DENVER — When the Chinese Basketball Association broke camp for the annual Lunar New Year holiday, Adam Tatalovich proved his worth as a certified hoops junkie.
While much of the CBA chilled out or cruised off to beachy vacation destinations, “I went on a basketball pilgrimage,” says Tatalovich, an assistant coach with the Guangzhou Long Lions.
Basketball pilgrimage, meet Gilligan’s 3-hour tour. You know about America's virtual shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. "Ta Ta," who has a bunch of connections to the Nuggets, one day might star in his own 30-for-30 series on ESPN.
Just three days into his trip to Istanbul, Tatalovich received a text message from his team: Don’t return to China. He said the pandemic had not yet overwhelmed Europe, so the Indiana-born Hoosier bounced from Athens to Barcelona to Belgrade. Games, practices, coffee with coaches. "Dream trip, really," he said by phone from Serbia — right up until Serbia’s airports closed to passenger traffic. He’s been in Europe for 10 weeks — accompanied by the single bag he expected to use for less than one.
"I even tried to get on one of these medical supply planes," he said. He was joking. I think.
Basketball’s a global game, and few NBA teams lean international more successfully than the Nuggets. From All-Star center Nikola Jokic to general manager Arturas Karnisovas to international scout Rafal Juc, they've built a championship contender without borders. It was through president of basketball operations Tim Connelly, a regular on scouting and coaching trips abroad, that I met Tatalovich, a hoops junkie through and through. My kind of guy.
And he's viewing an unprecedented time in life and sports through a worldly lens: Tatalovich is a coach in the first major sports league to shut down due to the pandemic, and he has coached or scouted on four continents and with the Pelicans, Bulls and Kings of the NBA. His big break arrived courtesy of Air Force graduate and all-timer Gregg Popovich, who once went out of his way to recommend Tatalovich for a spot in the Pelicans scouting department.
"I owe my career to Coach Pop," said Tatalovich, who also worked alongside Nuggets coach Michael Malone in New Orleans.
Most times, a basketball devotee getting stuck in Serbia — the beloved homeland of Jokic — could be considered a blessing in disguise.
“Serbia’s like Indiana,” Tatalovich said. “The basketball heartbeat of Serbia is like Indiana.”
This isn’t most times. Colorado’s shelter-in-place order giving you cabin fever? Same. But Monday from Belgrade, Tatalovich hit us with this wild nugget: from 1 p.m. Saturday to 5 a.m. Monday, the capital city enforced a complete stay-at-home order. “Forty hours straight in the apartment" he's renting for $75 U.S. dollars per week, Tatalovich said.
"There’s no hiding from this," said Connelly, who began monitoring the pandemic well before the threat hit the mainstream. "It doesn't care what you look like, how much you make, where you're from. This thing doesn't discriminate."
The Chinese Basketball Association suspended its season Jan. 24. It hasn't resumed play, a fact that doesn't bode well for NBA or NHL aspirations. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Monday he doesn't expect decisions on this season will be made before May. I'm writing this April 6.
As for Tatalovich, he just wants to get back to China: "Hard to say when that will be," he said.
"The thing I've been trying to tell people at home is to just follow the rules,” he said. “The basketball part (of this) took a nosedive a long time ago. (I'm) in survival mode now.”