In Australia with Dante Exum: Life as a Top NBA Prospect, Outside the Spotlight

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In Australia with Dante Exum: Life as a Top NBA Prospect, Outside the Spotlight
Bleacher Report

My quest to introduce Americans to the hottest—and yet most mysterious—NBA draft prospect in the world, Dante Exum, started with a bit of time zone confusion that could well have ended my pursuit in its tracks.

Luckily, it was nothing out of the ordinary for Dante's father, Cecil.

I had been looking to get ahold of Cecil toward the end of 2013, hoping to lay the groundwork for a trip to Australia to learn more about a player who had emerged as a possible top-five pick in this year's draft.

Unlike players in the United States of the same status—notably one-and-dones Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle this year—Dante hadn't yet been on highlight shows to the point of overexposure. His preparations to make the NBA leap were happening a world away from this country's college basketball meccas.

It was on Sept. 20, during a run in Central Park, that I received Cecil's cell phone number from John Spencer, a former star player from North Carolina—they had grown up down the street from each other, playing in some of the same local tournaments. Excited, I called Cecil without hesitation, at about 1:30 p.m.

Make that 5:30 a.m. the following day in Australia.

After a few rings, Cecil picked up and said, with a sleepy voice, "Hello?" After introducing myself and explaining why I called, he said something to the effect of, "I usually don't pick up my phone at this time. I get a lot of unlisted calls late at night and just so happened to answer yours. Could you e-mail me?"

He didn't hold it against me. I hadn't been the only one calling at odd hours. As I found out later when I met him in Australia, it's all part of the oddity of being so far away from the center of curiosity about his son.

"It’s been pretty crazy," said Cecil, noting most of the interest had come from college coaches and agents. "The communication because of the time zone difference between the states and Australia is another thing in itself. Our late nights are your early mornings, and vice versa, and so a lot of times I’m returning calls or text messaging back and forth. It’s been hectic, but it’s also been good."

 

***

While American basketball insiders were bombarding the Exum family from more than 7,400 miles away, Dante was basically a no-name to the average person living in Australia, where basketball pales in comparison to sports like Aussie rules football, soccer, cricket and rugby. My goal was to see him in his natural element.

After months of planning with Cecil, who was enthusiastic and helpful, a video producer, Eric Newman, and I arrived in Australia in late November. We were planning to spend time in Canberra, where Dante attended the Australian Institute of Sport, and Melbourne, where his family lives.

Besides Cecil, who played with Michael Jordan at the University of North Carolina, the family includes his twin sister, Tierra, his older brother, Jamaar, and his mother, Desiree. Desiree, whose job at IBM has her based in Singapore, has taken a backseat to Cecil on the basketball front, but she's planning to be with Dante soon in Los Angeles, where he arrived Tuesday to begin U.S.-based preparations for the draft.

Courtesy of Dante Exum
Dante on Instagram with his father, Cecil.

For all the attention Dante and his family had been getting in America, they were no big thing in Australia. Of the locals we spoke with while Down Under, about one in eight had heard of Dante.

That lack of attention might have something to do with Dante's personality. He is a polite, friendly, well-spoken 18-year old who also happens to be arguably the most versatile point guard entering the draft, a player who—at 6'6"—has the skill set of Michael Carter-Williams, transition speed like Russell Westbrook and a finesse game like Penny Hardaway.

In Melbourne, basketball-related signage didn't exist, except in rare corners like the sneaker and hoops gear shop Kickz101. It's so popular for the small contingent of local hoopheads that there was a line down the block and around the corner when Kyrie Irving, who was born in Melbourne, made a scheduled appearance last summer.

The store's owner, Matt Hammond, a diehard NBA junkie who attended All-Star Weekend in New Orleans, called Dante a “skinny Dwyane Wade” and said he could have a big impact in expanding interest in basketball in the country.

