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A world of talent, a world of options

This Swedish hoops star is the son of a Phila. Catholic League MVP.

Number 22 William Magarity (left) playing for the Banca Sella Pallacanstro Beilla (Italy) team vs Khimki, shoots over a player during their game in London in February 2010. (Photo by Sarah Pegg)
Number 22 William Magarity (left) playing for the Banca Sella Pallacanstro Beilla (Italy) team vs Khimki, shoots over a player during their game in London in February 2010. (Photo by Sarah Pegg)Read more

NORRKÖPING, Sweden - The clean air and fresh colors of a basketball training hall in this friendly city just off the Baltic Sea seem a world away from the sweaty Palestra of in-your-face Philadelphia.

Far enough away, indeed, to allow 16-year-old Billy Magarity - the one wearing a Penn State T-shirt - to stand out as he loses his smile and forcefully grabs a missed shot with a single hand, slamming it back through the hoop in a very Philly way.

Magarity, lauded for his elegant moves, is one of the best 16-year-old basketball players in Europe. The 6-foot, 10-incher, who has lived in Sweden his entire life, has a body and so many basketball skills that are still expanding. He is as adept at blocking shots of 7-footers as he is at sinking baskets from small-man's land. More than that, his basketball IQ, his quick understanding of nuances, seems far ahead of his peers.

Perhaps there's a reason for that. Billy's genes trace directly back to the Palestra. There's even a photo there to prove it. He is a true Philadelphia legacy. His father was a Catholic League MVP. His grandfather played rec-league games against Wilt Chamberlain. His grandmother still lives in Mount Airy.

However, as a European, this adolescent faces choices - and potential pitfalls - unlike those in the United States. His father, Bill, excelled at Philly's Cardinal Dougherty High four decades ago, before starring at the University of Georgia and, by chance, becoming a basketball hero, proud citizen, and respected coach in Sweden - before exporting his coaching expertise all over the world.

If Billy were in the United States, he would attend high school for two more years, and likely attend college. If he were good enough to be drafted by the NBA, that could be worth many millions of dollars to him. If he weren't, he would still likely receive a free four years of education as a very tall student-athlete at a very good university.

That's only one of his choices now.

There is no high school basketball in Sweden - and the level of club ball is high, but with a ceiling that he has now hit. So, the young Magarity has decided to relocate.

He can join a top European professional club, keep his amateur status by passing on pay, and later play for a U.S. college; he can accept the kind of big-money offer from a European team a player of his caliber can attract, and thus forfeit his college eligibility; or he can move to the U.S., finish high school, and eventually play collegiate ball.

Last summer, Billy visited top Italian and Spanish pro clubs and turned down a seven-year contract offered by Benetton Treviso, the storied Italian team that produced New York Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni and NBA players Toni Kukoc and Andrea Bargnani. But there will be other offers, coming as soon as this month.

Last year, Billy played in top-level tournaments for Sweden's junior national team. Earlier this year, he received strong reviews from sites such as when he played for an Italian youth team, Banca Sella Biella, in a Euroleague tournament sponsored by Nike in London.

If basketball were the only consideration, then staying in Europe might be an easy choice.

"It would be like putting on rocket shoes," Billy said of how joining a top club's youth team in Spain or Italy could aid his development.

However, attending college in his father's home country also appeals to Billy - both the learning aspect and the basketball. Watching top college games on ESPN, easily accessible in Sweden, he loves the atmosphere he sees.

"Four months ago, he was probably 85 to 90 percent sure he was going to go to a place in Europe," said his father. "Now it's 50-50."

Their life paths, father and son, are wedded to basketball, but couldn't be more different. The father often let the game dictate his path. Combining with his exquisite skills, chance determined Bill's fate as much as deliberate calibration. However, the father and his son want a different route this time, with all options studied. The basketball world is organized - it's no longer a playground game, nor even exclusively an American game - and the Magaritys are keeping up with the times.

Billy really decided he wanted to make the best basketball decision he could - choose the path that will take him the highest - when he was at a Michael Jordan camp last year in Lithuania, invited by Nike to join the top 40 players in Europe who were born in 1993.

