Turkish Airlines EuroLeague
Adidas Next Generation Tournament
Darryl Middleton, Akasvayu
Mar 26, 2008
by Javier Gancedo, ULEBCup.com
He may already be the oldest veteran playing in the ULEB Cup Final Eight, but Darryl Middleton of Akasvayu Girona may never stop competing. Middleton, who will turn 42 this summer, has a special relationship with the city of Girona. It is not unusual to see a player return to a club for a second time during a long career, but Middleton has come back to Girona no less than four times since he first joined the team in the early 1990s. An unstoppable scorer in the prime of his career, Middleton turned himself into a defensive specialist while playing for Panathinaikos during five seasons in his middle-30s, helping the Greens win their third Euroleague title in 2002. Middleton is far from being done, too. In Turin next month, he hopes to lift his third European club trophy: the ULEB Cup! "Winning the ULEB CUp with Akasvayu would be bigger than winning the Euroleague with Panathinaikos for me," Middleton told ULEBcup.com. "There are very good teams out there in the Final Eight, not only the Russian teams, but also Joventut and Pamesa. Anything can happen in one game and we have nothing to lose. We just need to go, play hard, enjoy the game and I think we have a good chance. People don't talk about us as much as other teams, but we are a good team."
Middleton started playing university basketball in his native United States during the mid-1980 and soon stood out due to his speed, soft touch and strength. After two years at Clemson University, Middleton switched to Baylor University for his final two college years, leading the Bears to their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 1988, averaging 19.6 points that season. Middleton was chosen in the NBA Draft but started his professional career before deciding to go overseas and join Cukurova of Turkey alongside Larry Spriggs. Middleton helped Cukurova to make it to the Turkish League finals before moving to Teorematour Arese in the Italian second division. He suddenly became one of the best players in the league, averaging 24.4 points on 66.8% two-pointers and 9 rebounds in 78 games with Arese. Despite having many offers from all around the continent, Middleton decided to move to Spain and join CB Girona, in a move that would change his life.
As he did in Italy, Middleton made a sudden impact in the Spanish League with Valvi Girona due to his mobility, unusual for a big man, intensity and accuracy. Middleton earned Spanish League weekly MVP honors seven times throughout the season and also became the regular season MVP playing alongside veteran shooter Dusko Ivanovic. Middleton scored 14 or more points in each game that season and averaged 24.1 in 40 games. In summer 2002, Middleton joined up-and-coming Spanish force Caja San Fernando, which had also landed legendary shooter Brian Jackson and kept team franchise player Darrell Lockhart. Middleton got a second regular season MVP award in 1993 and helped Caja San Fernando finish fifth and reach European competition, the Korac Cup, for the first time. In his second season in Seville, Middleton led Caja San Fernando to a sixth place in 1994. His two great seasons in Sevilla, averaging 21.2 points in 70 games, were enough reasons for him to get a call from European Cup powerhouse FC Barcelona.
Although his scoring skills were without doubt, for the first time in his career, Middleton was not the first option for Barcelona. Even so, Middleton soon adjusted to his new role, showing his defensive skills to go along with his main offensive weapons, a great turnaround jumper and low-post quickness. Middleton led Barcelona to consecutive Spanish League titles in 1995 and 1996, as well as making his European Cup debut. Middleton averaged 13.8 points in the 1995 European Cup but his team failed to reach the playoffs, and did not take part in the 1996 European Cup, in which Barcelona lost the title game against Panathinaikos, due to restrictions on foreigners. Middleton returned to Girona in summer 1996 for two seasons in which he helped the club avoid relegation, and then played a season for Joventut Badalona, which failed to make the domestic playoffs, too. But if Middleton seemed to be winding down his career at age 33, the best was yet to come. Middleton returned to Girona for a third time, married a local girl and started dominating the Spanish League again. He won a third regular season MVP in 2000, becoming the only player ever so honored three times.
Middleton left Girona again in the summer of 2000 at the calling of then Euroleague champions Panathinaikos. Middleton was asked to become a defensive specialist by head coach Zeljko Obradovic, who made the most out of his toughness, experience and polished offensive skills. "I wanted to play in another big team, I missed that feeling and I was coming off of a great year," Middleton said. "I was hoping that a big team in Spain would call, but nobody did. I was so happy that Panathinaikos and Obradovic called me. All I could say was 'wow, this is the biggest team in Europe!' so I got there to play every game as if it was the last one."
In his five seasons with Panathinaikos, Middleton would help the Greens remain the team to beat in Greece while keeping its status as a powerhouse in the Euroleague. Middleton won four Greek League titles with Panathinaikos - in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005 - always leading by example and working hard. He shined in European competitions, helping Panathinaikos reached the SuproLeague final in 2001. Back in the Euroleague the following season, the Greens played the underdog role to down Kinder Bologna in the 2002 title game in come-from-behind fashion. Middleton shined with 15 points on 7-for-8 two-pointers in the semifinals against Maccabi Elite and had 10 points against Kinder, becoming a key factor to his team's comeback in arguably the most important game of his career.
"We had the smallest team in the Final Four in Bologna and everyone thought Maccabi would beat us in the semifinal," Middleton recalls. "I knew I had to step up, because I was sure they didn't think about me. I knew that if I went out there and had a good game, we would be OK and that's what I did. That game against Maccabi was the most memorable game of my life because it took us to the final. And then we surprised everyone and won the title. I cried with happiness and it was crazy, unbelievable!"
Once he finished his long stay in Athens, Middleton spent a season in Dynamo St. Petersburg, helping the team to reach the Russian League semifinals and the FIBA EuroCup Final Four. Once that team folded, Middleton went home to Girona. His unprecedented fourth go-round with Girona starting at age 40 shocked everyone, but it shouldn't have. Middleton attributes his longevity to great physical conditioning that he works on daily each summer after taking just a week of vacation from the previous season. And he keeps working as hard as ever. Middleton now provides intensity, toughness and experience off the Akasvayu bench and sees that things have changed from his early days in the city. Far from fighting to avoid relegation, Girona is now a perennial Spanish League playoff contender and won its first European title - the 2006 FIBA EuroCup - last season. Now, having reached the ULEB Cup Final Eight, Akasvayu is working on its best season ever - with a 42-year-old as the symbol of its hunger.
"I never imagined that I would coming back to Girona so often in my career, but in my first year here, the people were great, I had a great coach and we did well," Middleton said. "I ended up coming back four times, and that shows how much the crowd and the people in the club appreciate what I have done. Everyone has always been very good to me."