“The talk of (Dante) going high in the draft has had the media in a buzz here,” he said. “The thing about Dante is, all our other Australian players in the NBA have been big men or small guards, where he is a 6’6” guard in the mold of Wade and Penny (Hardaway). It’s something we never had before.

“He’s the type of player that kids follow at the moment, so he can definitely change the basketball landscape here. And with Ben Simmons on the rise—he committed to LSU for next year—the future is very bright for Oz."

But for the most part, Dante was still as much a mystery in his own country as he was here. While I was paying the bill for one of our car rides together, the driver asked me if he had just driven around a professional basketball player. I said, "Do you know who that is? That's Dante Exum." He had no idea who he was—the country's best current baller and a soon-to-be NBA player.

I'll always remember his stunned look as he exclaimed, "And he was in my car?!? I should've given him my business card!"

Bleacher Report

The driver couldn't believe that the player he had just driven was only months away from potentially earning much more money than any top Aussie rules football player (the highest-paid athletes in the country).

Our visit to Australia came before Dante announced his decision to enter the NBA draft, but when he thought about it in December, he relished being a potential difference-maker in his country.

"I definitely want to do something in Australia that would get the fans involved (with basketball)," he said. "I want to reach out over here because Australia is kind of hidden from the NBA, like definitely getting preseason games here. Just promoting the game here is something I’d want to do.”

Closer to the basketball court, Dante's anonymity quickly disappeared. After we attended a Melbourne Tigers-Sydney Kings basketball game—Cecil played for the Tigers years ago, and the matchup is the biggest hoops rivalry in the country—Dante, joined by Cecil and Jamaar, came upstairs to a private lounge area to hang out with some of the Tigers players who he had done some training with outside of AIS.

Within minutes, the room turned into a makeshift autograph and photograph session for Dante, surprising him a bit, as about 30 kids and youth basketball players—who were part of a school trip—came up to greet him. They all waited their turn respectfully and were courteous with Dante, who was just the same.

At one point, we made eye contact, and Dante smiled and shook his head. I joked with him, while he had a pen in his hand preparing for another signature, saying, “You should do some wrist exercises.”

"A couple years ago, I didn't think I could get this much exposure, and so to be put in this situation is definitely surreal," he said. "School groups come (to AIS) and are like, 'That's Dante!' But I'm just a normal guy; I'm just doing what I love. I'm starting to get used to it, but it's still surprising to me—people calling out my name."

Bleacher Report

During the Melbourne-Sydney game, I met an amateur basketball player, Olivia Howman, who knew of Dante. But she couldn't believe I had flown all that way from the U.S. to do a story on him. She didn’t realize Dante was that big of a deal (not the only person I met to express such disbelief).

So what happened next? She wanted to know the rest of our schedule with Dante, and the next morning, she showed up, along with her friend and fellow player, Kate Bluzer, to one of his games in the Australian Schools Championships in the Melbourne area. Dante, even with some minor knee tendinitis, was still putting up stat lines of 32 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.

Olivia and Kate showed up the following day, too, as both women watched our every move with the cameras, asking questions along the way.

Not only did we have a following, simply because of Dante, but also word got out to some media in Melbourne that we were following him around. That week, a story by Nick Smart appearing in the Herald Sun read, "Such is the hype, Exum had his own designated cameraman shooting his every move for U.S. sports website giant the Bleacher Report." (We had been trying to keep an anonymous profile because we had exclusive access to Dante, but our cover was quickly blown after only the first day of the tournament.)

But even with all of the exposure—one arena in the tournament pulled out its entire section of seats just for his games—Dante wasn't cocky and looked comfortable interacting with and talking to fans of all ages who stopped him in his tracks. It's a marketable quality you can expect to go a long way once he reaches the NBA.

Bleacher Report
Behind the scenes with Dante.

 

***

Dante is arriving in Los Angeles this week to begin workouts ahead of the NBA draft (his training schedule is still not set). That will be quite a departure from the life he's lived the past three years in Canberra at AIS, where the campus provides a sanctuary for the athletes it hosts.

