Edy Tavares sat with BasketNews to discuss his thoughts about what the upcoming campaign might hold for him and Real Madrid, his love for defense, and the reasons things didn't work out for him in the NBA.

Credit: Giovanni Gagliardi, ZUMAPRESS.com - Scanpix, Emilio Cobos/acb Photo | Basketnews illustration/M.Bertys
Credit Giovanni Gagliardi, ZUMAPRESS.com - Scanpix, Emilio Cobos/acb Photo | Basketnews illustration/M.Bertys

Walter Tavares can be described as a gentle giant. No matter how fierce he looks on the court, he's ready to put on his brightest smile whenever the occasion calls for it. 

For a boy that first got into basketball at an advanced age compared to most professional athletes, his relationship with the sport was a matter of chance to a great extent. As a child, while growing up on the small island of Maio (Cape Verde) populated by 7,000 inhabitants, his dreams were captured by football.

But genetics and a series of events decided otherwise. At the age of 16, the boy from Maio was already lifting 2.13 meters off the ground and his wingspan exceeded 2.30. He didn't know the secrets of basketball, but physically he was huge.

A German businessman, named Jurgen, was amazed one day, while walking in Maio, with the boy's size. Fate would do the rest. The word got out to Raul Rodríguez, then director of Gran Canaria's youth team, and some months later, a small expedition of the Canarian club traveled to Cape Verde to see Tavares live.

It was August 2009, and Walter hardly knew how to play. But his height, the coordination of his body and an unquenchable interest in learning, made him a diamond in the rough. In October of that same year he traveled to Gran Canaria, and things started to fall into place. 

He improved his body, adapting it to the demands of high competition but, above all, he was assimilating technical and tactical concepts, to really take advantage of his physical mold. He would make his ACB debut at the age of 20, in January 2013 - four years after first touching a basketball.

His skills couldn't go unnoticed in the United States, where the Atlanta Hawks picked him in the second round (number 43) of the 2014 Draft. He would postpone his departure to the NBA for a year, although Gran Canaria lost in the EuroCup finals. Still, Tavares was named to the competition's Best Five. 

Alas, the American adventure turned into frustration for the Cape Verdean big man who had already grown into 2.21 meters. Tavares had eleven NBA games with Atlanta in his first season with the Hawks, spending a good part of time in the G League. The same happened in his second year. 

When the Hawks cut him - at the end of October 2016 - the Raptors first signed him and then assigned him to their affiliate team. Tavares won 'G League Defender of the Year' honors, before the reigning champs Cleveland Cavaliers gave him a chance.

His luck seemed to have changed, but nothing could be further from the truth. He only saw playing time in one game, when the main rotation rested - and to top it off, he fractured his right hand in May 2017. That was the last straw.

"All the players want to practice, and then look forward to playing. You're not there to practice all the time and never play," Tavares tells BasketNews.

"So, you end up getting frustrated and not liking basketball so much because you feel like you can't take that step further to be able to play, or prove that you can be in this league."

Credit AP Photo/John Minchillo

Back in 2017, the African center was just looking for an opportunity and some consistency in the NBA, enough to be able to prove his worth. He didn't have it. When Real Madrid showed up later that year, few would guess that it would be a match made in heaven for both sides. 

Tavares became all the more acquainted with the requirements of high-level basketball, enjoyed coach Pablo Laso's trust, and had a big impact on Madrid winning their tenth EuroLeague trophy in 2018. At the same time, Tavares was getting unanimous recognition: he was voted twice (2019, 2021) 'Defensive Player of the Year’ in the EuroLeague, he was named to the All-EuroLeague First Team twice, in addition to being the perennial shot-blocking king in the ABC by winning the award five times. 

Having found baslance and stability in Madrid, on and off the court, Tavares extended his contract until 2024. By the time the agreement expires, he will be 32. And the NBA? Right now, as he confesses, it takes a back seat. 

"Now, I'm very comfortable at Real Madrid. I'm developing a lot as a player, enjoying basketball," he says. 

Tavares' imposing size, timing to deflect or block passes and shots, as well as his increasingly better defensive reading have rendered him a unique player in Europe.

