By Chris Sheridan
VILNIUS, Lithuania — The second-leading scorer remaining at EuroBasket is an American with a Macedonian passport, a player whose home in New Orleans was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, a point guard who never once got off the bench during the entire 2008 NBA summer league in Las Vegas when he was trying out for the Sacramento Kings.
“He’s the best point guard in Europe right now,” said his agent, Eric Fleisher, “and the entire NBA ignored him, which was a huge mistake.”
That player is Bo McCalebb, a 26-year product of the University of New Orleans who has been playing professionally in Europe for the past three years, leading Partizan Belgrade (Serbia) and Montepaschi Siena (Italy) into the EuroLeague Final Four in each of the past two seasons.
On Thursday, he scored the final two of his 27 points on an isolation play just before the final buzzer, driving into the lane for a short bank shot that gave Macedonia a 65-63 victory over Georgia that all but assured a spot in the quarterfinals for the most surprising team in the tournament thus far.
McCalebb is averaging 21.7 points, second among players remaining in the tournament behind Tony Parker of France (22.7).
Luol Deng of Great Britain (24.6) and Andrea Bargnani of Italy (22.8) have higher averages, but both of their teams were ousted from the tournament in the first round.
“He’s got the biggest set of balls of any kid I’ve ever seen, and he’s the most competitive kid I’ve ever seen,” Fleisher said of McCalebb, who will enter the second season of a three-year contract with Montepaschi when the European season begins this fall.
McCalebb said he has not given up on the thought of playing in the NBA, but there is no mistaking the bitterness in his voice when he talks about how his opportunities didn’t pan out in the United States because he was deemed too small (he is listed at 6 feet) to be a shooting guard and not a good enough of a ballhandler to be a pure point guard.
His most vivid memory of his pre-draft workout with the New Orleans Hornets in 2008 was coach Byron Scott telling him he “didn’t talk enough on the court,” and the disgust with which he recalled that conversation was in stark contrast to his tone when speaking of his time in Turkey, Serbia and Italy and how it feels to play in front of such passionate crowds.
The victory Thursday came on a national holiday in Macedonia, the 20th anniversary of the landlocked nation’s Declaration of Independence from Yugoslavia.
“I’m sure they’re celebrating in the streets of Skopje right now,” McCalebb said.
Aggrey Sam wrote the definitive profile of McCalebb for Slam Magazine in May, 2010, and Fleischer recounted a story of how McCalebb made a verbal commitment to Oklahoma State and was planning a party on the night he expected to sign — only to receive a phone call from the school just before the party was to start telling him they were withdrawing his athletic scholarship.
But that was just the start of McCalebb’s difficulties after a stellar senior season at Walker High School, where he once scored 78 points in a game as a senior when he was being recruited by LSU, Mississippi, Southern Cal and Wisconsin
In 2005, his family’s home in New Orleans’ Westbank section was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, his college program at the UNO had to relocate to Tyler, Texas, and several Division I schools tried to lure him away from the University of New Orleans, where he stayed and became the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year his junior season and the defensive player of the year in his senior season. Former UNO coach Buzz Williams, now the head coach at Marquette, has called McCalebb the best player he has ever coached.
McCalebb gained a Macedonian passport two Augusts ago through connections between his team in Siena and the Macedonian basketball federation, and in this tournament he has led his team to five consecutive victories over Croatia, Greece, Finland, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia after his team lost its first game of the first round against Montenegro.
“I’m here right now. I’m not thinking about the NBA,” said McCalebb, who said his buyout with Siena would cost more than $1 million. “Maybe in a couple of years, but I’ve got my career in Europe and that’s all I’m thinking about right now.”
On the final play against Georgia after Nikoloz Tskitishvili tied the game 63-63 on two free throws with 16.3 seconds left, the Macedonians drew up an inbounds play to get the ball into the hands of McCalebb. It took two extra passes and a near-5 second violation for the ball the reach its intended target, and McCalebb then dribbled the clock down before going to his left, zipping into the lane and converting the game-winner.
“We didn’t want them to get a chance to get the last shot,” he said. “I waited until the last 5 seconds, and then I just tried to go in there and score, and I did.”
Macedonia is now tied atop Group F (the weaker of the two remaining five-team groups) with Russia, which must face Greece in its next game before playing Macedonia (which plays Slovenia on Saturday) in the final game of Round 2 on Monday night.
If the Macedonians win out, they would play in the quarterfinals against the fourth-place team from Group E (likely Serbia, Turkey or Germany) when the tournament moves to the city of Kaunas in the middle of next week.