I saw Trajan Langdon for the first time at the 1998 World Championships in Athens, but I admit I don’t remember him. His numbers justify my lack of memory. His numbers 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 took part in the Junior World Championships 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% twos, 30.8% 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 studies there with a record in three-pointers made and an average of 14.5 points plus 2.9 rebounds. 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 to be picked with 11th overall selection by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 1999 NBA draft. As a side note, he had already been drafted in 1994 by the… San Diego Padres baseball team! 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. When he gave up hope in the NBA, Langdon decided to come to Europe.
Treviso, Istanbul, Moscow
At the time, Benetton Treviso was a reference 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) with 52.1% two-point and 44.7% three-point shooting. Benetton reached the Euroleague Final Four in Barcelona in 2003, but after defeating Montepaschi Siena in the semis 65-62, FC Barcelona was better in the final, 76-65. Benetton’s mistake was signing Langdon for one year only. His season caught everyone’s attention. Efes Pilsen made its move and Langdon moved to the Bosphorus. He also won the Turkish League with similar numbers: 14.3 points per game. Efes couldn’t keep him either, however, as an offer from Dynamo Moscow was better. He moved to the Russian capital without even thinking that he would stay there for the following six years, but he would, in fact, put an end to his career there. He didn’t do that in Dynamo, but in CSKA, the most powerful club in Russia. After another good season at Dynamo (14.4 points), CSKA signed him for a new project.
Kind as ever, Ettore Messina, CSKA’s former head coach, shared with us some details about the signings of the summer of 2005, when he landed in CSKA for the first time:
“Trajan was, together with Matjaz Smodis and David Vanterpool, the signing 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 culture. Everybody remembers the shooter, but I also took notice of his great defense fundamentals. In 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 great college formation. I think he had finished two degrees, math and history.”
His 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 to many of his trips around Alaska. His name Trajan comes from the Roman emperor (98 – 117 BCE), known as the man who stopped chasing the Christians. His 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, he started his true career, which would make him become one of the best Americans to have played in Europe in the 21st Century.
Shooters are, in most cases, a bit selfish, but Messina assures that Langdon was not your usual shooter 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 his 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 court, but he scored 13 points as great support for JR Holden (29 points) and Smodis (17). The big final against Maccabi was waiting. CSKA won 73-69 and Langdon ended up with 11 points, but Messina gives us more insight:
“In the final game he hardly took any shots during the second half, but when Maccabi erased our advantage and even jumped ahead by 1 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.”
MVP of 2008
Trajan Langdon won his second European crown two years later, in Madrid in 2008, at the 50th anniversary of European club competitions that had started in 1958. CSKA won 83-79 in the semifinal against Tau Ceramica and he scored 9 points, but in the final he scored 17 (with 4 of 5 threes and an performance index rating of 33) and went on to claim Final Four MVP honors. He was also elected into the All-Euroleague First team in 2007 and 2008 and he was also on the second team in 2006. His records in the Euroleague are 45 minutes played against Partizan on September 5, 2010, and 32 points scored in the same game. That day he also racked up an index rating of 35.
He stayed in Moscow with CSKA until he announced his retirement on June 18, 2011. He was 35 years old and left a great career behind. 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 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.
The story of Trajan Langdon is the 80th in this series that has been going for four years now. Of course, there are the players from the All Decade Team that the Euroleague chose not long ago, except for the active players (Dimitris Diamantidis and Juan Carlos Navarro). Sarunas Jasikevicius just retired this summer and will appear also soon. We have also seen Theodoros Papaloukas, Dejan Bodiroga, Nikola Vujcic, Anthony Parker, Holden, Ramunas Siskauskas…
And expect more to come!