Tokyo -- In harried comings and goings of life, there is rarely time for reflective thought unless it is peering into the past. But this morning as I rode in a stuffed train from downtown Sapporo, Japan, to the New Chitose Airport, I realized I was leaving a place I'll never return to again. A foreign and mysterious place, a place that grew on me but not enough for any sort of sentimentality.
I know to beware of such assumptions. Once, on a long cross-country trip with a friend, I bid Manhattan, Kan., adieu following lunch in a snobbish tone. Less than five mlles up the road we blew the engine and were stuck/trapped in Manhattan for several days. That is a story for a different time. Nonetheless, I'm gone from Sapporo and I won't be longing.
I was on the same flight as Team USA this morning -- yep, they are flying commercial -- as we all headed for the next phase of the FIBA World Championship. Alas, Anderson Varejao and Brazil aren't advancing and that is OK with the Greeks after this hit.
So far I think the Americans have made a good accounting of themselves. They are developing a style and they are playing with a purpose in stretches. They still bore easily and never seem to start with too much vigor. But I can't blame them, I've been arriving at the arena 10 minutes before game time.
After his 17-point performance (that link also takes you to postgame audio) Thursday, I'm giving LeBron James a B for his efforts thus far. He has passed the ball very well and that is his role. Of course, he can score whenever he wants to but his outside shot has been inconsistent.
Overall I have not been impressed with his defense. Part of it is I think he's playing out of position a little. They have him way out on the wings. I respect that he makes the effort and follows the program Mike Krzyzewski is trying to ingrain. LeBron is getting a bunch of steals because of it, but he always gets steals when he jumps passing lanes. But he's simply getting beat off the dribble an awful lot, a combination of bad positioning and not being as quick as the guy he's defending. I think some technique work could help that but I don't get to see these practices so I don't know if it is being worked on.
Meanwhile, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony are nearly off the charts. I know Carmelo has gotten a lot of credit and with merit, but Wade has been USA's best player so far. His willingness to come off the bench is admirable and his ability to sense times to make plays has carried over from the postseason. If you have not caught these games, Tivo them or try to get up early, these three are enjoyable to watch work. Plus Elton Brand, Shane Battier and Chris Paul are true professionals.
When I arrived at my hotel in the Ginza district here in Tokyo today -- it took four cabs (in two I was unable to explain where I needed to go and the cabbies and I parted ways unfulfilled), a train, a bus, and a Boeing 777 -- my heart jumped when I saw a Denny's across the street. No, I won't eat every meal there. I'll have you know I only went to McDonald's once in Sapporo and had plenty of meals where not an English word was spoken and I was brought hot steamy dishes that smelled nor tasted like anything I've ever had. But it is all about the safety value of knowing you can find a hamburger or pancakes when you really need them. Until you go without, you can't understand.
Still, this has been an experience even if often unpleasant. Virtually no one spoke English in Sapporo, so it was a definite challenge. But would I have enjoyed watching a group of Slovenians toast to their national team's advancement in a bar last night -- with chats of oompa, Slo-ven-ne-aaa! as they raised their chilled Sapporo Beers -- as much it it were all easy? Would I have ever had the experience of mutton glutton, where you pay a fee and they bring you raw lamb, as much as you want, and you cook it at your table for 90 minutes? By the way that dish was called the "Genghis Khan" on the menu and included all the Sapporo Beer you could drink as well. But when the buzzer went off, you were shown the door.
The other day I was milling around in a flea market in a park near my hotel. People were selling all kinds of junk, just like back home. Golf clubs, used shoes, old books, and thousands of other once loved now discarded items. At one stand there was a Mickey Mouse figurine for sale for 500 yen, the outgrown property, I assumed, of a 10-year-old boy who sat with his grandfather as his ice cream cone dripped on his Cincinnati Reds shirt.
When I touched it, it started spinning and playing the melody to It's A Small World After All. It certainly is.