camp. I took this little floating plane; it was right in front of the hotel. The guy was really nice. He was taking me all over the places, and I was like, oh my God -- these mountains, the beaches, the city -- it's an amazing place.'
He is not saying that flying over Vancouver or visiting Niagara Falls is more important than his job. Anyone who has seen Scola play -- and you don't need anything close to 90 minutes -- recognizes that basketball is his tireless passion. What he is saying, backed by 15 years of conviction, is that his investment in traveling and sightseeing and experiencing the larger world has served to nourish his passion for basketball.
"The NBA is the ultimate," he says. "I know that some training facilities are a little more fancy, and some teams have, like, two more people working for them than the other teams. But it doesn't matter where you go, the point is the same. This is the highest level. It doesn't get any higher. If you are a player in the NBA, and you come up with an idea or a question or a problem, there's three people dying to help you right there at the moment. If you suggest one thing, the answer is there.
"It creates not only all of this energy for you to come to work," he says of the support he has received in nine seasons with four NBA teams. "But also it creates a great responsibility. Because they are working for you. So you've got to do your part. You have got to do your part."
His love for wife Pamela, the upbringing of their four young children and the never-ending curiosity to make the most of each day -- all of this feeds into Scola's desire to do his part. He has been given so many gifts, and his obligation is to do right by all of them, on the court and off.
Scola was 15 when he made his professional debut with the club Ferro Basquet in Buenos Aires. In order for him to become a basketball star whose career would lead him through four countries, he would need to learn first that there was more to life than basketball.
"You know what really happens to me?" he says. "I was 17 when I left home. I moved to Spain, but it was like I was living in Argentina in my head while being in Spain. I was so homesick, and my head was always thinking about what was going on at home. I was on the internet with my friends and chatting and talking. I didn't really pay attention to things that were happening around me. All of the good things."
For those first two seasons away from home he was playing for a small club in Gijon, an ancient city in northern Spain. After Scola had been transferred back to a larger Spanish club, Tau Ceramica in Vitoria-Gasteiz, he returned to Gijon to play against his former team. His young career was ascending, and yet Scola was disappointed in himself.
"I realized I didn't really know much about the city," says Scola of his time in Gijon. "I didn't learn nothing, I didn't see nothing, I didn't enjoy it. I was immature and I was worried about the wrong things. You get a chance to live in a particular place, you've got to use the time and try to figure it out. Try to learn. Try to really get to know that place. So after I moved to another city in Spain, I started doing a lot of cool stuff around the area. I was liking that."
At the end of his fourth year in Spain, Scola was picked late in the second round (No. 56) of the 2002 draft by the San Antonio Spurs, who were happy to let him continue developing overseas in the mode of Scola's fellow Argentinian Manu Ginobili. In 2005, however, the Spurs found themselves unable to negotiate a buyout with Tau Ceramica. Scola would remain in Spain for an additional two years, not arriving to the NBA until he was signed as a 27 year old rookie by the Houston Rockets soon after they had traded for his rights in 2007. And yet Scola would not enable the contractual delays to frustrate him.
"It is impossible to see everything in Spain," he says. "Spain is an unbelievable country that is so rich in terms of culture and tradition, and it is so different from city to city and province to province. You literally need to go through all of them. And it doesn't matter how big the city, all of those things are there on the different scale everywhere you go. The fiestas. The way people live. The things they do every day. It is just an unbelievable place."
Barcelona emerged as a favorite destination.
"Barcelona is the Mecca of all that," says Scola. "It has the mountain with all these beautiful places to see, and then the next day you drive 25 minutes to the other direction to go to this beach that is beautiful and one of the most famous in the world. You can watch soccer. You can watch basketball. You can watch shows, theater, music. Barcelona is this great, great city that happens to be not only very traditional, but also very cosmopolitan. It is very open-minded and people come from all over the world there.
"And I'm not even from there. I am from Argentina, so I don't have to say this."
"I told everybody, 'You guys go to the lake,"' recalls Scola of one of their camping trips in America. "'I am going to do this. Don't worry."'
He was trying to assemble the large two-roomed tent he had bought for this family camping trip in Arizona. By now he was a household name among NBA fans. He had moved recently from Houston to Phoenix by way of the league's amnesty provision. He was known as one of the hardest-working players in basketball. But this job was beyond him.
"When they come back from the lake, they see I barely make advances," he says, laughing. "The wind is blowing. The pieces of the tent never fit. They can see I am all sweaty and I'm like, `OK, I need help. Stay here. Don't leave. Stay and help me."'
Among his favorite memories of his childhood in Buenos Aires were the family vacations to the south of Argentina. "It was three years in a row we went, and it was a lot of hours on the road we were driving," Scola recalls. "We went to see these amazing places, and at some point I will do it with my kids."
