BY MICHAEL CASPER
Back in high school they called him “Bird,” after NBA great Larry Bird.
And Drake Diener’s style of play on the basketball court mirrors that of Bird’s.
After graduating Fondy High in 2001, he furthered his educational and hard court pursuits at DePaul University.
“Then after my senior year,” Drake said “I had some health issues that kept me from playing professionally the first year out of college. Beginning in 2006 until now, I’ve been playing in Italy.”
With so much talent coming out of college, year after year, it begs how was it he stayed in the forefront of anybody’s mind basketball-wise.
“I stayed at DePaul the year I was ill,” Drake said “and helped out with the basketball program. Plus, I had to finish up student teaching to get my degree. In the meantime I was working out at DePaul with the team and on my own. That following June, my agent set up a workout with some other free agents and I went and played. It was only a two or three hour workout but people that had known me from the year before saw that I was okay and I could play. A lot what goes into it, I think, and probably in every line of work, is luck. I was in the right place at the right time and it just so happened that a certain general manager remembered me and liked me from the year before and we connected at that workout and that’s how things kicked off.”
It was the end of June in 2006 when he got a call from his agent.
“It was a little bit strange. My agent told me, you should definitely take this, it’s the Italian Second Division. He said, Italy has great basketball and if you play well for a year, then that will open up things in the First Division and in other countries. But because of my health issues, they wanted me to fly over in July for two days to have me checked out. So I flew to Italy for the checkup and everything worked out and the contract was signed.”
Basketball aside, there are adjustments to be made.
“I wasn’t married, but dating my future wife Gini,” Drake said “she was still in school back home. So when I went over there, I was alone. That was the year my parents both retired from teaching so they were frequent visitors, but I was alone for the most part.
I think I was pretty lucky that the team I started with had 3 other guys that were basically in the same situation I was. We were all in our first years, we were all single and it made the adjustment much easier. I think it would been tough pretty difficult if I would have gone to a team where the other 3 American guys had families. It would have made me feel a little bit more lonely but we had 4 of us who really bonded and hung out together and it eased that transition.”
Diener transitioned as smoothly as his free throw leaves his hand.
“Within the basketball world, I don’t want to say you’re sheltered but it was mostly English that was spoken because it’s the universal language that the coaches speak. They’re so much more laid back over there and that can be a good thing or a bad thing, but for someone coming from the U.S. a lot of times it’s a negative because you expect things to get done in a timely fashion, and they’re just a lot more relaxed than we are about everything. For example, I waited 3 weeks to get my internet set up. For an American over there without a family, internet is so important for communication back home. I remember that first year my internet had major issues because people forgot to pay the bills and they’d call the internet company and they wouldn’t show up for two weeks. It was a joke.”
Basketball is basketball, but Drake found subtle differences playing internationally.
“I’m a guy who prides himself on fundamentals,” he said “it’s something I grew up learning from my dad, and working on, so I think that helped the transition because there are some things that the refs call over there that they wouldn’t call in the U.S. If you don’t have good fundamentals, it’s harder to adjust to that. Some guys take a year to figure out that they’re getting called for a lot of traveling, which they actually do call over there (laugh). And it’s physical. The refereeing is horrible. So guys get away with a lot of extra-curricular stuff. It’s different because it’s a little bit less athletic. When I watch college basketball now, it looks like a bunch of guys running around like chickens with their heads cut off. They’re really athletic and they’re good players, but they don’t know yet how to control their movements. I think in Europe guys are little less athletic but more skilled and know how to play basketball the right way.”
Drake moved around quite a bit. He was first with Castelletto Ticino and played there his first year.
“I’ve played in six different cities for six different organizations” he explained. “My current team is Faffari and I’ve been with them for the past three seasons and next year I’m moving on. We’re just ready to move on to a new adventure.”
Drake and his wife have a 2 and a half year old son named Lou and a 10 month old daughter named June.
“Gini and I got married after my second year overseas,” Drake said “and she’s been coming over ever since. We do get a little sick of it at times because we’re there for 9 or 10 months at a time, and it’s tough to be away, but overall we both like it. Over there though, the housing it supplied by the team. We’ve never had to rent or buy a house, so that’s nice.”
The Diener’s were in Europe this season until mid-June because Faffari made it to the semifinals.
Drake’s cousin Travis Diener, who after graduation from Marquette played in the NBA, was his teammate for the past three seasons.
“We’ve been tight for forever,” Drake said “because we’re two months apart in age. I grew up on 20th Street, he grew up on 12th in Fond du Lac. You never really imagine being on the same team together for three years in Italy. It was great for us and for our families, because he’s married and has two little ones too.”
Toward the end of this past season there was a sense that Drake was going to win the most valuable player award.
“I think by the end of the year, I was a favorite, but you really never know. After two thirds of the year, I knew I was probably in the hunt for it. You almost wish people didn’t notice because it puts a lot pressure on you every game. But it was a great year. We finished well and I’m proud of that accomplishment, especially since I’ve played in Italy for eight years and I’ve seen some ups and downs in my career so it’s good to cap it off with that.”
Drake put up some incredible numbers, averaging around 20 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 or 3 assists a game.
“I hate to talk about myself,” Drake said “but probably the most amazing part of it was that I led the league in scoring, but I also led the league in 2-point shooting percentage and 3-point shooting percentage. I don’t think that’s ever been done before.”
Diener is European MVP
BY MICHAEL CASPER