Tyrese Rice is one of those players who had to advance through his basketball career the hard way. But patience and hard work brought the 6-1 Richmond, VA native success as he raised the Euroleague trophy in Milan last weekend after being awarded the Euroleague's Final Four MVP honor. Five years of waiting and playing overseas in Greece, Lithuania, Germany and Israel has helped Rice to get on top of Europe and win the second most prestigious club basketball award in the world.
When Rice was attending L.C. Bird High School in 2005, people didn’t believe he was good enough to play DI college ball until he scored 30 points against Kevin Durant’s Oak Hill Academy. But later Rice became the leader of the Boston College Eagles, and successfully played there all four years, averaging 17.1 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists a game. Then Rice played for five different teams in Europe - Panionios, Artland Dragons, Lietuvos Rytas, Bayern and Maccabi.
I caught up with Rice in the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius, in 2011 while he was playing for a Eurocup team Lietuvos Rytas. We met on a sunny day for a photo shoot for SLAM to talk about his high school and college days, being an underdog, NBA dreams, life in Europe and a lot more. Despite conducting this interview nearly three years ago, it is a great opportunity to know more about the Euroleague Final Four MVP.
RealGM: After finishing high school, you were passed over by recruiters. In your opinion, why did this happen?
Rice: I really don’t know. I went to all the big-time camps like Nike camp, adidas camp. After I pretty much did my business there, everybody still passed on me. One thing I heard a lot was big schools didn’t think I was good enough, and smaller schools thought I was too good to go there.
RealGM: Do you remember that game against Oak Hill Academy, where you scored 30 points against Kevin Durant? Is it right to say that game brought a scholarship offer from Boston College?
Rice: Yeah, I remember it. It still gets brought up every once in a while in the city. I hear somebody talking about it. I definitely remember it and they remember it too. I think it brought on the biggest schools. They weren’t sure how I would be able to play against better competition. Playing against [Oak Hill], excelling… It really helped a lot. Boston College was always around, but there were other things, which stopped them from offering me earlier.
RealGM: What goes through your mind when you think about those days you spent at Boston College?
Rice: It was all great. I learned so much from coach Al Skinner. I think it was the best four years of my life. We were up—top 5, top 10 in the country. And then we were as low as a losing record. It was a great experience on both sides. We learned to be level-headed and to be in the moment.
RealGM: Do you still think time-to-time about the game against North Carolina when you scored 46 points?
Rice: I thought it was a good moment in my career, but to me, it didn’t really mean anything because we lost. Having 40 points in a loss really doesn’t mean anything to me because you lose the game. I haven’t watched that game since that happened.
RealGM: What stopped the Eagles’ run at the Sweet 16?
Rice: We had all the pieces that year and we were just one play away from maybe having a national championship… They got a tip-in at the buzzer that won the game so I can’t really say that they did nothing. Anybody can lose, we seen that happening so many times.
RealGM: Did you expect to be picked in 2009 NBA Draft? Did you receive positive feedback from NBA teams back then?
Rice: Coming out of college, I felt like I’d done enough to be drafted, but I never set expectations for myself. I go out everyday and take care of my business. Whatever happens after, if the team wants you, they might pick you. That’s what it was. Life still goes on. I thought I had done enough, but maybe I didn’t. There were teams that had a lot of interest in me.
RealGM: What were the main reasons you weren’t picked in the Draft?
Rice: I don’t know, I always had to prove myself as a basketball player. In high school, I had to prove I can play in college and in college I thought I proved I can play in the NBA. It could be a lot of things. It’s not always on the basketball court.
RealGM: You played in the NBA Summer League last summer. Do you still feel your NBA dream is alive?
Rice: [Summer League] is good in a lot of ways. NBA teams, scouts and players can see you. And it’s also good because there are also a lot of European scouts as well. It’s almost a win-win situation. You go out there and play; one person likes you and then you have a job for next year. It’s a good opportunity for me to play and be seen.
RealGM: You’re only 24 years old. What things would you like to prove in your game as a top-caliber player in Europe?
Rice: There are a lot of things that I could improve. Consistency in three-point shooting, rebounding the ball better defensively. I can do a lot of things but I think the main thing I have to do is just focus and get it done. At the end of the day, there’s nobody that is going to stop yourself from being better but yourself.
