Some of us still remember our first sight of Sergio Llull in a Real Madrid uniform, 10 years ago last fall, on October 11, 2007. It was a preseason game in the old NBA Europe Live series and Llull was still two weeks away from making his Turkish Airlines EuroLeague debut.
Although the game was on Madrid's home court, with former EuroLeague stars Jose Manuel Calderon and Jorge Garbajosa on their roster, the visiting Toronto Raptors had plenty of fans in the crowd. Llull, meanwhile, had only recently arrived to Madrid, having signed to help during the previous spring's domestic playoffs. He had played sparingly in the semifinals and for 3 seconds total in Madrid's 3-1 final series win over archrival FC Barcelona for the title.
Llull wasn't on the senior Spanish national team yet, like his new teammate Felipe Reyes, Calderon and Garbajosa, who had all become world champions just a year earlier together. So before that game tipped off, Lull was not so well-known even to the home fans. By the time it finished, however, there was no forgetting Sergio Llull – even if pronouncing his surname still challenges people a decade later.
Llull was the unexpected difference that night as Madrid won 104-103 for its first victory ever over an NBA team. He was also the same live-wire performer that night that we have seen every game since then, throwing his body around the court, racing everywhere at breakneck speed, hitting extraordinary three-pointers, dishing no-look dimes, and finally making a steal and downing free throws with 24 seconds to assure Madrid the victory.
Llull did it all with an almost child-like joy that reminded us then, as now, that everyone who falls in love with this sport does so as a kid, having all the fun in the world.
Llull returns to the court tonight with what's sure to be a wide smile after missing nearly nine months of action due to an off-season knee injury.
The last time we saw Llull in such an important EuroLeague game was at the semifinals in Istanbul last spring, when he had 28 points and 8 assists against the eventual champs, Fenerbahce, in one of the best Final Four performances ever. Despite that loss and Fenerbahce's incredible closing run for the title, when Llull was announced the next night as the EuroLeague's the full-season MVP, no one in the city of the imminent champions begrudged him that well-deserved honor. Not for a second.
His numbers, consistency and team leadership made Llull the MVP last season. But his unbridled joy at playing the game of basketball made him the sentimental choice, too. Llull is one of those rare players that absolutely every fan would love to have on his own team.
Other players run the floor; Llull ricochets all around it like a pinball. Other point guards direct the offense; Llull leads a battle charge, with trumpets blaring, every time down the floor. Other players take big three-pointers; Llull does so on the dead run, flying sideways and clicking his heels. Other players hit a buzzer-beater now and then; Lllull collects them in bunches.
Of his many stats worth reciting, the most remarkable might be Llull's ranking third all-time among EuroLeague players in assist-to-turnover ratio. It's a lesser-known stat that weighs a player's passing skills against how often he loses the ball due to the risk inherent in trying to make assists. Llull's makes a lot of them – 902 and counting – but given the way he runs wild around the court, you wonder how he also manages to protect the ball better than any playmaker with more than 550 assists this century. Almost counter-intuitively, speed and safety come together perfectly in Llull.
As he returns tonight for his first action of the season in Game 3 of a heated playoffs series against Panathinaikos Superfoods Athens, the sense of anticipation is palpable across the continent. You can imagine that goes double for the home fans in Madrid, who after years upon his dependable thrill-seeking – highlighted by the team's long-awaited ninth EuroLeague title on their home floor in 2015 – surely missed Llull during this long, tough season.
But give his teammates credit. They not only got this far without last season's MVP, but they stepped up in Game 2 in Athens to even the series at 1-1, flipping the home-court advantage in Madrid's favor. His coach, Pablo Laso, said Tuesday that Llull has been practicing at full pace with the team for 15 or 20 days. And knowing how he plays every game as if it were his last, they were not about to bring Llull back unless he was 100 percent ready.
It's unrealistic to expect heroics from someone who has not played a game in 258 days. But would you really be surprised to see him fly head-first into the lap of a fan while making a save? Or pass between his legs and a defender's to set up a dunk? Or launch an acrobatic half-court buzzer-beater, fall backward on the floor, and bounce upright again before it lands through the net?
This is Sergio Llull we are talking about. And he's back where he loves to be. Expect the unexpected.