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A Scout in Exile

Adam Tatalovich’s dream was to work in the NBA—as a scout, an assistant, however he could. He pursued that dream all over the globe, working in Europe, Australia, and China. Then COVID-19 hit, leaving him teamless. But that didn’t mean he would give up his dream.

Ringer illustration

The policy was simple: no outsiders. As someone who had trained the NBA’s highest-profile players, Tim Grover insisted on it. He had a close-knit staff that strived to make their famous clients better while protecting their privacy. Discretion was a crucial component of operating a business that catered to NBA royalty. Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. Charles Barkley. Dwyane Wade. Grover has worked with all of them and countless more marquee names.

One day during the summer of 2004, Grover looked over and saw an unfamiliar face at a closed session at his facility in Chicago. They were so busy that afternoon he almost didn’t notice at first. When he did, Grover wasn’t pleased.

The interloper was an unknown kid in his early 20s, not long out of college, desperate to work his way up in professional basketball. His name was Adam Tatalovich. He had started his career as a low-level assistant with the Gary Steelheads of the Continental Basketball Association, the now-defunct minor league that had preceded the G League. Tatalovich was eager for something bigger. He knew someone on Grover’s staff, which is how he worked his way into the gym that afternoon. Normally, that wouldn’t have been enough. Grover’s usual impulse would have been to toss Tatalovich out. But on that day, one of Grover’s guys couldn’t make it and he was shorthanded. And there was Tatalovich with someone to vouch for him. Grover let him stay and put him to work—which is not the same thing as it working out.

“You walk into a facility and you’ve got Dwyane Wade, Juwan Howard, Corey Maggette, Darius Miles, 40 NBA guys,” Grover said. It wasn’t an easy environment. Grover had him rebound and pass to the players in drills. When it was over, Adam asked how he did.

“I said, ‘Listen, everyone hated you,’” Grover recalled with a laugh. It wasn’t so funny back then, at least not to Tatalovich. “I cursed him out and told him how badly he did and asked him to leave.”

Adam left. He’s a big bear of a guy—6-foot-4, sporting a heavy black beard these days—but his physical appearance is the opposite of his personality. He’s even-tempered and easy to talk to, the kinds of unpretentious “Midwest nice” traits that are sometimes misinterpreted as soft.

Grover wanted to see how the new guy would react to getting dressed down in public. He didn’t tell Tatalovich to never come back, but he also didn’t tell Tatalovich to return. Grover was testing what would happen after he “got in his ass” in front of everyone. The next day, Grover got his answer: there was Tatalovich, ready for more.

It served as a lesson to Tatalovich that he’d revisit time and again during his career: keep grinding. It was also a break. Adam worked with Grover for two summers, then managed to hook on with the Chicago Bulls in 2006 as a video coordinator for the franchise. It was a thankless, entry-level gig marked by long hours in windowless rooms logging neverending footage to be reviewed by the players and coaching staff. Tatalovich loved it. And then he lost it. When the Bulls fired Vinny Del Negro after the 2009-10 season and brought in Tom Thibodeau, Tatalovich was also ushered onto the unemployment line, a victim of the behind-the-scenes collateral damage that often happens to support staffers when a team changes head coaches.

“That was always my dream job,” Tatalovich told me over the phone several months ago. He grew up in Hobart, Indiana, a town in the northwest part of the state that sits in Chicago’s shadow. His formative schoolboy years were spent watching Jordan win his first three championships; his late high school and early college days paralleled the last three titles. “If it wasn’t for Jordan I don’t think I’d be in basketball.”

Tatavloich played in high school, but his love of the game exceeded his talent. He became a student manager at Indiana University and vowed to make basketball his profession—a difficult promise to keep to himself without a background as a player or a famous last name to aid him in what is a hyper-competitive and often-cutthroat industry. When he initially signed on with the Bulls, it didn’t matter to him that he was on the lowest rung of a long ladder. He was elated to begin the climb, even as he was gripped by grief; Tatalovich found out he got the job on the day of his grandmother’s funeral. Four years later, he was looking for work again.

