Maria Enrici said she cried when her son Pablo Prigioni called her in July to tell her he was joining the New York Knicks.
Prigioni had spent the last nine seasons playing in Europe’s top basketball league. After previously expressing little interest in joining the National Basketball Association, according to his parents, Prigioni told his mother he was planning to move his family to New York and become, at age 35, the league’s oldest rookie in 64 years.
“He has always known what he wanted and always been perseverant enough to go get it,” said Enrici, who moved to Spain from Argentina in 2006 to be with her son and his family. “We knew it was going to be important for him, but at the same time it was going to be a dramatic move for everybody.”
The transition to New York from Spain, which Prigioni said was difficult for his family, grew easier as the Knicks finished with their best regular-season record in 16 years and advanced to the postseason’s second round for the first time since 2000. He’s started all but two of the team’s playoff games, defending, rebounding and setting up NBA scoring champion Carmelo Anthony and Sixth Man of the Year J.R. Smith.
New York’s season could end with a loss tonight to the Indiana Pacers at Madison Square Garden. The Knicks trail 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.
“On the court there are some different rules, the speed of the game is different and there are many more games,” Prigioni said in an interview at the Knicks practice facility in Tarrytown, New York. “It took me time to adjust to the schedule and my role on the team.”
Prigioni, who turns 36 tomorrow, is signed to a one-year deal worth $473,604, the NBA rookie minimum. Before accepting the Knicks offer, he said he sought the advice of Olympic teammates who faced the same decision, including San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili and Luis Scola of the Phoenix Suns.
Ginobili, who came to the NBA from the Euroleague at age 25 in 2002, said in an interview that he told Prigioni to make the jump “because, you know, he’s 35 and he has done almost everything in Europe.”
Back in Argentina, Prigioni says his hometown of Rio Tercero, a factory- and farm-driven city with 48,000 residents, is closely following the Knicks’ playoff run. He returns every summer, and last year invested in 600 acres to use for soybeans and livestock, according to his father, Raul Prigioni.
While the land is worth around $2.7 million, according to Compania Argentina de Tierras, a private land-appraisal company, Prigioni paid less because parts were undeveloped, and has rented it to soybean producers, said his 67-year-old father.
“Pablo has always proved to be a determined man and a professional,” said the elder Prigioni, who admitted to thinking Pablo’s older brother Martin was originally a better player. “He is still that way.”
When the Knicks’ season ends, Prigioni said he will return immediately to Argentina with his wife, Raquel, and two children, Alessandra and Nicolas, to run a five-day youth camp from June 19-23 in his hometown. Claudio Papini, who first coached Prigioni at age 8, is organizing the camp.
“He always wanted to win, even when playing marbles, and he cried every time his team lost a game,” Papini, 50, said in a telephone interview. “I had to console him many times.”
Enrici, 64, said her son told her at age 11 that he would become a professional basketball player. She returned to Argentina when her son moved to New York, and says they never go more than three days without speaking.
Prigioni played 13 years in Spain, twice winning the country’s league title and advancing four times in nine seasons to the semifinals of the Euroleague, Europe’s top club level. His parents, who are now separated, said he never talked about playing in the NBA.
One of three point guards, along with Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd, to average more than 20 minutes a game in the playoffs, Prigioni is third on the Knicks with a .435 three-point shooting percentage in the playoffs and his team-best 4.3 assists-to-turnovers ratio is twice as good as every Knicks player outside of Felton.
“A solid veteran and a true professional,” Felton said.
Prigioni’s success is an example of how advanced statistics are helping NBA teams evaluate overseas talent, according to Ryan Blake, senior director of NBA scouting operations, who says that teams are now looking to fill upward of 17 specific positions, as opposed to the traditional five. Age, Blake said, probably was a secondary factor.
“Anything that can fill a void in one of those positions is essential,” Blake said in a telephone interview.
Prigioni said he will focus on next year’s plan once the current season ends.
“I’m open to staying in the States, and to going back to Europe,” he said. “But why think about that now?”
Teams are already thinking about it. Claudio Villanueva, one of his agents, said Prigioni has offers from at least five Spanish clubs, and would only consider staying with the Knicks if offered a contract worth three times his current salary.
Knicks General Manager Glen Grunwald declined to comment for this story.
When Prigioni scored eight points in the fourth quarter of the Knicks’ Game 2 victory over the Pacers, the sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden chanted, “Pa-blo! Pa-blo!” as he was removed from the game. More than a quarter century after the 8-year-old Pablo was inconsolable after every loss, and 10 months after the decision and phone call that brought his mother to tears, it was his father’s turn to grow sentimental.
“I got goose bumps,” Raul Prigioni said. “I almost cried because of that emotion.”
-- With assistance from Rob Gloster in San Francisco. Editors: Michael Sillup, Jay Beberman