In the month leading up to the 2014 NBA Draft, Edy Tavares took a whirlwind tour of the U.S.
Tavares worked out in Indianapolis under the watchful eye of Larry Bird. He flew to Phoenix, took the court at the home of Suns owner Robert Sarver and lingered there long enough to catch a glimpse of Zach LaVine and his gravity-defying dunks.
At one point between stops, Tavares folded his 7’3” frame into the emergency exit row of a puddle-jumping plane for a flight from San Antonio to Houston. But even that row, the plane's widest, wasn't large enough to keeps his knees from embedding deeply into the seat in front of him.
In total, Tavares worked out for eight teams and held a group workout in New York for the majority of the others.
His visit to Atlanta was particularly noteworthy.
After arriving in town, Tavares wanted to find a pair of dress shoes before meeting with the Atlanta Hawks the next day. He knew the difficulties of finding size 20 shoes and had tried months earlier to have a pair made.
"I waited for the shoes in Seville (Spain) because I wanted shoes my size," he said, "but they did not come early enough. We tried to figure it out in Atlanta."
Someone told Tavares about a store on Mitchell Street in Atlanta: Friedman's Shoes. Less than a mile from Philips Arena, Friedman's is famous in NBA circles for carrying extra-large sizes.
Edy Tavares visited New York prior to the 2014 Draft (Photo courtesy of Alejo Melero)
Tavares went to the store, and the sales clerk brought out a few pairs of size 20 shoes. The first one was an uncomfortable fit. A second and third pair clung too tightly to his feet. Finally, the store manager went back and emerged with a box of size 22 shoes that a former NBA star had ordered but never purchased. Tavares tried them on.
A huge smile spread across Tavares' face. A friend asked why, and Tavares said, "It's the first pair of dress shoes that have fit me in my entire life."
Weeks later, Tavares climbed the podium at the NBA Draft in those same shoes.
Tavares had come an incredibly long way, literally and figuratively, to hear his name called by the Hawks. Five years earlier, he had never touched a basketball in his life. Without the urging of an acquaintance who knew a person who knew a basketball coach, Tavares may never have picked up a basketball at all.
Raúl Rodriguez, then the director for the youth team of CB Gran Canaria, a Spanish professional basketball club, was the first person affiliated with organized basketball to hear about the tall young man from Cape Verde.
A colleague entered Rodriguez's office in March 2009, bringing with him a man named Joaquin who visited Cape Verde often and ran a business selling cars on the Canary Islands.
Joaquin started to tell Rodriguez about a towering teenager, when Bakary Konate, now a sophomore center on the University of Minnesota men's basketball team, walked in. At the time, Konate was 6’10”. "How tall is he?" Joaquin asked. "My boy is taller." Rodriguez was intrigued, but he had heard his share of misleading tall tales. Before he would even consider going to see the teenager in person, he needed evidence of his height. Joaquin returned to Maio, one of the smallest and least populous islands of Cape Verde, to pitch the idea of playing basketball to Tavares. Once he got back to his favorite vacation spot, Joaquin wouldn't have to go far: Tavares worked in his grandmother’s store – the store where Joaquin first met Tavares – fewer than 50 feet away. Tavares was surprised at first.
"You need me to play basketball and not futbol?"
Soccer was the only sport played with any regularity on Maio. He also wasn't quite sure what to make of Joaquin, a fun-loving man prone to an occasional joke. Although Tavares had never touched a basketball before, Joaquin insisted the pitch was sincere.
"Give me one picture with a normal-sized person," Joaquin said. "I will talk to them." Joaquin's words sent Tavares, then 17 years old, on a quest for two things: the required photo and someone with a means of measuring exactly how tall he was. That picture eventually made its way to Rodriguez, who organized a trip to meet Tavares. Rodriguez took with him Alejo Melero, then-secretary of Gran Canaria’s youth program, and Carlos Frade, then an assistant coach for Gran Canaria's senior team.
Tavares and the three men agreed to meet in Praia, Cape Verde's capital city, on the island of Santiago. The basketball men looked forward to seeing what Tavares could do on the court. Tavares, in turn, looked forward to the promise of a career path that could help his family’s standard of life.
To introduce his group to Tavares, as well as gauge his interest in playing basketball, Rodriguez arranged a meeting at Café de Paris, a common destination for tourists who visit Praia. Tavares, who had accidentally fallen asleep, did not show up.
