Between the giant banners waving, the air horns blaring, the constant rumble of synchronized songs from the fans and the inordinate number of rage-fueled middle fingers ripping through the air, the atmosphere inside the WiZink Center—home to Real Madrid Baloncesto—for the second of five El Clasicos against rival Barcelona was more Red Sox-Yankees or Duke-North Carolina than a typical professional basketball game on a Thursday in November.
Absent was the corporate stuffiness and manufactured fan engagement, replaced as it was with a rabid crowd of 12,729—anchored by an R-rated, chain-smoking supporter section, filled with fans somewhat appropriately known as the Berserkers—as well as a fully armed police unit flanking the opposing bench. And while this game was played 3,400 miles away from the nearest NBA arena, a slew of familiar faces, even if only to the true basketball nerd, roamed the court.
NBA washouts Anthony Randolph, Rudy Fernandez, Jordan Mickey and Jeffery Taylor led the way for Madrid. Barcelona had the likes of Malcolm Delaney, Alex Abrines, Brandon Davies, Kyle Kuric, Kevin Pangos and Nikola Mirotic (who was the Spanish League MVP while with Madrid in 2013 but found himself serenaded with chants of "puta rata"—translated loosely as "fucking rat"—whenever he stepped to the free-throw line against his former club).
"That rivalry goes far beyond sports," Phoenix Suns and former Barcelona point guard Ricky Rubio says. "Spain is small, but you have two of the biggest clubs in Europe. It's like if the Lakers and Celtics were in the same city."
And yet, the biggest star in Madrid and one of the best players in Spanish history plays sparingly. After logging just two points in nine minutes in the first half, Sergio Llull (pronounced "yool"), the 2017 Euroleague MVP, Spanish national team point guard and 34th overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, launches two 40-foot jump shots and juggles a ball with his feet as halftime winds down. He cracks a 20-ounce Red Bull and settles onto the end of the bench. Raised in a nation that often eats dinner well past 10 p.m., Llull used his first half as an effective siesta. As the third quarter begins, the 32-year-old shooting guard gulps down his energy drink. His right leg jitters. He removes his warm-up pants and moves next to longtime Madrid head coach Pablo Laso on the bench.
Finally, it's showtime.
(A key difference to note here between European basketball and the NBA is that Euro clubs will often save their best lineups for crunch time, rather than starting the five best players. "That drives my colleagues here nuts," says Marko Radovanovic, Houston Rockets director of global scouting and the man who has tried, and so far failed, to lure Llull to America. "In Euroleague, you'll see [Llull] or Anthony Randolph coming off the bench. What counts is the minutes at the end of the game.")
Against Barcelona, it's clear Llull is Laso's closer, and it's easy to see why. A high-percentage three-point threat with a creative, freelancing streak, the 6'3" Llull is also a capable ball-handler and slasher who can finish at the rim or find an open teammate. During one sequence late in the first quarter, Llull grabs a defensive rebound, pushes the length of the floor and dishes to 17-year-old Madrid forward Usman Garuba for a dunk. In the fourth quarter, Llull crosses over former Louisville guard Kuric, penetrates the lane and drops a teardrop fadeaway over Brandon Davies, a former BYU center. By the time he's done, Madrid has secured a 10-point victory.
"He is a perfect fit [in the NBA]," former NBA and Spanish point guard Jose Calderon says. "He has enough size and physicality to finish. He can make shots and beat you one-on-one. I have no doubt he would be a good player here."
Indeed, the Rockets have thought so since they acquired his draft rights from Denver in 2009 for $2.5 million—then a record payment for a second-rounder. Houston was convinced it found a rarity: an unconventional European guard with championship experience who fit seamlessly into the franchise's uptempo, analytics-based offense.
"We've been trying to get him to come over for almost 10 years," Houston director of global scouting Marko Radovanovic says. "Three years ago, we were in serious talks. He could have been our starter."
Yet, Llull remains in Spain.
"He'll kill me for saying so, but I don't understand it at all," says Joe Arlauckas, the former Sacramento Kings and Real Madrid forward-turned-broadcaster for Euroleague TV. "He had it all lined up with Houston. Everyone makes their own decisions, but when it's all over, he might wonder. Because he had the skills. I was disappointed, but they love him [in Spain] for staying."
There's no question Llull wants to test himself, but he has accomplished so much overseas that he's on pace to retire as a Euroleague legend. In his 13th professional season, Llull ranks seventh all-time in both Euroleague scoring and assists. He'll easily climb to third in scoring, right behind his former national squad teammate Juan Carlos Navarro, by the end of this season.
"He's still got chances [to come to the NBA], so we'll see," Rubio says. "But he's one of the best ever in Europe. Beyond basketball, that's my brother, and he's killing it right now."
Llull's path to stardom was typical of many athletes at the top of European sport. A native of Mahon, the capital city of Menorca—an island in the Balearic Sea, roughly 150 miles southeast of Barcelona—Llull played for the same youth club, La Salle Mao, where his grandfather coached his father, Paco Llull, a low-level professional player in Mahon. Like most children in Spain, Llull played soccer, but his time spent watching Paco from the stands—and sneaking in shots at halftime—sparked professional hoops aspirations. Family ties. Soon, both he and his brother, Ivan, were standouts at La Salle Mao.
