DEERFIELD, Ill. – After practice Monday, England's Luol Deng and the Swiss rookie living across the street now, Thabo Sefolosha, were playing the game that the neighbors of these Chicago Bulls sometimes catch them in suburbia: kicking a ball and pretending they're European soccer stars.
This is the reason that Sefolosha wears the tattoo on his left shoulder that says, "The game chose me," a truth born out of his Switzerland roots where basketball stars are as scarce as war heroes. The man next door gave him a basketball at 11 years old, and with those long arms and that agility, he couldn't resist the lure of the sport.
"I figured," Sefolosha said Monday, "it was the better bet."
Eventually, he turned into the kind of selfless, sure European player who makes life harder for young American prospects. Out of Europe's non-traditional basketball outposts, he is part of a growing generation of Euros who shunned soccer for basketball. Switzerland didn't have a basketball star before him, but maybe they'll come now.
At 6-foot-7, with a seven-foot wingspan, Sefolosha delivered a fast and furious imprint on these NBA playoffs on Saturday. He sent Dwyane Wade back to Miami between Games 1 and 2 of these Eastern conference quarterfinals, forcing him to study tape on the first-round pick responsible for suffocating his space and shutting down his shot through three quarters in a 96-91 Chicago win.
The Bulls are deliriously deep with young talent. Thanks to the largesse of Isiah Thomas, the gift that keeps on giving – the Eddy Curry trade – provides the Bulls another unprotected lottery pick this season. General manager John Paxson has a chance to study his core of players and decide if they can grow up together, progress through the playoffs and develop into the dominant team in the East.
If not, Paxson is one of the few league executives with the young talent it would take to bring back an established star in a trade, such as Kevin Garnett, Jermaine O'Neal or Pau Gasol. Sefolosha has turned himself into one more chip for Paxson, another prospect who'll have value whenever it's time to make that monumental trade.
"Look what (Chicago is) doing," Pacers general manager Larry Bird told Sam Smith of the Chicago Tribune. "Getting guys from universities, guys who got coaching from great programs. I've been watching them up there and what they're doing, and you can see they're turning the corner."
So many franchises get a run of lottery picks and first-rounders, but few make so many smart choices with them. Under Paxson, there hasn't been a bust in the bunch. From Duke's Deng to UConn's Ben Gordon and Kansas' Kirk Hinrich to Andres Nocioni, Paxson has balanced pedigreed college players with fundamental, versatile European talents. Only the drafting of Tyrus Thomas out of LSU, the No. 2 overall choice last June, didn't fit Paxson's prototype for the Bulls.
Sefolosha's minutes were spotty in the regular season, but there's something intriguing about his game. "You get really excited, and then all of a sudden, he looks like a typical rookie again," Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. "Mentally, Thabo can be very sharp. He can be the type of player that knows the tendencies and focuses on that. … And this is one of the reasons we picked him. We think, long term, he's going to be a very good guard defender."
Sefolosha, who turns 23 on May 2, arrived in the United States after six seasons of pro ball in Europe. Initially, he had been considered a second-round pick in the 2006 draft. Before long, his workouts were impressing people. As his stature rose, he concedes, "I expected to go 20th. I wasn't expecting 13. With me, it happened very fast."
The 76ers picked Sefolosha at No. 13 for the Bulls, who worked a draft-night trade to acquire him. There's a beautiful rhythm to his game, an easiness, and perhaps it shouldn't be surprising considering that his South African father was a musician and his mother a French artist.
This summer, Sefolosha will return to Switzerland to run his own basketball camp, with Deng promising to pop over for a guest appearance from England.
"Maybe 200, 250 kids," Sefolosha said.
As a kid, his coaches gave him tapes of the NBA playoffs and finals to watch in Switzerland. He stopped kicking the ball and started bouncing it. "I think I can be an all-around player," he said.
For now, he's the long arms and fleet soccer feet that's standing between the defending NBA finals MVP and the Bulls' basket. Before these playoffs, Dwyane Wade barely knew his name. Now, Thabo Sefolosha has turned into the champ's homework assignment.
- John Paxson