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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Giving Up the U.S. to Play Basketball in Moscow

Fifteen-year-old Lavrenty Klimov packed his luggage last July with everything he thought he would need: two pairs of his favorite sneakers, which he called "keecks"; more T-shirts than he could count; a few warm jackets; some of the admitted bookworm's best reading material; a Russian-to-English dictionary; his CD player; and his favorite music.

"I listen to rap music," he said. "Most of all, I like Tupac Shakur."

Klimov likes basketball more. So he and his mother, a doctor, signed a five-year contract with CSKA Moscow, one of the premier teams in Europe, making Klimov a professional basketball player at an age when most of his U.S. counterparts are still worrying about their place on the varsity team.

"I was ready," he said. "I thought it would be important for me to continue playing basketball in professional way."

If U.S. basketball officials want to understand the challenge they face in restoring the nation's dominance in international play, they need look no further than one blond, shaggy-haired teenager from Yekaterinburg. Klimov left home to enter a player development program that is vastly different from what American children experience.

The U.S. approach has numerous fissures. Shoe-company-sponsored teams, which play with little regard for fundamentals under coaches who work with little or no oversight, dominate youth basketball. Academic integrity, the foundation of the university NCAA system, has been damaged by prep schools that grant eligibility through questionable academic programs.

In foreign countries, completely different approaches are used. And while there still are concerns about aspects of player development systems that resemble trade schools more than colleges or high schools, there is little doubt that players are drilled in fundamentals by coaches who are well trained and, in some countries, accredited.

In Europe, professional teams oversee most of the best young players, who sign contracts at an early age. Italian power Benetton Treviso has about 600 players, some non-pros as young as 8, in its junior program. The French system that produced Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs puts its young players in the National Institute of Sport and Physical Education, a government-run training center in Paris that teaches basketball and also offers a school curriculum.

A tour of facilities late last year in Russia, Serbia and Lithuania, whose teams have defeated the United States in international play, found a mixture of approaches. In Russia, players can either sign with pro teams and join their junior programs or go to basketball schools. Serbian youngsters are most likely to be signed and trained by pro teams, and young Lithuanians have a choice of basketball schools, including two run by former NBA stars. Regardless of the system, the results are undeniable: After the embarrassment of finishing sixth in the 2002 world championships, a recommitted U.S. team could finish no better than third in the Olympics in 2004 and third in the world championships in September. And NBA teams have taken notice: There are a record 83 international players, almost 20 percent of the league, this season.

Klimov had a chance to come to the United States. He had been selected for a foreign-exchange program that would have allowed him to spend a year living with a family and attending high school in North Carolina. But he had played so well at a CSKA basketball camp that team officials had offered him the contract and a place in their junior program. Klimov decided that no matter how strong the lure of the United States, he didn't want to lose an invaluable year of Russian basketball training. So the night Klimov and his mother signed the contract, he hurriedly packed his luggage. A day later, he was in Moscow.

"I knew that it would be hard here," Klimov, now 16, said in an interview in November at the CSKA training facility. "Maybe sometimes I miss my family. I think it's quite normal."

Teenage Professionals

After an hour of weight training and a two-hour practice, the members of CSKA's junior program, none older than 19, tossed on stocking caps and hefty, team-issued, navy-blue bubble coats. They prepared to trudge 10 minutes through light snowfall from team headquarters to their dormitory on the opposite side of Leningradsky Prospekt.

Coping with the brisk temperatures and fumes from the bumper-to-bumper traffic, they walked through an armed CSKA security gate and past a shopping center parking lot. Ignoring the sex shops that line the next block, they climbed a pedestrian bridge and headed down to the dormitory. Lunch and afternoon naps beckoned before they had to return to practice again in six hours.

"I eat, sleep and train," said CSKA point guard Alexei Shved, 18. "I have very little free time. I'm not like the other youth, smoking, drinking. I prefer training. It's better for me to be here."

CSKA -- an acronym for the Central Army Sports Club -- signs players beginning at age 14 to contracts that usually last about five years. CSKA supplies them with room, board and a salary ranging from $300 to $2,000 per month, depending on their progress and play.

Seventeen players on the junior team, aged 15 to 19, live in seven rooms in the dormitory, a terra-cotta-colored building with two square beige columns outside the front door. The CSKA football players are on the third and highest floor, with the basketball players below them. The CSKA boxers, ice skaters and hockey players are elsewhere in the dorm. Shved and Artur Urazmanov live in a furnished apartment a few blocks away, provided by the club.

After plowing through large portions of chicken soup and meatballs with pasta in the dining hall, Klimov took a nap, but teammates Semyon Shashkov and Maxim Zakharov postponed sleep to watch highlights of NBA players LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter on a DVD in the tidy room they share. A few teammates slipped in and grabbed spots on the twin beds or adjacent couch to watch. The players, some in T-shirts from CSKA sponsor Nike, were silent, studying the movements of each player intensely.