That’s how it goes for someone like Adam. When you’re at Tatalovich’s level and most people have never heard of you, it’s not enough to talk your way into the gym. You have to figure out what you’re going to do when you inevitably get kicked out. For every success story, for every Stan and Jeff Van Gundy—two pint-sized Division III guards who beat the odds and became boldfaced names as coaches and broadcasters—there are so many others who never make it in the business in any meaningful way. Instead, they chip away at the edges. They destroy their eyesight watching tape and harden their backsides sitting in the stands at developmental showcases or lesser leagues all over Europe, desperate to catch on with any NBA team that would have them. It’s not easy or glamorous. Some give up and quit on the game, some have the game quit on them.

“Not everybody can be Erik Spolestra,” Tatalovich said. “Not everyone is coming in as the intern and then you become the head coach. I always knew these jobs would only last for so long.”

If you asked him what his dream job is these days, he’d likely tell you he’s more concerned with the second word in that phrase than the first. Employment is what matters above all else. That’s how it goes for someone like Adam who’s trying to rise in an unforgiving profession. He’s 42 now. Single. No kids. He’s devoted two decades of his life to pursuing a career that has only intermittently pursued him back. After the Bulls, it was two years in New Orleans as a video coordinator with the Pelicans, three years as an assistant coach with the Perth Wildcats in Australia, and three years in Sacramento as a video coordinator and personnel scout with the Kings. Nothing lasted because that’s the business. Despite all the effort, Tatalovich realized early on that dedication to the work was no guarantee of working his way up.

When Adam was offered a job as an assistant coach for a team in the Chinese Basketball Association, he hopped on a plane, happy for another opportunity. That was in 2019. Most people pick a lane—scouting or coaching. Not many do both. Tatalovich is the rare case. In China, as an assistant with Guangzhou, the Loong Lions utilized his Swiss-Army Knife skills. Adam started his mornings early, acting as a sort of one-man scout to prepare reports and videos on upcoming opponents for the rest of the staff and players. After that, most CBA teams hold two practices a day without fail. In the morning session, Tatalovich would help with skill and shooting development. In the late afternoon, he’d often stick around after the two-hour session to assist players with finishing drills. More times than not, the bus was already gone by the time they were done, leaving Adam and the players to catch a cab or walk home.

The first season in China went smoothly enough. The second season—well, that was something else entirely, and whatever it was, it was far from smooth. That’s the tricky part of the whole dream job thing, especially in pro sports when there are only so many of those to go around in the first place. Unless you’re extremely charmed, there comes a time when you wonder how long you ought to keep chasing after it—and how far you’re willing to go.

The Chinese Basketball Association usually pauses its season in January or February for the Lunar New Year celebration, scattering scores of coaches and players to sundry Asian vacation destinations for a quick holiday. Some people went to Bali. Singapore was popular too. Anywhere close and warm. Somewhere to decompress. They had five days to kill and a quick trip seemed like a good way to spend it. This was a little more than a year ago—January 2020.

Tatalovich went a different way. He took a break from basketball by watching more basketball. Adam was in his second season as an assistant coach for the Guangzhou Loong Lions. He liked the gig and thought the city was hospitable for a Westerner who didn’t speak the language. He could catch a movie or grab a meal without much trouble, simple pleasures that became more difficult to execute on his own when the team left to play in smaller CBA outposts. But those were minor inconveniences. Tatalovich was there to work. The game is the only industry he’s ever known, and it’s taken him all around the world. He figured he’d use those five days off to let basketball take him a little further.

Tatalovich booked a flight out of Hong Kong, about 85 miles southeast of Guangzhou. Off he went to Istanbul, Turkey. Fenerbahce, one of the top teams in the EuroLeague, was playing. At the time, their head coach was Zeljko Obradovic, a titan who had won nine EuroLeague championships with six different organizations. Adam is friends with him. Adam is friendly with lots of basketball luminaries. They populate his Instagram: Gregg Popovich. Vlade Divac. Del Harris. Jay Wright. Nikola Jokic. Boban.

