Calderon has created a buzz in NBA circles

MIKE KOREEN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:15 AM ET

At first, it was overwhelming for Jose Calderon.

The moment he had waited for -- training camp with the Raptors -- arrived in October and the painful headaches wouldn't go away for the unlikely new NBA player from small-town Spain.

"When I was in training camp, I could practise, but it was like I was alone," said Calderon, whose English was extremely limited at the time.

"I was an outsider. It was too difficult because I couldn't express what I needed. I was not tired in my legs, but I was tired in my mind."

These days, however, the rookie point guard can smile when recalling his first work week in North America. You don't make the journey from Villanueva de la Serena -- a 25,000-person town rich in melons, tomatoes and rice -- to the best basketball league in the world without overcoming a few obstacles.

In an ugly Raptors season, Calderon, 24, has emerged as a feel-good story on and off the court. He has improved his English dramatically by taking the subway to occasional three-hour, one-on-one lessons with an instructor. He and his wife, Ana, have embraced Toronto and want to buy a place here -- they currently are renting a modest two-bedroom condo near the Eaton Centre -- so they can spend time in the city in the off-season. And most importantly, he has elevated his game on the court. The classic-style point guard (he is no Rafer Alston) was promoted to the starting lineup just 15 games into the season.

Not bad for a guy who is all but playing for free this season. Calderon, who might have been an afterthought for the Raptors if draft pick Roko Ukic had negotiated a contract with Toronto, spent about $2 million of his own money to gain his release from Tau Ceramica in Spain. That is about the same amount of money he receives in the first year of his three-year deal with the Raptors. Ukic, coincidentally, signed with Tau Ceramica and now is injured.

"You can't always think about money," said Calderon, one of only two players from Spain (the other is Memphis Grizzlies star Pau Gasol) in the NBA. "You could have $2 million more and play in Europe or have $2 million less and play in the NBA. But I don't play for the money, I want to play in the NBA for the best experience. I lost $2 million, but in a few years this is nothing."

The son of an ex-professional basketball player in Spain, Calderon moved 800 kilometres away from home at the age of 13 to attend a sports school, sponsored by Tau Ceramica, in urban Vitoria. This experience, an unusual one for a teenager, was as eye-opening as his transition to Toronto.

"I had never gone out of my city," Calderon said. "That first year was hard. My parents come to visit me all weekend. Big city, new school, too different for me. I was homesick. The first year was terrible."

But little by little, things became easier. He went "slowly, step by step," and progressed on the court. Calderon was a part of Spain's gold-medal winning European championship junior team in 1998. He started his professional career in the second-division in Spain in 1999 and played three seasons with lower-ranked teams before moving on to Tau Ceramica for three seasons. Each off-season, he returned home and that's where he met Ana, 29. Ana's younger sister, Ines, who lives with Calderon and Ana in Toronto, grew up with Calderon and helped set up the romance.

Calderon, who also played for Spain at the world championship in 2002 and the Olympics in 2004, on GM's Rob Babcock's target list in the off-season. When Ukic spurned signed in Spain, it might have been a blessing by disguise.

Calderon's North American agent, Mike Cound, a former Spanish professor at American universities, has helped representing the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder since his late teenage years. The deal to come to Toronto wasn't simple.

"He's taken a massive pay cut to be honest with you," Cound said. "I don't want to give you the impression he's in the poor house, but there was a real commitment on his part to wanting to come here."

During their discussions, Cound and Babcock determined English lessons were essential for a player the Raptors would entrust to run the offence.

They signed him up at a location near Bloor and Yonge and, like Matt (the Red Rocket) Bonner from a year ago, Calderon has been a regular on the subway. Never afraid to show his emotions on the court, Calderon has become a fan favourite and draws nice applause whenever he enters games. The recognition spreads beyond the Air Canada Centre to the underground TTC system.

"The first time I go, nobody stops you," Calderon said. "Now, its unbelievable. Everybody's saying: 'Hey, Jose.' It's very nice. The people are nice to you and I try to work 100% for that reason. If one kid stops me and says: 'Can you sign something for me?' It's very important to me."

