Langdon wins Euroleague Final Four MVP

MADRID, Spain -- Suddenly, as Trajan Langdon collected his MVP trophy from former Real Madrid legend Walter Szczerbiak and the 2,500 fans who had made the long journey from Moscow began their delirious celebrations, it all made perfect sense.

Some 3,500 miles away in Langdon's homeland, Szczerbiak's son, Wally, is in the middle of a playoff run with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the very team Langdon left after three injury-plagued, largely unfulfilling years.

Sunday night in Madrid, Langdon's decision to build a new life, a new career for himself on a different continent and in a country so far from home, turning his back on every young American ballers' dream in the process, looked inspired.

Winner of his second Euroleague Final Four in three years, Langdon's 21 points and seven rebounds made him the MVP of an ultimately comfortable 91-77 victory for CSKA Moscow over Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv at Madrid's Palacio de Deportes.

"This is top two," said Langdon when asked to rank the performance among his career highlights, which also featured a 1999 NCAA Final Four appearance with Duke. "The one we won two years ago in Prague was just as big, but every time you win a championship, they just get better."

Tellingly, and understandably, Langdon made no reference to basketball highlights from his "other" life, from home on the other side of the Atlantic.

"Home" for Langdon is now Russia, and despite several NBA scouts' analysis this weekend that the 31-year-old (32 next week) could easily still be a solid player in their league, the 6-foot-3 guard admits the thought no longer crosses his mind.

"A couple of years ago I did," Langdon said when asked if he thought of returning home and trying to catch on with an NBA team. "Now I realize this is where I am. I've been successful here, I've been very blessed to be successful here.

"I've had the opportunity to play at a high level here in Europe for a long time, with a great organization, with great people. I've gained experiences I never would have if I had stayed in the NBA.

"Would it have been great to stay in the NBA and have a long, successful career there? Sure. But I've been blessed to have this opportunity."

As for the simple question as to whether his NBA life is over? "As a player? Yes," Langdon said. "Obviously, post-career, we will see what happens. But as a player, my calling is over here and I enjoy it. It is a place I can come, where I'm respected as a player in terms of the success I've had."

That respect is all the greater following his efforts this weekend, but not even Langdon could claim he had emerged from a memorable Final Four as the weekend's biggest winner.

That title, surely, belonged to his brilliant coach, Ettore Messina, who moved into second place on the list of winningest coaches in Euroleague history with his fourth title. He trails only the great Zeljko Obradovic,
who has won six, including a victory over Messina and CSKA in last year's final with Greece's Panathinaikos.

A humble, approachable 48-year-old Italian, who conducts his news conferences in three or four languages, Messina had two major inspirations -- or arguably, distractions -- coming to Madrid.

Only weeks ago, his younger brother Attilio lost a short and tragic battle against stomach cancer, which took a dreadful toll on Ettore, 48. Then, Messina also found his own future under intense scrutiny as, with his contract in Moscow expiring, he became the most wanted coach in Europe.

The consensus was that Messina would land at FC Barcelona this summer -- Sunday morning's Spanish media were still describing that as a done deal. But hours before the final's tip-off, Messina announced he has signed a one-year extension with CSKA, keeping the news from his players for fear it might distract them or inspire Maccabi in some way.

"For me, it was a great honor that CSKA waited for me," said Messina, who has confessed to having informal dialogue with NBA teams in recent years about possible employment. "Secondly, it was a great honor that they wanted to do this agreement before the game.

"It would have been extremely easy to offer me an extension after I won the title. It would have been easy to think, 'He's staying and getting a lot of money because they won the title.' I have received a lot of respect from this club. Besides the strength of the players, the strength of the budget, the way they run this club and the organization is the best thing for me."

As for his personal anguish, Messina excused himself 10 seconds from the end to join his family behind the Moscow bench. "It was my thing," he explained. "I just wanted to go to my family.

"I told the players and coaches when there were 10 seconds left, 'I want to go to my family.' I dreamed of that moment. It doesn't give anything back to us as a family, but, you understand, it was important for me."

On basketball matters, Messina also made special mention of former Bucknell guard J.R. Holden, whose 14 points included back-to-back 3-pointers which opened the second half and pushed a one-point interval lead into a 48-41 cushion that was never seriously threatened again.

Holden, despite having never played in the NBA and having started his career in Latvia and Belgium, has now played in six consecutive Final Fours with CSKA and, as an adopted Russian, hit the winning basket against Spain in the final of Eurobasket 2007 on this very floor eight months ago.

The CSKA coach might also have made mention of Australian forward David Andersen, whose 13 points all seemed to come at important points in the game: a 3-pointer capped a 14-6 run, including seven points from Andersen himself, at the start of that pivotal third period.

Andersen's versatility and a back-to-basket game, which bordered on the unstoppable at times, should have been duly noted by the Atlanta Hawks, who own his rights and are in talks with his agent currently about a possible move to the NBA.

As for other players with an eye on the NBA, Tau Ceramica's Tiago Splitter's 17 points in the 83-79 semifinal loss to CSKA will have impressed watching San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford. The Brazilian forward's place in the Spurs camp was already assured, so this will have done his chances of making the roster no harm.

As for Sunday's losers -- although calling Maccabi "losers" given that they were appearing at a record 10th Final Four and their seventh since the turn of the decade seems a little harsh -- the form of Omri Casspi will have stood out for the numerous NBA personnel in attendance.

In the 92-85 semifinal victory over Italy's Montepaschi Siena, the 6-7 forward started but lasted just four nervous minutes before being removed by coach Zvika Sherf, never to return.

In the final, Sherf boldly kept the potential NBA draftee in his starting lineup and Casspi responded by scoring five of his team's first seven points, including a strong three-point play. Casspi, 19, finished with nine points in 12 minutes and, surely, a place on the draft boards of NBA teams.

"He is under 20, it is his first Final Four, it is his first season in the team," Sherf said. "At the start of the season, he was so-so but he improved a little bit, more than a little bit.

"Lately he has been in the first five and tonight he was very, very good in the beginning. He made some mistakes, mistakes of inexperience, but I think Israeli basketball and Maccabi Tel Aviv are bringing up a very important and talented player who can be a good player in European basketball.

"He has also put himself in the draft and the results of the draft, if he goes to the NBA or not, we will know in the next month."

And if Casspi's declared dream of becoming the first Israeli to play in the NBA fails to materialize, he need only ask Langdon.

Making a career in Europe is not a bad alternative.

Ian Whittell covers basketball for The Times of London.