Big Game, Small World
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Readers React

Did something in the book raise a question or provoke an opinion? Every few weeks I’ll post an assortment of reader responses of general interest, along with my own commentary.

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Q&A with, the British online basketball forum.
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Q&A with, the leading Web site for all hoops happenings in the U.K. and Ireland.
Q&A with FIBA (the International Basketball Federation).
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Q.For Bigger Game, Smaller World, you have to make it to Taipei for the High School Basketball League (HBL), where high school players are among the biggest stars in the country. Maybe it doesn’t seem so odd in the age of LeBron James and Amare Stoudamire, but catching an HBL Finals game is fantastic.

There’s also the curious pop-star quality of the Korean Basketball League, where fans cheer as much for a player’s Justin Timberlakeness as his Kobe-Bryantness.

Terence Lau, Houston

A.Terence, who now works for the Rockets, put in time with the NBA’s Asian listening post in Hong Kong. He knows well the basketball mania in mainland China and the Philippines, so if he’s willing to lump South Korea and Taiwan in with those two, I’ll take him at his word.

Q.Re the 2003 NBA Draft: G.M.s gambled on Pietrus, Diaw and Barbosa because the owners want to make the league . . . whiter? That assertion is invidious to journalism and to the game, and I yearn to see it called out, instead of being dignified on Outside the Lines. Let the word go forth! The universalizing power of a global game is self-evident, but there’s a special providence in the example of a global league, which is a few years from being the most widely representative, completely integrated and perfectly meritocratic body in the history of our species. And by the end of Bush’s second term, it may be the only functional international body left standing.

Jeremy Weissman, Freedom Park, N.J.

A.Amen. When young Americans of any hue can pass and shoot and move with the skill and smarts of their Serbian counterparts, they’ll be drafted in greater numbers. NBA teams are desperate for well-rounded players, and if they have to go to the ends of the earth to find them, through passport control they’ll go. For a historical analogy, think of the Japanese automakers during the Seventies, and how they spooked Detroit into getting its act together. In the long run the international invasion will be good for U.S. hoops.

Q.How was interest in the Worlds in the States? Was anyone even paying attention? I must say, with regards to international hoops, I feel a bit like one of those cool kids in school who liked Nirvana before they ever became popular and then got pissed off once everyone started liking them. Ever since seeing Drazen Petrovic I’ve been a Euro hoops junkie . . . and now the best are all flocking to the States for everyone to see! The nerve . . .

Carl Schreck, Moscow

A.The Worlds registered as barely a blip stateside, although many stateside “fans,” after I ripped the poor attendance on, couldn’t quite settle on the reason they weren’t paying attention. At first, some claimed that the competition wasn’t worth taking seriously because no foreign team could challenge the U.S. Then, after the Americans lost once, then twice, then three times, I heard from “fans” who were now suddenly denigrating Team USA as an assemblage of self-centered vacationers not worthy of support when a raft of other teams, from Argentina and New Zealand to Yugoslavia and Spain, played a brand of ball absolutely worth turning out for. Would have been nice if these self-styled basketball connoisseurs—many of them Hoosiers— could at least make up their minds as to why they were so indifferent.

By the way, Carl is the English-language p.a. announcer at CSKA Moscow’s Euroleague games. Which makes him a sort of Jaime Jarrin of the steppes.

Q.In August of 1985, not long after you left Lucerne, I arrived in Switzerland to coach the Lucerne-Reussbuehl team that had found itself relegated to the third division (strangely named the Premier League). I inherited much of the team you played with and wrote about—Pius Portmann, Bruno Duenner, et. al. I had a wonderful year, pretty much watching them beat up on everyone and occasionally calling a time out. We went undefeated, though we lost to the hated Vacallo—in Vacallo, naturally—some 20 minutes after the game had ended with us winning by one. Something about a player’s father who was the official timer not being able to properly signal the end of the game with the cowbell that was supposed to be right there at his feet, and a subsequent phantom three-point shot that no one saw. I imagine that Pius hasn’t been so livid.

—Jack Gaudreau, Atlanta

A.As readers of Chapter Four know, Pius has good reason when he gets righteously indignant. Cowbells at the scorer’s table and a third division that goes by “Premier League” are just two of the many oddities you’ll find in Swiss basketball. And have to suffer through. Pleasantly, I’d quickly add.

Q.I really enjoyed your book, especially Chapter Five on the Gus Macker. My team and I ended up returning to Belding last July, and we were the featured Hall of Fame team. What a great weekend. I even got to shoot the “Do or Die.” As usual, I missed, but as Ernie (Chicken Wing) Cryer said, the sun was in our eyes, so I got a second chance. Needless to say the tournament went on as scheduled.

—Jerry Fike, San Diego

A.Jerry, as a member of the legendary Miss Elizabeth’s Fan Club team, is a member of the Macker Hall of Fame and vows to head for Belding, Mich., for the 30th anniversary tournament in 2003. I hope to join all faithful Mackers in making that pilgrimage.