"If you look at the basketball aspect, it's great. The players that I've practiced with, I've seen them get better," said CSKA senior team guard and former Duke standout Trajan Langdon, who is in his fifth season playing in Europe and has observed the club systems in Italy and Turkey, as well. "One of the negatives of this experience is that this is all that they do."

The day for most players begins with breakfast and weight training as part of an individual strength program. Donning their red CSKA practice jerseys last month, the players worked more on state-of-the-art weight machines than with the free weights arrayed against one wall. They also did resistance training with large rubber bands as a strength coach looked on.

Players who haven't finished secondary school attend classes three times per week, while every member of the team practices mornings and evenings, a total of 10 times per week, in a gym one floor above the senior team's practice court. Those who have completed secondary school can continue their education through correspondence courses. Shved said he was enrolled in courses at a local college, but with a sheepish chuckle, he couldn't name the course or the school.

"Basically, they are going to college -- basketball college. That's what these farm systems basically are," said CSKA player David Vanterpool, who graduated from a U.S. university and played briefly with the Wizards in 2001. "They don't have those NCAA stipulations. A lot of the arguments in America are about young players losing the ability to mature, losing their education, losing this, losing that. At a time I agreed with it. But seeing the way some of these kids have traditionally learned to grow in a system, I have a big question as to if you lose something by not going to college. Your education never stops. I got a college degree. It's always great to go to college. But I mean the system they have in place, it seems like it's working."

CSKA is backed by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, an avid basketball fan who serves as controlling owner in the nickel enterprise Norilsk Nickel. The club reportedly has a budget of about $38 million, considered extremely high by European standards. The money has paid off: CSKA is the defending Euroleague champion, having made three straight appearances in the final four, and won its third consecutive Euroleague junior championship last April in Prague.

CSKA is affiliated with the Trinta basketball school in Moscow, which works with players beginning at age 7. CSKA also hosts an annual basketball camp where top prospects, such as Klimov, can earn contract offers, and has scouts in each region of the country.

Shved, ranked as a top international player, landed in CSKA's lap. Shved's father, a coach of a junior team in Belgorod, contacted team officials about two years ago and asked them to take a look at his son. CSKA sent two coaches to watch the rail-thin point guard and came away impressed with his playmaking and scoring. Within a week, Shved had moved to Moscow. Now he is the junior team's leading scorer and often invited to practice with the senior team.

CSKA general manager Yury Yurkov said the group selected players based on how well they performed, but that other factors were considered in an attempt to project a player's height: the size of his hands and feet, the height of his parents and grandparents.

The program has produced two players for the senior team since its inception in 2002. And Los Angeles Clippers forward Yaroslav Korolev used rules established by FIBA, basketball's world governing body, to leave CSKA before playing for the senior team and enter the 2005 NBA draft at age 18. He became the highest-ranked Russian ever taken in the draft at No. 12.

Coaching Pipeline

Serbia and Russia have similar player development strategies. Top Serbian pro basketball clubs Red Star and Partizan, which have combined to produce about a dozen NBA players, run youth development programs similar to CSKA's. Players are recruited and signed from different regions, and often their families are moved to Belgrade, with the teams helping the parents find jobs. Players attend regular schools and practice in the evening, sometimes pushing close to midnight on weeknights, based on the availability of floor time because the clubs don't own gyms. It is almost a yearlong commitment, with players and coaches practicing and playing games for all but two weeks of the year .

Critics of the club system throughout Europe worry about smaller, poorer teams profiting off the young players who are developed. Serbia's FMP Zeleznik, which competes one level below the Euroleague, has an average attendance of about 800 at its gym on the outskirts of Belgrade.

FMP states quite plainly that it is in the business of developing and eventually selling players to the highest bidders. Its 200 players receive scholarships, live in dormitories, attend classes and practice twice per day. They have access to a weight room, sauna and a medical center that is used by the Serbian national team. But if a player becomes a star, he won't be around long. Five FMP players, including Mile Ilic, a 7-foot-1 reserve center for the New Jersey Nets, were sold for a reported $3.5 million over the summer. A spokesman said the money from the transactions was invested back into the program.

The one big difference between Serbia and Russia is the emphasis on coaching. You can't take the reins of a team -- at any level -- without a license from the 1,500-member Serbian Coaches Association, which has a training center in Belgrade. Aspiring coaches must train for at least two months, attending classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, to receive a blue license to coach children and work within the low ranks of Serbian basketball. Coaches at higher levels must attend school for two years.

This has put Serbia in the position of exporting players and coaches. In Russia, CSKA junior players are coached by Ratko Joksic, 65, a Serbian with more than 35 years of experience.