Certainly, the three defensive seconds rule makes it easier for European teams to saturate the paint- and no player has taken more advantage of it than Tavares. That's why he's widely regarded as Europe's best rim protector.

A couple of days before the 2022-23 EuroLeague season tips off, Edy Tavares sat with BasketNews to discuss his thoughts about what the upcoming campaign might hold for him and Real Madrid, his love for defense, and the reasons things didn't work out for him in the NBA.

What are your feelings before this season starts for Real Madrid in the EuroLeague?

Like everyone else, I'm really looking forward to starting the season. As players we are very happy because the EuroLeague is one of our goals, a title we can fight for. Hopefully, we can be in the final again and win it.

It's the first season, after almost ten years for the club and five years for you, without Pablo Laso on the bench. If you could describe or put a title to the Laso era, what would it be?

I think the word that best describes it is fantastic because, if I'm not mistaken, he has won more than 22 titles in the 10 years he was here. As a coach he was fantastic because he always tried to get the most out of all the players who came to the club. We will remember him forever.

What kind of coach is Chus Mateo? To what extent is he similar or different from Pablo Laso? Given that the two had been working together for many years, how has this transition been for the players?

I think the transition has been easy. The two hit it off very well, and Chus was preparing our games the right way. Not much has changed, but always a coach wants to put his signature or his way of playing. Basically, nothing has changed. They are two great coaches. Chus has the experience of coaching first teams for a long time.

Credit imago images/AgenciaLOF-Scanpix

What's his signature as a coach?

I think he likes to play with all positions, from five to one. He has plays for everyone and likes us to play as a team. He and Laso are the same. The differences are very small. He always insists that the ball goes inside, or when the ball  is inbounded, he always tries to find a way for the offense to work.

What kind of particularities will the clashes with Barca hold this year?

Particularities have existed for millions of years. The two clubs have met a thousand times and it has always been a big battle. It will always be like that because they are two teams that play in the same country and they both want to rule Spain. I think the best games in Europe are involving those two.

Credit ACB

You have been voted Defensive Player of the Year in the EuroLeague and the ACB league for two consecutive seasons. At first glance, it seems normal for a man of 2.20 m. to exert so much intimidation with his size, as blocks come easy to him. But how did you get to the point of becoming an immensely impactful player?

It's part of trying to find your place in the team. We know that at Madrid, everyone has to do what they do best to help the team. I really enjoy defending but at the same time, I have to give a lot on offense and improve.

If you don't like defense, it's not going to work. For a very big man like me, blocks seem easy, but tell me: how many guys over 2.20 m. or 2.15 m. have been better defenders or have had a high average in blocked shots? People always think that being very tall makes things easy. A big body is more difficult to move and needs more practice. 

Why do you like defense so much?

I don't know. I guess it's since my first coach told me, "If you defend, you're going to play in any team in the world." Those words stuck with me since I was 16 years old. At that time, I didn't play as much as I wanted to, and I didn't even know what my position was in basketball and what I could develop into.

When he took me aside, he explained to me in detail that if I defended with the wingspan and the speed I had, I could play in any team in the world. I took it very seriously and that has helped me get to this level very quickly.

Do you feel like you can play in any team in the world?

Of course I do. It depends on the opportunities, where you end up, and each one's luck. A million things.

Was there a teammate or opponent that has helped you learn more about the game and about yourself as a player?

There are a lot. The one that has marked me the most is Eulis Baez who is now playing at Betis. I think he's a player who has been very hard on me, and also very demanding of me.

He would say everything to my face. Eulis never told me 'well done'; he would always tell me what went wrong and what I had to do. He was killing me in practice so that I played harder. But there are others, like Rodrigo (Mascarenhas) from my country's national team, or Felipe Reyes, whom I've always asked how to get to a good rebounding position.

I keep learning things next to my teammates like Vincent Poirier. He has a lot of interesting things to pick up. I am open to the advice that any center can give me. But Eulis Baez is the one who has marked and helped me the most.

Which are the players that make things more difficult for you than others?

The most tough to guard are the ones that usually shoot three-pointers. You have cover a very long distance, and with so many EuroLeague point guards capable of taking advantage of everything, it's gotten a little more complicated.

But it is what it is. There's no going back. I've got to keep fighting and try to always be on time defensively. 

