The telephone call came to Bob McKillop, then the basketball coach at Long Island’s Lutheran High, in the summer of 1981.
On the other line Morgan Wootten, the legendary coach at DeMatha High in Hyattsville, Md.
Wootten wondered if McKillop might have a need for a 7-foot player from Italy named Augusto Binelli, who was showing lots of promise at DeMatha’s summer camp. Wootten said Binelli couldn’t play for DeMatha because of a school policy prohibiting students from enrolling who lived 35 miles outside Hyattsville.
McKillop didn’t hesitate.
“How do you not accept something like that?” McKillop says now.
Binelli would be a star for McKillop and Lutheran for two years. After graduating in 1983, he returned to Italy to play pro ball and was eventually drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 1986, although he never played in the NBA.
Binelli’s game at Lutheran had improved to such an extent that McKillop was invited to conduct clinics in Italy. The connections McKillop established brought a few other Italian players to Lutheran. Soon, McKillop was teaching at clinics all over Europe — Sweden, Greece, Spain and Finland.
“Doing these clinics gives you the opportunity to build up a network of friends in places like Sweden, Greece, Spain and Finland,” McKillop says. “There are 200 coaches you meet and become friends with. You’re there for three or four days, you have dinner, lunch and breakfast with them. It builds from there.”
McKillop would eventually leave Lutheran for the college ranks and Davidson, where he’s been since 1989. One of the first players he recruited was Detlef Musch, a 7-footer from Germany who had played for McKillop at Lutheran.
His international connections? They’re still alive and flourishing, helping define the Wildcats program, in McKillop’s opinion, as the most “diverse group in America playing college basketball.”
Now in his 31st season at Davidson — which begins Friday against 24th-ranked Auburn in Annapolis, Md. — McKillop has coached 39 international players from 23 different countries.
Six are included on this season’s roster, including senior guard and 2018-19 Atlantic 10 player of the year Jon Axel Gudmundsson (Iceland); sophomore forward Luka Brajkovic (Austria); sophomore forward Nelson Boachie-Yiadom (England); sophomore guard David Czerapowicz (Sweden); freshman forward David Kristensen (Denmark); and freshman forward Hyunjung Lee (South Korea).
The Wildcats certainly aren’t unique in college basketball in their reliance on international players. National power Gonzaga, for instance, typically has several foreign players on its roster, including six this season.
Davidson’s local rivals, the Charlotte 49ers, have four international players: forward Milos Supica and guard Luka Vasic (both from Serbia), grad transfer forward Amido Bamba (Canada) and center Anzac Rissetto (New Zealand). 49ers assistant coach Aaron Fearne is an Australian who is also the head coach of New Zealand’s under-17 national team.
Chop sticks and reindeer
When Luka Brajkovic first arrived at Davidson in the summer of 2017, he’d only been to the United States twice before. What he found at Davidson was a small (1,950 enrollment), welcoming campus to students from everywhere. That, he says, is a major reason why McKillop has been so successful in bringing in talented players from around the globe — as well as an assortment of U.S. cities including Boston, Poca, W.Va., Mooresville and Chapel Hill.
“It’s so fun to have people from all over the world on the campus,” said Brajkovic. “Everybody respects each other. There are different habits that you see from others, but that just makes things more interesting.”
Brajkovic, a 6-foot-10 forward who was among the Atlantic 10’s top freshmen last season, said the reputation Davidson had developed as a landing spot for international players persuaded him to come.
“I didn’t want to be some place where I was the only international player on the team,” he said. “I wanted to be some place where students had different kinds of backgrounds, like mine.”
Before coming to Davidson, Brajkovic played for the Dornbirn Lions club team in Austria.
“It’s so nice to have everybody the same age here,” Brojkavic said. “In Austria, I was playing with guys who had kids, some of them were 35 years old. There was nobody my age. Here I’m playing with guys my own age and with the same interests.”
The international diversity plays out every day. Brajkovic says he’s still getting used to seeing Lee (Davidson’s first Asian player) eating sushi with chopsticks in the student commons. Gudmundsson’s family often brings reindeer meat from Iceland when they visit.
Language can be, but usually isn’t, a factor.
“There’s been a bit of a language barrier,” said junior guard Kellan Grady, who’s from Massachusetts. “Every once in a while, you have to repeat something. But a guy like Lee, for instance, is smart, and he picks up on things quickly.”
McKillop said there have been humorous misunderstandings.
“We have a theory that on a last-second shot, no one boxes out, that everyone stands there and freezes,” McKillop said. “That’s what we would tell the players, as a statement: No one boxes out. For the longest time, Jon Axel took that literally, and would never box out on a last-second shot.”
Davidson also uses the term “pistols” on defense — where a player extends his hand and points his fingers to where his man is. Lee, McKillop said, has used the word “gun” instead.
“It’s the basketball vernacular that’s unique to Davidson,” McKillop said. “Every school has their own. They just have to adjust to American slang.”
McKillop says he’s never recruited an international player who doesn’t speak English well. Of course, to be a student at Davidson — or any U.S. college — speaking English will be a prerequisite. McKillop has said that Gudmundsson’s “guttural” inflection in his English was once difficult for teammates to understand, but that’s been overcome.
From a purely basketball perspective, McKillop has over the years melded the skills and styles of players from all these different backgrounds into something unique. Davidson’s offensive system isn’t for everyone — it relies on constant movement, cutting and the ability for everyone to shoot effectively.
“We’re a composite of basketball styles that I’ve been watching for years and years,” McKillop said. “We’ve blended so many different systems. There are certain parts of it that international players can transition to.”
McKillop has been flexible. He has tweaked the offense to take advantage of Brajkovic’s low-post skills.
“Coach adjusted his system a little bit for me,” said Brajkovic, who averaged 11.1 points and 6.0 rebounds last season. “But it goes both ways. It’s forced me to get rid of some bad habits I had. In Europe the pace is not as high, so I’ve had to adjust to running up and down the court. It has taken some getting used to.”
McKillop is used to making those kinds of adjustments with a roster of players from everywhere.
“We have all our players — their color, religion, economic background, nationality — it doesn’t matter to our guys,” said McKillop.
“They just welcome each other as brothers. And it gets smoother and smoother every year.”
Davidson vs. No. 24 Auburn
When: 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Where: Alumni Hall, Annapolis, Md.
Watch: CBS Sports Network.
Davidson at a glance
Last season: 24-10 (14-4 Atlantic 10, second).
Returning starters: 5 (senior guard Jon Axel Gudmundsson; junior guard Kellan Grady; sophomore guard Luke Frampton; senior guard KiShawn Pritchett; sophomore forward Luka Brajkovic).
Key newcomers: Freshman forward Hyunjung Lee; freshman forward David Kristensen.
Bottom line: In addition to the five starters back, junior guard and sixth man Carter Collins returns, as does junior forward Bates Jones. With all this talent and depth, the Wildcats figure to challenge for the A-10 title with Virginia Commonwealth and Dayton. David Scott