Sapporo, Japan -- There is a word I keep repeating to myself over an over as I encounter new things at these world championships...bizarre. It is just so different from what I am used to with the NBA and in so many unexpected ways. I can totally understand why it is challenging for Team USA to compete in this enviornment.
The atmosphere at Team USA's opening win over Puerto Rico today was totally different that what I expected. There were probably around 7,000 people at the game but the Japanese are so unfamiliar with the sport and so polite there was very little noise. They cheered simple athletic feats they are not used to seeing. Dunks of course, but even behind the back dribbles or rebounds when a player slapped the ball with his palm.
The arena is more like an auditorium with carpet that swallows sound and there's almost no echo because I think the building doubles as a concert hall. So even from the second deck you could hear things going on down on the court and on the U.S. bench. Especially when Mike Krzyzewski cussed out his team after a lethargic start in the first quarter.
At one point an American fan angry with a call from the upper deck yelled down "You suck, ref." I could hear him as if he were next to me. The Japanese fans gasped, seemingly upset at the breech of order and the challenge of authority.
To combat this quiet atmosphere, Team USA is openly standing and cheering for each other as if it was a Saturday morning junior varsity game and everyone in the place can hear them. Coming from an enviornment where these guys are mobbed megastars and seeing them play this way is just...bizarre.
The fans certainly know the big-time stars like Dwyane Wade, LeBron and Carmelo Anthony. When LeBron was introduced you heard several shouts of "LeeBraa," as the accent makes it sound. But even that special attention is muted by 100 times what you'd expect on a normal night in the states. I know that Nike and the rest of the shoe companies are targetting Asia, especially China, because of the emerging basketball market but I see no evidence of it here and no ads or anything.
If fact it would be easy to be in Sapporo and not know this FIBA thing is going on. I've seen more billboards (one) for the FIVA World Volleyball Championshps, coming to Sapporo this fall, than I've seen basketball billboards (none). There was more excitement over a local robot show than an event Japan has been preparing for over the last nine years.
Learning new things every day...