When he goes to the gym at the University of Utah these days, there are players there who don't recognize him. Danny Vranes is just another older guy who, as they learn quickly, can play a serious game of basketball. But it isn't just students and gym rats who don't know him. One day recently, Vranes found himself working out with Shawn Bradley under the tutelage of the Utah Jazz strength coaches. Bradley and Vranes fell into conversation, and then, after several minutes, it happened.
"Now where did you play ball?" Bradley asked.Is Danny Vranes that old? Is he that forgotten? Is Europe that far away? How could these kids - Utahns, no less - not know of Danny Vranes? It was only 12 years ago today that Vranes was in Bradley's position - waiting in New York for the NBA draft and a cinch to be among the first few players chosen. How could these kids not know Vranes, a one-time U.S. Olympian and a first-team All-American, first at Skyline High School and later at the University of Utah.
With apologies to Bradley, Vranes is the greatest prep basketball player ever to come out of Utah, period. No one even comes close. He was already a finished product at the time, a smooth, graceful 6-foot-7 prodigy who could run, shoot, dunk, block shots, play defense, handle the ball and leap through the ceiling. And now the next generation of players has forgotten him.
Bradley's question was sobering for Vranes. Wow, I am getting old, he thought to himself. But surely he has left a more enduring mark on basketball than that.
"How quickly people forget," says Vranes. "You'd think being the highest Utah player ever drafted was something special. But this is (Bradley's) day. It's his time to shine."
Until this evening, when Bradley is sure to be the first or second player chosen in the NBA draft, Vranes was the highest draft pick ever for a Utah native or collegian. He was the fifth player chosen in the entire 1981 draft. He was chosen by Seattle, behind Mark Aguirre, Isiah Thomas, Buck Williams and Al Wood, and ahead of Orlando Woolridge, Tom Chambers (Vranes' Utah teammate), Rolando Blackman, Kelly Tripucka, Larry Nance and Eddie Johnson.
Since then, Vranes' career has been a long, sometimes strange venture that has included seven years in the NBA and five in the European pro leagues. At 34, his career is winding down. His children and ex-wife live in Salt Lake City. His daughter plays basketball for Skyline High, just as the old man did. It's time to spend more time with them, he thinks, instead of living most of the year in distant Europe.
Until a calf injury sidelined him last season, Vranes had been one of Europe's steadiest and most enduring American players. The game there doesn't possess the stature or talent of the NBA, but it is close and it is especially demanding on American players. Because each team is limited to two American players, those players must be complete players. "They expect a lot from the Americans," says Vranes. One-dimensional Americans don't last long. Michael Cooper didn't last. Adrian Dantley was cut. So were Reggie Theus, Alex English, Mike Smith and Andy Toolson.
"In Europe, they don't set screens to free you up; you have to be able to create your own offense," says Vranes. "You have to take over a team."
Vranes, who has been selected to Europe's all-star team, has endured by playing an all-around game, averaging some 20 points and 10-plus rebounds per game and playing center, guard and forward.
"It's fun to get involved in scoring," says Vranes, who has had occasional 45-point games.
All of which is ironic. In the NBA, Vranes was considered anything but a versatile player. He was labeled a defensive specialist, which seemed an obvious error to anyone who had seen his skills and athleticism in college and high school.
"Seattle needed defense so much," says Vranes. "They didn't need extra scorers. So I started three seasons just to play defense. Between that and me sacrificing everything for defense, I got labeled. I didn't even look at the basket. It left me limited opportunities to go elsewhere."
After five seasons with Seattle, Vranes, who had been selected to the NBA's all-defensive team, was traded to Philadelphia, but the Sixers already had Julius Erving and Charles Barkley, so Vranes again was cast as a defender. "They wanted me to replace Bobby Jones (another fine defensive player), but I played behind Barkley and got no minutes," says Vranes. "You're not going to stop anyone in five minutes."
After two seasons with Philadelphia, Vranes became a free agent. His agent, Howard Slusher, negotiated with other NBA teams, but then a pro team in Greece offered him some $500,000 to play overseas at a time when such contracts weren't commonplace in the NBA.
"They offered me the world," says Vranes. "Kresimir Cosic (the former BYU All-American from Yugoslavia) wined and dined me for a few days, and they showed me all this money and all these things I could get. I couldn't come close to it in the NBA."
As it turned out, the Greek team wasn't good for the money. Better let Vranes explain this: "The owner was mafia and wouldn't pay me. He gave me bad checks. They repossessed my car (which was supposed to be paid for by the team). The lights in my apartment were turned off. I threatened not to play. He kept promising he'd pay. He made threats to my family, so I sent them home. We had a big game coming up, so I said I wouldn't play. I was in a friend's office arranging to leave, when (the team owner's) bodyguards came in. They were big guys. One of them held me back while the other two beat up my friend and dragged him out of there. They kidnapped him. They said I'd never see him again if I didn't play. I had to play the game. Then they let him go. I left (the country) after the game. There were lots of stories about it in the newspaper. It was unbelievable. He ended up getting shot, but he lived and now he's in jail.
"I came home for 10 days, and then Italy called, and I've been there ever since. Now any player who's going to (play in) Greece calls me. Agents have been afraid to send players there. Because of what happened to me, Greece adopted a rule that every contract has to be approved, and if it's approved the team has to pay off that contract or it won't be eligible for two years."
Vranes has remained in Italy. A few years ago, he discussed returning to the NBA with the Utah Jazz, but "it was to be the ninth or 10th man . . . I want to be in the NBA, but it was a business decision. The money was not comparable to what I make in Europe. The Jazz made an offer, but it didn't work."
So Vranes will play at least one more season in Italy, out of the NBA limelight, which is another piece of irony. Vranes was the more celebrated of the Chambers-Vranes duo at Utah, but it has been Chambers who has thrived in the NBA, while Vranes is finishing his career on another continent. If he hasn't quite met the expectations his prodigy promised, he has made a long, successful career of his sport nonetheless.
"I feel bad in the sense that I wish I had been able to play to my potential (in the NBA)," he says. "That's frustrating. I had good games and seasons and was a starter. But that wasn't my potential. I thought of myself as a Dan Majerle type - a scrapper and hustler who could score and rebound and do what the team needed. I never got on track with my ability. I hear stuff in Salt Lake: What happened to you? But they don't know. I can hold my head up."