SALT LAKE CITY — The room was already filled for Dante Exum’s introduction, long before he arrived.
“They’re just leaving the airport,” a Jazz public relations official announced. “They’ll be here in about 15 minutes.”
Soon came the update: Exum and fellow draftee Rodney Hood would be there in five minutes two minutes aaaaannnd action!
Showtime for the Next Big Thing in Utah.
The room quieted and Exum sat down, neatly attired in a vest, gray shirt and plaid tie. The Jazz’s prized draft pick seemed generally excited and even a bit nervous, though he said he wasn’t. Either way, he fielded questions courteously and briefly.
“I’m almost in awe of him,” his mother, Desiree, said after it was over. “Landing today, I knew he was having a press conference. But I didn’t know. We’re from Australia, right? We have a bit of media and whatnot, but I mean this is right; this is America. We walk into the room and I’m like, ‘Oh, my, look at this.’”
America, what a country. Land of the free, home of a bazillion media outlets, even in relative outposts like Salt Lake. It’s not like the Exums are small-town folks. Cecil and Desiree Exum were raised in the U.S. and Cecil played basketball for North Carolina before professionally in Australia. Dante has been to the U.S. a half-dozen times.
Melbourne is a city with a population of over 4 million. Still, Australia is a country where basketball stirs only moderate interest. If you want to see a crowd, check out the Collingwood Magpies of the Australian (rules) Football League.
Here in America, roundball is a big deal and Exum gave it commensurate respect. He was approachable but not overbearing, thoughtful but not pedantic. This was a nice answer to what could have been an awkward situation. Knowing Trey Burke is the Jazz’s point guard, he had mentioned before the draft that Utah might not be the best fit. But Exum dutifully addressed all the questions about playing time, saying his Australian teams did fine with interchangeable guard sets.
There was also a minor slip-up on draft day when he referred to Salt Lake as “the city of Utah” — shades of Karl Malone — but he made no such reference on Friday. Apparently it was nothing to worry about, since Jazz president Steve Miller did the same thing, saying Exum “will quickly find very quickly Utah is indeed a sports town.”
Even if Exum were to fail a geography test, it could be excused. He’s 18. Most 18-year-olds aren’t setting up shop in foreign countries. At least most 18-year-olds that aren’t LDS missionaries.
“It’s crazy,” he said of his rise from oblivion to fame in less than a year.
He explained to a small group of reporters afterward that the thing America needs is a healthy dose of Tim Tams, the ubiquitous Australian chocolate-covered biscuit. To really be authentic, go for the Tim Tam slam, which involves dipping the end of the cookie in chocolate milk and using it as a straw.
You’ll never use plastic straws again.
“Tim Tams. You guys need some Tim Tams,” he said. “It’s the greatest thing ever created. I think if you get them over here, you’re going to love them.”
It’s debatable whether the Jazz nutritionists would agree.
Another culinary adventure is the yeasty brown spread called Vegemite, a Down Under favorite. But that’s an acquired taste. Even Exum’s mother is wary.
“I don’t even like it,” she said, adding that Americans “try Vegemite with their fingertips and that’s it.”
Last on the getting-to-know-you list was a question of what is the biggest misconception Americans have of Australia. He knew it was coming: “We don’t put shrimps on the barbie,” Exum said.
Regardless of nomenclature, it’s a skill he might use. His parents say they’ll return to Utah as often as their son requires, almost certainly for opening night. By then he’ll be fully acclimated to the States, ready to host. Before he knows it, he’ll be exploring Utah’s culinary quirks. Fry sauce is just waiting to be discovered.
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