RealGM: Have you ever imagined, especially in your senior year in college, that you might start your career overseas, not in the NBA?
Rice: I really never though about it. Like I said, I always take things in a moment. If it was meant for me to go the NBA, I would be going to the NBA. If it’s going overseas, that’s fine. I never looked at it as a failure or I’m not successful in life. I feel like at the the end of the day, I do what I love to do and that’s play basketball.
RealGM: Last season you played in a small 12,000-person town in Germany, Quakenbruck. Was it tough to live in a such small town, considering you previously lived in Athens and Boston?
Rice: Not really. I’d been all over as a kid. In the summer time, going to different places and being there for weeks. I didn’t think it was that tough. Actually, I think it was really good because I was there, there was nothing to do and I knew I have to focus on basketball and become a better player. I though it was actually great because I stayed right across the street from the gym. There wasn’t much to do, so I went to the gym all the time. I think it was a great thing for me.
RealGM: In those two seasons in Europe, who surprised you the most?
Rice: It’s just a really different game. Players here in Europe, I think they think the game better than American players, in my opinion. They really read the game a lot better. As you see, players come over from NBA, D-League, they play in Europe and they don’t last over a month, because it’s a totally different game. Off the court, it’s a different culture. If you’ve been to different places in the States then you can go to different places in Europe. The biggest thing to me is food. Just getting used to the food. Everything else is pretty much the same.
RealGM: Are there any funny or interesting stories you could share?
Rice: I got lost in Athens one time. I was about an hour and 30 minutes away from my house. I was thinking I was going on the right way [laughs]. I remember I asked an officer how to get back to where I live he started laughing like, ‘Are you serious? Do you know how far from your house you are right now?’ I had no idea where I was. I thought I was in Athens but really far away from my house. It took me about an hour and 30 minutes to get back home. It was like 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning. It was really late and that was crazy.
RealGM: A lot of NBA guys are moving overseas for the first time. What is the best advice you could give them?
Rice: I think they just have to embrace the culture. If you come over here thinking that this is going to be anything like home, then you’re wrong. It’s better when you’re in bigger cities. Vilnius is good, there’s a lot of malls, lots of things to do. But you might get to the smaller city like I was in last year and I didn’t know what to do.
RealGM: Have you ever thought about playing in the D-League?
Rice: I thought about it but not much. I just want to go out and have fun playing basketball and be able to provide the right things for my family. To play in D-League is OK, but playing in the Euroleague to me is the second-best thing to playing in the NBA. If you can’t play in the NBA and you play in the Euroleague, you are almost just as good.
RealGM: Talking about your new team, why did you decide to sign with Lietuvos Rytas Vilnius this summer?
Rice: I thought it was great situation for myself. I knew they had a new coach coming in and I heard a lot of good things about him. I knew some players coming here and I knew we were going to have a great team. And being able to qualify for the Euroleague was another great thing. I thought it would be good for any player’s resume.
RealGM: Once you got here, you said you were ready to lead this team. After those friendly games, do you still see yourself as a leader of Lietuvos Rytas?
Rice: I’m still just learning my teammates. I think I can be one of the leaders of this team. I’m not coming over here and trying to take over but being a point guard, I have to be able to turn the team in the right direction.
RealGM: Did you have a chance to practice with Jonas Valanciuas or see him playing?
Rice: He didn’t practice with us yet but I have seen him play. I know he’s going to help me and I really think I can help him also. He’s going to be a really good player.
RealGM: Did you watch EuroBasket 2011?
Rice: Actually, I watch it every year. I watched the European Championships and World Championships. There are a lot of guys who you may not have ever heard of. But they are great in Europe—you just didn’t hear about them at home. Watching EuroBasket is like watching a bunch of great players playing at one time. It’s good to watch different people and learn from them.
RealGM: You probably saw Bo McCalebb’s superb performance at EuroBasket 2011. Would you consider an offer to play for a European country if you get one?
Rice: If that opportunity came on my away, I would probably take it. I don’t see how it could hurt me and my career. It can only make me better. More experience and more people would see me. It would be a great opportunity.