Pablo Prigioni leaves stardom behind in Spain for challenge of NBA, Knicks

Pablo Prigioni of the New York Knicks controls

Pablo Prigioni of the New York Knicks controls the ball against the Washington Wizards. (Nov. 30, 2012) (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

There's something inspirational about watching 35-year-old Pablo Prigioni dart around the basketball court as if he were a kid a couple of years out of college.

As the oldest rookie in the NBA, Prigioni is a role model for the middle-aged. He is a sports figure who by his very existence sends a message that it is not too late for the rest of us to train for that marathon we've always wanted to run or apply to that graduate school we always dreamed of attending.

Yet as much as the Knicks point guard likes the idea of inspiring others, he has a confession: Playing in the NBA was never something high on his to-do list.

"It was not my dream," Prigioni said after a recent practice. "So many of my friends, they had done anything they could do to come over here and play in the NBA. But to me, I was happy with European basketball."

Happy enough that he had rebuffed several overtures from NBA teams, including the Knicks, during the last couple of years. Prigioni, who was voted the best point guard in the Spanish ACB League three times, made a good life for himself in Spain after moving there from his native Argentina in 1999. He met his wife there, had a family and made enough money to feel financially secure.

If not for the persistence of his good friend, Luis Scola, Prigioni still would be in Spain instead of helping to give the Knicks the kind of depth they'll need to make a serious run at an NBA title.

Scola, a power forward for the Phoenix Suns and a teammate of Prigioni's on Argentina's national team, knew the Knicks were going to go after Prigioni again in the summer. And he was convinced that it would be a giant mistake if his friend didn't listen this time.

"He's a great player, and he belonged over here," Scola said in a recent phone interview. "I tried to convince him that this is something he had to do, that he had done everything he could do in Europe. I did not give him well-balanced advice. I told him he had to come here."

Prigioni turned 35 on May 17, about a week after the Knicks were eliminated by the Heat in the first round of the playoffs. Though he didn't think he needed the letters "NBA'' attached to his resume to be happy, he began to see that it was getting harder to challenge himself as he got older.

"I decided that I wanted one more challenge in my life," Prigioni said. "Why go down at the end of your career? I thought what would be the biggest challenge for me. I wanted to see if I could help an NBA team."

There were times early this season when Prigioni might have wondered if he made the right decision. His wife, Raquel, missed their family and friends in Spain. Early in the season, Prigioni wasn't seeing much playing time as the third point guard behind Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd.

But that changed Nov. 28 in a game against Milwaukee that launched a five-game winning streak heading into Saturday night's game in Chicago. With Kidd out with back spasms, Prigioni had 11 points and seven assists, including eight points in the pivotal second quarter.

He followed with eight points and five assists in a win over the Wizards, the highlight of which was a 35-foot alley-oop to J.R. Smith, who slammed home a reverse dunk.

"He's a pass-first, shoot-second guy, and teammates love that," coach Mike Woodson said. "He knows how to run pick-and-rolls, and defensively he's a pest. He gets after guys defensively. He's a smart, intelligent player that knows how to play, and we're benefiting from his play, which is kind of nice."

With Kidd back, Prigioni's minutes have gone down, but he found a way to make some important contributions against the Heat on Thursday, going 3-for-3 from the field, including a big three-pointer in the second quarter.

Being a part of that kind of big victory makes Prigioni understand why his friends pushed so hard for him to come to the NBA.

"I think this team is a very good one and it's a great opportunity,'' he said. "Anything I can do to help them win a championship, I want to do it."

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