- Mark Schwarz
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ATHENS, Greece --
Josh Childress is a free-spirited, open-minded world traveler. Perhaps that makes him the perfect candidate to become the most prominent American-born player in his prime to take a 7,000-mile leap outside his NBA comfort zone.
But in Athens, his new basketball home, the fans treat him like a Greek god.
"They're a little bit more passionate about their sports here. You see tons of people in the street who just love you just because you play for their team," Childress says.
He has only been in Athens since late summer, yet Childress says he's already more famous in Greece than he could ever be in the United States. We watched a bartender kneel at his feet, and begin to kiss them. Passionately. Then his zealous admirer -- as if to confirm that he was not worthy -- bowed before the bemused Childress.
Childress was merely looking for a midafternoon meal.
Not exactly the kind of reception he received in Atlanta, where he spent four seasons with the Hawks and became one of the NBA's premier sixth men.
"Now, my lifestyle is more along the lines of a movie star," he says with a laugh. "And part of it is probably because I'm different," explains Childress, who sports a towering Afro. "I'm kind of noticeable. I mean the hair and everything."
And then there's the contract.
When the 25-year-old restricted free agent was shopping for offers last summer, the most lucrative by far came from a team he had never heard of. A storied Greek team called Olympiacos.
"You hear about big contracts, and you think NBA," says Childress. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I'd have gotten a call from a team in Greece. Ever."
Childress can opt out of the deal next summer or in 2010. But if he stays in Greece for all three seasons, he will earn $20 million dollars while his club pays his taxes. The Hawks essentially offered him the same amount of money to play five years in Atlanta.
Childress, who attended Stanford, had no trouble doing the math.
But he had concerns. He had heard horror stories about NBA players who never got the money they were promised by European teams. Though he had traveled around Europe on several occasions, he wanted to see the living conditions before he agreed to put his NBA career on hold.
"Coming to Greece is not like a Third World country," says the 2004 lottery pick. "It's fairly nice."
Nevertheless, New York Knicks head coach Mike D'Antoni calls it a gutsy move.
"I admire him," says D'Antoni, who spent more than two decades playing and coaching in Italy. "Because he's jumping into the unknown. Because he does have a cushy life. Because he could have signed for good money here, enough money to be set for the rest of his life."
"I left the NBA. It's something people just don't quite understand or are confused about," Childress says while guiding his Volvo through the streets of Glyfada, the upscale neighborhood just outside Athens where he now resides.
Some people say 'groundbreaker.' Some say 'trailblazer.' I say I'm the test dummy. I'm the guy who's gonna test it out for everyone else.
He once got so lost in his car that he hired a taxi to lead him back home. He cannot yet hold a conversation in Greek. In fact, his Olympiacos teammate Sophocles "Baby Shaq" Schortsanitis told him that if Childress learned the language within a year, Schortsanitis would give him half his salary.
"I think he's pretty safe," says Childress, whose learning curve will be as steep as the hills on which the Parthenon lords over Athens.
As part of his fat Greek contract, Olympiacos provides him an automobile, a personal chef and maid service. Not to mention a spacious three-story flat that rivals anything he could have bought in the States.
"I'm probably saving at least half a million dollars by not having to buy a place," Childress says. "I get twelve free plane tickets. I think that's better than anything."
He shakes his head as if he's amazed by his good fortune.
"I'll be banking that money. It's lovely. It feels good."
Childress walks out of his luxurious condo and breathes in the sweet aroma of his new life in Greece. He walks onto the patio and proudly shows a visitor the coolest part of the deal.
"This is a private J-Chill pool," he says. "Only for me."
Life is good. But even Childress seems a bit baffled that Olympiacos made him the highest-paid player on the continent. Ever.
"I don't know," Childress says quizzically as he drives to the team's practice facility. "I think they saw something in me they wanted. They made the offer. I'm happy they did."
Childress says he's content without all of the modern luxuries that have practically become a birthright of the NBA player. Gone are the charter flights with luscious eats and infinite legroom. Olympiacos flies commercial. Or piles into the team bus for road trips that sometimes approach five hours.
Gone are the five-star hotels. Now, Childress shares more modest rooms with a teammate, an arrangement he learned about after signing his deal.
