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.
Each prospective student has to fill out an application that details their interests, among other things, and hope that the organization and a family in America accepts them.
“In your home country, you go to an organization,” he said. “There are many different ones with advantages and disadvantages. Then you make an application and they decide if they want you or not. If they want you, they send your profile to the United States where they get coordinators who bring it to families who then say, ‘I want that guy,’ or ‘I don’t.’”
“We just wrote that we like basketball,” Vopinka said of their applications.
That was all three host families in Graford needed to hear. Soon, the three strangers found themselves in the small town east of Possum Kingdom Lake and quickly became friends with each other and everyone they encountered.
“I came from a city that is 200,000 people,” Conde said of his hometown in Northwest Spain. “First, I came here and I could not believe I was going to spend a year here. But then everyone was really friendly with me and now we’re all so close.”
Packheiser echoed Conde’s impression of the friendly citizens of Graford.
“That’s a big difference between Europe and European people and Americans,” he said. “Here, the people are very open. They go to you and just start talking to you. In Germany, it’s not that nobody talks to each other, but it’s just that you don’t know anyone (because there are) so many people. That’s why we get along with a lot of people, because everyone is friendly to us.”
Graford has enrolled foreign exchange students before, many of whom have played basketball. But it is truly rare for three players as talented as Packheiser, Conde and Vopinka to end up in the same place by the luck of the draw.
“A lot of our parents have an interest in basketball and our town has an interest in basketball, so a lot of the kids they pick, they make sure they share that interest,” Graford head coach Ty Tabor said.
He continued, saying it’s not as if the parents get scouting reports on the kids they might host.
“In fact, it’s double-blind,” he said. “In Europe, the people they deal with don’t know if they’re good players and certainly the groups here don’t know if they’re good players. All they know is that they like basketball, or soccer or whatever.”
Luckily for the Jackrabbits, these guys not only love basketball, but are quite good. As Graford’s starting point guard, Conde has averaged 7.4 points per game to go along with 3.1 assists and 1.4 steals. Big men Packheiser and Vopinka have been vital coming off the bench with Packheiser averaging 7.7 points and six rebounds and Vopinka a dominant 9.8 points and seven boards.
All three mirror their favorite NBA players to an extent on the court as well, as Packheiser, Conde and Vopinka idolize Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, respectively.
Teammate Lucas Simmons said it is a joy to play with each of them.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “They’re not selfish at all and they understand everything. They never complain. They’re just really great teammates. (I’ve gotten close with) all three of them, really.”
“We’re a very good team, but they definitely help us,” Tabor said. “They give us a lot of depth and are very good players”
As good as they are, Graford’s exchange students are still only in town for one year. Although one-and-dones have become commonplace in college basketball, they are unusual in the high school game. But Tabor said he treats exchange students like he would any other player and, if they happen to be talented, he views it as a bonus.
“I look at them just like a transfer,” he said. “I treat them just like any kid that moved from Mineral Wells or Graham in here. If they can help out, we try to plug them in. If they can’t, then they’re not a varsity player. It really doesn’t bother me that they’re only here a year. As long as they’re working hard and doing what we ask them to do, we just take advantage of it.”
The Jackrabbits have not been the only ones to take advantage of Packheiser, Conde and Vopinka’s year in town. The three students said the experience they’ve received playing overseas has been invaluable.
“I think it’s very good experience for us, of course,” Vopinka said. “It’s a very different style of basketball, but we like it.”
“American basketball is much rougher than European basketball,” Conde continued. “But it’s a good experience.”
“It’s just very different,” Packheiser said. “We play on teams in Europe, like clubs, and not at school. I only had one practice a week with my team for about an hour and a half. Now I have two to two and a half hours of basketball, every day. I really enjoy it.”
Tabor said the extra practice time has visibly improved each of their games compared to the first day they stepped on campus. He said this often-overlooked element is key to not only the team’s success, but the exchange students’ development before they head home.
“There’s rapid improvement in those guys once they get here,” he said of his international players. “Some people say, ‘Well, you’ve got all these great players.’ Well, that’s because they practice all the time. It’s the same reason our kids are good.”
Packheiser, Conde and Vopinka have relished the extra practice time, just as they have every moment spent in their temporary homes.
“That might be the best part about Graford: that we can play basketball all the time,” Conde said.
Luckily for Conde and the rest of the Jackrabbits, their team appears poised to keep playing basketball well into the postseason.
And if all goes according to plan, perhaps Packheiser, Conde and Vopinka will help Graford capture its first state championship, just as Nowitzki, Gasol and countless other European players have done for their teams in the past.