By the time he was 15, Sergio was dropping 71 points with 19 assists in a 117-105 win over Menorcan rival club Jovent Alaior. Like clockwork, scouts from the Spanish mainland came searching for the flame-throwing island guard. He received an invite to try out for the Spanish national youth team and joined Liga ACB club Ricoh Manresa the following year.
Llull's introduction to Spain's top division was far from eye-popping. In 11 games with Manresa in 2005-06, Llull averaged 2.8 points in just 7.5 minutes per contest. He spent most of the season on loan to fourth-division squad Olesa, posting a modest 12.0 points per game. But beneath the surface, Spanish basketball's kingmaker, Laso, saw a player who was oozing with potential.
"Laso is great at developing young guys," says Arlauckas. "Just like he did with [Luka] Doncic and Mirotic, he finds the talent and knows how to build their confidence."
What Laso knew, and the rest of the world would soon discover, was that Spain's next great guard had arrived. In 2004, at age 16, Llull led Spain to a gold medal at the European Under-18 Championships. Then, a silver at the 2007 European U20 Championships. Llull joined the senior national team in 2009, adding his name to a movement that came to be known as Spanish basketball's Golden Generation. Fueled by players such as Pau Gasol, NBA one-hit-wonder Navarro and Llull's Real Madrid teammate Felipe Reyes, Spain became a basketball superpower, winning three Olympic medals, two FIBA World Cup championships and producing countless NBA exports in the two decades since Gasol led a gold-medal victory at the 1999 Under-19 World Championships.
In his time with the national team, Llull has added to that legacy, helping Spain claim three Eurobasket golds, two Olympic medals (silver in 2012 and bronze in 2016) and last summer's World Cup gold.
"The rise has been 20 years in the making," says Fran Fraschilla, who analyzes international draft prospects for ESPN. "The Spanish player-development culture is as good as there is around the world. They don't just play basketball—they learn how to learn basketball. So, when they reach the senior level, they have a high work ethic and understand how to play a team game."
That emphasis on team-oriented basketball doesn't just yield results on the international stage. Spanish basketball culture is most apparent on the club side, where stars such as Llull and Randolph still play less than 25 minutes per game. Even Doncic, the Mavericks' second-year phenom, averaged just 16.0 points and 25.9 Euroleague minutes per game for Madrid in 2018. But beyond basketball in Spain, Spanish hoops culture is equally apparent when the game's products reach the NBA.
"Only so many players can be stars in the NBA," Fraschilla says. "Ultimately, the Spanish style of play makes perfect role players who hit the ground running in the NBA."
But making that jump isn't everyone's dream.
Life decisions contain layers. The answer to why Llull has never made the trip to the NBA is a complicated intertwining of national pride, comfort, family priorities, flashes of self-doubt and the pull of Euroleague immortality.
When the Rockets acquired Llull's draft rights in 2009, they made a bet for their future. Years of overseas seasoning and negotiation were expected, but, in Llull, Houston spotted a player who fit the future NBA well before anyone else. His slash-and-shoot style—plus a near-40 percent three-point shooting mark—signaled his maturation would parallel the evolving NBA.
"Llull is a perfect fit for our system," Radovanovic says. "He speeds up the game; he sparks up the entire team. Obviously, some things have changed. But our philosophy is to never give up. He could carve out a role. He would be a great spark off the bench."
In 2015, following a Western Conference Finals loss to Golden State, Houston found itself in need of a starting point guard and secondary shot creator to play alongside James Harden. General manager Daryl Morey believed Llull could be the man. So Llull and his wife, Almudena Canovas, visited Houston—still Llull's only trip to the States—to get a sense of what life would be like as a Rocket. According to those close to him, the couple preferred to raise their young daughter at home in Spain rather than uproot the family.
The years since have seen the Rockets try repeatedly to find the complement they once felt Llull could be, from adding Lou Williams to trading for Chris Paul to swapping Paul for Russell Westbrook. While the moves have helped Harden thrive, could the Rockets have created the same effect with a lot less drama had Llull joined the team? "He's so damn explosive; he definitely could have been a difference-maker before his injury," Arlauckas says, referring to a torn ACL Llull suffered in his right knee in August 2017. "Sometimes he looks so out of control, but he's still under control. I've never seen anyone play like him."
Back in Spain, Llull went on to win the Euroleague and Spanish League MVP awards in 2017, averaging 16.5 points and 5.9 assists per Euroleague game. The following season, though, Llull tore his ACL and missed most of the campaign as Doncic won the same awards while leading Real Madrid to a Euroleague title. Llull returned the next season as Madrid won the Spanish League and finished third in the Euroleague.
"He really wants to make history in Madrid," says Hornets center and Llull's Spanish national teammate Willy Hernangomez. "But deep in his heart, I think he will really miss not playing in the NBA. He knows that he could have done it."
