Hello all! Wednesday has been quite an eventful day here at EuroBasket 2007. First and foremost, the neverending group stage came to an end with two crucial games, as Germany downed Italy to stay alive while Lithuania downed Slovenia in one of the best games seen in EuroBasket 2007, a wild fight to win Group F. Fact is, most of the media could not wait for the group stage to be over, as it took too long without any kind of break, but we all - or at least, most of us - enjoy what we are doing anyway. Even with that, you can feel the agony in some journalists' faces. This morning was a different one, as I went to the 2007 FIBA Hall of Fame induction ceremony, that featured inductees such as Bill Russell, Pierluigi Marzorati, Ivo Daneu, Dean Smith, Drazen Dalipagic, Ranko Zeravica, Emiliano Rodriguez, Sergei Belov or Nikos Galis. Above all, it was a good time to visit the Pedro Ferrandiz foundation in nearby Alcobendas and attend the event, as well as speaking to some basketball greats. Galis stays as the biggest basketball hero in Greece. Dozens of Greek fans went to Alcobendas with the only purpose of shouting his name at the ceremony, take pictures and honor him. Galis was in a good mood and spoke about everything, and so did everyone else.
Russell, of course, was the most requested celebrity by all media around, so he offered a press conference right after the induction ceremony. Russell, arguably the best defensive player ever, was brilliant, and so was Marcos Beltra, Press Director of FIBA World, who translated each and every word to Spanish even when Bill gave four-minute answers sometimes. "I am regarded as a defensive player, but some opponents found my defense pretty offensive," he joked at one point. He spoke about the dominant Celtics, the love of the game, how European basketball has progressed - some Croatian journalist offered him a picture of him dunking in a wooden-boarded basket when he visited the area in 1964 - and on how important it is to do what you do best, as well as allowing good scorers and stars to feel confident in your own team. Above all, it was a fantastic experience that everyone, including all veteran journalists present, enjoyed the most. Galis was also fun despite all the media surrounding him. "I was asked if I could score 10 or 15 points per game in today's basketball, and I said that it is not too much," he joked. "I was a talented scorer and this is why I am here today. Basketball is also different, the scores have gone down and that's bad for the fans, because you have to try to win the game but also please your fans." Asked about how Theo Papaloukas had him as his lifelong hero, Galis was pleased: "People don't forget what I have done throughout the years. Theo is a very good player and I think that the national team is deeper than it was on our team the late eighties."
Since Italy and Slovenia had games that very same afternoon, I also spoke with Marzorati and Daneu. Marzorati, one of the most elegant playmakers ever and a two-time Euroleague champion with Cantu, was concerned about the do-or-die game against Germany. "I think that we have a very talented team but lack consistency. We are missing a player like Mason Rocca, who can score inside, rebound and play defense. We need consistency in this kind of tournaments in order to reach high," he said. Said and done, as La Nazionale was outrebounded by 52-31 against Germany. Fact is, Italy faced its game against Germany with high ambition after the critical win against Turkey. Belinelli paced Italy in the first half with 12 points until he left the game with an injury. Outrebounded constantly, Italy relies on its outside shooting to stay in the game, with top guns like Gianluca Basile, Andrea Bargnani or Matteo Soragna. Germany felt confident with Mithat Demirel at the point, as he managed to make everyone, not just Dirk Nowitzki, involved. A 20-meter shot by Stefano Mancinelli went in and out at the end of the first half. It's a shame, since its Euroleague Headquarters fan club would have been jumping up and down. Johannes Herber had his best game so far and helped Germany to break the game in the third quarter. Nowitzki had a terrible game, but Germany was finally a TEAM instead of a one-man show and got a well-deserved ticket to the quarterfinals. Italy had to go home, but their moment may come soon with so many young talents. By the way, has anyone noticed that Angelo Gigli and Rudy Fernandez look like brothers?
France faced Turkey in an unimportant game, as France was third in Group F no matter what while Turkey was out of the quarterfinals race. The funniest situation came after the game, when an Asian journalist asked Tariq Kirksay "you play for France, but are you French?". Tariq answered as politely as possible, so I thought it was the right time to ask him the dumbest question I had in mind - it was now or never. Just as I expected, Kirksay understands Spanish, not only because played in Argentina or Venezuela, but also because he grew up in Brooklyn, where a lot of Puerto Ricans speak the language all the time. I wonder about the kind of questions that Theo Papaloukas or Matteo Soragna will be asked in the Euroleague CBA Challenge in China. "I am enjoying the EuroBasket experience, but I just want to win no matter where I am. Playing against the best in Europe helps me to raise my level," Kirksay said. France faces a well-rested Russia in less than 24 hours, so that is a major disadvantage. Meanwhile, Turkey has the 2010 World Championships coming up and EuroBasket 2007 has been a step back. Coach Bogdan Tanjevic should consider making some changes before the next European showdown in 2009, as he is under contract until that moment. That morning, I asked Ivo Daneu, the greatest Slovenian player in the 20th century, about Matjaz Smodis, the greatest Slovenian player right now. "Smodis is one of the best players in Europe and he is showing it once again in this EuroBasket. The Slovenian team is now a combination of young and veteran players. I hope they will make it to the semifinals. Smodis has surprised me, he is playing with heart and I wasn't hoping that he would play," Daneu said. Slovenia entered the game against Lithuania once it had demolished Turkey and Germany with outstanding defense...
