Trajan’s Reign in the Third Rome
As basketball season begins, the 2007-08 European champions Moscow CSKA (pronounced tse-SKA) are gearing up for another successful run. For the fourth year, Trajan Langdon will be in CSKA’s starting line-up, this time as the reigning MVP of the Euroleague’s Final Four. He sat down with Passport to talk about his journey from the courts of the NCAA to Leningradsky Prospekt, basketball in Europe, Russian traffic cops, and life in Moscow.
Text Isabelle Hale
Photos courtesy CSKA
“Omlet so shpinatom i pomidorami,” Trajan Langdon says easily to the waitperson, placing his order in comfortable Russian at a cozy brunch spot in the center of Moscow.
“It keeps the brain working. That’s how I look at it,” he says of the welcome mental exercise of studying Russian, which he’s been doing for the last couple of years.
Because of the team’s international composition, the lingua franca on the court is English. In addition to Langdon and his countryman, J.R. Holden (see profile in August 2008 issue of Passport), there are players from Greece, Italy, Slovenia, and Australia, along with Russians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians.
But, Langdon notes, for players, the sport’s own system of communication transcends potential language barriers: “Even if you can’t communicate a single word in terms of speech, if you understand the game of basketball, communication is very easy. You don’t really need to say anything. Or if you do, you can do it with hand motions or with your eyes. Off the court, it’s a lot more diffi cult, for sure.”
After graduating from Duke University, Langdon played for the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers for three years before moving to Europe to play, first in Italy for Benetton Treviso and then for Turkey’s Efes Pilsen. He won championships with both European clubs.
When Russian teams started calling, he admitted that he wasn’t too keen on the idea of moving here. “I kept saying, ‘There’s no way I’m going to Russia,’” he recalled, citing stories circulating in the States at the time that compared Moscow to Al Capone’s Chicago. He readily says he never considered coming to Russia as anything other than a tourist.
But in the end he upped and gave it a try, and he’s glad he did. It was another Moscow team, Dynamo, who fi rst brought him to Russia, in November 2004. For Langdon, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, the long, dark winters were nothing new. And fans who knew where he was from immediately felt a special affinity for him, sometimes telling him “you’re really a Russian,” referring to Russia’s colonial presence in the territory that is today’s Alaskan peninsula.
He appreciates the joke — and the flattery intended by it. “It’s hard to get Russians to accept you. They have to trust you, and they have to respect you, and it’s those two things together that earn them opening up to you. That’s one thing that I learned right away. Obviously, when you get accepted into any culture, it feels nice.” He’s been struck, he says, by the warmth and emotionalism of Russian culture. “I think Americans don’t know that about Russia and Russians.”
As is often the case when moving to a new country, the road was a little bumpy at the beginning. “The main problems were just like any new place would be, learning where to go, if I go to the store, is the meat OK, why are there cigarettes on the menu… So basically, I ate out all the time. It took me a while to figure out where to go, where to shop, what to eat…”
And then there’s the driving. In his second year in Moscow, when he had made the move to CSKA, he decided to forego the driver and get behind the wheel himself. “I got pulled over a ton that year, literally over 40-50 times. It was incredible, how many times I got pulled over. I called my team manager every time because I couldn’t speak the language at that point.”
Of his European adventures and living in Moscow, Langdon says, “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t trade a ten-year NBA career for it.”
The environment on the court required some getting used to as well. Of the differences between the European leagues and the NBA, Langdon says the European game is more teamoriented while in the U.S. it is more focused on the individual. “The NBA is about entertainment, it’s about making money. They get 15-20 thousand fans a night, and they have to please them. Here, it’s just all about winning. Some games you might have 100 people in the stands.”
He also commented on the power that is concentrated in the coach on the European court. “Here the coach has all the power. He makes all the decisions. Players really don’t have power. So it’s more like a college game, just with professional players who are experienced.”
And in Europe, the coach is the top moneymaker. In contrast, in the NBA “you’ll have several players on the team making more money than the coach, maybe sometimes half the team will make more money than the coach makes. But the game itself and the way it’s run here is similar to a college atmosphere, especially off the court. I’ve played for strict coaches: When you’re off the court you have to be in at this time, you stay at the hotel the night before the games. In the NBA, you show up at the gym, you play your game, and beyond that, you do what you want.”
Of differences in the rules, he said the adjustment wasn’t too diffi cult, though he did cite traveling calls and the rule where the player can’t call a timeout as some of the bigger discrepancies between the American and European games that took some getting used to.
In addition to the changes Trajan has made during his time in Moscow, he’s noticed some changes in the city itself as well. “I think that they’re really trying to tighten things up. You can see them putting more effort into keeping the streets clean, doing construction to make things more efficient in the city, and the plan to end gambling inside the city limits. They’re trying to make the city more cosmopolitan, and I think they’ve succeeded — it’s growing a lot, in part because of all the attention it’s gotten recently about the concentration of wealth here and how high the prices are. I think it’s become a more appealing city in the four years that I’ve been here.”
Langdon has also noticed that basketball’s popularity is on the rise in Russia: There seem to be more fans, he gets recognized more often, and the sport gets more media coverage. He attributes that increased attention to CSKA’s success in recent seasons. He admits, however, that basketball will never rival football in popularity here.
Nowadays he confesses to really loving Moscow, both the city and the basketball club. “The city is a lot bigger and has a lot more to offer than I thought. For example, the restaurants here — they’re going to kill your wallet — but there are some great restaurants, and they keep popping up and the quality is very high.”
“I’ve been surprised at how important family is to Russians, and therefore you can have a really nice park right in the middle of the city, where you can walk the dog or go for a stroll with the kids. It’s great. The more you drive around, the more you see it. Another thing I like is that you can live whatever life you want. You can go out at four in the morning or stay inside, go to a restaurant or order food to the house — it might take three hours to get there, but there is a choice. I like the different options that are here. Obviously, being here and being able to travel around Europe has been amazing — I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t trade a ten-year NBA career for it.”
“The amount of time and money you’d have to spend to be able to have the experience I’ve had in Europe and in Russia, there’s no way I’d be able to do that, even after a long career. It’s something I’ll cherish and never forget.”
For CSKA’s season schedule and ticket information, visit www.cskabasket.com (English and Russian).