Tatalovich was especially looking forward to catching up with Obradovic, a Serbian basketball legend. Tatalovich’s family hails from Serbia—his grandparents came to the United States as refugees from the former Yugoslavia—and Adam began serving as an assistant coach with the Serbian national team back in 2016.

“My greatest accomplishment has been as an assistant on the Serbian national team,” Adam said. “My dad and my uncle never went back. I’m the first family member that ever went back. I get some really strong emotions to realize my grandparents had to flee a communist country and they were never able to come back. They both passed away. They worked hard to get me a life in the States.”

While Tatalovich was visiting with Obradovic in Istanbul, he got a text telling him not to come back to Guangzhou for another week to 10 days. Adam wasn’t worried. Everyone was aware of COVID, but the CBA didn’t seem overly alarmed. Coaches and players were given cursory early-pandemic advice: wash your hands, don’t high-five during games, don’t eat out of buffets. Tatalovich figured it was no biggie.

He’d spent years hopping from one job to the next on one continent after another. Playing musical chairs was part of the game—but then it’s only a game until the music stops. Adam didn’t know it at the time he boarded that flight for Turkey, but soon enough he’d look around and realize there was nowhere left to sit.

Tatalovich used the extended holiday break to watch more hoops. He flew to Barcelona and then Athens on a scouting trip. But then a week became two, and two became a month. As time passed, Adam seemed no closer to returning to China or his job.

The nomadic nature of basketball always suited Tatalovich. Perhaps that explains why he didn’t immediately grab the first available flight back to the States when it became clear he wouldn’t be immediately returning to Guangzhou. Besides, where in the States would he go? There was a storage unit he seldom visits in Sacramento, but no apartment or home base. His parents died when he was younger. He has two sisters and aunts and uncles, but when he’s in America, he tends to drift.

“If I went home, where would I stay? That’s always been [a question] in my life,” Tatalovich said. “I always stayed at my friend’s house in Orlando. That’s one thing that weighed on me through the years. I’ve literally lived this nomadic lifestyle that, in a way, I don’t want to say I’m proud of, but I had to adapt.”

His first offseason back from China, he estimated he slept in 25 different places over six weeks. First, he made a pit stop in Philly and hung with former Sixers guard James Ennis and former assistant, now Suns head coach, Monty Williams. From there it was up to New York to visit with Denver’s president of basketball operations, Tim Connelly, while the Nuggets were in town. After that, he was off to Kansas City to see Kelvin Sampson, a friend and mentor who coaches the University of Houston. Then he flew to California. And on and on it went.

This time it was different. As the pandemic raged and he was unable to return to China, Adam found himself displaced in multiple countries, living out of the one bag he’d brought along for what he thought would be a five-day journey. He lived off his savings, and after a while, he had to worry about going broke, too. He was essentially a man without a country.

Tatalovich loves basketball, but he’s not a hopeless romantic. He’s always known what he signed up for, and he’d renew his vows all over again. But for the better part of a year, that relationship was strained as he remained in limbo.

“We say we’re married to the game, but like any marriage there are good parts and rough parts,” Grover said. “You have to persevere and be resilient through both of them. I don’t know too many people who would continue to do what Adam did in the locations he did them. NBA players, you tell them they have to take a job overseas and they say no. With Adam, it’s, ‘You tell me where I need to go work, and I’ll make it happen.’”

Even by those can-do standards, the last year proved to be a taxing journey for Tatalovich, one that would ultimately lead him back to the NBA—but not back to the States.

Tatalovich had time to kill. It wouldn’t be until later when he realized how much. As January 2020 turned to February, Tatalovich was adrift. The CBA didn’t offer much in the way of a timetable—mainly because, like sports leagues everywhere, no one knew what to do or expect. His contacts in China had largely gone radio silent. After catching some basketball in Athens, Adam opted for a pilgrimage.

