Everything is tiny. The bed looks like it could be palmed by Shaq. The room is the size of a Hummer. The hotel looks like a town house. So this is where Brandon Jennings' professional basketball career begins, in a room where his 31-year-old Spanish roomie's bunk is a sneaker's length away from his. Welcome to Folgaria, a pristine little ski village high in the mountains of northern Italy. It's a place where couples walk hand in hand by quaint pizzerias, and artisan shops line cobblestone streets.
Perhaps it would be charming in another season. But in September, with his coach barking orders like a dictator, it's plain miserable for Jennings. He's not prepared for this. The American prep basketball legend grew up near LA, some 6,000 miles away, where hoops skills bring girls, hype and carte blanche. He played at vaunted Oak Hill Academy, where training camp means five-on-five full-court for hours, not endless drills. Here mornings are spent lifting weights, sprinting on soccer fields or running through the rocky terrain of nearby woods. Afternoons are spent resting on the minibeds in the minirooms of the minihotel. Evenings? Time to run through drill after drill and get yelled at—again.
Making matters worse, there are no Gummi Worms in sight. No Sour Patch Kids, either. For breakfast, it's bland cornflakes and blander croissants. No Chinese takeout, no soul food. This sure ain't LA. It's culture shock, and a hoops reeducation to boot. "It's tough, I'm not going to lie," says Jennings while eating pizza between practices. "I don't see many kids coming over here to do this. All that stuff about trendsetting? I don't know about that. You really have to be mentally tough."
Welcome to the real world.
By now you might have heard that Jennings is something of a basketball pioneer. Unable to go to the NBA because of league rules and unsure of his college eligibility because of SAT scores, the 6'2" point guard did the unthinkable, jumping from Oak Hill to Lottomatica Virtus Roma.
He became the first American to go prep to pro by crossing the Atlantic. Says UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who recruited Jennings heavily: "I guess I'm not creative enough to have ever even thought of a kid doing that."
It's too early to tell if he'll become a trendsetter, but Jennings, who turned 19 on Sept. 23, didn't sign in Italy to uproot the process. His SAT scores first brought Europe to mind. After having two results red-flagged, Jennings was tired of the suspense. Plus, his school of choice, Arizona, was waist deep in turmoil, having parted ways with the two assistants Jennings had grown close to during recruiting. Anxious for closure, he signed a three-year, $1.65 million deal with Virtus Roma in July. The social aspect of the move to Italy was never a concern. Jennings learned to be on his own at Oak Hill, whose campus in Mouth of Wilson, Va., is more than 2,000 miles from Los Angeles. It fostered an independence that helped him mature. Although he's a world away now, the plan hasn't changed: Be one of the first to shake hands with David Stern on the last Thursday in June. "Whoever needs a point guard next year, I'll be ready," says Jennings, whose contract has small buyout clauses after each season. "This is great preparation, because it's a big learning experience over here."
If you've never seen Jennings in action, go to YouTube. As one of the nation's top players, he turned All-America games into personal showcases, tossing dozens of drop-your-jaw dimes while making other players look pedestrian. The wow factor has led to not one but four nicknames: Young Money, Do Be Do,
Mr. Excitement and Takeover. And who can forget the lefty playmaker going on national TV last year with a high-top fade in the McDonald's game, followed by a slant-topped Gumby at the Jordan Classic?
But the swagger came with negatives, which also made the trek to Folgaria. Coach Jasmin Repesa had watched Jennings take shortcuts several times during two weeks of Virtus Roma two-a-days. He'd seen him make lazy passes, seen him jog through drills at half-speed, seen him go under picks or take the easy way out by yelling for switches. Finally, he'd seen enough.
