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Lessons from Spain

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If I were to ask you to name one basketball player who you could trade places with, who would you name?

Lebron James?


Tim Duncan?

You could list a number of players but would you say Pau Gasol? What about Jorge Garbajosa?

As most of our readers know, I was recently vacationing in Spain and had the privilege of getting media access to the Raptors and Grizzlies respective matches in Madrid. However while the games themselves were quite enlightening, it was the basketball experience itself in Spain that really opened my eyes.

Pau Gasol was everywhere.

I went to get some money out at the bank and there was Pau smiling down at me.

I was at the bus stop or in the Metro (a huge upgrade over the TTC I might add) and there he was again posing for something.

And Jorge Garbajosa was in his fair share of billboards and the like as well.

Maybe I underestimated the popularity of basketball in Spain, but I guess I assumed that I’d notice a lot more soccer players on display than basketball.

And that was only reinforced at the actual games that night in Madrid. The fans showed their appreciation for the home sides but anytime the local boys Garbs, Jose, Gasol or Juan Carlos got touches, it was pandemonium.

(As an aside, it was also pandemonium when the refs made a call the fans didn’t like. Instead of the traditional booing however, the fans would start up with high pierced whistling and I’ll tell you, I’ve never heard anything more irritating at an arena in my life. I love it and propose we institute this immediately for all Nets games.)

At his press conference prior to the tip-off of the Memphis and Toronto games, David Stern spoke at length about the NBA’s commitment to growth overseas and from my brief time in Madrid, I’d say that his plans in the past few decades have been an overwhelming success. Walking around the stadium prior to the tip-off between Memphis and Estudiantes I would have sworn that I was in just about any NBA arena due to the jerseys represented. And with the exception of the lack of music during possessions, something that was actually a nice change, the in-game experience was almost identical to that of a regular season game in the L…

…well, except for the cheerleaders.

As the Globe and Mail’s Michael Grange correctly and quite humorously pointed out in his new blog:

"…I was surprised to look up at one point in Madrid and see all these dancers who weren’t the Dance Pak, though they were wearing Raptors Dance Pak-type gear. It was some kind of Euro-Pak exchange. They were tall, not very good dancers to my untrained eye, and all looked like they had a lot of nicotine in their diet."

I saw these same dancers practicing a routine to a Nelly Furtado song earlier that afternoon. The whole session was led by two or three of the Miami Heat Dance Pak and like Michael said, while all were rail thin, it was mostly arms and legs everywhere and not exactly something that the Heat dancers seemed to be ready to present to Pat Riley.

But one set of flamingo-ish ballerinas posing as a dance team does not a basketball culture make.

No, what really brought things home for me was just the general buzz in the air around the arena. I speak some Spanish (which after a week there improved much more than it ever did in the two years I took it through University. Wait…I guess you COULD argue that the rationale behind my lack of Spanish skills through University had nothing to do with my professor…but that’s another story) and I could hear young and old alike discussing players, talking plays or just enjoying the show. The whole spectacle must have brought a smile to David Stern’s face.

Much unlike FIBA.

During his press conference, David Stern had the floor open for questions from the media so this HQ’er just had to speak up…

"Yes, this is a question for Mr. Stern. Adam Francis from in Toronto…has there been any discussion about perhaps not participating in the Olympics but switching to more of a format like soccer’s Champions League where you’d have some of the top teams once every four years or so playing against caliber NBA teams?"

(I actually started my question with an acknowledgement that I remembered all too well that the Raptors had lost to Maccabi a few years ago in pre-season play, something Stern had alluded to in a previous response. I guess I was trying to garner a laugh from him so he would answer a question from a lowly blogger, rather than strike me down with a bolt of lightening, something I might add that seemed quite possible considering his reaction to some of the other questions posed.)

David Stern responded by saying that they hadn’t had any such discussions and that the idea of players going home to participate in tournaments was something futbol took for granted due to the proximity of the nations involved. Basically, it sounded like "hey, interesting idea, but we need FIBA more on board."

