N.Y. Native Restless in Russia

CskaMcCants says playing for CSKA Moscow is "just a stepping stone to bigger things."
Curtis McCants is sitting at a corner table in Maxima Pizza, one of his favorite spots in Moscow, having "the usual" -- a margarita pizza and a glass of orange juice.

He's wearing Nike sports gear and a New York baseball cap tipped sideways. The six-foot American point guard for the CSKA Moscow basketball team also wears a scowl when he talks to the waiter. Within five minutes of conversation, it becomes clear why. McCants is less than thrilled to be in Moscow.

He's certain he's supposed to be someplace else.

In 1997, after fumbling his chance to be drafted to the NBA for fighting in his junior year, McCants was recruited into European pro basketball. Since then, he has signed up to play with teams in Israel, Ukraine and France. He arrived in Moscow at the end of August.

Playing basketball in Europe has treated McCants well, for the most part. And, according to McCants, CSKA is the most talented and highest paying team he's played for so far. But cultural barriers, especially those in Kiev and Moscow, and an ongoing sense of missed opportunity have resulted in serious growing pains for McCants over the last four years.

McCants grew up in Queens, New York, where he lived with his mother, sister and grandmother.

After high school, he spent three years playing basketball at George Mason University in Virginia. McCants did well and felt like he was on track to recruitment for the NBA. But his track changed when he received a one-year suspension for fighting.

When McCants realized he would not be drafted to the NBA, he turned his sights toward Europe. In 1997, with the help of basketball agent Marc Fleisher, McCants signed up to play for Israeli team Hapoel Tel Aviv.

McCants had never before traveled overseas when he moved to Europe.

The prevalence of the English language and American-style restaurants and stores made acclimating to life in Tel Aviv relatively easy, says McCants. But adjusting to life in the Ukraine proved much more difficult.

When he moved there to play for BC Kiev in 1999, McCants was overwhelmed by the language barrier. And as a black American, McCants stood out, both on and off the court.

"In Moscow, it's a little easier to blend in, but in Kiev everyone knew who I was," says McCants. "They knew I had money, so the police would pull me over all the time for bogus things."

Unfamiliar with the subtle art of bribery, McCants had an encounter with the police soon after his arrival that landed him in jail. Officers stopped him one night on his way home from an internet cafe, told him he was without all his necessary documents and demanded he pay a $100 fine.

When he refused, the officers threw him in a holding cell. For four hours he requested to make a telephone call, he says, and for four hours the police refused.

"The experience taught me that the police don't play over here," says McCants. "They beat the shit out of everyone they threw in there. No human rights. No lawyers. I saw them hog-tie one guy. They tied his hands to his feet and beat him."

Eventually McCants was allowed to place a telephone call to the owner of his team, who immediately demanded his release.

France, his third overseas destination, was McCants' favorite. The two teams he played for were on the smaller side, but McCants was happy to be in a country with a good basketball reputation and Western ways.

He first played for Olympique d'Antibes, where he ranked first in the league for points per game, and then Paillade Montpellier, where he ranked first for assists per game.

Although he loved France, McCants didn't hesitate when he was given the opportunity to move to Moscow to play for CSKA. "It was just a stepping stone to bigger things," he says.

The most significant thing about signing up with CSKA for McCants was that it gave him his first chance to play in the prestigious EuroLeague. McCants is hoping that broader competition and broader exposure will help him increase his chances of recruitment to the NBA.

He's playing better now, but McCants got off to a slow start in the beginning of the season.

"I'm used to playing for middle-level teams that always depend on Americans," he says. "In the past I've felt like I always need to go out and score 30 points. It's not like that here. We have 10 guys who can score 30 points. And the other point guard is no slouch. It's been hard to adjust to not having the game depend on me."

Other elements of his new team have proved strange too, like the fact that he doesn't know who the owner is. All McCants knows is that the owner is associated with a bank.

"My money is in my account, says McCants. "I don't know where it comes from, but it's legal."

Outside the basketball arena, McCants struggles with the Russian language and attitude, a lack of good friends and, like all Muscovites, the traffic.

"It's dreary over here all the time," he says. "I think that puts everyone in a bad mood. They've got old ladies here who curse me out. I'm like, old lady, put a smile on your face."

McCants is not dating anyone seriously.

"I do what I've got to do," is the extent to which he describes his love life.

And "They're crazy," is about all McCants will say when asked what he thinks of Russian women.

Despite the distance from his family and friends, McCants tries to maintain an optimistic attitude and a focus on his goals of playing for a big Western European team and eventually the NBA. He says he'd even be willing to stay in Moscow if the price was right.

Still, it's evident that pangs of longing for home creep up more than McCants would like.

"The hardest thing is seeing my friends in the NBA," he says. "It's not necessarily about the money. I mean I've got everything I want. My mom is taken care of, my daughter lives good. It's just difficult to see my friends on TV playing well and knowing that I'm supposed to be there."