In the meantime, here he was in America, a young immigrant seeking new scenes to explore with his wife and their growing family. During their five initial NBA seasons in Houston they had visited Austin, Dallas and San Antonio, and had gone so far as to vacation on South Padre Island.
There is a lot of challenges with moving, especially for the kids and the wife. Because they are not the reason why we are moving. But there's a lot of good things also.
– Luis Scola, on moving his family.
"Usually we would go on Friday and come back on Sunday night," he says of those trips with their four little boys. "Two or three or four hours in the car, maybe. Movies in the car help. I would rather do a three- or four-hour drive versus a one-and-half hour flight, because sometimes the kids don't behave that well in the airport. In the car at least it's just us there."
The 2012 move from Houston to Phoenix was painful.
"It's hard for me to point to negative things, because I just really enjoy my career," he says. "But we were doing really, really well in Houston. We were really identified with the team and with the fans. We knew the city up-and-down. It was good for us. Our kids had friends, my wife had friends. And just like that, it was over. Now we had to move to another team. So we went through all of that with a lot of positive hopes, but it didn't work out well."
He was moving from a winning team in Houston to a team in Phoenix that would lose 57 games in 2012-13. After that one season he was traded by the Suns to the Pacers.
"And then we had to move again," he says. "It was a little bit rough, that year and a half. But it's just part of the way it is. We are happy now. We were happy in Indy. We would have been extremely happy in Phoenix if the team had gone a little bit better."
What has helped to see him through those difficulties -- keeping him upbeat and diligent and focused optimistically on the new day -- has been his family. He never wanted the problems that he might be experiencing at work to influence his wife and children negatively. He was always seeking the bright side, and so his public and private lives stimulated one another.
"When we were in Phoenix we went quite a few times to Vegas," he says. "We went to L.A. We went to San Diego, which was amazing. There are three or four lakes around the Phoenix area and we went camping to those. And the same thing in Indy: We went to Chicago a couple of times, we went to different parts of Lake Michigan, and near Cincinnati is a nice skiing place, so we took the kids there a couple of times so they can learn to ski."
The Scolas spent two seasons in Indianapolis with the Pacers, who lost in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals to Miami before missing the playoffs last year amid the catastrophic injury to Paul George. Last summer in free agency the Raptors were hungry to sign an experienced, selfless winner who had averaged 12.7 points and 7.0 rebounds over eight NBA seasons.
"He is somebody that has a scope of the world on his side," says Raptors GM Masai Ujiri. "Everything he does is geared toward winning and the team, which is what you want."
The Raptors are beginning the second half of the season as the No. 2 team in the East, and Scola has started every game. He is scoring in double-figures (10.1 points per game) for the first time in three years, and he has extended his shooting range to convert a career-best 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers. He has made three times as many 3s this season than in all of his previous years combined.
"He brings that experience of his professionalism on a daily basis," says Toronto coach Dwane Casey. "There is nothing new that he hasn't seen. During the games he'll have a suggestion to the players, which means you don't have to have a coach saying the same thing. I would say there is no bigger international player than Luis Scola as far as the medals he's earned and the success he's had internationally."
All of that success would mean very little to Scola if he had been unable to help his young family make the transition to yet another city and country. Tiago, who is now 10, Tomas (8), Matias (6) and Lucas (5) were unhappy about moving again.
"At the first they were upset, because of their friends," Scola says. "There is a lot of challenges with moving, especially for the kids and the wife. Because they are not the reason why we are moving. But there's a lot of good things also. I try to tell them all the time, 'Yes, you are going to miss your friends, the friends you were making in Indiana or Houston or Phoenix. But you are going to make new friends. And you're going to learn, in Canada, another language: You're going to learn French. Now you are going to have friends from different parts of the world. In another country they have a lot of rules, they have another kind of money, they have many different things. So it is a great chance to learn.
"We try to make the experience more fun, because I strongly believe it is that way. Although, also, I recognize the challenges and the hassles that come with this profession."
Patrick Patterson, who backs up Scola at power forward, spent his first two NBA seasons in Houston alongside Scola as well as Kyle Lowry, the Raptors' All-Star point guard. "I love Scola," says Patterson. "I was definitely blessed to have someone like him to look up to and teach me the ins and outs of the game. It is just cool to be seeing him knock down threes -- and seeing his kids too. To see them running into the locker room with cell phones and gadgets and long jerseys, it's just crazy how time flies."
Tiago, the oldest, has joined a basketball league in Toronto. "He's very happy because he is seeing me travel for basketball all the time, and now he gets to travel for basketball," Scola says. "I told him, `Not only do you get to travel, but you get to go to Niagara where the waterfalls are.' He said, `Whoa! Can I see them?' I said, `Hell, yeah, you'd better see them!' He was like, 'Yessss."'
"It is a great story I have," says Scola. "It happened when I was playing for Houston against Nocioni."