This was confirmed by the remainder of the press conference where Stern discussed the problems the League was having with FIBA. It seems that while the NBA is being staffed with more and more international players, FIBA is having a tough time changing with the times. And when it does change, it’s demanding a hefty dowry from the L.

A perfect example of this was the recent Euro Championship, a tournament that showcased a great many NBA players yet was unable to be seen on NBA TV in any fashion. The Toronto Star’s Doug Smith asked why this had been the case and apparently it was due to the egregious fees that FIBA demanded in return for the rights to broadcast the tourney. Stern then proceeded to put FIBA on blast for the next series of questions and it quickly became quite obvious that while the commissioner is pleased with the way things have gone in terms of international expansion of the game, there are many more mountains to climb.

I suppose at some point, the NBA, and the Euroleague for that matter, is going to have to decide just what role FIBA is going to play in their lives and make some decisions based on that. It’s tough to have a governing sports body that is constantly playing catch-up and the NBA (and now the Euroleague’s) success puts the sport of basketball in an interesting situation compared to other sports played world-wide.

And perhaps it will unfortunately come down to money and the NBA owners in terms of deciding if international play is of any benefit other than for the NBA’s own marketing.

If that’s the case, games like last night’s between the Raptors and Zalgiris Kaunas might become much more of a rarity than an annual pre-season event.

For those who attended the game, or saw it like myself in "Game in an Hour" on Raptors TV, it was a pretty sloppy affair. Toronto’s subs came away with the105-99 victory in the end but still had issues on the boards and getting stops. Even when the Raps did get to the rebounds first, they couldn’t hold onto them.

Ford and Calderon looked good, Kapono (even though he shot better) and Anthony Parker, not so much.

I’d love to see more of Jamario Moon and much more Carlos Delfino in terms of the way he played in the fourth quarter. That was the player I expected this season.

Above all else however, I’m really looking forward to Toronto facing some real NBA competition, like the ones profiled here, even for the remainder of the pre-season. I’m going to try to attend tomorrow night’s game and hopefully it will give us fans our first real look at just how the club will do against conference rivals. Sure it’s still pre-season, but tomorrow night I’ll be looking at a few things:

1) How Andrea does in the middle against the bigger Ben Wallace, and the more athletic Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah. Little one on one battles like this could go a long way in giving fans an idea of how Il Mago will fare in the middle this year.
2) How the Raptors’ wings match-up against the Bulls. Guys like Deng, Gordon and even Thabo gave Toronto fits last year offensively so let’s see if Graham, Kapono and Delfino can at least make them work at the other end of the court.
3) How the team plays without Chris Bosh. It sounds like CB4 will be sitting out another one as of now and with the interior strength of the Bulls, it will be a good litmus test as to how far the Dynos need to go in terms of rebounding and boxing out.

In addition, I’m just excited to have this pre-season finished. The regular season tip-off is less than two weeks away and I still think this team has a number of things to figure out on the court.

Off the court, I’m not concerned of course.

By all accounts an already close Raptors’ club became even closer thanks to their overseas excursion. In fact I think that the bonding trips like these provide is what really makes them important for the league. Sure it’s a way to market and showcase talent, but it’s also an excellent method for coaches to get to know their players better, and for the players in turn, to spend a large chunk of time and grow together as a team.

Playing everyday in Canada and the US, you may not have any idea about the backgrounds and customs of some of your team-mates. But spending some time in their own backyards, really opens up eyes.

Perhaps TJ Ford said it best earlier this week:

"You get to see how famous these guys are." "We have no idea. Being in the States, they can kind of float at their own will but just being here and in Italy, to see how much attention those guys get on and off the court is something good for us to see."

It was something extremely good for me to see as well...

...even if it meant looking up at Pau Gasol’s scraggly hair-do each time I went to an ATM.