Last time we checked in with Ryan Hollins, who is playing overseas after 10 seasons in the NBA, he had just undergone a tumultuous turn of life events. Within 24 hours he’d dealt with the death of a dear uncle and surrogate father as well as the birth of a daughter, Eve. Shortly thereafter, his contract was terminated by Spain’s Gran Canaria team and he signed with Italy’s Auxilium Torino in the Serie A league. Here he explains how life and work have changed.
What was the first thing that struck you as different about your team in Italy vs. your team in Spain?
Fresh into the locker room I was struck that not only did we have five other Americans but they were guys I knew: DJ White, a six-year pro; Virginia Tech’s Deron Washington, who was easily the most exciting college player of my era; Georgetown star Chris Wright; Jamil Wilson of Marquette; and Tyler Harvey, a fellow LA product. The guys were laughing and joking playing Uno in the locker room when I showed up. English was the primary language spoken, even by my Italian teammates. In Spain, I actually didn’t mind everyone speaking Spanish because I took it as a challenge to learn the language, but in Italy even our coach, Francesco “Frank” Vitucci, speaks to us in English. My first few days he was very apologetic that his English wasn’t up to par but he had no idea — it was music to my ears.
How does your role with Auxilium Torino compare to the one with Gran Canaria?
In Spain, the players pick up full court and essentially split all minutes to manage fatigue. In Italy, the top players dominate the minutes. My first game in Italy I played about 30 minutes; in Spain, I may have had a season high of 12 in one game. I’m blessed to be an intricate part of Torino. I’m also glad that I kept up my conditioning and work ethic for moments like these.
How does the level of play compare? What is the style of play?
The game is very technical in Spain; it’s a game of chess between the coaches. From the full court press, to a specific trap to unorthodox rotations — you could see just about anything. In Italy, due to the heavy minutes, the players have more freedom to decide the game. I don’t know if I can say this is the most physical basketball I’ve seen, but the referees allow the game to turn into street ball here, where anything goes. In three games I’ve seen elbows, pushes, grabs and opportunistic traveling.
Compare your European coaches to the ones you’ve had in the NBA.
Even if I wanted to compare the coaches that I have now to those I had in the NBA, there’s not a chance I could from a strategic standpoint. What I can do is give you a glimpse into their personalities. Luis Casimiro, Gran Canaria’s coach, is full of passion and doesn’t cut corners, even in practice. Yet off the court he’s a compassionate friend. I’ll never forget the time he gave me a ride home. It was a conversation for the ages between Luis’s limited English and my limited Spanish, but I throughly enjoyed every moment of it.
Victor Garcia, one of Casimiro’s assistant coaches, is my guy. He’s always cool, but in the heat of the game he wouldn’t mind jumping on the floor to celebrate a huge play from the team. Gran Canaria’s other assistant coach, Israel Gonzalez, is also one of my favorites. I thought of him as the “Game Master.” Israel has the intelligence to be a doctor or a lawyer but chose to follow his passion on the court. He doesn’t have the greatest English, but he knows enough to hit you with a frequent hilarious/sarcastic punchline (when least expected).
Coach Frank of Turino is cool, calm and collected; you can’t find wrong in Frank. A family man who has treated me with nothing but respect since I walked through the door. Now, funny story, Frank has been around for a while. I remember Chris Jent, who was one of my NBA assistant coaches with two different teams (CLE, SAC) and is now at Ohio State, telling me how he loved his Italian experience years ago. Come to find out Frank was CJ’s coach! He members his two-year old son at the time, who I knew to be a teenager, and in real time is a grown man. Somehow I felt really young and really old at the same moment.
What former NBA players have you run across or competed with/against?
Italy is full of former NBA players. In my first game, I played against both my college rival and Pistons’ draft pick, Alex Aker, and my former teammate, Juwaun Johnson. In our last game I went up against another former teammate from Memphis, Yakhouba Diawara, and Linton Johnson, who I played with in Charlotte.
What is it like playing in Italy with your family — and new-born daughter — still living in the Canary Islands?
Knowing that my family isn’t here (and that I’m missing moments with Eve that I’ll never get back) absolutely makes me sick. Not being with my family will never settle right with me, and is one of those things where I have to just continue to focus on the greater good. Thank goodness for Face Time and these fancy iPhone cameras. My wife has become a professional photographer and editor in her spare time, lol.
You’ve joined NBA teams in mid-season. How did that experience prepare you for doing it overseas?
Joining the team mid-season is just part of professional sports (if you stay around long enough, it’s going to happen, either by trade or free-agent signing). For me the focus is being the best me that I can be. One huge perk of coming in late means that you’re needed (and there isn’t anyone who has your unique skill set). Being able to pick up plays is a must, and for those kids who have all the game in the world but can’t remember a play…. there’s a rude awakening ahead. My thought process is to gain immediate trust from my coach in opening up his playbook.
Culturally, what has been the best part of living and playing in Italy? What has been the worst?
Culturally: I immediately noticed the acceptance of English. Turin feels a lot like America to me. One of our sponsors is Fiat, and as an American you hear Fiat and immediately wonder how a 7 footer is going to fit in one comfortably. To my surprise, Fiat not only has a sizable car, my little Fiat has some kick to it, lol. I love the streets, you have two huge lanes through the whole city one to park on, and another for through traffic. Nice enough to make me wonder if this could cure the traffic in LA (then I remembered that the 405 and 101 is just one huge intersection) and that we just have too many cars.
I can find good food anywhere, and I mean anywhere!!! For lunch and dinner I’ve been playing Russian roulette with Trip Advisor. For a guy who loves Italian food, I’m in heaven right now. I might eat pasta, pizza, and a tiramisu twice a day. When I say pizza I’m not talking greasy takeout but the kind you eat with a knife and fork. And even at the nicest restaurants you walk to the front to pay your tab; I learned this the hard way, by sitting for about 30 extra minutes after a meal. Italy also has to be one of the most dog-friendly places in the world. Not only have I seen dogs exotic enough to make you take a second glance but they are welcomed everywhere. I see dogs on the streets, dogs in the malls, even dogs in the restaurants. Pretty cool. One setback to the big city is not having a parking spot or wifi in my apt. So far I’ve been bingeing “Prison Break” on a 2g signal. Hunting for a parking spot takes around 10 minutes when I get home. This is also my first time living without a dryer, so imagine the mess I’m making. True confession: I haven’t done laundry since college, lol.