The journey to the top of the NBA’s 3-point leaderboard began without lunch.
On Saturdays around 8 a.m., before his parents rose, and while the men living Davis Bertans’ dream snoozed an ocean and two seas away, young Davis and his older brother, Dairis, would scoop up the gym keys and disappear. It had become ritual, a weekly jaunt to a natural habitat, through serene streets under a rising Baltic sun.
“Being on a basketball court,” Davis says, “was like for anybody else going to school.”
So on weekends, when actual school ceased interfering, they would play and play and play … so absorbed in a foreign game that had captured their imagination that they’d often forget to eat.
“They” were local children, Bertans’ neighbors, some of whom shared his NBA dream. But this was a tiny northern Latvian town that had never facilitated it. Nor, realistically, could it. At the time, no Latvian had ever played more than 89 NBA minutes, much less one from a village constituting 0.16 percent of the country’s population. A 1.9 million-person country, by the way, that had never qualified for a FIBA world cup. And still hasn’t.
In other words, the mere notion of the journey, to any sane individual, was preposterous.
And that’s before Bertans lost half a finger on his shooting hand.
Before he moved 1,000 miles away as a teenager for basketball, only to be told he couldn’t play.
Before he tore the same ACL twice.
And before he became the longest-lasting puzzle piece in a trade that has colloquially been named after two different players, neither of which is him.
Bertans’ story is a wonder of both the modern basketworld and the human psyche. And on a Friday afternoon amidst a six-game San Antonio Spurs win streak, the NBA’s second-most accurate long-range assassin took a break from slinging 26-foot daggers to tell it.
The birthplace of Bertans’ drive
Rujiena, Latvia, is one of those places where everybody knows everybody. Where the woman at the convenience store is either a classmate’s mother or a parent’s doctor or a neighbor’s friend. Where nobody is actually born, because the local hospital is inadequate, but where community is tangible. And where strong, healthy boys like the Bertans brothers would be called upon to help out. They’d pick tomatoes and potatoes for townspeople, the currency of their reward not dollars or euros or lats but rather … tomatoes and potatoes. With the family living “paycheck to paycheck” off two meager gym-teacher salaries, Davis (pronounced DAH-vis) remembers, “sometimes we’d just eat four weeks in a row of different styles – either boiled or baked or fried potatoes.”
Rujiena wasn’t big enough to support even a semi-professional basketball team, so the boys would travel to 25,000-inhabitant Valmiera to watch their father, Dainis, play. It was there, inside a cramped gymnasium, that ambition ignited. As a kid, Davis was dad’s biggest fan. And in between sideline shrieks, a thought seeped into his developing mind: I want to play like them. I want to be there. Sometime after watching next-day highlights of Michael Jordan’s Bulls on Latvian television, the thought narrowed. Want became will.
“I told ‘em I was gonna play in the NBA,” Bertans says. “They” – parents – “might’ve thought it was a joke back then. But I didn’t think like that.”
What he thought he meant, and what he meant he often said. Sometimes that meant trouble. Dainis kicked 9- or 10-year-old Davis out of multiple youth basketball practices because, as Davis freely admits now, “I used to tell people what to do.”
The juvenile dictating earned him nicknames like “direktors” and “priekšnieks,” the latter loosely translating to “boss.” But the bossiness blended into a determination that has fueled the journey. It kept him coming back to 1-on-1 basketball battles with Dairis, who with three extra years of physical maturity would invariably win. It compelled him to stick up for himself when older peers picked on him. One time, when a fraternal dispute boiled over, Dairis recalls: “All of a sudden, he runs to the kitchen. And I hear the drawer open, where all the knives are. ... And I see him running at me with a knife.”
“Yeeeeah,” Davis laughs. “I was never going to do anything with that knife. But him being three years older, that was the only way I could scare him.”
Dairis locked himself in a room. Davis’ rage eventually simmered out. That sharp blade went back into the drawer. But a couple years later, another one very nearly severed Davis’ hoops dreams for good.
How Davis Bertans lost half a finger
Another one of the brothers’ regular chores took them to their grandfather’s backyard, near the center of town, where an electric saw the size of 13-year-old Davis buzzed. It carved up trees into firewood that would keep grandpa Bertans warm for the winter. With Dairis shouldering more responsibility but less heavy lifting at one end of the saw, Davis grew restless, and pleaded for a chance to swap roles. Dairis relented. Rain started to fall. Davis started to hurry. And within minutes, it happened.