He headed to Mount Athos. It’s a stunning and serene mountain peninsula in Northern Greece, just southeast of Thessaloniki. Some 20 Eastern Orthodox monasteries dot the landscape, making it a center for the religion since around the 11th century. Tatalovich is Serbian Orthodox. He’s been to so many monasteries in so many countries that he’s lost count. Like his photos with basketball luminaries, Adam’s Instagram features numerous pictures of his visits to places of worship and the people he met along the way.

It was his second time on Mount Athos, a place he found “calm, relaxing, peaceful.” As the rest of the world became increasingly chaotic and uncertain, Tatalovich prayed and ate meals with monks. He called it “food for the soul.”

“I’ve always been enamored with monastic life,” he said.

The irony was not lost on him. He had spent much of his career living alone to pursue a job that had taken him to four continents. In early February, Tatalovich decamped for Belgrade, figuring he’d hunker down and ride out the pandemic.

“That’s kind of when everything started shutting down,” Tatalovich said. “At that point you didn’t know, with COVID, where was safe? Was China safe? Was the U.S. safe? Was Europe safe? Nobody really knew.”

He spent those early days in Serbia retracing his family’s footsteps. He visited his grandparents’ village, a picturesque postcard of a town named Dreznica with roughly 600 residents that sits on a forested plateau just above the Soca River. He thinks there’s a chance NBA Hall of Famer Pete Maravich might be a distant cousin. Adam’s great-grandmother’s maiden name was Maravich, and Pete’s family hailed from the same area. “When we say distant,” Tatalovich said, “there’s a lot of people from the village with the same last name.”

Before long, Belgrade went under what Tatalovich called “hard lockdown.” Still, he was hopeful that China would get the pandemic under control and the CBA would resume play. He was disabused of that notion in mid-March. Tatalovich was in Valjevo, a city in western Serbia, visiting yet another monastery when he got a message saying China had closed its borders, and he realized he wouldn’t be going back.

March bled into April, and April gave way to a host of concerns—chief among them that he was officially unemployed and his prospects were limited. The woman Adam rented his Airbnb from in Belgrade let him convert it from week-to-week to month-to-month. Clothes were another issue, but that was hardly new. A lot of his belongings were left behind in China. He had an apartment’s worth of stuff stuck in storage and out of reach in Sacramento. He left behind a couple of bags worth of clothes in Australia. More of his things were scattered at friends’ houses all across the United States. All he had was the bag he packed for what he thought would be a quick holiday when he left Guangzhou.

“I still make jokes with people,” Tatalovich said. “I don’t know why I packed so much for that five-day trip.”

In that magic bag—a standard-size black Nike duffle with a white swoosh on the side—he had a pair of dress shoes and running sneakers, and all the workout clothes you’d expect for someone who spends endless hours in myriad gyms. He also had a pair of blue jeans, black jeans, two sport coats, a couple of button-downs and a handful of polos. The classic red-and-white Air Jordan 1s that go with him everywhere remained a staple. He bought a winter coat. When it got warmer, he purchased shorts. On his birthday, he treated himself to a pair of Jordans, but otherwise he just wore what he already had. The longer it went, the less he thought he needed. “It’s amazing how far you can get,” he said.

Figuratively. Literally, he was still stuck in Serbia. Or maybe stuck isn’t the right word. He enjoyed Belgrade and found himself wanting to stay. He worked on getting dual citizenship and a Serbian passport—a process that remains ongoing—and he spent his time watching basketball. Doing so online wasn’t a problem. In person it was trickier. Because of his connection to the Serbian national team, he was able to talk his way into different gyms. “There’s the Adriatic League, EuroLeague, EuroCup, Serbian League. There’s a lot of basketball just in Belgrade,” Tatalovich said. “I’m blessed in that regard. Basketball blessings in Belgrade.”

He still needed a job, though.

In early May, Kelvin Sampson had surgery on his right hip. It went so well, he had the left hip done in late July. Part of his rehab routine required walking. Lots of it. In the back of his house, Sampson has what he described as a walking circle. “If Adam would call,” Sampson said, “I’d walk and talk.” Adam called a lot. More times than not the coach got frustrated. Tatalovich seemed oddly Zen about his situation and confident it would work out.