Real Madrid are making their EuroLeague season debut  in Athens facing Panathinaikos. In the last clash that was played at OAKA, the Greek team prevailed while Giorgos Papagiannis had a great game with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks.

After the match, he said he's "always more motivated to play against an opponent like Edy. It's a great duel." Papagiannis also recalled that the two of you had faced each other in the G League. How do his words sound to you?

It's a normal rivalry. All great players want to face their counterparts. I love playing against him. We've come to play a lot against each other since our time in the G League.

I think he's a great player too, very difficult to defend. I have seen that he has put in a lot of work, and lost a lot of weight. I think he's in the best shape of his life. I am very happy for him, but he is always a great opponent to defend.

What makes him difficult to defend?

When Calathes was there, he made things tough for me because he used to make those lob passes at the right time, and played the pick 'n roll. Papagiannis is a tough matchup because he's very tall as I am, moves away from the basket as well, and the recovery has to arrive in a good timing. It depends on how the game is played out. 

Credit Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

How is it possible that the most decisive center on the continent only played 13 games in the NBA?

I think it was the lack of opportunity. I was practicing and sweating, trying to prove that I could play and have a place there. I haven't been as lucky as Rudy Gobert, who ended up in the Utah Jazz that trusted him from the beginning.

I was unlucky enough to get into a bad team. I was in Atlanta that didn't compete for the playoffs, and the coach didn't trust me that much either. It's not just a question of timing or the time period. I just didn't have a chance.

It all depends on luck, and whether the coach wants there; it's not about the GM brainwashing you and telling you that you have to come because "you're going to be a great project for the future."

The coach must want you there, so that the team is counting on you, and so that they develop you from the beginning to the end. Then, you will get the reward of being able to play, and you'll have no doubts about whether they really wanted you or not.

I realized that regardless of how lucky I was, I still had to work hard. If you work, maybe later you can enjoy a few minutes on the court.

Did you feel uncomfortable being there?

Yes, I did. All the players want to practice, and then look forward to playing. You're not there to practice all the time and never play.

So, you end up getting frustrated and not liking basketball so much because you feel like you can't take that step further to be able to play, or prove that you can be in this league.

Was there a point where you thought about a possible return to the NBA? Have you had offers or contacts with any franchise?

No, no. I always try to focus where I'm at. Now I'm very comfortable at Real Madrid. I'm developing a lot as a player, enjoying basketball. Whatever comes, it will come later, but now I am focused on helping Real Madrid to the best of my abilities.

I imagine that the taste of being able to lift trophies in Europe with a club like Real Madrid is very sweet. To what extent has your point of view and your mindset changed since you returned to Europe?

What has changed is my self-esteem. You always want to think that an experience like that isn't the end of the world. But then you go to the NBA and you think it's the end of the world and basketball doesn't exist anymore.

Then, you go to a team like Real Madrid, where the organization is almost the same as in the NBA and you keep taking steps forward, enjoying basketball and winning titles... Well, for a player all this is incredible.

In recent years, the club seems to prefer players who have tried to play in the NBA to those who are eager to leave. By the way, was there something that Luka Doncic wanted to know and asked you before he left?

Well, he wasn't asking much. Luka was too calm. I always said that he was born to play basketball. He didn't need anyone to teach him what to do. He has an incredible talent. I just told him that in the NBA, things are going to be very easy for him with the court vision and the height he has playing as a point guard.

Luka has a similar style as LeBron James, who is physically superior than him. But in terms of how they both control and dominate the game, they're very identical.

How do you imagine this season to be?

The goal is to always take a step forward, be better than last year. We know that we didn't play so well throughout the season but we still achieved our goal. We got to the Final Four, and then we played the final.

It all depends not on how tough the journey might be, but on how you finish it. We hope to finish very well and, hopefully, this time we can score two more points to win the game (laughs).

Is there anything you learned from last season?

I learned that it's important to be mentally strong. We had a lot of ups and downs. Losing so many games has never happened to me in my life, in any team I've been with.

I think that mentally those of us who were here when it happened, those of us who have suffered those tough moments, will be much stronger and able to bounce back quicker from any mishaps that we may have this season. Whenever we fall, we'll try to get up fast.

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