Davis’ slightly-oversized glove got stuck. The saw chomped down. It ripped off his middle fingernail, and sliced off his right ring finger just above the second knuckle.
There was no gushing blood, nor tears, nor a howl. Just shock. “You could see,” Dairis recalls, the casualty unmistakable. “It wasn’t pretty.”
After a brief, futile search for the amputated fingertip, the Bertansmobile careened through the one-school town, obliterating the speed limit, Davis in the backseat, Dairis alongside him to keep him calm. They reached an ambulance, then drove another 30 minutes to the nearest legitimate hospital.
In the days after surgery, Davis recalls, his dad told him basketball was over. When he returned to a court a month later and initially struggled, he apparently concurred. You know what, I’m going to go play soccer or something, he’d grumble in frustration.
Gradually, however, he adjusted. Some shooters feel the ball roll off their three middle fingers. Bertans learned to cope with two. A year later, he won a 3-point contest at a junior all-star game. “That was a really special moment,” he says now.
The half-finger became a subject of jokes rather than an impediment; a device for lunchtime pranks and freakish handshakes; a free-throw distraction. It was a feature that Spurs scouts noted but weren’t concerned by; one that now grosses out Rudy Gay and some other teammates, but that many don’t even notice.
“I was just lucky I lost only that finger,” says Bertans, who’s completely comfortable rehashing the incident some 13 years later.
But even if he’d lost more: “I would’ve probably switched to the left hand if I had to.”
The fear of the unknown
On a dizzying June day in 2013, with giddy teammates erupting around him, Davis Bertans was distraught. Midway through a heated Game 4 that would yield Partizan Belgrade – his Partizan Belgrade – a 12th consecutive Serbian league title, the lanky 6-foot-10 Latvian drove and crumbled. The immediate locker room treatment was a knee brace and squats. Bertans, as strong-willed as ever, trotted out for halftime layup lines thinking, “It’s the finals. I’ll see what I can do.”
Then he planted and swiveled. His knee popped. Pain doubled. His heart sunk.
Hardship wasn’t foreign to a 20-year-old kid who’d almost lost a hand. One who’d moved to Slovenia upon turning 18, then had “document issues” keep him sidelined for several months. One who, at 19, acclimated to the ferociously physical Serbian league, and to legendary coach Dule Vujocevic, of whom Bertans says: “The first impression – I’ve never felt so afraid of a coach in my life.”
Even when adversity dissipated, Vujocevic would manufacture it. During one post-practice workout, when 10 consecutive made 3s off screens would earn Bertans and current Sacramento Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic a ticket to the showers, Vujocevic sensed the challenge had been conquered. So he handed out garden gloves and tape, the latter to shutter dominant eyes – as if missing half a finger wasn’t handicapping enough.
But this, the shattered knee, was different. As Bertans’ teammates celebrated the title, he sat there, enveloped by uncertainty. Dairis called that night and could hear the fear of it in Davis’ voice. Soon thereafter, fears were confirmed. The diagnosis: a torn ACL.
“In the beginning,” Davis remembers, “I was thinking no player I’ve seen has had that injury and come back the same or better. … I can come back, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be the same player I was before.”
He had been one of the hottest prospects in Europe, a Spurs draftee at 18, a EuroLeague regular at 19. Suddenly, the promise was swallowed up by the unknown – by nine months of a monotonous grind that breaks so many young men and women before we ever hear their names.
And when Bertans attacked it? When he pushed and pushed, hurdling physical and mental barriers to do what he worried he couldn’t? When he returned, claimed a third Serbian crown, transferred to Baskonia in Spain, and lit up the EuroLeague anew?
… it happened again. Same knee. Same gut-wrenching injury.
But this time, there was no doubt, no fear. This time, when Bertans phoned his agent after the game in March 2015, the 22-year-old’s message resonated: Let’s be sad today. But tomorrow, let’s forget about this.
“I felt sorry for myself the first time; there’s no point,” Bertans says he realized. “If I did it once, why not do it again? From all the people around me, I was the calmest one.”
