“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Trajan Langdon – The Alaskan Assassin
I saw Trajan Langdon for the first time at the 1998 World Cup in Athens, but I admit I don’t remember him there. His numbers justify my lack of memory. They were below the 4 he wore on his jersey: 2.9 points, 0.9 rebounds and 0.4 assists. However, due to the NBA players’ strike, he ended up on a national team that took a bronze medal, his first important trophy. Three years earlier, on the same Athens stage, a young Langdon had taken part in the U19 World Cup 1995 with the USA. That team recorded four wins and four losses, and the Americans finished eighth. More was certainly expected from a team with Stephon Marbury (17.5 points), Vince Carter and Langdon himself (8.5 points). His shooting was far from perfect: 48% on two-pointers, 30.8% on threes. Although his two experiences in Greece didn’t set the tone for his future career in Europe, it would be that way in his three years in the NBA.
After finishing East High School in Anchorage in his native Alaska, where he scored 2,200 points and earned his nickname “The Alaskan Assassin”, Langdon chose to play college basketball at prestigious Duke University. He finished his career there with averages of 14.5 points and 2.9 rebounds, plus a school record in three-pointers made. Standing at 1.92 meters, he was the typical shooting guard, but he also had solid rebounding skills. His numbers in the NCAA were enough for Langdon to be picked 11th overall in the 1999 NBA Draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers. As a side note, Langdon had already been drafted in 1994 into another pro sport, baseball, but continued playing basketball instead. He stayed in Cleveland for three seasons with discreet numbers: 5.4 points and 1.3 rebounds. It was not enough for an ambitious player who was right in thinking he could do more. It was then that Langdon decided to come to Europe.
Treviso, Istanbul, Moscow
At the time, Benetton Treviso was a standard-bearer in Italian basketball, with Ettore Messina on the bench and Maurizio Gherardini in the front office. They signed Langdon and were right once again. In his first season there, Langdon won the Italian League and Italian Cup double. He played 46 games, scored 703 points (15.3 per game) with 52.1% two-point and 44.7% three-point shooting. The team reached the EuroLeague Final Four in Barcelona in 2003, but after defeating Montepaschi Siena in the semis 65-62, FC Barcelona was better than Treviso in the final and won 76-65. Treviso’s mistake was signing Langdon for only one year. His season caught everyone’s attention. Efes Pilsen made its move and Langdon moved to the Bosphorus, where he also won the Turkish League with similar numbers: 14.3 points per game. Efes couldn’t keep him either, however, as an offer for the next season from Dynamo Moscow was better. He moved to the Russian capital without even thinking that he would stay there for six years and, in fact, finish his career there. He didn’t do that with Dynamo, but rather at CSKA Moscow, the most powerful club in Russia. After another good season at Dynamo (14.4 points), CSKA signed Langdon for a new project.
Ettore Messina, who had become CSKA’s head coach by then, shared with us some details about the signings made in the summer of 2005, just after he landed:
“Trajan was, together with Matjaz Smodis and David Vanterpool, the signings I put as a condition for me to jump on board. I thought that with them, I could try to win the EuroLeague. Trajan had an unbelievable work ethic. Everybody remembers the shooter, but I also took notice of his great defensive fundamentals. On offense, he was an old-school shooter. He was able to play and shoot after contact, a feature of the greats. Also, he was a very well-educated man, with a great college formation. I think he had finished two degrees, math and history.”
Langdon’s education was a family thing. His father, Dr. Steve Langdon, was an anthropology professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Trajan went with his father on many of his trips around Alaska. His name Trajan comes from the Roman emperor (98-117 BC), known as the man who stopped chasing the Christians. Langdon’s father helped him a lot between the ages of 8 and 13, getting him ready for the life of an elite sportsman. When his father was sure that his son was ready for the top, he sent a letter in the spring of 1992 to Tommy Amaker, an assistant coach for Mike Krzyzewski at Duke. Once there, Langdon started his true career, which would make him into one of the best Americans to play in Europe in the 21st century.
Shooters are, in most cases, a bit selfish, but Messina assures us that Langdon was not your usual shooter in that way:
“He was always a team player, with a strong personality in the locker room, but always by the coach’s side.”
In the final stretch of Langdon’s first season in CSKA, the team made the 2006 EuroLeague Final Four in Prague. It was another attempt at the crown, to try to win it for the first time since 1971. In the semifinal against Barcelona, which CSKA won 84-75, Langdon was not the best man on the court, but he scored 13 points as great support for J.R. Holden (29 points) and Smodis (17). The big final against Maccabi Tel Aviv was waiting. CSKA won 73-69 and Langdon ended up with 11 points, but Messina gives us more insight into Langdon’s performance:
“In the final game he hardly took any shots during the second half, but when Maccabi erased our advantage and even jumped ahead by a point with six minutes left, I called for a play for Trajan. He answered with a three. We never lost the lead again and we won that game. Without trying to take credit from anyone else, I think that was the basket of the game.”
Final Four MVP of 2008
Trajan Langdon won his second European crown two years later, in Madrid in 2008, on the 50th anniversary of European club competitions that had started in 1958. CSKA won 83-79 in the semifinal against Tau Ceramica and Langdon scored 9 points. But in the final, he scored 17 points, making 4 of 5 threes, and went on to claim Final Four MVP honors. His performance index rating of 33 was the second best in any single-game final this century. He was also selected for the All-EuroLeague First Team in 2007 and 2008, after having been on the second team in 2006. His personal records in the EuroLeague are 45 minutes played against Partizan on May 9, 2010, in the third-place game at that year’s Final Four. He also matched his career high with 32 points in that game and had an index rating of 37, his best ever and the best seen in any Final Four game this century.
Langdon stayed in Moscow with CSKA until he announced his retirement on June 18, 2011. He was 35 years old and left behind a great career. He said that the first Final Four he won in Prague has a special place in his memory:
“I had lost a Final Four at college and another with Benetton. It was my third chance to win an important tourney. And we did it against all odds. The second EuroLeague was a gift for my newborn son.”
Even though Messina highlights his defense, Langdon’s main weapon was his shot. He had a steady hand, great technique, flawless fakes, and an ability to escape and receive the ball to shoot. The hands of players guarding him were never an obstacle. He was one of those players who rarely played bad games. You could always expect a high standard from him, at the very least. That’s why he was always among his coaches’ favorites.