“He’s spent too much time in a monastery,” Sampson explained.

Tatalovich and Sampson met back when Tatalovich was still a video coordinator with the Bulls and Sampson was an assistant with the Bucks. Adam marched up to Sampson at summer league one year and introduced himself. They stayed in touch. The more they talked, the better friends they became. That’s how it tends to go with Tatalovich. Wayne Embry—a former two-time NBA Executive of the Year who’s served as a senior advisor to the Raptors since 2004—said he met Adam at the annual predraft combine in Chicago one year. They started talking and never stopped. During the pandemic, they’d chat long distance and Tatalovich would tell Embry about his latest, unofficial scouting trip to this gym or that. “He remained diligent and continued doing what he loves,” Embry said. “It tells you about his passion for the game.”

Embry encouraged him to keep going. So did Aleksandar Dordevic, the former Serbian national team coach who also coached Bologna in the EuroLeague. Dordevic wanted to hire Tatalovich to join him in Italy, but at that point his staff was set.

“It was complicated,” Dordevic said. “It is very tough. Those positions are taken already, they’re not well paid. Here in Europe the teams pick the guys they don’t have to pay or get them the house or get them a car. They pick people from the actual city. It’s always a bummer because they have the advantage.”

When the CBA shut down, Tatalovich kept going on his own. He took time to analyze games for Dordevic and then dash off memos or video breakdowns, as though he was part of the staff even though he wasn’t. He did the same thing for Sampson’s Houston’s Cougars. Adam would watch their games and send notes to Sampson, outlining specifics on spacing, or ball movement, or cutters, or what the wings were doing or not doing. The reports were heavy on the jargon-y minutiae that coaches geek out on. Sampson said he’d invariably learn things about his own team that he didn’t know, and that it was like “having another coach who wasn’t on staff.” (Like Dordevic, Sampson’s staff was set by the time Adam’s situation in China unraveled.) Tatalovich was doing it all for free, hopeful someone somewhere would notice and scoop him up.

“He said, ‘If it happens it happens,’” Sampson recalled about one of their walking-circle chats. “That would piss me off. What do you mean if it happens it happens, if it doesn’t it doesn’t? We can’t just say, ‘He didn’t call back, so let’s go to the next one.’ No. No. No. We have to exhaust all means here.”

Sampson told anyone who would listen that Tatalovich needed a break. But for that to happen, Sampson figured Adam needed a little luck and a lot of perseverance. The former had been hard to come by since the pandemic hit, but Tatalovich always had plenty of the latter. But as Adam’s indefinite stay in Serbia wore on, it was natural to worry about his chosen path. At times like that, he’d grab the phone and seek counsel.

“I would say ‘Adam, what else are you qualified to do? Without the word basketball in it, what else are you qualified to do?’” Grover recalled. “The next part of the question is, ‘What else do you want to do?’ And he would say ‘I’m really not qualified to do anything else and this is what I want to do.’”

There was an assistant job open at Columbia University prior to this season starting. Sampson put in a call on Tatalovich’s behalf. The coach there knew Sampson by name and reputation, but he didn’t know Sampson. It didn’t work out. But when Sampson heard the Knicks had an opening in the scouting department, he reached out to a longtime friend in the organization. Sampson called his contact while sitting in his truck in a grocery store parking lot and gave the hard sell on Tatalovich. Part of the pitch included a story about Adam and “the kid and the wheelchair.”

Late in the summer of 2018, Tatalovich was in Serbia with the national team. They had a day off, so he hopped in the car and—as you might have guessed—drove off to visit a monastery. On his way back to Belgrade, Adam saw a little girl pushing a man in a wheelchair along the side of the road. It wasn’t a country road. It was a busy highway. Tatalovich likened the traffic to what he remembered from I-65 back home outside Chicago.