He was in so many ways precocious, even more so inside his skull than on a basketball court. “His sincerity, his maturity,” Spurs GM R.C. Buford raves. “The approach he took in his rehabilitation. … He was mature beyond his years.”
Buford and the Spurs had recognized Bertans’ “depth at an early age” when they interviewed him in Treviso, Italy, at the adidas EuroCamp in June 2011. And they remembered it on a momentous night two weeks later.
The ‘Davis Bertans trade’?
More than five years before Bertans would finally make his NBA debut, the Spurs were insistent. On draft night 2011, executives had been negotiating with Indiana. The trade being discussed would send one of Gregg Popovich’s favorite players, George Hill, back home in exchange for the 15th overall pick – provided a certain physical freak from San Diego State was still on the board.
Says Buford: “We weren’t going to trade for the 15th pick without a specific player being there.”
That player, of course, was Kawhi Leonard. And two years after the four-player trade went down, it was retrospective gold – the quintessential “win-win.” Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote 3,427 words about it. Not a single one was “Bertans.”
But the rangy, pale Union Olimpija wing was on San Antonio’s mind as the framework of the deal was finalized. Scouts had seen Bertans turn heads at the 2010 U-18 European championships. They had tracked him at the 2011 Nike Hoop Summit and other showcase events. To casual observers, while Hill and Leonard were the trade’s headliners, the 42nd pick and rights to Erazem Lorbek were afterthoughts. To the Spurs, they were necessary. Bertans, Buford says, was “in consideration” at No. 29, a pick San Antonio instead used on Cory Joseph. Thirteen spots later, he was still available, and the Spurs pounced with that 42nd pick.
Neither party expected the wait to last five years. The injuries prolonged it. All involved, though, anticipated it would be worthwhile. Bertans, already fluent in English, prepared by visiting San Antonio during summers. He underwent both ACL surgeries stateside.
San Antonio had been his preferred NBA destination all along. When he finally arrived, it didn’t disappoint. And the countless obstacle-laden paths traversed along the way? They were grueling; but they make Davis Bertans who he is.
Sharpshooting in San Antonio
Eight years after Adam Silver called his name, Bertans darts off pindowns and around the perimeter. He unleashes 3s 0.6 or 0.7 seconds after the catch, his form as smooth and soothing to the eye as it is lethal. On a Spurs team spearheaded by mid-range magicians, he is the ideal makeweight, and a major reason San Antonio shoots a league-high 40 percent on a league-low 25 3-point attempts per game.
Bertans himself splashes at a 46.2 percent clip. It’s the type of stroke that brings opposing fans’ hands to heads, and collective oh nos from their mouths, before the ball even leaves his 4.5-fingered hand. Upon his inexplicable 3-point contest exclusion, he wasn’t “pissed,” but “definitely wasn’t happy.”
“At the same time … that’s not why I’m here,” he says. Nor is 3-point shooting the sole reason he is playing 25 minutes per game over the past three months, for a streaky squad that is 24-14 during that stretch. “One of the first things [Popovich] ever told me,” Bertans recently said, “was that I can play in the NBA with offense, but I am going to play on this team with defense.” The 26-year-old has heeded the advice. He’s been toiling ever since to win Pop’s trust.
Over the three years, fluctuations in playing time and G-League assignments have further tested his resolve. Even after re-signing for two years and $14.5 million this past offseason, his nightly minutes occasionally dipped into single digits. “It was the whole thing all over again,” he says.
“But I’ve had to prove myself my whole life. So might as well do it every season, too.”
The journey primed him. Every stage of it. From the fights and weaponized flares in Serbia to the swollen knees. From the Lithuanian pro who cussed 15-year-old Davis out for misfiring a no-look pass, to the unending 1-on-1 losses to Dairis. From the taunts of his brother’s friends, the sources of his one-cry-per-day average growing up, to the trauma in grandpa’s backyard.
Two decades on, Dairis’ signing with the Pelicans made little Rujiena the international per-capita leader in active NBA players produced, minimum two. And in between late nights and long flights, it was cause for reflection. On hand-me-down jeans, one pair per year, washed once weekly. On those weekend strolls and pickup marathons. On a journey even more remarkable than it was in theory.
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