...and the game was just as expected, a great showdown by any measure. Ksystof Lavrinovic had a wild first half, joining forces with Ramunas Siskauskas and Darius Songaila to give Lithuania a 41-44 halftime lead. In one half, Lithuania scored almost as many points as Germany in the entire game. The scary fact - for all its opponents, starting with Croatia in two days' time - is that Lithuania played really well without Sarunas Jasikevicius early in the second half, showing everyone that the team only gets better as time goes by. Lithuania led 49-63 after three quarters. Game over. Siskauskas is finally getting all the credit that he deserves and he is made for big games like the ones we will all experience this week. By the way, I now know why the Lithuanian fans complained throughout the national anthems. The Lithuanian anthem was played pnly midway through, and as a proud country as it is, people complained. In the last two games, the anthem was played all the way through and all Lithuanian fans sang their hearts out. Russia won and will face France while Croatia is ready to go against Lithuania now. The Lithuanian crew had a fight with police with the arena, where one of its most famous fans was arrested. They opted to protest by wearing bandages as it they all had been hurt. Imagine thousand of Lithuanian fans with medical bandages, including a huge Ozzy Ozbourne portrait with the Lietuva jersey and the bandage. GENIUS! Lithuania is an unbelievable, almost undestructible team right now: they all are athletic, everyone - but Robertas Javtokas - can shoot it from downtown, plus a motivated Saras that gives everyone a plus, on and off the court. Goran Dragic played his first game without a mask and if he is supersticious, it will be back for the quarterfinals.
Croatia made it to the quarterfinals despite losing against Russia. It was good to see Nikolai Padius playing an interesting role off the bench. It is amazing how players sometimes change when they have a different role in their national teams. Padius was finally his usual self, shining with a huge dunk and pounding his chest while looking at the Russian bench. As usual in this EuroBasket, Zakhar Pashutin had a big time contribution off the bench. Pashutin is being the ultimate veteran bench player, making few mistakes and helping his team in many ways. Greece had no troubles to beat Portugal even when they hit 5 triples in the first quarter. A little adjustment in defense was enough for Theo Papaloukas, Dimitris Diamantidis and their crew to finish Portugal, even when as usual, it put a nice battle out there. Portugal has enough reasons to come back home proud, as the one and only Elvis Evora told us. "We knew this would happen, everyone thought we wouldn't win a single game, but not only we managed to reach the second round, but we also beat Israel. Now I am looking foward to playing in the ULEB Cup with Ovarense. We have a good team and we can shock people, too." Evora is one of the nicest, most laid-back players in the tournament, and his combination of legendary rockstar name and afro haircut makes him even cooler. The Serbian press, those who stayed, are amazed to see how Paulo Cunha looks like former star Misha Beric.
Spain had to rally from a 13-point deficit to down Israel in style, extending its lead until the final buzzer. Coach Pepu Hernandez placed Sergio Rodriguez in the starting five in order to give him confidence, but he did the opposite thing. Not only Spain was losing with him on court, but Jose Manuel Calderon came off the bench and scored 15 points in 13 minutes to get the team back into the game. Once Spain got back in track, a 19-0 run in which Rudy Fernandez shined with his steals and fast break points did the rest. Spain was critisized for not running the break like last year in Japan but has usual, the Golden Boys proved their (few) critics wron with 26 breakaway points. In my opinion, Nowitzki may be the NBA MVP, but Pau Gasol is the best player in the world under international rules. If you add compromise, adjustment to a way different basketball, team concept and many other intangibles, Pau is just unstoppable. Only a few people believe that Spain will not win the championship, as no other squad has its depth, team concept and talent. Once again, everything can change in just one game. From now on, 5 bad minutes can ruin all the good work achieved so far. As usual, Spain is followed everywhere and its player are national heros, constantly compared to its football team that never, ever stays competitive when the going gets tough. Basketball has never been so popular in this country.
The biggest news off-court was that Asafa Powell once again broke the 100m record, stopping the clock at 9.74, which is remarkable. I believe, however, that there is people who could easily beat it here at the press desks. All you need is to place the catering room at the exact distance and let the right people know about it. Some of us can make it there in just 8 seconds, believe it or not. We are now moving to the Community of Madrid's Sports Palace, where the best eight teams will fight not only for the medals, but also for two direct spots in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Stay tuned, as the best is about to come!
Javier Gancedo, Euroleague.net
Thursday, September 13, 2007