By the time you read this, EuroBasket 2011 will have finished its first group stage and I will be on my way to Vilnius to join the fun that so many Turkish Airlines Euroleague and Eurocup stars are already having at the event. As always, the competition has put everyone in their right place. The top candidates have confirmed their power, there were some upsets along the way and plenty of Euroleague players have proven their value this far. The best is yet to come, however, as every game will be critical from now on. As the 12 teams arrive in Vilnius, some looking to stay alive, others fighting for a better quarterfinals matchup, there are have been several interesting stories along the way so far.
In the name of the fathers
Being able to compete after a major personal loss is not just tough, but admirable, and this is what Real Madrid veteran Felipe Reyes and Belgacom Spirou Basket swingman Mickael Gelabale are doing these days. Both Gelabale and Reyes lost their fathers just days before EuroBasket 2011 started, but they are here to do their jobs and battle as hard as possible. The late Mr. Reyes had a big effect on the Spanish national team, considering that his sons Alfonso and Felipe have accumulated 16 seasons already wearing Spain's jersey. Felipe was crowned world champion in that jersey in 2006 in Japan. Five years later, Reyes has found the courage to keep doing what he does best - grab rebounds, offer intensity and have a key role off the bench. "I need to keep working and forgetting," Reyes said. "I am down-hearted but feeling better with the help of everyone around me." Gelabale was not in the best physical condition in a pivotal game over the weekend against Italy, but he asked France head coach Vincent Collet to play anyway in the second half. He then played a decisive role, hitting the go-ahead three-pointer, as France stayed undefeated. "My Dad passed away two months ago and today is my sixth wedding anniversary," Gelabale said afterwards. "I felt that my teammates needed me and I was highly motivated." Expect Reyes and Gelabale to keep giving 101% in Vilnius.
It is Mantas' time - happy birthday!
At a EuroBasket in which point guards are playing stellar roles – Montepaschi guard Bo McCalebb leading FYR of Macedonia to the second round, CSKA genius Milos Teodosic flirting with triple-doubles, Tony Parker leading France like never before – I would like to point out the step forward taken by Mantas Kalnietis of Zalgiris Kaunas during this tournament. Lithuania is a very team-oriented squad that works like a unit, but Kalnietis, who turns 25 today, has become a critical player who is ready for stardom. Kalnietis has been a true floor general in the first round, setting the right pace, taking the right decisions, playing in crunch time over a four-time Euroleague champion and Lithuanian legend like Sarunas Jasikevicius. Kalnietis had 19 points, 8-of-8 shooting, 6 rebounds and 6 assists in a no-doubt-about-it win against Poland. He also buried two late jumpers in a close game against Turkey that allowed Lithuania to stay out of trouble in difficult Group A. Kalnietis has finally fulfilled his great potential, following a strong Euroleague season with his current performance at EuroBasket 2011.
Naturalized and committed
For some time, many thought that Americans players only got European passports to have more options to play in countries with restrictions on how many foreigners can play. (Passports are no advantage in the Euroleague and the Eurocup, which have had rosters without border restrictions for many years.) Now, some of those same Americans are giving their hearts and souls for their new teams. Ever since former CSKA legend J.R. Holden hit a jumper that allowed Russia to win EuroBasket 2007, things are changing in terms of naturalized players. McCalebb and Unics scoring machine Henry Domercant are perfect examples for FYROM. McCalebb has dived for loose balls between the legs of two defenders while leading FYROM to historical victories and a ticket to the next round. Domercant has been playing for Bosnia since 2005 and is as committed to the team as any local player. EA7 Emporio Armani playmaker Omar Cook helped Montenegro to go from Division B to its first-ever EuroBasket and Dontaye Draper of Croatia had the single-best assists record in the competition. Former Euroleague player Tyrone Ellis is a hero in Georgia after helping its national team reach Europe's Division A despite the conflicts in that country. Seeing their attitude and performance, it's clear that none of them plays for the passport, but to compete and win.
What's beyond a legendary team?
It is no surprise to say that CSKA Moscow has been one of the teams that has defined Euroleague Basketball this century. In his four season with the club, head coach Ettore Messina led CSKA to Euroleague titles in 2006 and 2008, while reaching finals and falling one shot short of victory in 2007 and 2009. What made – and still makes – CSKA so special is the family environment of the club. That was readily apparent to anyone who saw them arrive first to the club's eight Final Fours in a row with an entourage that included friends, family and former players. One of the players who had an active role in CSKA's title teams is Tomas Van den Spiegel, whose national team Belgium was eliminated from EuroBasket 2011 on Monday. An injury-free Van den Spiegel has played well for Belgium, but elimination had a silver lining for him. Van de Spiegel will be back home in time to attend the birth of his second child, Theo. The name of his new child was not chosen precisely to honor his former CSKA teammate Theo Papaloukas; Theo is Van den Spiegel's middle name, coming from his great grandfather. But Papaloukas was under consideration as godfather for the newborn. The physical distance between them now, with Van den Spiegel having returned to Belgium to play for Telenet Oostende and Papaloukas headed to Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, made that impossible. However, Papaloukas has promised to act as a long-distance godfather, if not an official one. Great teams prove their value on the floor, it's true. But after history has been made and the dust settles, the personal bonds remain unbreakable.
One final, important thing left to say - get well soon, Marius Petravicius. My next blog entry will be from Lithuania and I can't wait to share with you everything interesting I see over there. Enjoy EuroBasket 2011!
Javier Gancedo - Euroleague.net
Tuesday, September 06, 2011