Q.I’m a Spaniard who has been following the NBA closely for almost 20 years now, and I’ve perceived a clear decline in the quality of U.S. players. I am in love with the NBA basketball of the Eighties, the players who knew how to play the game, especially the large number of very good centers. How many centers are in the league today? If Shaq had had to play in the Eighties, it wouldn’t have been the same. He would still be great, but he would have to work much harder, especially on defense, against Kareem, Moses, a young Hakeem and a young Patrick, Robert Parish, Artis Gilmore, Mark Eaton, Jack
Sikma, Darryl Dawkins, James Donaldson, Tree Rollins, Bill Cartwright, even Sam Bowie when he was healthy or Bill Walton during the 1985-86 season.

To me those were the best times. Players knew how to play team basketball. They were fundamentally sound. They had passion for the game. Today’s players are much closer to the playground, where guys like to show up opponents and impress girls watching from the bleachers. I feel that today’s NBA player isn’t eager to learn and has no respect for veterans.

I hope there is a positive consequence of what happened to the U.S. team in Indianapolis—that Americans will finally respect foreign players. I remember when Petrovic entered the league in 1989 and got no respect from his coaches and teammates. He was much better than most of them by the time he left. Nobody remembers Fernando Martin, a Spanish player who was in Portland’s roster for the 1986-87 season. He died in 1989 in a car accident, but he was a very good power forward, very strong and passionate. He played in just 24 games. I imagine that, if he entered the league today, it would be different.

—Rafael de Benito, Valencia, Spain

The NBA’s attitude toward European ballplayers has changed drastically, and the fans and media will eventually follow. And the reason savvy NBA front offices are all over the European market has much to do with the quality of the top clubs, which have superb developmental programs. As F.C. Barcelona general manager Antonio Maceiras recently told me, Europe felt a certain pride in the Argentines’ silver-medal performance in Indy. Their Latin flair gave them a feel for the game, and the economic crisis gave them a hunger, but it was discipline, imposed by top clubs in Italy and Spain, that turned the Argentines into complete players, whom coach Ruben Magnano in turn molded into a consummate team.

Incidentally, until Rafael’s comment, it hadn’t occurred to me that car accidents took the lives of three of the best European players ever: Petrovic, Martin, and Yugoslavia’s Radovij Korac.

Q.I’ve been increasingly concerned over the past decade at the wall of ignorance and isolationism in the U.S. as the quality of the game there continues to deteriorate. Even the influx of foreigners hasn’t really changed the basic cockiness and lack of respect among the public and the media. “This Gasol had better be good,” a dejected Memphis Commercial-Appeal columnist grumbled after the Grizzlies picked him. Of course he’d never heard of Gasol, much less seen him play.

Before the Worlds, some writers were applauding Mark Cuban’s drive to keep his players off teams at the Worlds. To be specific: off the non-U.S. teams,
for I didn't hear anyone whine about Michael Finley playing for the Americans. Dirk Nowitzki resisted this effort, but Shawn Bradley [who could have played for Germany, where he was born] and Steve Nash were coerced into quitting, and Nash’s absence killed Canada. Will NBA owners favor the presence of the top American players on the U.S. team, while forcing foreign NBA players off their national teams? That would be a pretty sad and unsportsmanlike way to reassert American dominance. And it would be an ostrich-like tactic.

—Victor de la Serna, Madrid

Right on, Victor, who, by the way, writes on matters hoop for the Spanish daily El Mundo under the pen name Vicente Salaner. To everyone who gainsayed the rest of the world’s performance in Indy with “Yeah, buts”—yeah, but this American guy didn’t play, and that guy didn’t either—I’d remind them that very few other countries fielded their strongest teams, either. Both Nash and his Mavs teammate, Wang Zhi Zhi of China, were missing. New Zealand’s fourth-place finish was all the more startling as Sean Marks, the Tall Blacks’ lone NBA player, missed most of the tournament with an eye injury. And Spain played without a raft of national-team mainstays, yet still dumped the U.S.

Remember, in Sydney, the U.S. Olympians came within a missed three-pointer of losing to a Lithuanian team stocked with no-names—and that American team had Jason Kidd. I hope I’m not made to look like a fool, but I don’t believe the NBA would dare pull a protectionist ploy like the one Victor fears. For reasons ranging from stylistic to global marketing, the foreign influx is a great thing for the NBA. And David Stern knows it.

Q.Your book was totally uplifting to me. The game weaves its way into the heart and soul, and in some weird, esoteric way, you become one with it. When I was younger, I used to visit Hong Kong to have suits made. One of my joys was hooping with street kids on the Kowloon side. Even amidst cultural and language differences, the “commonspeak” of the jump shot connected us all.

I’m 43 and love basketball as much now as I did at 13. I’ve had knee surgery, back injuries, dislocated fingers, bruised heels, a torn Achilles, yet I look forward to Saturday mornings when I'm still out there knocking down threes, trying to be the Paul Pierce of the over-40 cadre. I can’t quit and don’t want to. My friends say I should learn golf and I bristle at the idea.

The beauty of basketball is that it never leaves you. Women may come and go, job opportunities and promotions may ebb and flow, but basketball remains ever faithful, like the rock of Gibraltar in headband and high tops. That’s why I love the game. It’s never let me down.

—Lindell Singleton, Grand Prairie, Tex.

To that homily—the right Reverend Singleton teaches at the Lone Star Basketball Academy in Arlington—I can only say, “Amen.”

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