As the team ran through its half-court offense, Jennings made a UCLA cut to the hoop after throwing an entry pass to the wing. He tossed the ball to a teammate and ran halfheartedly down the side of the lane. "That's not aggressive," the imposing Repesa, who stands 6'7", shouted in his thick Croatian accent, raising one arm above his head. "Be aggressive!" Jennings, visibly miffed at being called out, reset the offense with another entry pass. This time he hurled it with a dose of disgust at his teammate's knees. Before he was halfway through his cut—which was faster but clearly not full-speed—Mt. Repesa erupted. "Get out! Get out! Out of practice!" he screamed, pointing toward the door. Stunned, Jennings left and sat on the steps outside the facility while the team worked out for another 45 minutes.
After practice, Allan Ray, the former Villanova star who is in his second year with Virtus Roma, gave Jennings a pep talk. Ray got kicked out of several practices last season. "When you're The Man in high school, you can do whatever you want," Jennings says despondently. "This is something new for me, especially playing for a coach who's real controlling and doesn't take no stuff."
Such issues explain why many detractors have questioned Jennings' ability to adapt to the European game. But NBA insiders like his decision. Repesa, 47, is well respected, having coached the Croatian National Team in Beijing and having helped Euro NBA players Toni Kukoc, Mehmet Okur and Carlos Delfino craft their games. Facing better competition than he would have in college is another plus for Jennings, along with unlimited practice and a 60-game season. "If he had gone to college, they would've babied him," says one NBA scout. "This will make him mentally tougher. And after playing for this coach, he'll know how to play the game."
Getting booted from practice proved to be a blessing for Jennings. Not only did it get his attention, his reaction won him respect in the locker room. Repesa forced him to apologize to the entire team the next morning. By the time the club returned to Rome to prep for preseason games, Jennings was diving for loose balls, pestering his man on D, fighting through screens and moving without the ball. He started pushing the rock upcourt with passes instead of fancy dribbling, nixing the urge to add to his highlight collection.
His foreign teammates started to see a player they liked on the court and enjoyed being around off of it. One day in the weight room, Jennings, not exactly a strongman on the iron, donned a wifebeater and went to work on the bench press. After completing a tough four-set session with 110 pounds, the slight 180-pounder stood tall in the middle of the room, banged his fist to his chest repeatedly and let out a primal scream: "With the heart! With the heart!"
Glancing at one another, his teammates smiled knowingly. "That meant a lot to us," said Rodrigo De La Fuente, Jennings' roommate in Folgaria. "Because he's the point guard, if he leads us by playing with heart, guys will follow that."
Jennings leaves the crib for three things: basketball, food and visiting those famed Italian landmarks—Gucci, Prada and Versace. He usually hits those hot spots with the 24-year-old Ray, but today he's out descending Rome's historic Spanish Steps with his mom, Alice Knox. They are among a crowd of thousands strolling through the boutique district, one of the toniest in the world. As elegant women saunter by with bags on each arm and young lovers window-shop at Cartier and Bulgari, Jennings playfully grabs his mom's hand. Smiling, she pulls away after a few seconds. "Come here, girl," he laughs, grabbing at her hand as if wooing her. "He's always joking around in public," Knox says. Once inside Gucci, Jennings gets real serious. He's already loaded up several backpacks, belts, wallets, shades and one $1,400 jacket. Today's quest is for footwear. He gets a pair of red sneakers for 350 euros, the equivalent of roughly $500. "I don't even think they have these in the States," he says, gazing at his new kicks.
Jennings doesn't get mobbed on the street, but it's not uncommon for fans to approach him with wonder, saying, "Brandon Jennings?" Others shout his name from passing cars, and after one game, a teenager shyly moves toward him and gives him a red T-shirt. The front reads "BJ Mania," the back "Young Money." "They'll just come up to you out of nowhere," Jennings says. "It's cool." Later that night, the manager of one of Jennings' favorite bistros grabs him by the shoulders while saying, "You? The best." He makes small talk with the family but doesn't bother to bring out a menu, knowing they'll all have the garlic pasta. On most nights, Knox does the cooking for Jennings and his little brother, 12-year-old Terrence Phillips. The three have always been close. Jennings' father, Byron, was out of the picture by the time Brandon was 3. (He committed suicide four years later.) In Rome, the trio live in a pleasant three-bedroom apartment provided by Virtus Roma. The club also pays for Terrence to attend the elite, $24,000-a-year Marymount International School, which has students from around the world and teaches classes in English. Alice and Terrence attend nearly every practice and home game, shuttling back and forth in the new Volvo sports wagon the club gave them. Jennings likes to say his commitment to basketball stems from a desire to provide for his family. But make no mistake: Mom is still boss.
