ESPN The Magazine
ATHENS, Greece You know what I'm Dramamine-sick of hearing?
That the isolationist, one-on-one, jamming way we play basketball in America can't adjust to the quick, lithe, rotating European game.
People here think that in America, all hoopsters are taught to not help on defense, to not make mid-range jumpers, and to always pull out the nearest And1 trick available.
Everyone is down on USA hoops. But hey, we invented this game. We can do anything we want to it, despite what our defense-avoiding, brick-shooting, yacht-living Olympic basketball team is showing the world.
When I heard the wisecracks about American ball after Team USA lost to the smaller, quicker, blonder Lithuanians last weekend, I decided to take our foreign policy into my own diplomatic hands. I set out in search of a pickup hoops game, just so I could run with some Europeans and show them that we know how to pick-and-roll and finger roll and call out a screen.
I set out to change some Euro minds.
Fortunately for America, I represent our country well -- athletically, at least. I'm 6-foot-4 and 190 pounds, with a silky J and tattoo-close D, and I can hang in the air like vapor. (Editor's note: Seth is 6-1, tops, and weighs 170 pounds. He is the only player ever to make the varsity team as a seventh grader but not as an eighth grader at Hanshew Middle School in Anchorage, Alaska. He rarely cracks the starting lineup in ESPN The Magazine's weekly game at Basketball City in New York.)
Around 5 p.m., I find an open court about 10 minutes from downtown Athens and 10 minutes from the gorgeous Greek beaches -- where, incidentally, the women wear the same amount of swimsuit as the men. The court is on the west side of a busy traffic circle, across the street from two outdoor cafes where the locals sit and smoke and watch. As outdoor courts go, it isn't bad. The asphalt is smooth, there are nylon nets -- a rarity back in the States -- and the arc and European key are neatly painted. Along the baseline are concrete benches so guys waiting for the next game can sit.
I sip Powerade for a few minutes, waiting for someone with a ball to show up. Finally, a fortysomething, well-toned man walks in. His name is George, which he spells Tiwjgos, and he works in sales for Kelloggs in Athens. He's a friendly guy, a Lakers fan, a good deep shooter who grunts a lot. And as we warm up, he wants to talk Olympic hoops.
"Americans don't get the European game," he says in good English. "They don't want to."
After a few minutes, Chris shows up (he spells it Xjiotos), then a lanky guy named Evan; and right behind him is a law-student named Thadasas and his pal Nik, who is shaped like a freshman offensive lineman. We decide to play three-on-three halfcourt and split into teams: me, Thadasas and Nik against Chris, George and Evan.
As usual, I search for the other team's worst player and D-up on him. I pick George.
We start, and I realize that my team is playing very American while other guys are more Euro. They cut and pass and shoot weird, quick-release shots that look ugly but go in anyway. Pickup ball moves faster here than in the U.S.. There are no "checks," play stops, or chances to catch your breath.
Evan is wiry and quick, and has moves off the dribble that get his team up 3-0. We come back as I make a few passes -- yes, I want my teammates to know that Americans pass -- which Thadasas converts. Our problem is Nik, who not only looks like a freshman offensive lineman but shoots like one, too. Despite weighing in at about 280, he wants the ball at the top of the arc. Chris wisely doesn't guard him, which gives Nik easy opportunities to shoot airballs.
After his third one, he lets out what must be a four-letter Greek word: "bkpr!"
I avoid shooting; and it's not because I usually miss, which has never stopped me before. It's because I'm showing that we Americans play team ball. So I pass and screen. I feed Thadasas for a three that he clangs. I find Nik at the free throw line -- he drives, tries a spin move, and is stuffed. Fifteen minutes later, we lose 21-19.
Tiwjgos -- er, George -- starts sending a little junk my way.
"Scared to shoot?" he says. He laughs and pats me on the butt.
"Alright, Frosted Flakes," I say back. He doesn't get it.
I take this as a sign that it's time to find my inner-Iverson. So in the second game, I attack. Too much. A 15-footer off the rim. A drive left too hard off the glass. A 10-foot swish. A drive and dish inside to Nik, who seems to have decided that his 100-pound advantage over Chris might actually work in favor of easier makes. We slap around Tiwjgos and Co., 21-13.
Game Three, and the opponents are ready. It's as if they've huddled between games and become more . . . well, European. I'm getting pick-and-rolled all over, and no one is alarming me that a screen is on its way. (Or if they are, it sounds like "Dfcos.") George has suddenly caught fire, bombing from three-point land and canning, even with his eyes into the sun. Plus George, Chris, and Evan are all moving and slicing. I barely touch George in the back as he leaps for a layup and he calls foul, the type of cheap call that gets someone pummeled at West Fourth Street. Still, George won't let up. He gets a screen and Mr. Three (Nik) doesn't switch. Swish. They're up 15-9.
We make a run, highlighted by Thadasas, whose drive-and-fadeaway banker is unstoppable, and soon it's 18-18. I get a baseline 17-footer and clang it, leaving George to say, "Just like Marbury."
Still, Nik puts in the rebound to put us up one. Then George lets loose a three; I get a fingernail on it, but it still goes in. Game point, Tiwjgos and Co.
Evan takes the ball and dribbles right, just inside the arc, and gets a screen from George. I switch onto Evan, who drives, elevates and kicks it out to Chris, who fakes Nik out of a month's rent and penetrates. When I move over to help out, Chris passes back to Evan, who immediately, and right past my ear, passes to George. Wide open, he packs the short jumper.
I am dizzy from being turned around so much.
"That's how we play," Evan says.
Is it too late to teach Iverson that play?
Seth Wickersham covers the Olympics for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.