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The hottest commodity this past summer for professional basketball clubs in Portugal was a big man, who could beef up a team's inside game and play tough defense.

And the main reason for this shopping spree has been the dominance of former Illinois State University standout LeRoy Watkins, who played power forward for Queluz Sintra last year.

Watkins has been tearing apart the Portuguese league the past three seasons with his physical play, precision passing and powerful post-up game.

After Watkins led Queluz to league titles in 2003 and 2005 and second place in 2004, names such as former DePaul power forward Kris Hill, former Chicago Simeon High School product Cameron Echols, Ben Davis of Arizona and Purdue big man Roy Hairston have all popped up on Portuguese rosters.

"A lot of teams went out and signed a big man like me because in the finals last year Ovarense didn't have anybody to match up with me," Watkins said from his apartment in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.

"Sure it makes me feel really good," he added. "But it makes my job harder. But that's the way I like to play."

Watkins' team has started this season slowly after losing its starting shooting guard for three months because of a preseason injury. Still, the Chicago native is averaging 14 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.8 assists. He is well on his way to making his third straight Portuguese All-Star team.

Watkins' rise to Portuguese prestige started after he graduated from ISU in 1999. He landed his first professional job with Dutch club Groningen, where he averaged 16 points and eight rebounds, while leading the team to the Dutch Cup final.

The following season he made the Dutch All-Star team and led Groningen to the semifinals of the playoffs.

"I knew I could play professionally," said Watkins. "And Holland was a good place to start. The coach let me play and didn't restrict me. That helped me develop my all-around game."

That was in contrast to ISU where Watkins said, "it was a more of a matter of do this and do that." Since moving to the Portuguese league, Watkins has showcased his whole repertoire, including his refined passing skills.

"I don't just play inside and set screens. Now I have to score to help us win or use my strength to get an advantage," Watkins said.

About his passing, Watkins added: "I've developed that over the years. People have been doubling me because I'm so strong. I had to learn to pass the ball out and get people open shots."

The past two seasons, Watkins has averaged 2.3 assists per game to go with 13.5 points and 5.3 rebounds.

"He's our focal point. Everything revolves around him," Queluz's sharp-shooting small forward Jeff Schiffner said of Watkins. "Yeah, other teams are bringing in big guys to compete with him, but what is special about LeRoy is his quickness and his passing ability.

"He's a great teammate and the perfect guy to build a team around that can win championships."

Making the success even more enjoyable for Watkins is the fact he is living in Lisbon, which is situated along the Atlantic Ocean where winter temperatures are warm enough for him to work on his golf game if he had one.

"It gets cold in Chicago in the winter, and I don't miss that at all," he said. "Most years I'm in Chicago for Christmas, and I leave right after it before the weather gets really bad."

Still, it's not all sunny for Watkins in Lisbon. Even though many people in the city can speak English, Watkins still doesn't speak enough Portuguese to always feel comfortable in stores.

"If you don't know what you're looking for, sometimes it's hard to find somebody to get you what you need," he said. "I've been here long enough - going on five years. I should have been able to speak Portuguese a long time ago."

Five years, however, is long enough for Watkins to apply for a Portuguese passport, which he is doing now. Should he receive the new papers, he would no longer count against limits for Americans in Europe - something which is less important now than just two years ago as most countries now allow four or five Americans per team - up from two.

The additional passport would also mean Watkins could play for the Portuguese national team.

"The national federation has already asked me to play. We'll see," he said.

Chances are pretty slim of him playing for Portugal because the national team plays during the summer and Watkins usually spends his summers in Chicago with his girlfriend and six-year-old daughter.

"It's always hard leaving her after the summer," he admitted. "Now my daughter is getting older and having a mind of her own. I miss being there. That's the hardest part of all this."

When he's done playing basketball - and after he's spent some quality time with his family - Watkins would like to get into coaching. "Maybe in college, maybe in Europe," he said.

"I love to teach basketball. I had a lot of offers from high schools after I left ISU. But I wanted to see what opportunities I would have as a player. If I had done coaching right away, I would have my own team and a really nice program by now."

Watkins said his experience with the ISU program and Coach Kevin Stallings definitely will help him in his next career.

"I think I could put together a winning program," he said. "I learned from one of the best coaches coaching now. He taught us the basics. That's why we were so successful."

David Hein is a freelance journalist who has lived in Europe the last eight years. The native of Chicago formerly worked as an assistant correspondent for The Pantagraph from the Illinois Statehouse. He has covered the 2002 World Basketball Championships as well as the 2003 and 2005 European Basketball Championships.

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