When the team returns to Rome from Folgaria, teammate Andre Hutson, a starter for Michigan State's NCAA title team in 2000, drives to Jennings' apartment to cut Terrence's hair. Knowing Alice has a plate of home-cooked salmon and chicken waiting helps. Jennings, whose signature high-top fade is in a disheveled, misshapen Afro, has no idea he will be getting a trim. "Brandon, you need to have Andre line you up so you can look nice for your pictures," Alice says, referring to a photo shoot scheduled for the next day. "This is going to be your image." Jennings, who hadn't had his hair cut since he arrived in Italy, a month earlier, is taken aback. "Ma, I'll lose fans over this," he whines with a half-serious smirk. "My fans expect to see the high-top fade. I'm a grown man. I can wear my hair however I want to." Mom does not budge. Minutes later, Jennings is in the chair beneath Hutson and his clippers. "Go ahead," Jennings says through an impish huff. "Take away my style."
It's fitting that Jennings is sporting a conventional cut these days. The makeover fits him better. At home, he's nothing like his flashy on-the-court persona. He's as arrogant as a priest. He's not a big partyer, and while he likes hip-hop, he's just as likely to groove to R&B or even gospel on his iPod. He's never rolled with anything close to a posse. His best friends are Alice and Terrence. That's right, Ma and baby bro. His idea of a good time is playing PS3 with Terrence, texting friends on his iPhone, watching He Got Game or Madea on his new Mac or studying idol Allen Iverson's 48-point performance in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals on YouTube, which—no joke—he does at least once a day.
It's been a week since Jennings was tossed from practice, and Virtus Roma is in Serbia for a scrimmage against one of the top teams in Russia. The new and improved Jennings is a terror. He picks the Russian point guard twice in the backcourt and goes in for easy layups. He's scoring from all over and finishes with 17 points and six steals in a close loss. The next night, he puts 18 points on a Serbian team. Jennings ends up averaging a team-high 20 points during preseason and is arguably the club's most explosive player. "If he'll be patient, work hard and listen," Repesa says, "he'll be a great player. No question."
Holding to a philosophy that's unheard of in America but not uncommon in Europe, Repesa doesn't believe in a set starting five. He'll switch starters by the game; he'll go 10 deep, playing almost everyone at least 15 minutes and hardly anyone over 25. Admittedly fond of Jennings, Repesa wants to bring No.11 along slowly to manage expectations and keep him from burning out over a season that's more grueling than anything he's ever faced. Jennings, who started every exhibition contest, finds out about Repesa's philosophy when he's told he'll be coming off the bench just moments before the season opener. Shocked and deflated, he sleepwalks through an up-and-down seven-point outing in 21 minutes of an overtime victory. "That was the first time in my life I didn't start," Jennings says. "I let it affect my play." He starts two of the next four games, and while he often shines, he does it in his allotted 20 minutes. Jennings might have come to Europe to prove he's the best point guard outside of the NBA, but he now realizes that he won't do so through his numbers. "Once I saw how Coach did things, I decided to concentrate on running the team," he says after an impressive 11-point, three-assist, 19-minute game that had an NBA scout in the building claiming Jennings could average 20 if he played more. "I'm playing defense, learning as much as I can and just trying to win," Jennings says. "In the end, this is going to make me better." Hearing that might mean more to NBA execs than unbelievable stats.
"Playing in Europe with grown men who are better than him is going to help him mature as a player," says an NBA GM who is being kept apprised about Jennings by overseas scouts. "And I can tell you this already: He's a definite lottery pick in '09."
If so, the mention of Folgaria might one day conjure up charming images for Jennings, whatever the season.