He called in the afternoon to arrange a meeting directly at the arena because it was closer to the house where he was staying.
"But later," Rodriguez said, "we returned to call, because Edy was running late." The phone call revealed that, in fact, Tavares was not late. He had waited at one entrance to the arena while his visitors from Gran Canaria had posted at a door on the opposite side. Relieved that they were finally going to meet, Melero circled the building while Frade and Rodriguez went inside to set up.
Minutes later, Melero entered the arena a few steps in front of Tavares. "He's tall!" Melero shout-whispered to Rodriguez with an astonished face.
Rodriguez and his group had overcome one set of obstacles in setting up the meeting with Tavares, but getting a sample of what Edy could do on the basketball court would prove to be even more challenging. The first problem? Tavares didn't own basketball shoes. At the time, Tavares would have worn a size 17, but he preferred walking around barefoot. When he did wear footwear, he chose the best-fitting item he could find on Cape Verde: undersized flip-flops. "His feet were half inside the sandal and half outside," Rodriguez remembered. The search for large basketball shoes was on. The Spaniards needed quick assistance, and Melero phoned his brother, Javier, for help.
Javier lived on Praia and was hosting his brother and guests during their stay on the island. Javier went to the local port, where stores sold the clothes and other household items that arrived weekly in shipping containers sent from Europe and the U.S.
"Javier Melero and the people of the Cabo Verde's Basketball Federation moved Heaven and Hell looking for basketball shoes," Rodriguez recalled.
Children playing basketball on Praia, 2009 Photo courtesy of Alejo Melero
But while the Gran Canarians waited for footwear, they started to learn what sort of person Tavares was.
"As we talked and waited for the shoes, we discovered we were with a kid in a giant body who was very humble and very well-educated," Rodriguez said. Despite their best efforts, the biggest pair of basketball shoes they could muster was a size 13.5. To make matters worse, the socks were as undersized as the shoes. The makeshift plan was to cut holes in a tall pair of soccer socks to make a spot where Tavares' heels could sit, and then see if they could shoehorn his feet into sneakers far too small to accommodate them. "Once we had dressed Edy in socks," Rodriguez said, "we had to do something difficult: put those big and malformed feet in basketball shoes. To see Alejo squat with Edy's foot between his knees – in the summer heat of around 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and humidity around 90 percent, with drops of sweat falling from his forehead while Edy looked on incredulously at what this unknown man was doing to his feet – was priceless."
Unsurprisingly, Tavares said the shoes made his feet hurt, but it was an ache worth enduring.
"I remember feeling, like, a pain," he said. "I think it was crazy, but I had one opportunity and I needed to show them and not make excuses, and that's it."
After overcoming the obstacles of meeting Tavares and getting him equipped to play, the recruiters were finally ready to evaluate his potential.
"When Edy was ready to start," Rodriguez said, "and after asking some easy questions, we started with very basic exercises, more than anything, to see his ability to learn. After that, we headed towards the basket. The kid who had never picked up a basketball before was walking toward the three-point line with the ball tucked under his arm. He stopped behind the line and put up his first shot toward the basket. The result? He almost broke the backboard. Then we said, 'Edy, we'll start with easier things near the basket. You'll have time for that kind of shot later.'"
(Much later, in fact. Even though every player that the Hawks had on their 2014-15 roster attempted a three-point shot, Tavares says he has not been working on the shot in the team's practices.)
After about 15 minutes of light exercises under the rim, Tavares experienced muscle tightness in his shoulders and neck. The group sat down together and tried a simple passing drill instead. Then the recruiters realized how good his hands were.
"When we threw him the ball, he could reach out and 'pop!’" Rodriguez said, mimicking a one-handed catching motion with fingers spread wide. The group saw glimpses of even greater potential in that very first practice, Melero said.
“He had never played basketball, and he didn't know anything about it, but he managed to do the exercises we taught him correctly." At that moment in 2009, Tavares had grown to 7’1”, and his rapid teenage growth spurt had not yet come to a halt. Putting his long, unconditioned body through exercises was difficult for Tavares. Not only had he never played basketball before, but those moments on that court were his first real experiment with a sport of any kind.
"He didn't know how to run when he came to Gran Canaria," said Jesús Morales, the team's social media director. "He had never practiced any sports.
Tavares pushed his chair back slightly from a tall, narrow table and faced both of his palms at his audience in a manner that spoke without speaking, “Don't shoot!”