It was even quieter than usual when we visited, as activities had ended a few days prior for summer break, which runs from December to February.

AIS is the country’s premier sports training ground, offering hundreds of scholarships in 26 sports, with the goal of placing athletes into Olympic competition or onto professional teams. It also has an affiliation with an educational program, where the athletes go through a rigorous high school-like curriculum.

Dante could walk around AIS campus without much distraction at all. That was also the case when he enjoyed visits to Canberra Centre, the main shopping mall in the city. But his favorite pastime was relaxing in his dorm room with his teammates, joking around—talking in their fast-paced Aussie dialect—and playing video games, namely NBA 2K14, Call of Duty and Diablo. When AIS was in season, he and his friends would sometimes prank dorm-mates by tying a water bucket to their door.

While I was there, the only pizzazz was when youth players visited to watch and photograph Dante and his AIS teammates training or engaging in on-court drills, led by their coach, Paul Goriss. Dante didn't mind having observers get a sneak peek into his private workouts; he enjoys the outside noise surrounding him. He even told me at one point, “It’s good to get this publicity; I guess people like basketball a bit more.”

"He’s a very focused individual," Cecil said. "He challenges himself constantly. He looks at criticism and turns it into a positive, and works on what people think his shortcomings are."

That persistence showed in a strength and conditioning session during the first day of filming. After a hard hour, Dante was prepping for a short recap segment when he said, smiling, "Can you hold on one sec? I have to spew," Australian slang for puke. He said he had too many ribs—his favorite food, along with steak and salad—the night before.

Dante described what he had to do in the bathroom so calmly that you wouldn't have thought he was dealing with any discomfort. After a few minutes taking care of business, he came back, smiled, shared a few words for the camera and then went right back to a few more intense exercises. Just like that, without letting up.

In many ways, Dante was diligent and punctual, making sure to let Newman and I know that he needed to break from filming when he was tired or had a personal appointment, such as his school formal and a checkup at AIS on his tendinitis. He takes after Cecil in that regard; they’re both detail-oriented.

With the camera trailing behind, Dante’s work ethic also shined when he maxed out at more than 215 pounds on the bench press and performed a personal-best 50-foot rope climb to the top with no assistance. With the other athletes in the gym cheering and clapping for him, it took him about 15 seconds to reach the top.

Bleacher Report
Dante inside the AIS strength and conditioning room, with admiring youth players.

"He's phenomenal," said Leigh Smith, Dante’s strength and conditioning coach at AIS. "He's a long way ahead of everyone else here, and I think everyone's acknowledged that. But he doesn't act that way. He's also really, really supportive of everybody else; he helps out as much as he can. If the gym's a mess, he's the first one to get in and help clean up. He leads in many ways."

While Dante is a naturally gifted athlete, he gave credit to the AIS amenities—dieticians and nutritionists, a recovery center for pool workouts, physio lab for injury treatment and 5,200-capacity basketball arena—for helping him transform from a scrawny 15-year-old, when he first arrived, to the top of his class at 18, having gained 17 pounds just last year alone.

Dante said he's "definitely privileged" to be at AIS and discussed the motivation he feels simply walking through the halls.

"It's one of the best facilities. I couldn't ask for any more," he said. "When you walk down to practice, you’ve got all the past players and what people have done in the world championships. That’s kind of like a reminder of what kind of legacy you’re leading in a way. So it’s just a good reminder to remember to practice hard and to do it for the people who have been past players."

Bleacher Report
Dante during the Australian Schools Championships.

As for studies, Dante said his favorite subject is math, which might stem from his natural affinity for stats.

“I had 37 points, 12 boards and seven assists, but on 11-for-30 shooting,” he texted me as I was on a plane waiting to take off to head back to the states. “Haha so not a good one. It would have been a horrible game for you guys to tape. But we were down 14 going into the fourth and won by five! I hit some clutch free throws and got to the basket a lot.”

