An annual rite of passage for over sixty years, the NBA draft takes place Thursday night. It has been much discussed and debated by those looking at the top of the hopes ladder, but also by teams whose only picks lie outside the box. Now that the Finals are over, the discussion will intensify. For the Los Angeles Lakers and those within their worldwide inner circle, the emphasis is on trading up into the first round. Without that, they're consigned to the 60th pick.
Aside from last year's Isaiah Thomas, how hard would it be to go back and research every final pick in NBA draft history? Nobody really cares, except those individuals themselves, and their families. To say they went off the map would be a understatement. Many were never on the map to begin with. As the number of teams ballooned, general managers began something of an inside joke for very late selections - picking overseas players with the most unpronounceable names imaginable, indulging their dreams for a few shining moments, and then tossing them back into the swirling chum.
What ever became of Cenk Akyol, Andreas Gyniadakis, Miolvan Rakovic, Damir Markota, Uros Slokar, Sergei Karaulova, Miladen Sekularac, Robertas Javokas, Igor Rakcevic, and so many others? They returned overseas after their questionable moments in the NBA sun. Most continued to play, earning a living, chasing the dream.
This year could be different, but it probably won’t. Still, there’s a dark horse candidate being whispered about, yet another obscure Euroleague player with a dream and a difficult past. Kiovanic Atomik was the product of a troubled relationship; a mother from Ingushetia, and a father from South Ossetia. His mom was an activist, his dad was a soldier. And each became caught up in longstanding regional conflicts that ultimately outweighed their love for each other, and tore their family apart.
Like many kids, Kiovanic’s escape has been sports. It’s not so easy in war torn countries to go to the gym, to be on a team, to travel freely. Raised primarily by relatives, he managed to navigate the shoals. Kiovanic had a brief introduction to the public during the civil war in Ingushetia, when his neighborhood was shelled by Russian forces. He began a conversation through twitter, which at the time was coming into its own as a social media platform. The descriptions of war in 160 characters or less found resonance until government forces prevailed. The account disappeared from public record, and Kiovanic himself escaped the country and went on to play basketball in the Adriatic league.
None of that matters to NBA decision makers, or at least, it may not matter this year. Atomik possesses specific basketball skills that could actually pay off. He’s a 6-9 point guard with raw athleticism and a singular feel for the amazing pass. He’s a streaky shooter, gambles too often on the defensive end, and is prone to turnovers. But those who have seen him play, talk about his uncanny ability to facilitate for others, and to read nearly impossible situations.
The Los Angeles Lakers are in dire need of backcourt help, and are severely constrained by the new CBA. If they can find their way into the first round, there are tangible solutions. If not, they’re left with the most meager of consolation prizes and cannot afford to toss even that aside. Last summer, Kiovanic Atomik, like many kids from other countries, managed to get a temporary work visa. He found employment at a Cumberland Farms convenience store in Harwich, Massachusetts, roomed with six other kids, and took part in a summer circuit basketball league where he demolished the competition. Atomik was invited to a basketball camp and astounded grizzled observers who thought they’d seen it all. He had to return to Europe the next day.
A year has passed. Kiovanic has continued to improve his fundamentals, playing for Montepaschi Siena, and DC Donbasket. This time, scouts have followed him more closely, especially Antonio Maceiras from the Los Angeles Lakers. Atomik returned to the U.S. and has taken part in a few of the draft combines. Like many other overseas prospects, he’s on the bubble and will probably never play in the NBA. Maceiras recently observed however, that Kio as his friends call him, is one of the most cerebral, intuitive players that he has ever watched.
A search for the holy grail can be many things to many people. To some it may not even qualify as such. To a parent it can be paying down a sequence of bills that looks like the hydra, to a student it can be a love affair. To a writer, it may be searching for a way home to an elusive concept that became forever buried under things discovered along the way. And for a basketball player who’s completely off the map, it can be the quest for something more, a ticket away from heartbreak, war, poverty, dysfunction, or cyclical bias. It’s the search for fame and fortune, and sometimes, freedom.
There is a place where fantasy ends and reality begins. On draft night, dozen of players that you actually know exist, who have not been invited to the ceremony, and who have received no promises, will sit in front of TV sets and watch and wait. Some will be with family and friends, and some will be alone. To the Kio Atomiks of the world, best wishes for success, wherever you may find it.