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Things didn't start out exactly as he planned when Jeremy Tyler - the 18-year-old phenomenon from San Diego who signed with Maccabi Haifa this past summer, becoming the first US player to skip his senior year in high school and opt to play in Europe - got into his first game as a burly 12-year-old.
The way he remembers it, Tyler - who previously had been "mostly into baseball," had fallen asleep for a while on the floor beneath the team bench, and woke up just as the second half of his local summer league team's game was starting. The youngster then checked into the game, but was unfamiliar with the rule that the teams switch baskets at halftime. "So I came in, and I don't know what happened, but I got a rebound and put it back up, and it wasn't supposed to go back up on that side," he says with a laugh after a recent Winners Cup game in Jerusalem. The mistake earned him his first nickname: Minus Two.
Minus Two's come a long way since then, the 6'-11" 260-pound (2.1 meters, 118 kg.) player arriving in Haifa at the end of this summer having averaged 28.7 points during his junior year at San Diego High to lead the club to the CIF-San Diego Section Division I quarterfinals.
So when it came time to decide whether he preferred another season of playing against boys or against men, he, his family and his advisers huddled and came up with a decision. With the NBA as the prize on the horizon, Tyler hopes to be in the 2011 draft after impressing in Europe. (Kevin Garnett went directly from high school to the NBA.)
Not everyone agreed with the move. "I will be interested to see how this works out, not in two years, but in 10 years," Ohio State coach Thad Matta told ESPN. "The ultimate question is: Do you want to make the NBA or have a career in the NBA?"
But Tyler is confident he's made the right move, even though he's still missing two very important things about San Diego: "Jack-in-the-Box [hamburger chain] and Mexican food." Indeed, it's hard to take the boy out of the man-child, but Tyler sounds like he knows what he's up against - a boy in a man's world on the court until he earns the respect of some of the other players in the Israeli league.
"In high school, everything was a good move, but here I don't know if I've found a good move yet," he says after a practice game that saw him held to just a handful of points. "I'll just have to play it out and see what works. First, I'm here to try to help the team as much as possible to win. But individually, I'm just trying to show the world that I did make the right decision... It doesn't matter how old you are; if you have the talent, you should be able to go do it.
"Especially at this age, young guys sometimes don't like listening to a lot of things, but a lot of times when you listen, you take it in, so I'm thinking if I had made this trip five years from now, I would've thought I knew everything, and wouldn't take in what's right in front of me. And since I'm young with a young mind, I'm taking in everything."
That, according to Maccabi Haifa's Ido Kozikaro, a veteran of the Israeli and European basketball wars, includes "learning how to handle the more physical game, how to deal with failure. Until now everything's gone easily for him. Now suddenly life's more difficult. Suddenly there are more injuries you pick up. There are players who are stronger and more experienced on our team, and playing against us. And he also arrived with a big media splash, so the foreign players on other teams want to show him that they're still the stars and he's still a kid. And it's not an easy life - after all, he's an 18-year-old living 12 hours away from home."
Away from home means missing not only Jack-in-the-Box, but also his family and his Jewish girlfriend Erin, with whom he hopes to visit Jewish sites here when she arrives for a visit.
The most impressive thing to Tyler, since his arrival? Visiting the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized and "that holiday where we had to stay in the house - Yom Kippur... I've never seen a city, a whole country like this shut down. It was like 'Wow' to me."
He's working hard on all his skills as Haifa prepares to try to defend its State Cup title and league runner-up spot to perennial champs Maccabi Tel Aviv. "I have to work on every aspect of the game. Even if I'm not a guard, work on my ball-handling, even if I'm not wing, work on my shooting - everything. Because you never know what happens - the ball might come to you for the game-winning shot and you have to be able to take that shot."
Says Kozikaro: "He's used to the American-style game and the high-school level and he has a ton to learn about the European game, the little things, and about playing against men, because until now he's only played against boys who were 18."
More than that, however, he's learning to live far away from home, like most of his fellow former American players now making their living on European courts. While he talks to his family a lot, it's "not too much, because they want me to grow as a young man, and to get accustomed to this kind of life. Because in this kind of career, a lot of the time you're going to be on your own - so I'm starting."
Haifa being a lot like San Diego - "the biggest city is an hour away, like LA from San Diego" - also helped point him toward the port city.
"The reason we made the decision was that my feeling was that my game would develop more playing against grown men and professional guys," says the affable Tyler. Haifa was chosen from a series of European teams, and coach Avi Ashkenazi is glad to have what he concedes is "not quite ripened fruit" he's "certain will be effective" before long.
"He has skills, he can make progress, but it's still early," says Ashkenazi of Tyler, whose signing he calls "an opportunity" for the club.
So Tyler's learning the intricacies - mostly in the school of hard knocks - of what you can and can't get away with under the boards in Israeli and European basketball in a on-the-job-training type way. "I'm trying to be a student of the game and learn... trying to stay level-headed, humble and hungry."
Despite the difficult learning curve ahead, he's still convinced making the jump from high-school ball in San Diego to the Israeli league was the right move. "What I believe is that sometimes college can take away from your game, because in college, everyone has a certain role to play... if you're the rebounder, you're supposed to get rebounds, and that's OK... but as a professional you have to be able to rebound, block shots, make outlet passes, alter the other team's shots. I just thought that college would take away from my game," says Tyler, still looking for an Israeli food he likes, despite getting invited to teammates' homes more often now.
He grew fast, his shoe size, according to the ESPN article, going from 12 to 18 within four months at age 13. Modeling his game on Hakeem Olajuwon, the former Houston Rockets standout, Tyler says his current favorite NBA player is Amare Stoudamire of the Phoenix Suns, "because of his entire approach to the game - he combines power, passing, everything."
While he may have skipped his senior year for now, Tyler has every intention of finishing school. "Eventually basketball will come to an end, and that's when education will start up again," he says. "I have plans in the future to finish school, go to college and get a business degree so I can start doing business. I have to have a life outside of basketball."
Don't tell that to the Green Apes of Haifa, the team's frenzied fans who owner Jeffrey Rosen and Ashkenazi are hoping will take a shine to the freshly plucked high school product. "I've heard about them, but we haven't had a home game yet, so I haven't seen them yet," says Tyler with anticipation. Meanwhile, he promises to make "San Diego and California and my family and friends" proud of him, and pursue his goal, if not to a local Jack-in-the-Box in Haifa, at least to a spot in the Final Four, another step closer to realizing his NBA dream.
Is it all worthwhile, on those lonely nights, an 18-year-old 12 hours from home? "Yeah. I feel like it's going to make me a stronger person, a stronger young man, so it's a real good experience." Besides, he says, playing basketball in Israel will be "a good story to tell my kids about, and their kids' kids."
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