NEW YORK — It was three hours before the NBA draft and Alex Len needed to hide his shoe so the fans and cameras and reporters wouldn’t spoil the big surprise. Sporting an Italian wool suit handcrafted by a Grand Central Station tailor, Len settled on a white drawstring bag, folding in his size-15 shoe before limping out the hotel door, his partially fractured left ankle still encased in a plastic walking boot.
Len needed the shoe handy because at 8:06 p.m., David Stern stepped toward the Barclays Center lectern, opened a white placard and said, “With the fifth pick in the 2013 NBA draft, the Phoenix Suns select Alex Len from . . . the University of Maryland.” He needed it because, on the biggest night of his life, he wasn’t about to shake hands with the NBA commissioner and smile for pictures without looking his absolute best. That meant temporarily ditching the boot and walking across the stage like a man with two healthy ankles.
Stern’s words, in a way, marked the beginning of Len’s next chapter, a story that began seven years ago when he first moved away his Ukrainian home town to chase an impossible dream. Len immigrated in 2011 to College Park, where he went from a teenager who was nervous to order in English at fast-food restaurants to Maryland’s highest draft pick since Steve Francis in 1999.
“It was crazy,” Len said. “The process — the NBA draft is really unpredictable. So it was crazy. But I’m trying to just enjoy it. Two years ago I had no idea I was going to be here at this point. But I worked hard, and the hard work paid off.”
In some ways, Len still fancies himself a family boy at heart, the grandson of a Ukrainian coal miner, the son of a former train station manager, the same 7-year-old who watched “Home Alone” and strung buckets of water from the ceiling of his apartment as booby traps. Everything is about to change for Alex Len. But in his mind, nothing will.
“The thing about Alex tonight, he was just really happy to be down there,” said Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon, who was on hand at Barclays Center. “He’s not a kid that expects things. He’s just thrilled right now.”
Back on the 23rd floor of his Times Square hotel room, Len put the finishing adjustments on his draft-day suit, scrutinizing himself in a ceiling-scraping mirror specifically brought in to reflect his 7-foot-1 frame. He unbuttoned the jacket and fanned it out, revealing a silky lining of yellow and blue, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. He wanted the full flag itself on one side and the Maryland state flag on the other, but settled for simplicity instead. A red tie represented his Terrapins pride.
Soon, Len will become the seventh player from his home country to play in the NBA, a notion not lost on the 20-year-old as his eyes drifted to the soccer match on the hotel television. He’s still adjusting to the lifestyle of endless attention, custom suits and autograph hounds chasing his taxi three blocks down Eighth Avenue, just to have him sign a few pictures.
The college student in him gets overwhelmed by the big-city lights and constant attention, but the player in him is confident. Come August, the injury will be healed enough that he can resume on-court activities. The next and biggest challenge begins then.
“As long as he stays healthy, he’s going to be a great player,” said Turgeon, who played against new Suns Coach Jeff Hornacek in college and says they have similar coaching styles. “He’s going to work harder than most guys. You look at a kid who just turned 20, he’ll really improve at a rapid rate.”
Less than three minutes after the Charlotte Bobcats selected Cody Zeller fourth overall, a phone rang at Len’s green-room table. As Stern made Phoenix’s pick official, Len stood up, kissed his girlfriend on the cheek and embraced his mother who, coincidentally enough, was wrapped in a pashmina of Suns orange. Then he shook Stern’s hand and walked across the stage, one big brown leather shoe stepping in front of the other.