Having celebrated his 19th birthday with his mother and younger brother at a restaurant in Rome, basketball's most important young player climbed inside a Volvo wagon for the drive home and started talking about the biggest rookie burden since Kevin Garnett. Life isn't so different in Italy, Brandon Jennings said with a laugh on his cell phone. They speak English. There's Burger King and McDonald's. The Hard Rock Café has good burgers and good music.
"The only difference is that we don't have a dryer," Jennings said late Tuesday night. "We hang our clothes on a line."
Back in the States, Jennings understands what they're waiting to hear: Oh, I made such a mistake with a leap out of Compton, Calif., to Virtus Roma of the Italian League. They won't let me play my game. I'm all alone. The Euro League is no place for an American teenager trying to do his purgatory year before entering the NBA draft.
Back home, the college basketball propaganda machine is waiting to issue it's typical "I told you so's" about how life in its warped system is somehow still beneficial. Jennings heard it all on his way out, and still hears it across the Atlantic Ocean. Just understand something: He's a point guard learning to see the floor, to open his mind, and the education of Brandon Jennings is well underway.
"I know what they have all been saying, because I even heard it from my friends, that I'm going to be a bust. And a whole different culture is going to mess up my game," Jennings said. "I would've loved to have gone to college, and I'm sure I would've learned a lot there, but I'm learning a lot more over here.
"I know this is a real big thing. I'm the first high school kid to jump straight to Europe instead of college and I know a lot of people, a lot of kids, are keeping up with me to see how I'm doing. If I do what I'm supposed to do here, and come back (to the U.S.) better for it, I have a chance to change basketball."
He is thinking globally, but acting locally. For Jennings, a slicing, explosive 6-foot-2 lefty, has to be a grown-up in Rome. He has to survive the physical and mental toll of a long Euro season. He doesn't have to always play great, but he has to never back down. He has to leave behind the AAU culture, the one-on-one mentality of grassroots American ball and immerse himself in a Euro game that rejects those false basketball gods.
Jennings is an experiment that has repercussions at every level of basketball. If this goes right, European franchises will be inspired to invest in the next year's high school class. Kids who don't want college – and maybe don't belong – won't have to play that foolish one-and-done game. Sonny Vaccaro made this deal happen, and promises there's a line down the street and around the corner wanting to follow a Jennings success story.
As much as anything, that makes Jennings pro basketball's most important rookie since Garnett re-started high school stars going straight to the NBA in 1995. Thus began more than a decade of decay in college basketball that was eventually addressed when NBA commissioner David Stern instituted a one-year wait on high school seniors wanting to make the leap to the pros. Jennings has a three-year contract for a guaranteed $1 million, but he also has an out to enter the NBA draft after Year 1 and 2 of the deal. Under Armour just gave Jennings a four-year endorsement deal, banking that he could do it all, and more.
"To me, this is the best path to get ready for the NBA," one Western Conference general manager said. "But the thing is: You better be a mentally tough kid to pull this off. This isn't going to be college, where they're going to hold your hand and never make you figure out anything for yourself."
Virtus coach Jasmin Repesa introduced his young millionaire to pro ball in the first week of training camp, insisting that he had to play hard all the time. Alone in that locker room, it hit Jennings again: This is the best thing that ever happened to him. As money goes, the NBA Developmental League can't come close. As coaching and competition go, the Euro League is mostly superior. There are no NCAA limits on practice time. There are no AAU bagmen pretending to be assistant coaches. Jennings will get coached and get benched and get the best-paying professional apprenticeship in history.
"We just got back from a three-day road trip to Serbia, and it was three days on the road with older guys, where I had to work to fit in," Jennings said. "This is the pro life. Nobody is babysitting me. The biggest thing for me is this: I have to prove myself. I want to let these guys know that I'm here to help them win. I don't want them to think that I'm just some hotshot American kid trying to take all the shine here so I can set myself up for the NBA draft.
"Here, it isn't like what basketball was in the U.S., where everyone just sits back and watches the individual player. It's team first here. People come to watch the team play, and the team win. What I want to do is build relationships with my teammates, with my coaches. That's what people are wondering if I can do …"
As it turned out, Jennings’ four-year contract with Under Armour will pay him comparably to the top three picks in the 2008 NBA draft. Between sneakers and salary, sources say, Jennings is making over $1 million a year. Under Armour hired Kris Stone, a magazine publisher and architect of the Elite 24 High School event in New York, to start a basketball branding division and he immediately made a shrewd investment: Let's compete with Nike and adidas to sign the teenager who could become his generation's trail blazer. New basketball company, new basketball frontier. Stone had a history with Jennings, a relationship born out of his All-Star game, and always believed this was the right talent, the right kid, to make this happen.
Vaccaro sold Virtus and Jennings on the Under Armour partnership, negotiating the contracts and shoe deals. To Vaccaro, the godfather of the basketball shoe deal, this feels like it did when he put Nike and Michael Jordan together in 1984. "This is almost like what Michael did, because he could've gone to adidas, which was still part of Converse," Vaccaro said. "Nike was practically nothing. I told Brandon and his mother: 'If you hit with Under Armour, you're the man there.' "
Now, the telephone calls of intrigued parents are flooding into Vaccaro, who always has been able to see where it was all going before everyone else. "In essence, the age limit has been broken," he said. "If Brandon can come back in one piece, the others are going to go. For the right kids, we won't have to play 'pretend' anymore with college basketball."
Outside the NBA, the most intriguing games in the world this season will be the two meetings of Jennings and Virtus Roma with Ricky Rubio and Spain's DVK Jovenut. Those are the nights everyone in the Euro League will want to see, the best two young point guards on the planet playing far, far away from the college game.
"Yeah, yeah, I hear all about that," Jennings said. "I've got a lot more to worry about than that, because there are so many great players over here. I better get used to playing with grown men, and I better learn to adjust to the Euro system. I can't just be 'that guy,' worried about the hype of those games with Ricky Rubio. I know everyone is watching to see what happens with me all the time, not just then …"
He just turned 19, his basketball burden is immense, and Brandon Jennings swears that he understands the truth. Like his laundry, the kid hangs out on a line in Italy.
- Brandon Jennings
- college basketball
- Sonny Vaccaro