One minute into Media Day for the 2015-16 Atlanta Hawks and Tavares was already a bit overwhelmed. He had already answered several detailed questions, but needed to regroup for a moment before proceeding to the next. Tavares would have been more comfortable conversing in his third language, Spanish, instead of English, his fourth.
Minutes later, he got his wish. A Telemundo reporter posed questions in Spanish. Tavares fell at ease and happily answered, while a large number of the unilingual reporters – the ones who had fired questions rapidly at Tavares in English – recoiled.
If Tavares isn't entirely comfortable with English yet, he found himself on the right team. Big men Al Horford, Tiago Splitter and Mike Muscala all speak Spanish fluently.
Horford is ready to chalk it up as an advantage.
"The defenders on the other team, they don't know what we're talking about," Horford said. "I can tell him a play or something to look for, and they're not going to understand it."
Growing up on Cape Verde, Tavares spoke both Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese, the latter being a legacy language of the country that colonized the 10-island archipelago until it gained independence in 1975. It wasn't until later in his life, when he moved away to learn basketball as a teenager, that Tavares started learning Spanish and English.
Until discovering basketball, being tall as a kid wasn't necessarily something in which Tavares reveled.
"I attracted too much attention," he said. "I am shy. I don't like to stay on the eyes of everybody, you know what I'm saying? But my family is tall."
Indeed, Tavares’ parents are big; his father stands 6’8”. However, with his father often away for long periods of time while at work on shipping vessels, it was Tavares’ late grandmother who stood tallest in his young life.
"She took care of all the kids in the family," he said, lavishing praise on a woman who did a lot with a little. "She took care of everybody. She's my motivation."
Leaving his family behind and moving to the Canary Islands at age 17 was difficult for Tavares. His transition to life in Spain, to a new culture and an unfamiliar sport, caused him a lot of discomfort. He was trying to make a stark lifestyle adjustment while at the same time learning the basic tenets of basketball in a junior basketball program filled with young people who had played the sport for years.
"It was hard because you don't have family and you don't have your friends," he said. "I had never played basketball before. I didn't have the physicality for playing basketball."
To make matters worse, being more than 7 feet tall left him nowhere to hide. At their best, passersby on the street gawked and gasped, and at their worst, they derided him much more directly. Back at the complex that housed the junior players, Tavares spent a number of tearful evenings in the offices of the coaching staff who lived on site.
Gran Canaria had already filled out the roster on its under-18 junior team by the time Tavares arrived. To accommodate him, they put together a "B" team for that season. Tavares ended up on the court – sometimes outdoors in the sunshine that blanketed the island – with teammates and opponents who, for the most part, were a foot shorter than him.
In his first few games, Tavares hesitated to take advantage. He ran among the shorter players hesitantly, almost as if he were afraid to get his legs tangled in their bodies. If he caught the ball in the low post, instead of looking to score virtually unimpeded, he sought out teammates with passes. Still, the fact that he could find teammates with the ball demonstrated potential toward developing a complete skill set.
The building where they played indoors had offices and rooms upstairs above the court. When it was time for a game, the players navigated down by a steep stairway with tiny steps much shorter than Tavares' feet. To get down them, Tavares clung tightly to the railing while closely watching his steps.
A few cruel observers seized on the awkwardness, teased him, and wondered aloud how a player who couldn't traverse a flight of stairs was going to matter in a basketball game.
Despite the rocky start, Tavares and Gran Canaria were a good match for each other. Tavares, with a gentle personality and easy smile, quickly made acquaintances around the town. At that point, his stature began to help. Anyone who had met him could easily spot and remember him, prompting routine “Hey, Edy!" greetings as he walked down the street.
Christmas, 2009. Members of Gran Canaria's junior teams gather for a holiday meal. Edy Tavares (far left), Alejo Melero (far right).
Gran Canaria offered more advantages. Unlike other parts of Spain, nearly everyone spoke Spanish instead of other regional tongues. And despite the singularity of language, the population was more diverse than other parts of the country. Perhaps most importantly, like Maio, Gran Canaria was an Atlantic island off the coast of Western Africa, offering Tavares the climate, ocean and beaches that he loved so much.
By December 2009, Tavares had already adapted well. Like the other junior basketball players, Tavares took part in a prep school-like education that included classwork in Spanish, English, math, science and woodworking. Success in those classes was important: Not only was Tavares learning important life skills, but he needed to demonstrate academic success to maintain the student visa that allowed him to stay in Spain.
