Embracing the Beautiful Game

Nets guard D'Angelo Russell found a passion for soccer while rooting for his classmates at Florida's Montverde Academy

Back in 2012, D'Angelo Russell left his hometown of Louisville to take a step into a wider basketball world, enrolling at high school basketball power Montverde Academy in central Florida. If he went there with his sports passions focused solely on basketball success, he found broader horizons.

It turns out the basketball team on which Russell would team with future Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons wasn't the only powerhouse squad on campus with a big following. Montverde's boys' soccer team has produced 20 pro players in the last decade, and Russell quickly got swept up in the sport.

"When I first went there, sophomore in high school, I went to the soccer games and they were like crazy! I had no idea," said Russell. "I would go to soccer games back home, but when I went to their games, it was crazy. The whole school came out. The whole city came out to watch it. And they were holding a winning streak where they weren't losing. So I kept in touch with the players and kept watching the program and it just made me fall in love with it."

It's a passion that has only grown for Russell over the last few years. One of the first things he did after being acquired by Brooklyn in the summer of 2017 was visit Yankee Stadium for an NYCFC game. His DVR is stocked with Premier League games that he records and checks out. And one of his favorite downtime activities is playing FIFA, toggling between some of the world's best teams and players.

"I feel like when I'm around soccer players, that's the only time I'm really star struck," said Russell. "Not really star struck around NBA or other sports or actors or anything. It's more soccer, because I'm just a big fan. I play the games. I watch the games. But you never accidentally run into a soccer player in the states. It's kind of rare. It's been pretty cool."

One of Russell's favorite players is Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann, and the feeling is mutual. The two first connected when Russell was playing in Los Angeles, and they've kept in touch ever since. But they met for the first time in person just recently, when Griezmann came to see the Nets play the Atlanta Hawks at Barclays Center in December, with the pair exchanging signed jerseys.

Last summer, Griezmann won the 2018 World Cup with the French national team.

"I feel like when I'm around soccer players, that's the only time I'm really star struck."

D'Angelo Russell

"He's a feisty dude," said Russell. "He's a playmaker. He's a winner. Every time I'm watching some of the biggest games, he's participating in them. I got to catch him in the World Cup this year. They won that, so that was a good vibe. He's one of those players that's super exciting. Smart. Two steps ahead kind of guy. When I watch soccer and I'm like, 'yo, pass there,' he makes the pass right then and there and I'm just like, 'man, I'm not even playing.' He's just fun to watch."

Griezmann is just one of a long list of players that Russell admires and enjoys watching, among them Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Neymar, Paul Pogba, Kylian Mbappe and Gareth Bale. He counts himself a fan of Manchester United, where Ibrahimovic played from 2016 to 2018.

"A lot of greats have been there," said Russell. "I like the colors. When I first started watching them Wayne Rooney was there. I kind of fell in love with watching them play and winning. And that rivalry with Man City and Man U is pretty exciting as well."

"This summer I plan on doing a whole tour to be honest."

D'Angelo Russell

The next step is getting to see some of the world's best play in person. He had plans to go abroad last summer and catch the La Liga tournament, but rehab kept him stateside. He's looking forward to changing that this year.

"This summer I plan on doing a whole tour to be honest," said Russell. "Me and my video guys, some of my boys we're going to travel and participate in the soccer atmosphere. Going to the games. Meeting with the players that I'm fans of, or are fans of me. Definitely something for next summer."

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