Sunday, September 16, 2007
EuroBasket wrapup: A lesson for Team USA in Spain's loss
By Chris Sheridan ESPN.com
MADRID, Spain -- "How about that, eh?"
That quote was the first thing that came out of Jerry Colangelo's mouth Sunday night when I spoke to him just a few moments after Russia pulled off an absolute stunner of an upset in the final game of EuroBasket '07, defeating Spain 60-59 in front of a packed house.
"It just shows how great a game basketball is, how it's a team game, how it's about chemistry, tempo, enthusiasm and passion. Here's a team that basically came out of nowhere, but the way that team played here is indicative of how teams can rise to the occasion if you have all those factors working for you," said Colangelo, the Team USA director.
While Russia celebrated, Spain felt the pain of a giant knockout.
I know Colangelo reads all my columns, and I don't know if he trusts my advice, but I'm going to go ahead and give it to him anyway: Make 20 or 30 copies of the game tape from Sunday night's final, and send them to every single player in the Team USA program and the Team USA pipeline. Include a little note that says: "Guys, take a look at this tape, and keep one thing in mind as you watch it: Crazy, crazy things can happen in international basketball, and giants really do fall. And DO NOT EVER, EVER take any opponent lightly, or you'll end up looking as shellshocked and downcast as Pau Gasol, Jose Calderon and the rest of the Spanish team looked at the end of this one, when they let their entire country down."
I also spoke to chief U.S. scout Tony Ronzone right after the game, and I asked him what advice he would give to the Team USA players if he were to go back to his hotel room and e-mail them about what happened Sunday in Madrid's Palace Arena.
His answer: "Respect, respect, respect, respect, respect, respect."
That's six times Ronzone used that word, for those keeping score back home. And in case he didn't make his point with his first sentence, here's the rest of his answer: "It's most important to respect these players; the fear factor is gone. We're going to learn the names on the backs of their jerseys, we're going to know everything possible about them and we're going to make sure we are totally prepared to play against them."
The American federation has come to grips with where the fault lies for their loss to Greece last summer in the World Championship, and if Colangelo, Ronzone and coach Mike Krzyzewski can get the players to really, truly listen to them, they will have that problem licked by the time next summer rolls around and Team USA is off to Beijing to try to end what by then will be an eight-year gold medal drought.
"It's going to be more about us than about who we're playing, and we really must play with the same passion that we saw these teams play with here," Colangelo said. "Over here, playing for your country is an incredible thing, and our guys have now gotten ahold of that, and we have to build on that."
Russia, Spain and Lithuania are the three European teams that qualified for Beijing out of this tournament, and Greece, Slovenia, Germany and Croatia earned berths into next summer's new pre-Olympic qualifying tournament, from which three more berths will be awarded. I'd have to say that Russia, Spain, Lithuania and Greece all are capable of defeating the U.S. team (heck, all but Russia already have over the past five years, along with Argentina, which did it twice). And Slovenia and Croatia are the types of teams you can't take a day off against without running the risk of getting down big early and having to play catch-up the rest of the way.
Krzyzewski has been preaching to the team that there is no place for arrogance in this day and age of international basketball, but there remains an arrogant mindset among a significant portion of the American population when it comes to judging Team USA's place in the world. The trick for the U.S. team will be to eliminate those thoughts from the equation when they gather again next summer in Las Vegas to begin preparing for what promises to be a tough task and to keep that arrogance at bay the entire way through -- especially when they're more exhausted, road weary and tired than they've ever been, which will come at the end of the Olympics, when they're going to need to play their best.
Russia's coach David Blatt gets a hero's treatment by his players.
"You can't stop Kobe Bryant with a slingshot, you need an AK-47," said Russia's coach, American David Blatt, who got his team to believe they could defeat Spain by instructing them to turn Spain's biggest advantage -- the support of 15,000 screaming fans -- against them.
And you could see the Spanish team succumbing to that pressure all the way through the second half, especially down the stretch of the fourth quarter when Gasol's knocking knees led him to miss five free throws.
Well, guess what? Every time Team USA takes the court next summer, all the pressure will be on it and not on its opponents. That means the opponents are going to play loose, and the Americans at some point are going to have to fight through feeling tight.
Spain couldn't do that Sunday night, which is why they let down an entire country that couldn't fathom the thought of losing a game to a second-rate team such as Russia. In a way, it's exactly like what happened last summer when the Americans went up against Greece and didn't know what had hit them until they were down 20 points.
That's just the way it is in international basketball in this day and age, and the evidence is right there on the videotape of the Russia-Spain game.
Giants fall, and Team USA isn't the only basketball giant to have taken a nasty spill. It just happened to the reigning world champs, and it can happen to the Americans, too, if they don't go into Beijing with the right mindset.
So go over there with respect, and be prepared for the worst. And when the worst starts to happen, rise against the pressure and make it stop. Otherwise, that gold medal drought is going to linger, and an entire nation is going to be let down once again.
Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.