For his part, Bill Magarity said he had never left home on Wadsworth Avenue in Mount Airy for an overnight game until he was a senior at Cardinal Dougherty and was invited to play in an all-star game in Ohio.

"There's no wrong choice," Billy's father said of the decision his son faces. "But now he's really thinking, what is the better choice?"

A world game

In some ways, the story of the Magarity family of William IV and William V illustrates how basketball has become a world game. A generation of men who learned the game in musty American gyms took basketball overseas and helped it flourish globally, to the point where top foreign kids now have skills that are foreign to young American players.

Specifically, William V is part of the boomerang of baby boomers who went to Europe to play basketball professionally, married European women, stayed, and produced talented basketball offspring. (Tony Parker is one prominent NBA example.) Another Norrköping product, Jeffery Taylor, now a star for Vanderbilt, is part of that wave.

Back in Philly, the Magarity name is well-known because of its association with auto dealerships. But the Norrköping Magaritys belong to a branch of cousins who made their names as ballplayers. Bill's sister started for Villanova. A brother played Division I basketball at St. Francis (Pa.). Another sister played basketball and volleyball at La Salle. Three of the brothers became coaches - one now coaching the women's basketball team at West Point, another coaching volleyball at Philadelphia University.

Bill Magarity won a Catholic League title with Dougherty in 1970 and was Catholic League North MVP in 1971. After four years as a high-scoring 6-foot-6 forward at Georgia, and after being a last cut by the New Jersey Nets in 1975 (a Julius Erving-led team that went on to win the 1975-76 ABA title), Bill played his entire professional career in Sweden, until age 40.

He obtained Swedish citizenship (while keeping his American citizenship) and played 101 Swedish national-team games, including the European championships and Olympic qualifying. He never returned home except for summers in Sea Isle City.

A national magazine, kind of the Sports Illustrated of Sweden, once put Bill on the cover wearing a Superman outfit.

Magarity had one very brief stint playing in Norrköping (pronounced NOR-sherp-ing). Otherwise, when he was in town, it was as a visiting player.

"He was hated here because he was so good," said Gunnar Hapberg, a reporter for Norrköpings Tidningar, the local paper.

But Hapberg said players such as Magarity and another Philly native, Fran O'Hanlon, the current Lafayette coach who played seven seasons in Norrköping, changed the game in Sweden. As much as their skills, their flair moved the game from tiny halls where fans could watch from balconies to arenas where at least a few thousand would squeeze in.

It may have been the 1992 U.S. Olympic Dream Team that caused a basketball explosion around the world. But Magarity and other pioneers laid the groundwork.

"If Billy Magarity didn't play here, I don't think [Sweden's] Jonas Jerebko would be in the NBA right now," Hapberg said, referring to the Detroit Pistons rookie forward from Sweden who averaged more than 30 productive minutes a game this season.

A fitness buff ahead of his time, Magarity averaged 19.5 points at age 39. Although he was a forward, he was such a strong shooter that he made 44 percent of his three-pointers in the Swedish league - also at age 39.

"He could just do it all - he was great outside and inside," O'Hanlon said of Magarity in his prime. "He had lots of moves. Bill had more fakes. He'd fake you out about 100 times. He'd fake you [again] even when he got you, and still score."

Norrköping and Philadelphia have had a kind of small-scale basketball exchange program for decades, mostly by coincidence. At first, the talent flowed one way. O'Hanlon, a product of West Philadelphia, St. Thomas More High, and Villanova, dazzled Swedes, especially with his dribbling prowess. Paul Burke, point guard for Chestnut Hill Academy and La Salle, settled in Norrköping, married a local woman, and now is an assistant men's coach and head women's coach at the local pro club, known as the Dolphins. Another Chestnut Hill Academy grad, Tim Whitworth, who played for Drexel, played for the Norrköping Dolphins two seasons ago.

In recent years, two Philadelphia women's programs had Norrköping natives in their starting lineups. Villanova's Tia Grant was born in Norrköping when her American father was player-coach of the pro club, playing with O'Hanlon. This season, Drexel had a senior forward raised in Norrköping, Jennifer Stjarnstrom. Her father guarded Bill Magarity in his first-ever game in Sweden.

