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Why basketball star turned his back on the NBA

By Paul Gittings, CNN
updated 12:27 PM EST, Fri January 11, 2013
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rudy Fernandez has won two Olympic basketball silver medals with Spain
  • Fernandez enjoyed spells in NBA with Portland and Denver
  • Back injuries have hampered the 27-year-old's recent career
  • He opted to return to Spain on permanent deal with Real Madrid in 2012

Editor's note:

Fernandez: Basketball is my life

(CNN) -- It's the dream of millions of basketball fans around the world -- to be an NBA star.

But for Rudy Fernandez, who leapt to fame with his "hellacious" dunk in an Olympic final against the U.S. Dream Team, playing in "the best league in the world" was not enough.

Just 27 years old and reaching his peak as a player, he has bucked convention by leaving the NBA and returning to his native Spain.

"Here probably I'm a better player, I can do everything -- not like my years in the NBA," Fernandez told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"The NBA, it's a business for sure, so when you sign a contract you have to know you might get traded to another team, another city. And you start playing 82 games in one season, it's a lot of basketball."

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Fernandez moved to the U.S. after the 2008 Olympic final in Beijing, where Spain lost to the Americans, and spent three years with the Portland Trail Blazers.

"They gave me the opportunity to play in the best league in the world," he said.

However, his later move to Denver Nuggets was not a success -- partly due to a back injury, and partly due to a league lockout that shortened the 2011-12 season to 31 matches.

In the middle of the NBA pay dispute, he signed an interim deal with Real Madrid -- a division of one of the world's biggest soccer clubs -- and enjoyed his time back home so much that he later took up the option of a three-year deal worth a reported €8.1 million ($10.5 million).

"I came here to be the leader and win trophies," he announced on his arrival.

Fernandez has proved as good as his word, averaging nearly 17 points per game for Real in the current Euroleague season and winning rave reviews for his performances. Real also top the domestic ACB league in Spain.

Wind the clock back just over four years and Fernandez had arrived in the United States to considerable fanfare after a standout performance for his beloved Spain in China.

Playing against the might of the U.S. -- this time dubbed the "Redeem Team" following the disappointment of Athens 2004 -- he scored 22 points in 18 minutes of court time.

But it was his audacious dunk over Dwight Howard which was a talking point of the final, eventually won 118-107 by the United States.

Despite the close attentions of the 2.11-meter Howard, Fernandez -- a small forward who stands 1.98m -- brushed him aside before slamming home the two-pointer.

The effort was described as "hellacious" by one U.S. sports writer, who had clearly run out of superlatives, while Fernandez singles it out as a career highlight.

He played football as a youngster on his home island of Mallorca, but basketball ability was in the family genes with both his parents players, while his elder sister Marta plied her trade in the American WNBA before also returning to Spain with her current club Salamanca.

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Spotted by Barcelona-based Joventut, Fernandez was set on the course to be a professional player from his mid-teens and was included in the Olympic squad for the Athens Olympics in 2004 while only 19 years of age.

He went to Portland as the 24th pick in the draft.

"All the community from Portland helped me a lot with the the transition. The first year was difficult, but basketball is basketball," he added.

Averaging 10.4 points and with a formidable conversion rate for three-point efforts and from the free throw line, Fernandez repaid Portland's faith in his abilities during his first season.

His amazing air skills were also noted and he was picked to take part in the four-man NBA Slam Dunk Series at the 2009 All-Star Game.

Fernandez was controversially eliminated at the first round stage but had made a lasting impression, wearing a No.10 Trail Blazer shirt in tribute to former Portland star Fernando Martin, the first Spaniard to play in the NBA.

Martin was killed in car accident in 1989, but had led the way for the likes of Pau Gasol and Fernandez at the highest level of basketball.

He was one of Fernandez's heroes growing up, along with Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

Gasol, five years his senior, was also an inspiration.

"Pau is probably one of the best players in the world, so he's my reference, and I work every year to be better and better," said Fernandez.

With Portland unable to make it past the first round of the playoffs in his time there, Fernandez went to Denver in a three-way trade.

He needed surgery on his troublesome back problem but recovered in time to play at the London 2012 Olympics.

With Spain fielding the likes of the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, Juan Carlos Navarro and himself, they once again came close to upsetting the all powerful U.S. squad.

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Gasol netted 24 points and Navarro 21, but the U.S. edged a thrilling gold medal match 107-100, underlining Spain's rise as a basketball power.

"We are probably the second team in the world. I remember a long time ago in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, no team could compete against the U.S. Dream Team, but now there's a little bit of respect paid by them to the other teams," Fernandez said.

He is not the only member of that team to return to Spain from the NBA.

Navarro left Memphis in 2008 after just one season, and has since been an outstanding player for Real's archrivals Barcelona.

"Right now I think Navarro dominates the Eurobasket," said Fernandez.

"He decided to come back to Spain like me and he is probably one of the best shooting guards in the world as he demonstrated in the Olympics and in the world championships."

Navarro and Pau Gasol would both be 36 at the time of the 2016 Olympics, so their participation is questionable, but Fernandez is hoping to go to his fourth Games.

While Spain dominates football, being the reigning world and European champions, its basketball team is not far behind.

With Fernandez on the roster, it has won the last two editions of the European championship and claimed the FIBA World Cup in 2006.

"I'm ready for Rio. I think we have a good team, a young team with Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and myself."

There is still the possibility that Fernandez, a passionate music fan who has dreams of becoming a DJ, will have another go at cracking the NBA -- if his body can withstand the strain.

"Who knows in two years, three years, I could back to the NBA if I start to feel better about my back."

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