“You don’t see that. Trucks and cars going by at 70 miles per hour,” Tatalovich said. “I drove by two, three miles and it just caught me.”

He turned around and went back. Adam offered them a ride. They passed. He was a stranger and didn’t speak the language all that well. (He’s still working on that.) Instead, Tatalovich took a picture and posted it to his Instagram, along with a caption that began “Daddy’s Girl” and explained how he’d wanted to help and how unnerved he was by the scene.

People left comments. Someone noticed the mile marker in the far edge of the picture. Amateur Serbian detectives figured out the girl and her dad were members of the Radonjic family. Tatalovich started a GoFundMe. They raised so much money they were able to buy the man a motorized wheelchair and build a new bedroom on the house for his daughter. Dordevic said “it was a big story.” Serbian newspapers wrote about Adam, and a TV station did an interview with him.

In June 2020, Tatalovich went back to visit the family. He snapped more pictures. He learned that the original photo he took two years earlier had actually captured part of their usual routine. Dad and daughter had been going fishing that afternoon. In the States, Tatalovich figured they would have had a minivan or an SUV for the trip, but in Serbia, here was a 7-year-old pushing her father in a wheelchair along the side of a congested freeway. He thinks about that a lot. “Serbian resilience,” he said.

Tatalovich called me recently from Belgrade, at around 4 a.m. his time. The sun wasn’t even up there yet, but Tatalovich was. He was calling to check in. His neighbors weren’t thrilled about that. They think he talks too loud, and he’s always making calls at odd hours to all kinds of far-off places—China, Australia, the States.

He was up early that day to watch the Knicks. He got the job with them in early December. The day the Knicks told him he was hired, bells rang out from the neighborhood church for the 5 p.m. service just as the good news was being delivered over the phone from halfway across the world. The symbolism was tough to miss. “Thank God I had a job,” Adam said.

He’s an international scout for the Knicks now with a focus on Eastern Europe, but he’ll still keep an eye on what’s happening in Australia and China. Until the pandemic fully ebbs, he’ll do most of his work from Serbia. He’s fortunate because Belgrade has several pro teams: Partizan, Red Star, and KK FMP. They’re all headquartered in his new hometown. He regularly sees them play in person, though the pandemic makes it tougher. His time with the national team helps open doors that might otherwise be closed.

“You just have to know who you know,” Tatalovich said. “You have to know the right team or agent or coach to reach out to who’s going to get you in the gym. It’s touch and go in Europe. There’s some games canceled right before. You have to stay on top of it.”

He never misses the Knicks, either. On nights when they play, he sets his alarm for around 3 a.m. or earlier to compensate for the time difference. He doesn’t mind paying for the lack of sleep. It’s all part of the job.

Tatalovich is still staying in the same long-term Airbnb. The owner just put in a washing machine. Adam was thrilled; he had been cleaning his clothes by hand. He might have more stuff on the way soon. As you read this, the belongings Adam left behind in China should have finally arrived in Serbia. After a year. He hopes.

Tatalovich has spent a lot of time reflecting on his journey. Basketball is a rough trade. People always told him he was lucky in a way. With no wife or kids, others figured he’d have less to worry about if he did lose a job. Maybe they had a point, but a lot of those same people also had insurance to cushion the blow if things really went sideways.

“If you’re on the wrong side of the business and you get let go,” Adam said, “some people have a nest. I call it a nest. They go back to their mom’s house or something. They go back to the nest.”

That wasn’t an option for Tatalovich. That’s always weighed on him during his career, not having a nest of his own. He got used to it, even if it wasn’t always easy. “Last year,” he admitted, “was intense for me.” It worked out, but he’s not numb to the fact that his situation could have gone very differently indeed. What if he had gone to Singapore or Bali like everyone else? What if he had spent those first five days sunning himself on a beach instead of watching basketball? What if Sampson hadn’t made the call? What then?

“It scares me,” Adam said. “I don’t know where I would have ended up.”

An earlier version of this story included an incorrect timeline of Tatalovich’s career.

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