Palestra memories

In a hallway at the north end of the Palestra, there is a photo display of high school legends who graced the hallowed building. Kobe Bryant rising to the hoop is near a famous photo of Wilt Chamberlain in his Overbrook High uniform holding his arms straight out to the side, palming a basketball in each hand.

In between there is a photo, now 40 years old, of former Overbrook great Andre McCarter dribbling at the Palestra in the city title game. McCarter is identified - but there's another player, not named, a wavy-haired guy guarding McCarter, wearing a No. 35 Dougherty uniform and white knee pads.

It's Bill Magarity.

Bill still can remember his own first trip to the Palestra, when he was in fifth grade.

"My father took us because Bill Bradley was playing," Magarity said. "That's all he talked about for days before, and days after the game - 'Bill Bradley, Bill Bradley, Bill Bradley.' I couldn't understand it because I saw Wali Jones dribble behind his back. I went crazy. Bill Bradley scored, like, 56 points. Who cares about that? This guy dribbled behind his back!"

Back in his day, Magarity was called "probably the best in the history of our school" by his Dougherty coach, Bob Harrington. Magarity tries to instill in his own children the basketball toughness he learned in Philadelphia gyms and playgrounds, from older men such as Harrington, a former Temple captain.

"Maybe the best thing I could do is ship him over and [have him] play in the Sonny Hill League for a summer," he said of his son.

It might not be a bad idea. Paul Burke, the former La Salle guard, said he believes European youths are "a little bit ahead" now in terms of shooting and ballhandling technique. However, Burke sees one big advantage for American kids - especially Philly kids.

"To step on somebody's throat when they're down - keep going, keep going, keep going - they don't understand it," Burke said of Swedish players. "They don't have that killer instinct to be the best. They have the instinct to give 100 percent, try your hardest. . . . They have words in the language, like lagom - it's not great, it's not bad, it's OK. It's not even OK - it's floating along. We don't even have a word in our language for that."

It began with Erf

The Magarity sports lineage may have started with William III, known as Erf.

In addition to hoops at Roman Catholic High, Erf played end for Roman's 1947 Catholic League championship football team, still considered one of the best in the city's history. That group won a mythical state championship by taking out Frankford in front of 55,000 people at Franklin Field, including the governor of Pennsylvania.

The old man knew basketball. He'd played summer games with Wilt and John Chaney and other city legends and went to Mississippi State for a year on a basketball scholarship before coming home to work and raise a family. For a time, he played with a traveling House of David basketball team using an assumed name.

Later, when Erf made it to Bill's games, he'd be up in the stands at the Palestra or some other gym, cupping a cigarette in one hand, waving the smoke away with the other. Afterward, he wouldn't necessarily mention the 25 points his son had just scored when offering a critique. He was old-school that way.

"Some games, I'd just tell him I had a ride and hitchhike home," Bill Magarity said with a laugh.

Erf wanted Bill to go to St. Joseph's, to play for Jack McKinney, who had offered a scholarship. He talked to his son a lot about how playing for the Hawks would set him up for life after basketball if he wanted to stay in Philadelphia.

Erf just didn't know that his son's life would always revolve around basketball, but not Philadelphia.

Youth team has pro ties

Billy's local youth basketball team is affiliated with the professional Norrköping Dolphins. The arena has two practice gyms, each about the size of larger American high school gyms. There also is a 3,000-seat main arena, used only by the men's and women's pro teams, and an indoor track that rivals the best that Pennsylvania offers.

Even the smaller gyms are well equipped and organized - picture basketball by Ikea, with closets painted bright orange, each shelf inside full of balls.

Bill Magarity, a passionate professional basketball coach, available for hire anywhere in the world, works with Billy and his local teammates on their fundamentals, once or twice a week. As part of a full-court, full-speed drill, all the teenage Swedes, even the big men, were unknowingly imitating Wali Jones, dribbling behind their backs.

"Yeah, it's got to be tight," Bill Magarity said, demonstrating to boys named Ludde, Adi, and Niklas how the dribble had to be right behind their backs as they practiced step-back dribbles and other fundamentals.

Magarity is willing to spread his expertise globally. He had his bags packed, ready to coach in Japan last year when the job fell through, he said, and also talked to a club in Malaysia. He has coached three Swedish clubs, including one an hour's drive from the Arctic Circle, and spent two years coaching in Saudi Arabia. He has also coached in Germany, Austria, and Ukraine.

