ISTANBUL — Linas Kleiza has some unfinished business with the NBA.
And in his mind Toronto is the best possible situation for him to prove that.
It was just over a year ago when Kleiza made the decision to leave the NBA and his Denver Nuggets and accept a two-year $12.5-million deal with Greek powerhouse Olympiakos.
Kleiza wasn’t happy with the way he was being used and what had happened to his game in the four years since he was drafted into the NBA by Portland and then immediately swapped to Denver for one of his Raptors teammates Jarrett Jack.
Kleiza never comes right out and says he was unhappy in Denver, but that is the impression he leaves in a 15-minute interview at the Polat Renaissance Hotel here in Istanbul. It is the hotel of choice for 14 of the 16 teams that qualified for the knockout portion of the tournament. Only the American and Turkish teams are not housed here.
“I just felt it was a good move by me to improve my career and improve as a player,” Kleiza said of the move to Greece. “I had a big role on a very big team, a very good team. That kind of helped improve all my skills and allow me to show what I wasn’t able to do in Denver.
“In Denver I was a role player and I did it pretty good,” he said of his spot on the roster backing up superstar Carmelo Anthony. “But coming back here and showing I could do a lot more things I’m not just that player that I was in Denver. That’s why I want to go back to Toronto and prove myself all over again. Show people that I was a better player than I was in Denver.”
Here in Turkey with a young Lithuanian team, Kleiza has the role Anthony had back in Denver. First option, the go-to guy on the team and the player everyone looks to for leadership. He has not disappointed leading this young squad to wins over Spain and France already and into the round of 16.
His one year with Olympiakos was a perfect training group for that.
“When I went into Olympiakos, I knew we had good players, but I didn’t really know what to expect,” Kleiza said. “Going back your first year, everyone says it’s not going to be an easy transition but for me playing every summer with my national team (Klinas has never said ‘No’ when his country has come calling) and kind of knowing that international basketball made it easier. Just for the American player coming over like Josh (Childress) in his first year it was tougher for him to adjust to that international game but he had a much better second season last year.”
Childress left the Hawks after four seasons for Olympiakos where he played two years before making the jump back to the NBA with Phoenix who he will join this season.
But unlike Kleiza, Childress will undoubtedly return as a bench player. Kleiza will have every chance to start in Toronto where the departure of Chris Bosh has left things wide open, ideal for a guy looking to make his mark.
Kleiza said he seriously considered jumping to Toronto a year ago when the team first came calling, but with Turkoglu and Bosh there it didn’t make as much sense for him. And then there was the lure of Greece.
Even the second time around, the Toronto decision wasn’t a slam dunk, but that had more to do with how much he enjoyed Greece than what was going on in Toronto.
“It was hard for me to leave Olympiakos,” he said. “It’s a great situation but I feel like Toronto was the right situation for me to come back to the NBA.”
Kleiza is not surprised at all that very few Greeks ever submit to the temptation of an NBA career.
“From a Greek point of view, why would they leave?,” Kleiza asks surprised the question was even posed. “They make great money, you’re living in your own country. Greece is nice. It’s very nice. Those two teams (Olympiakos and Pantheikos) make it very hard for players to leave because of the money and stability and all those things. Greece was good. I experienced some things in Greece I will never experience again. Basketball-wise, playing for Olympiakos against Panathinaikos, you will never experience anything like that anywhere.”
The passion from the fans, while very much a part of what Kleiza will miss most about Greece, is also at the root of some of the scarier moments he had in his one year with the club.
“The crowd, the fans they’re on a different level,” Kleiza said. “I don’t know, it’s crazy, it’s just war. You come out for a game and you have to duck. There are things flying at the court, You get hit with rocks, coins, lighters, little bombs flying everywhere. It’s a different experience..”
Kleiza was never seriously hurt by any of the projectiles but he does remember one game in particular in last year’s final when a ball bearing the size of a golf ball went flying past his head as Olympiakos were introduced.
“They are very passionate,” he said. “When those two teams play, it goes all the way back to when they were kids, and it’s a war. Off the court it’s OK, nobody cares too much, but when they get on the court the people get like animals. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The year though was pivotal for Kleiza. He knows it and the people who knew him before and since see it, too.
Raptors vice-president Maurizio Gherardini says the year in Greece completely revamped Kleiza’s game.
“He is a more complete player,” Gherardini said, having seen Kleiza in the five games Lithuania played at the FIBA world championship. “He works more at both ends of the floor and I think he has learned more to use his game mixing the inside and outside better. As much as he counts on his three-point shot, he works his man close to the basket. He’s mixing things up in a more consistent way.”
Kleiza doesn’t dispute this, but he does point out that coming out of Missouri he had what he thought was a pretty complete game. He just never got to use it all in Denver.
“I had the inside game in college but once I got to the NBA I was only playing outside,” he said. “I forgot that part of my game and became kind of one- dimensional. Going back here and putting the work in, going back in playing inside, playing outside, I think that I’ve brought back that other dimension to my game that I was missing.”
Just as significantly, particularly where the young Raptors are concerned, Kleiza became accustomed to a leadership role in Greece.
“You appreciate the fact that he played for one of the top teams, got to the final four of the league championship and got to be the man, the go-to guy.
“You feel that not only has his confidence stepped up but he’s become a more important personality to add to the picture.”