By CLINT FOSTER
GRAFORD – Ever since the early 1990’s, international players have played a major role in American basketball. Whether in the college ranks or the big stage of the National Basketball Association, countless players have crossed oceans over the past two decades and developed into significant contributors; many on championship teams.
Europe in particular has earned a reputation as a gold mine for NBA talent. The pages of NBA lore are filled with names from Vlade Divac to Drazen Petrovic; from Tony Parker to Peja Stojakovic.
Now, three young men from the same countries that brought us George Zidek, Pau Gasol and Dirk Nowitzki have traveled thousands of miles to none other than the small town of Graford, Texas, to immerse themselves for a year in one of Palo Pinto County’s most venerable basketball cities.
By sheer coincidence, Paul Packheiser, of Hamburg, Germany, Luis Conde Fernandez, of A Coruña, Spain, and Petr Vopinka, of Prague, Czech Republic have brought surprising talent from three different cultures across Europe only to be united in one of the most unlikely places imaginable.
Along with an incredibly talented and well-coached team, the three exchange students have helped the Graford Jackrabbits to a 22-2 record and put them in prime position to make a push deep into the Class 1A-2 playoffs.
But how do three juniors in high school with great basketball talent all end up at the same small high school in North Texas?
“By plane,” Vopinka joked.
In reality, it’s the story of a mutual passion for the game and a lot of luck.
“We didn’t choose to come to a 500-person town,” Conde said. “But the families chose us from an organization.”
Packheiser explained the process that a foreign exchange student goes through to even have a chance to study for a year in the United States.