Defying expectations

Chris Hill - Spirou CharleroiHey, hey, hey!!! Euroleaguers and basketball fans around the world…Spirou Basket is here! We "shocked European basketball" by making an improbable and an unexpected (to everyone but us) run through three qualifications rounds to become a member in this year's Euroleague. My name is Chris Hill, and I'll be blogging for you this Euroleague season from Charleroi, Belgium.

Where I come from, Indianapolis, Indiana, babies are given basketballs along with their bottles. It's the heart of basketball country, and if you don't believe me, you've never seen "Hoosiers"! This is my sixth season playing professionally in Europe. Before that, I played for Tom Izzo at Michigan State University from 2001 to 2005. (Big shout-out to all my SPARTAN DAWGS!) We went to the NCAA Final Four in 2005, losing to eventual champs North Carolina in the semifinals. There are a number of Spartan Dawgs playing in Europe; it's like running into family whenever I play against one of them. I started my pro career in France, a season each in Evreux (second division) and Clermont-Ferrand (first). I then spent a season in Bandirma, Turkey, playing for Banvit. From there I came to Belgium, where I have been for two-and-a-half years (Belgacom Liege in 2008-09 and Spirou since then). I've had quite an interesting, challenging and, at times, tumultuous professional career. It hasn't been the most direct and glamour-filled path to the "main stage" of European basketball, but I wouldn't change a thing. Helping my team secure a place in this year's Euroleague has been incredibly satisfying.

After three straight Belgian League titles, qualifying for the Euroleague was our first goal this year. To a solid nucleus of returning players - Justin Hamilton, Dwayne Broyles, Brent Wright, I and Andre Riddick, the "Grandfather" - the club added Brian Greene, Demond Mallet and Joseph Gomis, the last two bringing valuable Euroleague experience with them. Most people didn't pick us to reach the Euroleague, but WE KNEW that we had the talent, experience and motivation to achieve our goal. In the first qualifying round, we faced Czech Republic champ Nymburk. We won Game 1 at home by 11 points and lost by just 2 points at their place, good enough to advance. We felt mostly relieved afterwards, because we knew the we should have won bigger at home. In the second qualifying round, everyone wrote us off. Unics Kazan of Russia was the clear favorite. To have any chance, we needed take care of business at home first. We played a very good game, on defense especially, to build up a 15-point lead through 32 minutes. But Unics fought back, using their size to cut our winning margin to a disappointing 6 points. Our coach, Giovanni Bozzi, reminded us that in Game 2, the pressure would be on Unics. A Brussels airport strike cancelled our flight to Russia, so the already-long Kazan trip started with a three-hour bus ride from Charleroi to Düsseldorf, Germany. After the three-hour flight to Moscow and a six-hour layover there, we reached Kazan at 22:30 local time. I had better trips from Bandirma in Turkey that required a ferryboat to Istanbul before any flight. Though exhausted, we knew that Unics had a long trip back, too. We started Game 2 slow and trailed most of the first half, but were down just 1 point in the series when it ended. After the break, we were better on both ends. I went from stone scoreless to knocking down 5 three-pointers in the second half, the last following an offensive rebound with about 15 seconds left. We then got the stop we needed on defense and won the series by 2 points. We celebrated at center court what no one thought we could do…beat Unics.

Facing Alba, another team with a rich history and Euroleague expectations, we again played Game 1 at home. Again, we played well enough to win by 10, but did so by just 4 points. That made it a tall order to go win in Berlin, especially their home-court crowd. Still, we felt like anything could happen. We had played five games and made it this far…why not win one more? We went to Berlin a day early, and so were able to see the city, in my case for the first time. I was very impressed with how nice and clean everything was. I really wanted to stop for a doner kebab, but had to settle for a Starbuck's iced mocha (nothin' like a little taste of home). The O2 World in Berlin is the best European arena I've played in. It reminded me of playing in college, with the fans and the big stadium. It was a really fun game to play in, and we didn't feel any pressure. We went in with a good game plan, and we executed it, especially in the second half. A number of guys stepped up again in key moments. We make it as dramatic as possible, losing an 11-point lead to trail by 2 points in the last 4 minutes…but we found a way to hang on! After, I felt the most satisfaction that I've had in my six years as a pro. I played a crucial role in helping a team overcome favored opponents, playing on the road in each series clincher and defy expectations. Everyone on our team achieved our goal, qualifying for Euroleague!

All of which led to our first taste of Euroleague basketball last week. It was an awesome feeling to leave the freezing rain in Brussels on Wednesday morning and be walking on the beach in shorts by the afternoon. And while we had a disappointing outcome to the game, it was a special experience for all of us. Even in our practice the evening before the game, you could feel a certain electricity as the arena was being prepared for the game. The next night, the gym was filled and their fans were into the game from start to finish. We couldn't have started any better, jumping to a 20-3 lead in 5 minutes. Unfortunately, over the next 35, we didn't play our best and ended up falling short. Even though Unicaja is a very good team, we felt like we beat ourselves. I think we learned two extremely important lessons from the first Euroleague game: first, mistakes at this level will cost you every time; and second, if we were not 100% convinced before now that we can compete and win; we now can see that we have a team capable of doing just that. Malaga was a great environment to play in, and it was a memorable first Euroleague experience, even if it was unsuccessful. I'm really looking forward to Wednesday, when we will have our first Euroleague game in Charleroi, against Roma. In my next blog, hopefully, I can tell you how it felt to get that first win!