Commentary

Well-traveled Washington motors on

Still chasing NBA dream, former Memphis star now plays for Macedonia national team

Originally Published: September 1, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

To most people he is the ultimate cautionary tale: a can't-miss kid who whiffed big-time by leaving college too early. Once a top high schooler who played a game against Sebastian Telfair that earned national television coverage, he later went undrafted and has spent three years crisscrossing Europe, chasing a professional basketball career.

[+] EnlargeDarius Washington
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesDarius Washington left Memphis after two seasons, but wasn't selected in the 2006 NBA draft.

Like a swallow at Capistrano, he returns every summer to an NBA camp in hopes of sticking. But save a teasing 18-game taste with the San Antonio Spurs, he always winds up hopscotching the Atlantic to ply his trade overseas.

He's currently playing on a national team for a country that didn't even exist until 1991, suiting up for Macedonia, a 9,700-square-mile slice of what used to be Yugoslavia.

But if Darius Washington Jr. is a cautionary tale, he is not waving any red flags. He is not standing on a soapbox preaching about the perils of diving into the NBA waters too soon or pleading with kids not to make his mistake. Just the opposite, in fact.

If the past three years have taught him anything, it is to toss out the phrases "what if" and "should have" and stop ruing what could have been and enjoy what is.

"No regrets," he said via a private live chat set up specifically for this interview. Time difference and crummy cell phone reception in Turkey, where Washington was playing with his Macedonian teammates, made a phone interview dicey. "I'm playing the game I love, a game that is global, traveling the world for money. Does it get better?"

Well yes, in fact, it does if that money is good ol' greenbacks from a professional team in America instead of euros from a pro team across the pond. Not even Washington will try to say otherwise.

The NBA carrot is what makes him show up at whatever camp will have him -- Memphis, Milwaukee, Chicago or Boston -- and why, when asked whether he is content, he quickly responds, "No, my goal is to play in the NBA."

But although his dream hasn't been instantaneously realized, don't think Washington considers himself a bust.

Hardly.

He has learned that the name on the front of his jersey doesn't measure his value or success and has realized that although this rocky path hasn't yet led him to hoops nirvana, it has helped him with something far more important.

"He's only 23, a baby by age," said Washington's father, Darius Washington Sr. "But a man in the way he thinks."

Washington was like most uber-talented high school athletes: He figured everything was his for the taking. An AAU national champion at age 10, the Orlando, Fla., native spent his senior year of high school trading barbs and rankings with Telfair. He even had his own Web site.

Success and fame were a guarantee. It was just a matter of choosing when he would cash in, following Dajuan Wagner's path from McDonald's All-American to Memphis to the NBA.

He seemed on his way during his freshman season of 2004-05, when he averaged 15.4 points per game and a team-best 3.8 assists, good enough to earn Conference USA Rookie of the Year and freshman All-American honors.

But reality gave him its first hard bite that season in an agony-of-defeat moment few who witnessed it will ever forget. Down two with no time left in the final of the 2005 C-USA tournament, a 19-year-old Washington stepped to the line with three free throws at his disposal. Hit all three, and Memphis would upset sixth-ranked Louisville and advance to the NCAA tourney. Hit two, and the game would continue in overtime. Hit one or none, and the Tigers' NCAA tournament dreams would be over.

[+] EnlargeWashington
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyFor college basketball fans, the image is unforgettable -- the freshman being consoled as a national TV audience witnessed it all.

Washington, a 72 percent shooter at the line, sunk the first, swishing the ball with such ease that he momentarily posed, his shooting hand extended. But then the second bounced off the rim. With the home crowd at FedExForum holding its breath, he took the last shot.

It skidded off-center to the right of the hoop, and Washington crumpled to his knees, pulling his jersey over his face.

Rival Louisville celebrated while John Calipari tried to console his rookie and Washington's Tigers teammates tried to literally pull him up from his prone position.

Many people figured Washington would never rebound from that excruciating moment. Except a year later, buoyed by countless notes of support from Memphis fans and hoops fans all over, Washington helped the Tigers to the Elite Eight.

