Hard lessons in basketball politics

December, 20, 2013
12/20/13
10:35
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Almost exactly three years ago Orien Greene was featured on TrueHoop. He's a fringe NBA guard who made an impression on some NBA coaches not with his resume or reputation, but his doggedness, strength, size and handle when it was time to play. "I was the guy," he says, "who would arrive at the workout with nobody knowing my name, but then when it was over, they'd want to keep me."

Danny Ainge saw him work out once and begged him not to work out for anybody else. The Celtics drafted Greene with the 53rd pick of the 2005 NBA draft.

Greene's 30 now, and there's no good reason he couldn't still be in the NBA. He isn't exactly a lights-out shooter, but he still has all the size, strength and mindset that people liked. If nothing else, he's the kind of player D-League GMs cherish.

But off the court he has become one sad complication after another, mostly of his own doing. And as a result he's a 30-year-old guy with a head full of riddles of the international power struggle between FIBA and the NBA and a yearning to pay the bills of his growing family by playing basketball just about anywhere in the world.

His problem is that he has been banned by FIBA for the better part of four years, and nobody seems to know much about exactly when, or indeed if, that ban will end.

Here's just one of the things Greene screwed up: He says he used to smoke marijuana, but doesn't anymore. To get around drug tests while playing in Amsterdam, he had a system of submitting urine that wasn't his own to the drug testers. He collected, he says, urine from three different clean people. And for a while it worked. But then it failed in various different fancy ways. As his time with the team was coming to an end, he took a drug test himself, with his own urine, and failed. Then, in the months that followed, somehow the sports' governing body figured out that other samples hadn't been his. There were interrogations, implications, some confessions.

"I didn't want to cooperate with nothing," Greene says. "One who was pissing for me, we didn't get along, so I told them his name. But I protected the two other guys. They put pressure on this other guy, and he kind of folded on me."

So they had Greene implicating one accomplice, and a different one confessing. You can see how FIBA felt they had to drop the hammer. "That kind of spiraled," Greene says, "into 'We don't want you to play nowhere.'"

In 2010, Greene was suspended for two years, backdated to 2009. But 2013 is almost over now, and he's still banned.

FIBA manages all kinds of difficult things, from the rules of international competitions to the transfer of players between countries. The NBA itself is not subject to FIBA jurisdiction, but the two bodies have staked out certain truces -- for instance NBA players play in FIBA-governed contests like the Olympics and World Championships, and the NBA won't let its teams go after players under contract in FIBA-governed leagues.

Which brings us to Greene's suspension, which seems to fall into a confusing gray area between the NBA and FIBA. Several times since Greene left Amsterdam, he has been "cleared to play" by different teams, including in the D-League, as he has been told at various times by any number of agents, lawyers, officials and advisors. There has been communication with FIBA itself in the form of various phone calls and emails that Greene can rattle off from memory. Put it all together and you get repeated instances of Greene being told he was cleared to play, then playing, and then later learning that he was never supposed to have played, had offended FIBA rules by playing. This is how his ban has lasted so long.

He has one story after another. He thought he couldn't play in the D-League, and knew he would have to go through some kind of background check to clear him to play. So when the Utah Flash wanted to add him to the roster for a playoff run a few years ago his thought was "Well, that ain't going to happen. I stayed home."

But then Drew Sellers, president of the now-defunct Utah Flash, told Greene he was cleared to play and picked him up at his house personally. Greene had a good game, the Flash won, and all seemed well in the world.

Then Greene learned FIBA was not cool with any of that, and his ban would be extended further.

There was another time he had a deal to play in China. The arrangement was that someone would meet him at the airport with his first paycheck. It seemed like he'd have real money to pay for his little children, something that gnaws at him. But instead of being met by someone with money, he was met instead by someone with a note from FIBA saying he was not cleared to play. He stayed a week trying to get it resolved, before returning home as frustrated as you can imagine.

Greene says that at one point a FIBA official told Greene the date his ban would end. Greene waited past that date, signed a deal, and then was told his ban had not in fact ended, and that the official he has spoken to was no longer at FIBA, and that his ban would be extended.

That's his story, these days. His professional life, for the last year and a half, has been nothing but one long ban extension, punctuated by a tournament now and again in the Middle East, which falls beyond the control of FIBA.

How does it all end? Who knows? But Greene says that in the interim, he has seriously downgraded his expectations. When we spoke three years ago, he was all about returning to the NBA. Now Greene says "I'm just focused on paying the bills, playing anywhere I can, 'cause I have kids now."

There are a lot of different ways basketball dreams wind down. Injury, age, bad luck. But this one, where the central challenge of his past few years has been not drug tests, nor bans, but finding out if he truly is banned or not ... that just doesn't seem like it should be a way to go down.

Henry Abbott | email

TrueHoop, NBA

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