Keith Langford seemed destined for a career in the NBA. Maybe not as a superstar, but as a bench player at least.
He graduated from North Crowley in 2001 with a school-record 1,844 points and 844 rebounds in his career, and then starred at Kansas as a slashing guard who helped the Jayhawks reach two Final Fours.
But Langford went undrafted in 2005 because of his size (6-foot-3) as a shooting guard and his lack of ball-handling skills to play point guard in the NBA.
That left Langford bound for the NBA Development League with the Fort Worth Flyers and in the United States Basketball League with the Kansas Cagerz before making it with the San Antonio Spurs for a few games during the 2007-08 season.
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Langford hasn’t sniffed the NBA since that brief stint. Most might view his professional career as a failure, but don’t shed any tears for Langford.
“I’m doing all right,” Langford said from his home in Austin. “Basketball is still my job and livelihood.”
Langford has found his niche playing professionally overseas the past five seasons, and is making more money than he would if he were the 15th guy on an NBA team.
He has become a Dwyane Wade-type star in Europe. Last summer, he signed a two-year contract with an Italian team owned by fashion icon Giorgio Armani, EA7 Emporio Armani Milano, which pays him more than $1 million a year.
Langford is just one of several former college stars making good money and shining overseas. It’s a lucrative alternative if the dream of playing in “the league” doesn’t come to fruition.
Sixty players were drafted into the NBA on Thursday, but there’s a good chance more than half will wind up playing overseas at some point in their career. That’s not a bad thing, either.
“It’s an unknown and you fear the unknown,” Langford said. “People think, ‘If I go to Europe, I failed.’ Everybody always respects the NBA name. It doesn’t matter if you’re the last guy on the roster, if you go to a basketball camp and they introduce you as an NBA player, kids’ eyes always get a little bit bigger.
“But I’ve learned how to accept that I’m not playing in the NBA.”
Similar to Langford, Nick Fazekas thought he’d be in line for a nice NBA career. He had a stellar four years at Nevada, leaving as the school’s all-time scoring leader. The Dallas Mavericks used their second-round pick in 2007 to take the 6-foot-11 Fazekas, who played under TCU coach Trent Johnson at Nevada.
But Fazekas’ NBA career lasted 26 games. Since then, he’s played overseas, although he admits it took him more than two years to accept the fact that he didn’t fit the NBA mold.
“You kind of feel like you failed, but when you sign a piece of paper that’s worth $300,000 to $500,000, you can’t feel like a failure,” said Fazekas, who played with the Toshiba Brave Thunders in the Japan Basketball League last season.
“You’re making more than 98 percent of the people in the United States. It’s a numbers game in the NBA, so what are you supposed to do? You can’t sit in the D-league and live a good life. So it was a little bit disheartening, but I’m still getting a paycheck every month to play.”
Going overseas has its obvious hurdles for players. There’s the inevitable culture shock and being away from family and friends.
But the teams — the ones in competitive leagues operated by solid ownership — make the transition as seamless as possible. Most teams provide U.S. players with apartments and cars during the season. Keith Langford, for instance, drove a BMW 5 Series last season.
Langford said it all depends on the team when it comes to what cars are provided. The Real Madrid team in Spain has a deal with Porsche, certainly a nice perk. Another team, Langford said, gives players Range Rovers.
Kevin Langford, Keith’s brother who played at TCU, is playing in Greece. He has been given a variety of vehicles, from a Volkswagen Polo to a minivan to a BMW. He did have to learn one thing, though.
“You need to know how to drive a stick shift,” Kevin said. “But it’s definitely a nice perk and they take care of you well over there.”
Fazekas didn’t get a car playing in Japan, admitting it would have been a dangerous proposition because they drive on the opposite side of the road. But the Japanese team did provide him a place to live and a translator.
“It all depends on where you play, but all the teams take pretty good care of you,” Fazekas said.
Johnson has a handful of former players, including Fazekas, enjoying careers overseas. He’s just as proud of them as he is of another one of his players, NBA All-Star Brook Lopez.
“It’s a great option and you can make a great living,” Johnson said. “In basketball, if you’re a starter at any D-1 school, you probably think there’s an opportunity to go play some form of pro ball. So that’s a great opportunity for guys to pursue, as long as they also get their degree.”
The courtesy car and living situation is nice, of course, but it isn’t the best perk. The highlight has to be that teams pay the majority of taxes on players’ salaries.
It’s not completely tax-free, but the players overseas take home significantly closer to their actual salary than NBA players do.
“Some NBA players have their salary chomped almost in half because of taxes,” Keith Langford said. “We still pay taxes, but once the team pays their share, you may be on the hook for only 5 to 10 percent of it instead of 48, 49 percent. So it’s not totally null and void, but you do come away with more than some of the other professional athletes.”
The game itself is more fundamental with fewer isolation plays.
“It’s not as fast and it’s more of a thinking man’s game,” said Kevin Langford, who has played overseas since graduating from TCU in 2009.
“Everybody has to have a skill set to do something in the game plan because it’s more team-oriented.”
There are a few rule differences, too. There is no 3-second defense, so teams can crowd the paint, and players have to put the ball on the floor before they can make their move.
Or, as Keith Langford put it, “In the States, they give you that open step, but you don’t have that in Europe. So you’re forced to use the fundamentals of the game more.
“It’s still very competitive. I’ve played at the highest level of college and a little in the NBA, and this league is just below the NBA as far as competitiveness.”
Nick Fazekas has no interest in trying to make it in the NBA again. He is happy with where he’s at in Japan, citing a good coaching staff, teammates and flexible schedule, and intends to finish his playing days there.
Keith Langford is in a similar situation. At 29, he has improved his game significantly and could potentially land an NBA job. But why would he leave?
“I am part of the Big Three over here and my team is competing for a championship every year,” Langford said. “So I really don’t see myself being the 12th or 13th guy and sitting on the end of the bench in the NBA. I like what my role is and being a starter and playing.”
Langford has become a great example of a player making the most of his opportunity overseas.
He’s become a millionaire and, along with his brother Kevin, started a charitable foundation three years ago, PYF (Preparing Youth’s Futures) Select Sports, which sponsors a Fort Worth-based AAU team.
Langford is proud of what he has been able to do through his overseas accomplishments, although he’ll still get an occasional fan wondering “what went wrong?”
After all, not many people know he was the 2012 Adriatic League Final Four MVP.
Langford recalled a recent encounter he had at a store when a cashier asked him, “Are you the Keith Langford from Kansas?”
“I said, ‘Yes’ and told him I was playing in Europe,” Langford said. “He said, ‘Are you going to come back and try to go pro?’”
Langford laughed for a second and said: “You just can’t get offended by stuff like that.”
He can laugh all the way to the bank.