Still, Radovanovic believes there's a place for the veteran in Houston, which checks in with Llull regularly to see if he's changed his mind. "At this point, it would have to be more of a role-player deal," Radovanovic says. "Like a Pablo Prigioni-type deal. Sergio is 32 and making good money over there, but we would love to have him carve out a role."
Others aren't so sure.
"He could have been a longtime role player on very good NBA teams," Fraschilla says. "But, at this point, I doubt we'll ever see Sergio Llull in the NBA."
There's no question the NBA has ushered in an era of unprecedented global expansion, as evidenced not only by the league's reach but also by who is on the floor. This season, NBA opening-night rosters featured 108 international players from 38 territories and countries, marking the sixth straight year that at least 100 international players were employed. Twenty-five years ago, in the 1994-95 season, a mere 24 foreign-born players were in the league.
But the game's global expansion sometimes works in reverse. The recruitment of foreign players has also picked up in top leagues across Europe and Asia. The Euroleague broadcasts games in 195 countries and territories across the world. Much in the way that soccer popularity has picked up in the United States, thanks to more accessible Premier League and Champions League television broadcasts, Euroleague insiders hope to capitalize on basketball's global expansion.
That growth has also brought an influx of money into European hoops. Last offseason, Mirotic left lucrative NBA deals on the table to sign with Barcelona for a reported six-year, €70 million pact. Likewise, NBA players like Sergio Rodriguez, Fernandez and Abrines have all moved back to Spain. Add in Calderon's retirement, and there are just four Spanish-born players (Rubio, Marc Gasol, and Will and Juancho Hernangomez) on NBA rosters. In previous years, that number was in the double digits.
Llull, under contract with Madrid through 2021, remains a figure of Euroleague and Spanish pride. That so many of his countrymen have returned from NBA stints—particularly Fernandez, his close friend and teammate in Madrid—has not helped sway Llull to make the leap in the opposite direction.
"Sometimes you just feel more comfortable in your own house," says Calderon, who spent 14 seasons in the NBA after breaking out in Liga ACB. "For me, the language was the toughest part [of the NBA transition]. For Llull, he's winning, and he's the biggest name at home. The situation has to be perfect."
Anecdotally, the evidence suggests Llull is not itching to make the case that he should be in the U.S. Multiple requests to speak to Llull in Spain were rebuffed.
To a man, Llull's national team and Real Madrid teammates rave about the unique sense of presence he brings. Though he conveys a quiet, family-man image off the court, Llull brings a combination of levity and authority into any locker room. "He seems quiet, but he can cut loose too," says Madrid forward Jordan Mickey, formerly of the Celtics and Heat. "He senses the moment and knows what guys need to hear."
Before joining the NBA in 2016 and blossoming into one of the young stars of the Spanish national team, Willy Hernangomez was a top prospect playing alongside Llull at Real Madrid. The ensuing kinship has stuck with Charlotte's center. "[Llull] absolutely hates to lose, and he'll get mad at you, but only because he wants you to get better every day," Hernangomez says. "He's been a great person to learn from and a great friend. He's a big part of the reason why I'm in the NBA."
Though Llull himself is not stateside, his influence permeates the NBA. Take a look at Doncic—behind his breakout as an MVP candidate are shades of Llull's game.
"What Doncic has done is incredible," Madrid shooting guard Jaycee Carroll says. "He spent a few years [in Madrid] learning from Llull. They both have that same sense of how to play and how to think through the game. Very different players, but there are key similarities in how they play."
Unable to be reached for this story, Doncic told Eurohoops in 2018 that Llull belongs in the NBA, if he wants to be. "It's his choice. He has the level for it, for sure. I think he's the best player outside of the NBA. He has the level to be."
In the increasingly flat world of professional basketball, it's unheard of for a player to turn down the chance to play in NBA. Particularly a player for whom an NBA team has paid a record price. But when home is to your liking, when record-book ascension is your destiny, is it worth taking on an uncertain role, not to mention the cultural headaches, under one of the sports world's biggest microscopes? Nowhere is the idea of American exceptionalism more absolute than on the hardwood. Almost always, when the best Americans play, the best Americans win. But that certainty is becoming less clear by the year, and the appeal of playing a mere complementary role to those Americans in the NBA may not carry the cachet it once did.
"It's easy for people in the States to forget how big basketball is around the world," Carroll says. "[Llull] is a star, and this isn't the minor leagues."
There can only be so many superstars in the NBA. As the game continues to grow, other top leagues around the world will need handsomely paid hoops stars, like Llull and Mirotic, too. One thing we know for sure is, when Madrid and Barcelona next face off March 22, Spain's greatest export—and Llull's former protege—will be watching.
While we're left to wonder what could have been.
Amin Elhassan, NBA Analyst for ESPN, joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the overrated Los Angeles Clippers, the Lakers unexpected dominance, LeBron’s stamina, Houston Rockets’ small ball style, and the origins of The Pitino Game.