When Billy and his 13-year-old sister, Regan, were young, the family moved back to Norrköping so they would have a home base while Bill was off coaching.

It is the hometown of Bill's wife, Ammi, who is nearly 6-foot-4 and a former member of the Swedish national basketball team, although she never played the game until she was 17. She grew up riding horses on her family's 300-acre farm. Magarity knew that his father-in-law was perplexed when Ammi brought him around.

"He would try to figure out - 'What does this guy do for a living?' They were not sports people. He never really got it," Bill Magarity said. "Basketball? This is what you do for a little hobby."

Regan, too, has inherited the family's basketball gene. She is already 5-foot-10 and dominating national tournaments, despite playing a year or two up in age-group competitions. Next year, she will be eligible for a youth national team.

Sitting at lunch recently, the family wondered - how many other families around the world have had a father, mother, and all the children playing basketball for a national team?

Youths networking

At dinner the night before, Billy mentioned to his father that a youth team run by Benetton - the top Italian pro club where Billy had a tryout last summer - had made the quarterfinals of the European youth tournament.

"Where did you read that?" his father asked.

"You know the Croatian kid that was in Benetton?" Billy said. "I have him on Facebook. He put a notification out."

As the world keeps getting smaller, so does the basketball world - many of the top young players know each other, and play against each other in competition. ESPN America shows college and NBA games every night in Sweden. Bill Magarity could dissect Syracuse's team this past season as easily as anybody in Big East country. Within the family, basketball discussions often come around to Billy's decision: Where will he be in the fall?

In some ways, it's getting late for Billy. Last year, when Benetton offered him the seven-year contract, the length of the deal and its restrictive terms caused Billy to turn it down.

"That's, like, half my life right now," Billy said of the contract. "It would be OK if I had [contractual] outs and stuff like that - it was just outs for them, nothing for myself. It's actually a two-year deal for them, but seven for me."

Bill Magarity said teams offering a long-term deal would structure it so the first couple of years would include housing, expenses and a salary of maybe 25,000to 30,000 euros ($33,000 to $40,000) - that's for a 17-year-old - and then push it up to six figures after that. However, if Billy isn't good enough to help the full professional team, the club could drop him after two years after a limited investment, with another out for the club after four years.

Billy was sorely tempted, though, and the family has stayed in touch with the club. Benetton, based in the small city of Treviso near Venice, is known for producing big-time pros, including Bargnani, now with the Toronto Raptors after being the first pick of the 2006 NBA draft.

"It blows me away - I love the place," Billy said of his visit to Treviso. "How it was organized, the living situation, the basketball. Everything was dead-on. I would probably live with another guy in a decent-sized room. You lived right next to the restaurant, and the restaurant was right next to the [sports] hall. Right outside your dorm was the bus stop that took you right outside the school. It was easy living."

Billy was eager to be a part of it.

"The way they worked, the tempo, the things the coaches did. It was like - how can these kids do this?" Billy said, loving the attention to basketball details.

Last year, Billy also visited three Spanish clubs and worked out for them. They were most impressed with a club just outside Barcelona, Joventut Badalona, well known for producing phenom Ricky Rubio - a lottery pick in last year's NBA draft who decided to stay in Europe. They continue to talk seriously with the club for next season.

The family also is seriously investigating American prep school options, such as Blair Academy in New Jersey, and others in Florida and Maryland.

This process has had its tensions, both father and son said.

"I just want to be able to know exactly what's going on, even if I have to wait," Billy told his father in March. "I want somebody to say, 'We're going to contact you in May; we're going to put a proposal together.' "

Now that it's May, the process is moving.

The conservative choice may be to head back to America to eventually play college ball. In an odd twist, the full-speed-ahead option - the American way - would be to join a big European club. That would be the faster track.

"If we were living in the United States," Bill Magarity said, "it would have been a much simpler process."

At the lunch table, Billy's younger sister listened to the pros and cons of the various options and made it clear that she doesn't plan to face the same dilemma. She watches ESPN, too.

"She wants to go to the States," her mother said.

"I want to go to UConn," Regan said, speaking English with a Swedish lilt.