Andres Nocioni, who was a forward for the Kings at the time, is Scola's countryman. In the summer the two of them have been teammates on behalf of Argentina for years. They won gold in the 2004 Olympics, silver in the 2002 FIBA World Cup, and numerous other medals and trophies with their national team.
"Now he was playing in Sacramento," says Scola of his friend. "I was sitting on the bench and he made this great play. And I don't know what happened, but I was celebrating. I was getting up to scream for him and then I realized that I was celebrating for the other team. So then I come up with some stupid thing, like, 'Hey!' And I'm pointing to the defender that is supposed to be guarding Nocioni, and he looks at me and says, 'what the hell are you talking about?' And then I sat really quick. It just happened. I couldn't avoid it."
His trips with the national team have provided Scola with some of his happiest moments in basketball. "This summer I'm going to have a chance to play in my fourth Olympics," he says. "People pay thousands of dollars just to watch the Olympics from the stands, and I am going to be there fulltime from the inside -- for all of the ceremonies, and living inside the athlete's village. Forget about playing the games, or if we succeed or we fail. It's just the cultural experience, to have the chance to talk to the guy, who lifts weights, or the guy who is boxing, or the guy that runs. How do you train? What do you do? Where do you live? And they ask you the same things. People pay a lot of money for a much smaller version of the Olympics than we have as athletes."
At Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, Scola and his teammates would try to visit one or more Olympic events every other day, in between their own games. As one big party they might attend the swimming or track and field, or else break into smaller groups to see a shooting event or some other less-popular but altogether fascinating competition.
"Beijing was great, because on the inside of the village there was the swimming, the tennis, all of the track and field, so we got these buses for the athletes that would take us to those places," says Scola. "My kids were really mad at me, because they said I didn't take them. The truth is we took the whole family for those Olympics, but they were little so they don't remember."
He made it up to them nonetheless by taking them on a trip to China last summer. Luis and Pamela encouraged Tiago to arrange their sightseeing itinerary.
"He went online and researched the places he wanted to go, and I thought it was a very nice thing for him to do," Scola says. "So we try to stick with things he wanted to see. He picked the Forbidden City and the Great Wall; the (Temple) of Heaven was another one. And for all of those he printed out a little bit of a description of the place."
This summer Scola will be representing Argentina at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. This figures to be the farewell for their golden generation. Ginobili will be 39 and may yet decide to play. Nocioni, now playing for Real Madrid, is 36.
"I will have a chance to play in South America, close to friends and family, and maybe some of them will be there," Scola says. "It is going to be a great experience for me. Our team is not as competitive as it was in the past. Most of the people think that we are far from the medals. But we are going to prepare the same way that we did for all these other tournaments, and we are going to live the experience, and we are going to compete as hard as we can."
Playing for the national team has deepened his own sense of patriotism as well as it has helped his children bond with Argentina. When they return for the summers to Scola's 850-acre cattle farm in Buenos Aires, it feels like home.
The entire world, in fact, feels that way.
"I do feel a little bit like that," Scola says. "Argentina is my home, my place. But I do have a feeling that I could live and have a happy life anywhere. And this really relaxes me. If I have to go somewhere else, I will be okay. I am happy."
After a game last month in Toronto against the Spurs, Scola stood in an arena hallway chatting with Pamela, with whom he attended high school in Buenos Aires, and Ginobili, with whom he helped put Argentina on the global basketball map. It was a reunion of three old friends.
"The relationship is special," says Scola of his Argentine teammates. "It is something that we are all going to keep in our hearts when all of this is done. Soon."
Hours earlier, during the game against the Spurs, Scola could be seen making the most of every moment on the court against Tim Duncan. On defense, whenever Duncan was nearby, Scola would reach out and lean into him. These were like aggressive embraces.
"When Tim Duncan retires I think I'm going to cry," says Scola. "I have never had this admiration for a player before. I feel embarrassed comparing me with Tim, but I copy a lot of things from him. I'm never going to be even close to him. But if I could be like anyone, I would be like him."
Consider this: The spirit that Duncan exhibits on the court has been applied by Scola to all phases of his life. The player, the husband, the father and the friend -- all are one and the same person. The energy, the passion, the ambitions and the values all appear to complement one another whatever he does and wherever he goes.
All of these qualities enable him to keep working at his game with renewed optimism, even though he is not a young player anymore.
"The political answer would be to see how I feel, if I can help the team and all that," he says of his future. "The non-political answer, which I think is closer to reality, is they will have to kick me out of here. They will have to push me out of the door. I'm going to play until I think I can't play.
"It will be a day that I won't be able to do it anymore. I know that. Obviously. But for now I can. And I will try to make it last as long as I can."
For there is much to be accomplished. This is a man, after all, who has not yet seen Niagara Falls.
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