EVERYBODY’S talking about where everybody’s going. This one’s going here. This one’s going there. Grant Hill’s going to Orlando. Jamal Mashburn’s going to Charlotte. Eddie Jones is going to Miami.

And Chucky Atkins is coming to Detroit. Oh, maybe that doesn’t make the same headlines as those other guys. Atkins doesn’t care. He is happy. No, he’s thrilled. Because his story is less about where he’s going than where he has been.

Let’s talk tanks. Let’s talk guns. Let’s talk military presence. Let’s talk buildings with bullet holes. Fans throwing bricks.

This is part of the Chucky Atkins story, part of the serpentine trail that kept him following the bouncing ball. Unlike Hill, McGrady, Mashburn and other high-flying NBA stars, Atkins, a slithery, 5-foot-11 point guard, went undrafted out of the University of South Florida. Advisers told him “first or second round” — but draft day came and he received no call.

So Chucky Atkins flew to Vancouver, as a free agent, and tried out for the Grizzlies. And before he got cut, he thought western Canada was as far away as a Florida kid could go to play basketball.

He was wrong.

A year later, after a stint in the CBA, he found himself flying over the ocean and landing in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, a place where, just a few years earlier, Serbian missiles were blowing up buildings and killing people.

Chucky was there to play ball.

“That’s where the opportunity was,” he says.

And so Atkins took his place on a team called Cibona Zagreb — as the only non-Croatian on the roster.

He did what he had to do. He learned the rules of the European game. He learned to wait until the coach was done instructing his players in Croatian and was ready to tell him the plays in English.

And, as time passed, and weeks turned to months, he learned something else.

It’s called perspective.

Fearing for his life

“There was this time when we went to play a team in Yugoslavia,” he recalls.
“It was the most scared I’ve ever been for my life.

“We had four police cars escorting our team bus. There were people outside the arena when we got there, yelling that we’d never get back home alive.

“During the game, you couldn’t believe the things that went on. People throwing things. Screaming things. Lighting things on fire.

“We won the game, and I wasn’t sure how we were gonna get out. They lit trash cans. They threw bricks at our bus and smashed the windows.

“The other guys on my team — every one of them has been in the army. They told me about the history of the (Serbian-Croatian) war there.”

He shakes his head.

“It makes you appreciate this country, I’ll tell you that.”

Chucky Atkins was like a lot of other young men growing up on American basketball courts. He gave little thought to world events. He didn’t spend much time worrying about who was slaughtering whom half a world away.

But when life grabs you by the back of the neck, you cannot look away. For two years, Atkins played in Croatia. He went to other cities and saw the ravages of war. He heard the talk that enemies talk. He saw people rebuild lives out of destruction.

He did not live in poverty, the way many in that country do. But he lived in an apartment building in Zagreb, and he shopped where the people shopped and he ate what the people ate — even if he couldn’t pronounce it.

“One time we had a party, like a barbecue, and they cooked a sheep,” he says.

A sheep?

“Yep, on a spit. You know, like we cook a chicken?”

Were you put off?

“No, no. I had some. It was good.”

A broader view of world from abroad

After two years, Atkins made it back to the United States. He hooked on with Orlando last season, and had a productive year as a backup, averaging 9.5 points and 3.7 assists. He made the all-rookie second team.

Of course, “rookie” is a relative term.

“Not getting drafted into the NBA was maybe the most disappointing day of my life,” says Atkins, 25, “but it also made me hungry.”

And that hunger, which took him around the world, has now landed him in Detroit. He is about to sign his first multiyear contract, for major league money. Don’t tell him about snow. Don’t tell him about the competition he’ll face with the Pistons at point guard. They cooked a sheep on a spit, remember?

“What do you miss about the Croatian team?” I ask him.

“I miss,” he says, the way players always do, “my friends. I miss the guys on the team.”

Which is nice, considering that, had it not been for a disappointment, he never would have known those guys existed, never would have seen their country, never would have developed a compassion for their conflict.

You follow the bouncing ball, and it takes you to worlds you never dreamed of. If you’re lucky, those worlds make you a better person. And, if you’re really lucky, you get to go home.

Lucky Chucky signs a contract later this week. And you can bet he’ll be smiling when he does, a smile big enough to spread across the ocean.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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