Sep 18, 2018 8:36 AM ET
Rodions Kurucs began playing basketball at the age of five with a group of seven-year-olds. Why not with youngsters his own age? Because there was no organized basketball for five-year-olds in Cesis, the Latvian town of fewer than 20,000 people in which he grew up.
Why not wait until he was seven? Not an option. Not with his grandfather, Vladimirs Kiselovs, a basketball lifer and venerated coach in Latvia.
"He had two sons that they finished their careers very fast," said Kurucs. "He wanted us to succeed. So he said, 'you'll be a basketball player.' We didn't have any choice. But we loved it."
The "we" includes younger brother Arturs, who also played two years up for his entire childhood, because that was the age difference between he and Rodions.
For eight years, the trio was a unit. His grandfather, who came of age in the time of Soviet domination of the region, could be a hard-driving coach.
"I mean, we had a lot of fights," said Kurucs. "A lot of tears. That was crazy. I still remember all those times now. He was working with me and with my brother. He worked more with me, but my brother always was behind me and trying to do the things I do. I maybe had more talent, but he worked, he had a lot to prove. He proved a lot with his work that he put in the game."
Away from the gym they bonded watching games. FC Barcelona was a favorite, mostly because of star guard Juan Carlos Navarro. But their preference was CSKA Moscow, which featured a sharpshooting American whom Kurucs came to idolize, former Duke star Trajan Langdon. Langdon is now Brooklyn's assistant general manager and when Kurucs came to Brooklyn for this year's NBA Draft, he was intent on getting a photo taken with Langdon -- even before the Nets took him with the 40th overall pick.
By the time he was 13, it was time for bigger things. On his own, he moved to Latvia's capital, Riga, to play for the youth academy of the city's professional club. He shared an apartment with two others, and learned to take care of himself.
"Almost every night I was calling my mom to take me back," said Kurucs. "She said if you want I'll come and take you back, there's no problem. But then my grandfather would say to me, 'do you really want to come back or will you push through that and you'll get what you want.' I said, 'all right I will stay here and work'. But still every night, he said to me the same words every night.
"It was tough. School was tough. In Cesis, everyone knows my grandfather and school was much easier. They give me some bonuses and good grades. When I got there nobody cared about it, who's your grandfather, who I am. I had to study more. I had to take care of myself, food, how to get to the school on the metro and buses. That was tough. I was 13. I had to mature faster."
By the time he was 16, he had moved up to Riga's squad in the top division of the country's professional loop, the Latvian Basketball League. Once upon a time, that was at the top of his grandfather's ambition for him. By then, they knew there was more to come. Four years later, he's about to embark on his first NBA season.
"It's actually a funny story. I just talked with my grandfather about it three days ago I think," said Kurucs. "We never thought that I would go that high actually. I asked him one day when I was younger, 'what do you want? Where do you want me to go? How high?' He said that it would be great if you played in the top Latvian league. I said, 'OK, that's good.' Then after the Latvian team I showed off my skills in a next generation tournament and Barcelona saw me and signed me. He was really happy for that. Who would imagine that I would go that high? Now I'm here, he's like, 'I don't have the words. I didn't even imagine that you could go that high.' I was going for that. That was my dream. That was my passion. I wanted to get here and to work here."