"It's not bad. Not bad at all," he claims. "Reminds me of college. I don't mind it at all, really. Everything is done as a team. Team meals. Team everything."
And did we mention the postage stamp-sized gyms?
Fewer than a thousand fans witnessed his Greek League debut at Aigaleo Indoor Hall. It looked like nothing he has seen since high school. And it's not the only tiny venue in the league.
"Definitely small," he says as he enters. "But a gym is a gym, baby, and we gotta come out here and do work."
After a lackluster first half, Childress finishes with 16 points, including a vicious baseline jam that works an already boisterous crowd into a frenzy. They are not accustomed to that sort of high-wire act in Aigaleo.
"The fans were talking trash at halftime," Childress said, "so I gave them a little look as I ran back. I like to talk trash a little bit, and if I make plays like that on a nightly basis then I can talk."
The European game is radically different from the NBA version he knows. On most nights, Childress will be the most athletic player on the court. But in Greece, athleticism is neutralized by gimmick defenses. To get to the rim, Childress must navigate a thicket of traps and zones that is as daunting as the unfamiliar streets of his new home. There are no isolation plays. It's all about ball movement.
Oh, and one more thing: The referees do not protect scorers in this league. Essentially, it's no autopsy, no foul.
Childress, who is averaging 12.3 points per game along with 5.7 rebounds for Olympiacos in three Euroleague games, says he's unsure of his role. He says he was floored when his coaches praised him for scoring just 14 points in a preseason friendly against Maccabi Tel Aviv.
"I can tell you they don't want me to score 30. They don't want me to score 25. Probably don't want me to score 20. They want me to be well-rounded."
"We didn't bring Josh here to make 40, 30 or 50 points," Olympiacos head coach Panagiotis Giannakis confirms.
In Greece, statistics mean nothing unless the team wins.
"We must win every game," says Christos Stavropoulos, Olympiacos' general manager. "Maybe in the States you can lose some games. Not here."
The expectations for Childress are as humongous as his eight-figure contract. There are ten daily newspapers in Athens devoted entirely to sports. The press has already anointed him as the savior for an Olympiacos club that has not won the Greek league title in more than a decade.
"They will talk about Josh every day," says Maurizio Gherardini, who spent 25 years as a general manager in Italy and is now a top executive with the Toronto Raptors. "They will analyze his performance very, very carefully."
Childress embraces the pressure and sees himself as a pivotal figure.
He knows many NBA players will await word from him before they decide to follow him across the pond.
"Some people say 'groundbreaker.' Some say 'trailblazer,'" says Childress, while gazing at the sparkling Aegean Sea. "I say I'm the test dummy. I'm the guy who's gonna test it out for everyone else. See if I enjoy it. Then obviously I think a lot of other guys will maybe make the transition."
There is no salary cap in Europe, and Childress expects Olympiacos and a handful of other flush European teams to open their pocketbooks each summer to lure NBA stars.
"There's tons of money. Tons of money here," he says. "These teams are very wealthy."
Brash billionaire brothers Panagiotis and George Angelopoulos own Olympiacos. They made their fortune in shipping and steel, but they hope to forge their legacy from their true passion: basketball. The brothers say they are happy to lose money if it means winning championships.
"Every summer we want the best for our team," says Panagiotis, who has been called the Mark Cuban of European basketball. "There are numbers to our minds that can make players even better than Josh come and play for us."
But will they be paid more than Childress?
"If they deserve more, we'll pay them more," Panagiotis replies.
Could you afford Josh Childress at $20 million for three years, and Kobe Bryant at $50 million for one season?
"For one year, no! There's no logic. But there are [logical] numbers to our minds that can make even better players than Josh come and play for us."
Gherardini is reserving judgment about whether more stars will follow Childress overseas. But he says the Childress deal was a wake-up call to every NBA team.
"Nobody really had an idea that such an unbelievable amount of money could've been put on the table," Gherardini says. "There is always a first time something like this happens, so it can surprise anybody. Not just Atlanta."
Reporter Mark Schwarz works in ESPN's Enterprise Unit and for the program "Outside the Lines."
Josh Childress has everything he wants in Greece. He says he'll be judged by how much he wins, not how much he scores, Mark Schwarz writes.