Tavares spent the 2010-11 season with a fourth-division pro team; then, Gran Canaria arranged for him to play the 2011-12 season with UB La Palma, a second-division pro team. It was in that season that Tavares made some of his biggest strides. He started the season as the sixth big man on the depth chart, but by the time the postseason started, he was the first player coming off the bench.
His progress earned him a promotion to Gran Canaria's top-division team for 2012-13. There, the quality of basketball was top notch. Gran Canaria plays in Spain's Liga ACB, a league second only to the NBA in terms of talent and level of play.
Tavares thrived under the watchful eye of Coach Aíto García Reneses, who also mentored Ricky Rubio and Pau Gasol in their pre-NBA Liga ACB stints. Tavares started to show incremental progress.
"I went step by step and worked every day,” he said, “and tried to be better every day."
By 2013-14, his second season with Granca's senior team, Tavares finished sixth in Liga ACB in rebounds (6.8 per game) and had positioned himself as a legitimate prospect for the NBA Draft.
Before his special day, the one he dreamed about back in 2009, his friends had an emotional surprise in store for him. Frade, Rodriguez and Melero secretly traveled to New York at their own expense. They wanted to be with Tavares on the most important night of his career, and they set up the gesture to be a complete surprise.
Guillermo Bermejo, Tavares' agent, dragged Edy from their New Jersey hotel to Manhattan one night under the guise of meeting a few of Bermejo's friends. After walking a great distance to a restaurant, Tavares’ feet started to get sore and he protested mildly to Bermejo. When his friends finally emerged to surprise him, Tavares could not muster a word. Instead, he hugged all of his Spanish friends as if he had not seen them in years.
Left to right: Hawks scout Himar Ojeda, Ermis Papakonstantinou, Tavares, Guillermo Bermejo, Raul Rodriguez, Carlos Frade, and Alejo Melero (Photo courtesy of Alejo Melero)
After the draft, the Hawks and Tavares decided that the best option was for him to play at least another season with Gran Canaria. Tavares went back and led the ACB league in rebounds (7.9 per game) and blocks (1.8 per game), while averaging 8.0 points and shooting 58.3 percent from the field.
Tavares was even more impressive when playing for the Eurocup, the continent’s second-most prestigious annual international competition. He shot better than 70% from the field and was named to the 2014-15 All-Eurocup First Team. Gran Canaria went 22-1 in Eurocup play and made it to the Eurocup final for the first time in the team's history.
Despite his humble beginnings in Cape Verde, Tavares comes to the NBA with an established record of strong play. At the same time, adjusting to the NBA won't be easy.
For one thing, the rules are different. So, too, is the style of play.
“The defensive three-second rule is a big difference," said Muscala, noting that centers in Spain are allowed to stand under the rim and patrol the paint whether they are defending a player in that space or not.
Like Tavares, Muscala toiled in Liga ACB before coming to the Hawks. Also like Tavares, Muscala led the league in rebounds per game, while playing for Obradoiro CAB in the 2013-14 season.
Muscala and Tavares both noted that the NBA is significantly faster than Liga ACB, and Tavares will need time to adjust.
"I'll try to work on the speed of the game," Tavares said. "Here it is more fast and up and down. In Spain the system, I come (down) on offense and everybody stands on offense in their location in the system. Here it's different. It's like up and down. It's fast.
"One game is so fast. One game is slow.”
Tavares plays with a deft touch and evidence of having been well-coached from the first time he ever played. When going for rebounds, it would be natural and easy for the tallest player to just try and go get the ball. Instead, Tavares measures his opponent for a body blow while the shot hangs in the air, then turns to find the ball.
His shooting skill is evident when he takes free throws. He releases the ball cleanly from his long hands. When combined with his nearly 10-foot-high release point, the ball sails in a perfect parabola from fingertip to net. It's one of the things that most impresses Horford.
"He has a really nice touch – not only around the rim but he can extend and shoot a mid-range shot," Horford said.
The transition to the NBA and its faster game won't be a seamless one for Tavares. It should be easier, though, than the obstacles he overcame as a quiet kid from Cape Verde.
When asked what life is like in Cape Verde, Tavares said, "It's a normal island," which of course makes total sense for a young man who has spent almost his entire life on them.
When asked about his new home, he answers, "It's different than Cape Verde. It's good. I like life in Atlanta."
Then he switched course and added, "I don't like the traffic. There are too many cars."
Story by KL Chouinard Twitter: @KLChouinard