There is also a unique brotherhood at AIS because of the college-like nature of the prestigious training facility, which, according to Goriss, gives out 15 basketball scholarships every year. In addition to Dante’s family, his teammates make up his inner circle, and they’ve traveled all over Europe together to play in competitive camps and tournaments, including last year’s Adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, Italy, and the FIBA U19 World Championship in Prague, Czech Republic.

They’re a typical group of teenagers, talking about hoops, girls, music and video games. Maybe the biggest difference is that they can’t watch NBA games regularly on TV. Instead they huddle around each other’s laptops and tablets to follow scores online and comment on their favorite players. Dante’s are Derrick Rose and Kobe Bryant, with whom the Aussie now shares agent Rob Pelinka.

Because I timed my arrival into Canberra to catch Dante during his final official days at AIS, an intimate moment unfolded after the last on-court group workout: Goriss gave a heartfelt speech to the players, telling them how much he would miss coaching them—he’s taking a management position at the facility next season—and to “keep the (AIS) tradition going. We’re all in it together.” Then they gave him a bottle of wine, farewell card and team photo plaque celebrating their time together.

"In a way, it’s like an unwritten rule," Goriss said of the camaraderie at AIS. "It’s kind of like the AIS basketball program is like being part of a family. It’s the same as like college; they’re there for four years and some guys are here for like two, three years.

“You get that family kind of feel where guys look out for each other, they get to know each other really well and they do become, in some respects, a band of brothers in a way. When they leave, no matter where they go, whether it’s the U.S.A., Europe or stay in Australia, you always try and keep in touch so there’s always that bond."

 

***

Of course, the most important basketball relationship for Dante is with Cecil. After playing at UNC, Cecil had a shot at the NBA in 1984 with the Denver Nuggets, but that ended with a knee injury. He ended up played one year in Sweden, then chose Australia for his next move.

UNC Athletic Communications
Cecil (No. 50 to the right) on the 1982 North Carolina team, along with Michael Jordan (No. 23).

"I got an offer from Japan and Australia, and I wanted to come to an English-speaking country," he said. "We landed here, loved it and before I knew it, I kept having contract after contract. I came back and then we had kids, and we stayed because it’s a great place to raise kids, the weather is nice and there’s a low crime rate here. So we love it, love it.”

Cecil introduced hoops to Dante at five years old, and within a few years he noticed that his son was "advanced" in the sport. The family played competitive pickup ball on the weekends at the Melbourne Sports and Aquatic Centre. During that development process, older brother Jamaar was a helpful push for Dante.

"I can remember a time when one Christmas, I was wondering what (Dante's) level was and I took him to the local community center at home, and he played against older kids. I go, 'He's on the right track,' " Cecil said. "I think I’ve given him a grounding, and his brother’s always been working hard with him and playing one-on-one and stuff in the backyard. (Dante) made state teams at a young age."

Bleacher Report
Jamaar, Cecil and Dante after the Tigers-Kings game.

After Dante's student-athlete boarding school experience came to a close in late November, he was able to spend rare time reconnecting with his family in Melbourne. Leading up to that point, Dante had been traveling all over Europe for basketball. During the Tigers-Kings matchup, most of them sat together, with Dante and Jamaar taking in the game like fans, while Cecil shared advice during the action.

"We obviously go there to enjoy the game, but if he sees something, he’s like, 'Dante, you should be putting that in your game,' " Dante said. "He’s always that coach, trying to coach me in a sense. But it’s always fun."

While Dante has been mostly away from Cecil for three years at AIS, they are close and share laughs. They both told me it was “exciting” for them to collaborate on Dante’s college and agent process.

Cecil and Jamaar also had a chance during the tournament to watch Dante play live for the first time in months, and you could tell by the way they reacted to some of his moves.