Thanks in large part to the English lessons, Calderon now can carry on good conversations and make some small talk. Reporters had a chuckle early in the season when he referred to teammates as friends because he didn't know the word "teammate." In training camp, Calderon said the hardest part of the transition would be talking to the media.

"My English is getting better," Calderon said. "I have one teacher with me and we do work for three hours. You have a book, grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation. I can talk about this (basketball) and about other things. It's very nice."

Toronto, as a whole, has been very nice for Calderon and his wife. The team last month signed veteran point guard Darrick Martin, who speaks Spanish and has acted as a mentor for Calderon. On a recent road trip, the two had a long chat in Los Angeles about all aspects of the NBA -- the games, the lifestyle, the travel, etc. Fellow rookie Charlie Villanueva also speaks Spanish and locker-mates Morris Peterson and Mike James joke around with Calderon by showing off their basic Spanish. The fun-loving James also gives Calderon light-hearted lessons in what could generously be described as informal English.

Away from the ACC, Ana has become close with Raptors centre Rafael Araujo's wife, Cheyenne, and has been seen carrying the Brazilian couple's young daughter, Tais.

"We miss our country, but we are great here," said Ana, who is taking the lead role on the home- buying front. "I like it very much. We are here only in winters, but Toronto in the summer, it is beautiful. Perhaps if we had a place here, we could come and enjoy the city. We (went) to the islands (after Calderon signed here in the summer) and it is very beautiful. I love going up to the top of the CN Tower and looking at the whole city."

Back home, Calderon has captured the imagination of the Spanish sporting public. Several reporters from Spain have come here and after every game, large daily sports newspaper Marca runs stories on Calderon. Spain native Andres Perez Simon, who is studying at the University of Toronto, has been covering Calderon for several publications, including Marca. Because of the multicultural makeup of Toronto and his unique path to the NBA, Calderon is receiving heaps of coverage in Spain. He also is the talk of the town in Villanueva de la Serena.

"Everybody speaks about Calderon. He is like our hero," said Guadalupe Barrantes, 24, a long-time friend of Calderon's who is studying architecture in Spain. "The NBA, it's incredible for our town. When he comes (home), everybody wants to speak to him. He gives everything he can to the people. He's so normal, so kind. I don't have words to describe him. He is such a good person and all our town thinks the same."

Of course, Calderon has a lot of room to improve on the court. Back in Spain, he was a regular on the highlight reel with athletic dunks, an aspect of his game he has yet to show much of here. His shot also needs work. But there is much to like about Calderon: His passion, his enthusiasm and his leadership skills. He is quick off the bench to encourage teammates after a timeout.

"He is animated, he wears his heart on his sleeve and he cares," Raptors television announcer Chuck Swirsky said. "I love the way he plays. There's an innocence about his game that I love. I hope he never becomes jaded."

Considering the long and winding road Calderon has travelled to get here, Swirsky probably doesn't have to worry.

"When I came here, I didn't know if I could play here or not because I didn't know the league," Calderon said. "It's like when you have a new job, you don't know.

"(But) if you work, you'll improve. You'll have your opportunity for sure."

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GLOBE TROTTERS

How NON-American point guards have performed as rookies

Steve Nash of Canada (Suns)

1996-97 65 Games 3.3 PPG 2.1 APG

Tony Parker of France (Spurs)

2001-02 77 Games 9.2 PPG 4.3 APG

Carlos Arroyo of Puerto Rico (Raptors/Nuggets)

2001-02 37 Games 3.0 PPG 1.9 APG

Raul Lopez of Spain (Jazz)

2003-04 82 Games 7.0 PPG 3.0 APG

Marko Jaric of Serbia/Montenegro (Clippers)

2002-03 66 Games 7.4 PPG 2.9 APG

Leandro Barbosa of Brazil (Suns)

2003-04 70 Games 7.9 ppg 2.4 APG

Sarunas Jasikevicius of Lithuania (Pacers)

2005-06 18 Games 9.6 PPG 2.4 APG

Jose Calderon of Spain (Raptors)

2005-06 20 Games 6.8 PPG 6.4 APG


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