Sure, basketball, the kind of set-the-pick, hunt-the-rebound, swat-the-shot, dunk-loudly basketball that Clint Capela was brought to Atlanta to play, can be hard. It is no work for the meek, and the Hawks are benefitting greatly from it these days.
But, then, Capela is no stranger to hard. How about the different kind of difficult of being the child of an African emigree to Switzerland, a single mother who was so financially desperate that she felt compelled to give her two sons over to foster care?
So, from the age of 6 to 12, Capela spent five days a week at a group home, returning on the weekends to reunite briefly with his mother.
“It was like almost every weekend you have a heartbreak. Every Sunday night was like the worst day for me. Around 5 p.m. to have to go back, it was so hard every single week,” Capela remembered.
That there is a special connection between Capela and children who grow up in some fractured way is understandable. That his charitable foundation in Houston, from where the Hawks plucked him in February in a convoluted four-team trade, is dedicated to helping children in foster care and those of single-parent households is merely the natural extension of his own pain.
Then, how about this? Basketball in one language is tough enough. What about trying to take a raw game from culture to culture, only to discover that some of the greatest challenges live outside the gym?
Capela left Switzerland as a teen to play at the elite level in France. The list of great Swiss basketball players could fit on an index card with room left for next week’s grocery list. Former Hawk Thabo Sefolosha was the lone role model Capela had coming up, his exploits in the NBA being regular grist for the Swiss sporting media. When Capela had a chance to meet Sefolosha in France, it was like meeting royalty. “I was really star struck,” he remembered. “Damn, that’s an NBA player right there. In Europe you don’t get a chance to see NBA players, ever.”
Although until he outgrew the sport, the 6-foot-10 Capela would have bet you his future rested in soccer. Even now, when given the opening to brag on his skills in the hands-free sport, he laughingly lunges at the chance: “Man, I was amazing. I had a chance. If I was 5-8, probably be playing for Real Madrid. I’m fine with the NBA, though.”
Discovered by the same French team that launched Sefolosha, Capela got some early experience dealing with and overcoming homesickness. Then, when the Houston Rockets drafted him in the first round in 2014, he ran into another issue - a thorny language barrier.
You couldn’t know it now listening to him handle English as easily as a musician handles scales, but as an NBA rookie, Capela had big issues with the simplest forms of communication.
“My rookie year was really hard. I had to really force myself to talk to the guys, be around the guys, coaches, watch film,” he said.
Capela is so very articulate on how poor his articulation was: “My intonations were really bad, the way I put words and asked questions. I remember some nights I couldn’t sleep thinking, ‘Wow, tomorrow is going to be so hard.’
“I was living in this apartment and in the elevator, I hated to say, ‘How you doing’ to people because it was not normal for me to say that. I didn’t really want to have conversations with people knowing I wasn’t comfortable enough to do it. I had to force myself to do it, every day say, ‘How you doing, how’s your day?’ I had to force myself to communicate with people every day.”
These days, the difficulties are largely the stuff of memory, a point of pride, really, when Capela goes back to Geneva, convenes with old friends from the foster home and, he said, “They remind me how far we’ve come and how life is today.”
Now Capela is the singular Swiss basketball pro that other kids can read about on their way to school.
Now, six years into his NBA life, there appears no trace of a communication gap. The Hawks had to wait to work with Capela until this season, as he spent the premature close of the Hawks’ portion of the 2019-20 season nursing a heel injury. Even though he said there are differences to the pick-and-roll game he played so well with James Harden in Houston and the one with the Hawks and Trae Young, there has been a seamlessness to his move here.
“I tell you, we’re a whole lot better with him,” Young said.
With him: There have been some plain stupid stat lines lately. Like Capela’s first career triple-double Jan. 22 that reads like so few others – 13 points, 19 rebounds and 10 blocks (repeat, 10 blocks) against Minnesota. Just the game before vs. Detroit he went for 27 points and 26 rebounds and five blocks, making him one of only five players in the league to go for at least 25-25-5 in the past 35 years.
Without him: While Capela was missing with an injured hand Sunday, a Hawks team that ranks third in the NBA in rebounding, was outrebounded 52-27 during a loss to Milwaukee.
He currently ranks second in the league in rebounding (14.5 per game) and third in blocks (2.3 per). The Hawks will tell you that banking on the Swiss can be every bit as advantageous as banking with them. This team has plenty of 3-point shooters (Capela has attempted exactly two in his career). They required some authority nearer the rim.
And Capela, in turn, has a new stage upon which to show himself.
“This is a place I can get my best and prove it was not just because of James Harden I became who I became,” he said. “I am my own player, and I can be dominant even more with the Atlanta Hawks than I was with the Houston Rockets.
“I’m trying to do everything. I want to be all-around. I feel I can do multiple things on the court. Get offensive rebounds. I can score on the pick-and-rolls. I can score on dump-offs, post-ups sometimes. Blocking shots. Defensive rebounds. Rim runs. I want to be dominant in all of them.”
He seems to feel at home in Atlanta, and when weighing his past, that’s nothing to be taken lightly.