Saitama, Japan -- Greetings on Day 10 of the FIBA World Championship (whew, only four more to go!). Things are now getting serious after a few weeks of watching blowouts and skipping around Nippon. It has become very clear that this tournament is all about three teams: USA, Spain and Argentina. I will be writing a lot about them in the next few days. I really expect the semifinals and the third place and championship games to be great basketball worthy of attention from every fan.
Before that, though, I've seen most of the teams here and been talking with a lot of basketball junkies from around the world who are more versed in the international game than I am. The combination of both has left me with the following thoughts:
The Orlando Magic are a budding force
Building on a strong finish to the NBA season, Darko Milicic looked great here in Japan. We all know he can shoot from the outside but here he showed off a pretty impressive left-handed hook shot. He was also aggressive going to the glass. In getting eliminated by powerful Spain, he banged with Pau Gasol all night and looked like he wanted to and got 15 rebounds.
Meanwhile, Dwight Howard's athleticism continues to blow me away. Watching him outplay Yao Ming last week in Sapporo by constantly getting in better position for rebounds re-enforced my belief he'll be the NBA's best rebounder for the next decade. Then again Carlos Arroyo looked great for Puerto Rico. Obviously the guy has angered a few coaches, but his talent is unquestioned.
I expect those three guys to have huge seasons this year.
Linas Kleiza has a future
Even though the once-mighty Lithuanians are rebuilding and didn't make the semis, I was pretty impressed with Kleiza. The former Mizzou star worked to get some minutes for the Nuggets last year. He didn't have great stats here, but he is really learning to be a bruiser and he's already talented offensively. I don't think he'll ever be a star, but he's one of those international guys who looks like he could be a valuable role player.
Remember the name Ekene Ibekwe The Nigerians were impressive here, almost upsetting Germany in the quarterfinals. They are starting a lineage and NBA teams are noticing, of course the Cavs drafted Ejike Ugboaja in the second round this year. He wasn't here but Ibekwe was. A junior to be at Maryland, he's athletic and big (6-foot-9) with a nice touch that I think some GMs were impressed with. The book on him is that he isn't always a hard worker, but he looked strong here and some think he's a first-round pick next year.
Marco Belinelli can shoot I wrote about him before when the Italians played Team USA. The Italian guard has a pure, quick shooting stroke that reminds me of Brent Barry and he can do it falling away. He's also tall (6-5) and pretty athletic. He isn't sure how soon he wants to come to the NBA, but he's only 20 and he's got major upside. He was terrible when the Italians got eliminated by the Lituanians, but he will probably be a first round pick in the near future.
Eye the young Greeks Spain (Gasol, Jose Calderon, Juan Carlos Navarro and now Jorge Garbajosa) and Argentina (Manu Ginobili, Andres Nocioni, Fabricio Oberto, Carlos Delfino and now Walter Hermann) all have players well known to NBA fans. But both Vasileious Spanoulis and Sofoklis Schortsanitis have a chance to make a name for Greece. Spanoulis is a shooting guard who will play for the Rockets this year. Schortsanitis is a massive low post player who has to weigh close to 300 pounds that the L.A. Clippers own the rights to. He looks like Robert Traylor but he's taller and appears to have more offensive skills. Again, I'm not predicting stardom here, but they are players who have a future in the league Americans really care about.
Saitama, Japan -- Now, I get it. I spent long hours at the Saitama Super Arena the last few days watching the round of 16 in the FIBA World Championship. It reminds me of the NCAA Tournament, non-stop games with small pockets of fans pulling for their team with their own special traditions plus a mix of blowouts and tight games.
But after watching very closely, I've figured this out. All this basketball is window dressing. The sideshow. The warmup act. No, the main attraction the first few days of this event totally belongs to the dance teams.
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.
Sapporo, Japan -- Journalists are trained to be coldly objective, a trait that sometimes can make it seem to fans like we actually are rooting against the teams we cover. But it is a bit of a different challenge, and a new challenge for me, at an event like the FIBA World Championships.To read more or comment...
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...
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan -- Konnichiwa. First, it appears the Cavs are close to a deal with Scot Pollard. Also, I am told they are in talks to make a trade in the near future, but I don't yet have the details. My guess that one of the shooting guards will be offloaded perhaps for nothing or a draft pick in return.To read more or comment...
I've gotten several e-mails about a blip in an AP story today about a foot injury Anderson Varejao suffered in a game against France. I've spoken with the Cavs, who have spoken with Andy from Korea and they report that it isn't serious and he'll just need a few days rest. He is expected to be able to play for Brazil in the World Championships, which start in Japan this weekend.To read more or comment...
I've spoken to people with the Cavs and in Gooden's camp, there is a verbal agreement on a contract. Not everything has been settled but things appear to be positive. His agent Calvin Andrews told me the total package was for three years and $23 million fully guaranteed with no team or player options.To read more or comment...
Spokane, Wash. -- Sorry for the absence, I've been bounding around Western Canada for the last week with two high school friends on a long-planned road trip. Been in beautiful places like Vancouver, Revelstoke, Radium Hot Springs, Banff and Canmore. Been offroading on an ATV, whitewater rafting, in a hail storm at the top of a mountain, negotiating for the release of my friends after they became trapped at the top of a dam, and making an unending series of profanity-laced U-turns. Here on some fresh thoughts on the Cavs.To read more or comment...