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PETALUMA

After Josh Akognon told me what he saw, I asked him, "Are you sure?"

Absolutely, said the former Casa Grande basketball star. Then he repeated the anecdote for emphasis and I, still disbelieving, asked again if he was sure. Yep, Akognon said.

OK, I said. But I am still having a hard time getting my mind around what he described.

"I sat on a wall facing traffic," said Akognon, referring to a two-week basketball tryout he had late July in Dongguang, China. "I saw adults on motorcycles, weaving in and out of traffic, driving on the wrong side of the road ... carrying infants in one arm. There are no traffic lanes. There are no cops. People are driving up on sidewalks. Opposing cars come right up on each other, and just before the head-on collision, one stops and the other goes around it. It's like there should be dead people there every minute. It's scary. It's ridiculous."

Akognon stayed on that wall for just 30 minutes. It's all his nerves could take. So when I asked Josh if he was going to rent a car there for him, his wife, Ariana, and 6-week old son, Josiah, I believe I never heard a more firm response.

"We are not getting a car!" Akognon said. "We won't be driving there. No way."

Still, that said, Josh Akognon will be in the fast lane for the next four months. The Dongguang Leopards of the Chinese Basketball League may be halfway around the world, but it's not the end of the world for Akognon and his dream of playing in the NBA. It can't be, not with the money Akognon will be making. It's not end-of-the-world money.

Akognon will be paid a base salary of $150,000. He will receive $10,000 for each team victory, another $10,000 for making the playoffs, another $10,000 for making that league's final four and another $20,000 for making the finals. There are 40 games in the regular season. Do the math and the numbers are impressive. Especially for a guy who is only 24.

Akognon will be making well in excess of $200,000 before the season is over. The Akognons will be staying rent-free in a two-story, two-bath condo. Housekeepers will clean the downstairs once a week. Yes, Akognon said, "I am blessed."

But he is not in Dongguang, a city of a 6.9 million in southern China, just to watch the traffic and wonder if the street mayhem can be turned into a made-for-TV mini series.

"I will be facing Stephon Marbury in my first game," the 5-foot-11 guard said. "I'm going out there to embarrass him. I'm not going to be there to get his autograph."

Marbury, 33, was the fourth overall pick in the 1996 NBA draft. He played 13 years in the NBA, was a two-time All-Star, played for five teams and developed a reputation as a problem child that was almost the equal of his playing ability. That Akognon made such a strong, aggressive statement about Marbury indicated his awareness of professional basketball.

"It's a cold, dirty business," Akognon said, "and the only way to exist in it is be cold and dirty."

That last statement is more reflective of where Akognon has been rather than where he is going. Akognon's first year of professional basketball in 2009 took him to Tallinn, Estonia, which is farther north than Stockholm or Juneau, Alaska. It was a place in which glass windows would freeze on the outside AND the inside. Doors would freeze shut. Residents had a stoic look about them, probably because their faces were frozen as well.

Akognon averaged 15 points a game playing for Tallinn in three different leagues and increased his basketball cache as a result. But when asked if he would have returned to Estonia for a second season, Akognon was almost as firm in his response as he was about driving a car in China.

"Never again," Akognon said. "I don't want to go anywhere near Estonia. Maybe in 15-20 years, when I can show Josiah where I first started to play professional basketball."

Playing in China, however, marks a significant upturn in his basketball life, so much so the upcoming season represents a tipping point in his career.

"The place to play is in Europe," Akognon said. "That's where you go to prove yourself ready for the NBA. China has a lot of ex-NBA players but they are the ones who don't have anything to prove. This will be my turning point."

Dongguang wasn't the only team to offer Akognon a contract, but the Leopards were the only team that wanted Akognon to play point guard. Everyone else wanted him at the 2, the shooting guard, but there are no 5-foot-11 shooting guards in the NBA. That's why this season is so critical for Akognon. He has to show he can play, and even surpass former NBA players in their decline, that he is worthy of a NBA team.

"I already know I can go to any league in the world," Akognon said, "and score. But if I am going to play in the NBA, I'm going to have to be a point guard. After this year I'll know. And I don't want to go back to China. The place to be is Europe."

That Akognon has had to go to Estonia, now China and then Europe to realize his dream is a sobering travel tour.

"I've had to tuck in my pride," he said.

Akognon has decided to see his glass half-full. He's seen his passport. He's seen the countries stamped on it: Japan, Estonia, Nigeria, Libya, China, Lithuania, Finland, Latvia, Russia and the Ukraine. OK, so he hasn't seen his name attached to the Boston Celtics, as an example, but Akognon knows there's more to life than basketball.

"My parents never thought I would leave Petaluma," said Akognon, laughing at the thought. When he signed a scholarship to Washington State, woo-hoo! Josh is going all the way to Spokane! Now, that would be like Akognon going around the corner to pick up milk at the 7-Eleven.

Akognon has left Spokane in his rear-view mirror. He is looking forward to the day he can say the same thing about Dongguang, China, and its traffic.

For more on North Bay sports, go to Bob Padecky's blog at padecky.blog.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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