So confident in his abilities, Washington decided to test the draft waters and then, just days before the draft, signed with an agent, officially closing the door on his college career.

Analysts were skeptical. In its pre-draft evaluation, ESPN.com compared Washington to Wagner but noted that Washington's numbers were actually down from his freshman season and questioned whether he was reliable enough to be an NBA point guard. "Washington's decision to stay in the draft could be a very bad idea," the summary concluded.

In the end, the NBA made the same conclusion. He wasn't Wagner, and Washington went undrafted.

He admits now he was equal parts surprised, hurt and confused. But when asked whether he got bad information, he says he didn't. He says he knew what he was getting into, both good and bad, and made the decision he wanted to make.

For a while he tormented himself with one "what if" -- what if he came out right after high school, when he and Telfair were ranked 1 and 1A?

"I think I would have been drafted, and I would have been taught sooner," Washington said. "College didn't hurt, but I will tell you I've learned more and understand the game more now. I think in the pros, everyone has the same goals: They want to win, they have families. In college, not everyone wants the same thing. Some people aren't going to play in the pros, and some don't even take college serious."

But Washington didn't spend a lot of time bemoaning what could have been had he never gone to college or had he stayed in college. His parents wouldn't let him.

"What if he had stayed? Maybe he becomes the second or third pick, or maybe he gets hurt and he's never the same," Washington Sr. said. "My wife and I always tell our kids, 'Every decision you make, there's no looking back. You can't have regrets because you don't know. Be solid in your decision.' I think Darius was."

He didn't know it, but at that moment, Washington stood in the middle of a crossroads. Europe and D-League rosters are littered with guys with overinflated opinions of themselves, too insulted to work hard enough to turn the heads of NBA higher-ups.

Washington could be one of them, a chronic malcontent with a chip on his shoulder.

Or he could grow up.

"How much have I grown up?" Washington said. "A whole lot."

It was not easy at the beginning and isn't always easy now. He was just 19 that first season in Greece, landing in a country where they serve octopus and fish-head soup (complete with eyeballs). A country where he knew no one, didn't speak the language and, worst of all, couldn't even drive.

"The car was a stick, and I didn't how to drive one," Washington said. "I was on the phone to my parents every day."

Eventually Washington Sr. flew over, and together they made their way.

By midseason, Washington had moved on to the Czech Republic, and in 2007, he helped his Cez Basketball Nymburk to the Czech title.

[+] EnlargeDarius Washington
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesWashington played briefly with the Spurs, including a game at the same arena where he played collegiately at Memphis.

Finally in the fall of 2007, Washington got what he had been waiting for -- a chance in the NBA. Added to the Spurs' roster, he flitted between San Antonio's D-League squad and the Spurs, eventually earning an 18-game stay in the NBA.

Those who knew Washington at Memphis were stunned at the changes.

"On one particular play he missed a jumper from the left wing, then sprinted back on defense to deflect a pass that was going to be a sure lay-up," Mike Moreau of HoopsWorld.com wrote of Washington during an October preseason game. "I've never seen him run that hard -- and that's how you make a team. To me for the first time Darius Washington looked like an NBA player. Whether he makes the Spurs roster or not, he has proved he belongs in the league."

But when injured Tony Parker returned in December, Washington, who'd averaged 2.9 points, was released.

Since, it has been constant spins in the hoops rinse cycles, chances with NBA teams in the summers and fall, back to Europe for the season. He was in Russia last season and will be in Turkey this season once he's done playing for Macedonia's national team.

Dual citizenship acquired through years in Europe has made Washington eligible to play for the team, which is competing to earn a spot in the Olympics.

Of course, this particular Macedonian admits he had no idea where the country was a few years ago.

But years in Europe have turned Washington into a citizen of the world. He speaks enough Greek to get by and even has a crew of fans, including some who chased after him while he played in Greece.

More, the years spent in Europe have turned Washington into a man. Still confident -- he says had he stayed at Memphis for four years, he would have hit the free throws that cost the Tigers the 2008 national title -- his confidence is now mixed with a good dose of humility.

"Never did I imagine it would be this hard," he said, "but it only motivates me."

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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