One time, after Dante threw down a one-handed alley-oop dunk in transition, Cecil couldn't hold back his emotion, flashing a huge smile and gushing about it with a friend, telling him, "I gave him those genes!" In another game, after Dante dribbled through the legs of his defender, Jamaar told me, as I had recorded the play on my iPad, to quickly play it back so he could check it out with his friend.

"Sometimes when I watch him play, I don't think I'm watching my own brother," said Jamaar, also a talented player who in December was looking into another career: working for Australia's Qantas airlines.

There was another special family member sitting in the stands: Dante’s twin sister, Tierra, who's 18 minutes younger. While she’s not as used to being in front of the camera as her twin, she’s just as enjoyable to talk to.

"I have this joke between us because we're twins that we're wombmates, and he hates that joke," she said, giggling, as Dante came over. "I say that he ate all the food in the womb. He got the height and I got nothing."

"She loves that joke," he said after she repeated it so he could hear.

Bleacher Report
Dante's twin sister, Tierra.

Tierra, who competed in gymnastics for 10 years and is now a standout 100- and 200-meter runner and high jumper, said she and her brother were always together growing up, being loud, acting funny and playing basketball. While they don't get to play hoops anymore because of Dante’s hectic schedule—"He now tries to teach me Call of Duty," she said—their personalities haven't changed.

"We have the same humor," she said. "We like having inside jokes between us. He thinks he's a clown, like he thinks he's really funny. He just thinks he's a class clown all the time."

Notably, the tournament marked the first time that Tierra saw her big bro play since last April during the Nike Hoop Summit—his coming-out party among NBA general managers, agents and scouts. While Cecil and Jamaar were at the game in Portland, Ore., Tierra, Desiree and her friend were back home in Melbourne watching on television.

"That was cool seeing him on TV," Tierra said. "I was pretty nervous for him, though, just watching from the couch. We were just hoping he would make some shots and we were just hoping that the World team would win, and they did."

After seeing Dante play live in December—nearly a year since the last time—she remarked, "He's really good. I didn't know he was that fast, and I like his jump shot."

Tierra said Dante "loves" all of the social media fame he's receiving, and that none of it has affected him. "I think he's pretty good with it. It doesn't really go to his head. He's still the same Dante I know," she said.

Desiree couldn't make it to the tournament, as she was finishing her work for IBM in Singapore. She arrived in Melbourne closer to the holidays. In general, Cecil said Desiree is a “very private person” and hasn’t addressed the media yet about Dante, whom she’ll live with for a few weeks in Los Angeles after Cecil first helps him settle there.

“She wants to remain incognito until the draft,” Cecil said recently. “That night, she’ll be ready to talk.”

Bleacher Report
Dante with me and my Bleacher Report crew.

 

***

One day while in Melbourne, my crew and I cramped into Dante’s tiny hotel room—shared with tournament teammate Jack McVeigh—at the Box Hill Motel. There, we filmed Dante and McVeigh going head-to-head in NBA 2K14—McVeigh as the Minnesota Timberwolves and Dante as the Los Angeles Lakers, one of two teams (the other is the Orlando Magic) that he thinks he would be a great fit with in the NBA.

After we wrapped and I was walking out of the room with Newman, something hit me about our surroundings. I turned to Newman and said, "Pretty soon, he could be going from this to the Ritz-Carlton." As Newman also contemplated Dante's NBA future, he responded, "Unreal. He has no idea what's about to come his way."

While things are about to get crazy for Dante here in the states, after spending a week with him in Australia, I could see he has the right blend of ingredients—the high-level training, cool-headed approach, accomplished family backbone and, of course, top-notch talent and determination—to adjust to the hoopla that lies ahead. He'll just need more seasoning against the best American players—unproven territory for him, but a test he can pass.

Once he does, it's only a matter of time before he's a household name, on both sides of the world.

 

Jared Zwerling covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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