2007 NBA champion Francisco Elson has no doubts, the face of the NBA is European now. The Dutch legend and former San Antonio Spurs big man talked to Emmet Ryan on a visit to Dublin about his career, the game today, and working with young people
Francisco Elson stands tall in most rooms but the 2007 NBA champion really stood out in Larkin Community College in Dublin’s North Inner City on a dark Monday afternoon. He was in Dublin to mark the conclusion of this year’s jr.NBA programme through Basketball Ireland.
The Dutchman, the first from the Netherlands to win a NBA title, was telling these kids about his road through basketball.
Elson had to work for everything. In college, he was first a juco at Kilgore before transferring to Cal, and he still says he is a Golden Bear for life. Then, having been drafted by the Denver Nuggets, he went to Europe and won a Liga ACB with Barcelona before moving to Valencia and Caja San Fernando (now Real Betis) before finally making the jump to the show four years after being drafted in 2003.
With stops in Denver, San Antonio, Seattle, Utah, Milwaukee, and two in Philadelphia, Elson saw plenty of the league along a 10 year career. Right here in Dublin, he was hoping the kids understood the work that went into what he achieved.
“I like to talk to and motivate people, to tell them what I’ve been through and tell my story basically. I like these kids because they all have a dream, basketball motivates people,” Elson told BallinEurope.
“When I have the chance, I do. I tell the kids it’s not only talent but hard work. A lot of NBA players and basketball players that don’t make it there have worked hard.”
The peak of his career was undoubtedly that 2007 champions with the Spurs, when they swept the Cavaliers in the first ever Finals appearance for LeBron James. Having come from a country without a strong basketball tradition, Elson’s Netherlands teams never qualified for EuroBasket in his tenure with them, he knew the importance of being part of that triumph.
“It gave a lot of people hope, for me it was a dream come true. Hopefully my accomplishment shows that anybody that wants it can get it,” he said.
That need to grind was something he hopes the kids he was working with took on board, that it didn’t matter where they are from but more about the work they put in.
“If they listen, there is hope. If they want to become a basketball player, I’m a prime example. There are a lot of coaches here teaching these kids,” he said.
“Ireland is a small country but that doesn’t mean anything. I’m from the Netherlands, basketball is not a big sport there, if you have a talent and somebody sees you then believe that you can play.”
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That time with San Antonio, albeit only a couple of seasons, still stands out for Elson about how it helped him develop.
“In my short period of time with the Spurs, I learned so much about the game. I got to understand the game more, I have to thank Greg Popovich and the organisation for helping me as a professional.”
With a new wave of Europeans making strides in the NBA, with Giannis Antetokounmpo taking MVP last year, Luka Doncic rookie of the year, and Rudy Gobert defensive player of the year, Elson made a bold statement about the league today.
“Talent is everywhere. It’s not only in the United States. The NBA has a face and the NBA’s face is European. The Euros are getting more respect, they have beaten the US. Basketball is global,” he said.
Having retired in 2013, Elson knows the game is different today than in his prime and he knows what he’d need to do more of if he were trying to get in the NBA today.
“Shooting. I’d be shooting that thing. A lot of people compare time periods and players but that’s impossible. Now you’ve got Luka Doncic averaging 20+ points over the last 18 or 19 games, now if you touch somebody it’s a foul. Back when Michael Jordan was playing you could guard him, hold him,” said Elson.
Far from being critical of today’s game, to him it’s a matter of evolution. Elson thinks basketball should be appreciated for what it is, not how it compares to the past or future.
“You can’t compare those periods, everybody has their own type of talent and every period has its own type of talent. Just embrace the game and enjoy it.”
Having hung up his kicks and earned a good living in the process, Elson’s mission now is to help more young people embrace the sport and what it can teach.
“I coach kids back at home in the Netherlands and through this ambassadorship through the NBA. Hopefully the kids listen, we’re giving them more confidence and discipline.”