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D-termined or D-sperate? [Oct. 3rd, 2009|10:48 pm]
“What the Hell am I doing?” This thought crossed my mind about 1,000 times while driving from West Hartford to Umass-Boston's campus for a tryout for the Maine Red Claws, the NBDL's newest expansion team. This was the second tryout held by the team, the first occurring in September in Charlotte, NC. The Red Claws are the NBDL affiliate for the Boston Celtics and Charlotte Bobcats, so they were looking for talent in the home cities of the teams which they serve. The Red Claws would take three out of the 175 expected registrants to their training camp, where they will be given a shot to make the roster.

The NBDL has a checkered reputation. People have called it a benefit to the NBA, a place where promising young talent can go to work on their game rather than sit on a bench watching older players take up all the minutes at the top level. The only way to get better at basketball is to play; it doesn't happen through osmosis. The NBDL provides this forum for the young and underdeveloped.

Others hate the NBDL. They say it is the worst of basketball; after all, the reason for players to play in the league rather than a better-paying overseas league (the highest-paid players make $35,000 while the benchwarmers (i.e. me) make $12,500) is to prove that they belong in the NBA. This breeds a selfish brand of basketball. Michael Jordan said recently while there's no “i” in “team”, there's one in “win”. For NBDL players, there's also an “i” in “cha-ching”. They hear those Siren cash registers only a short distance away, and they heed the call.

So, what the hell am I doing here? Good question. I had put my basketball dreams aside three years ago to pursue other possibilities. This summer I made a brief comeback in Ireland, mostly to prove to myself that I had something left in the tank, and to rid myself of the regret I may have in my basement. Another thing happened, though, on my last day in Ireland. I showed that I may not only have something left in the tank; I might be topped off. It's been difficult to concentrate on my studies. I think about basketball constantly. I question my decision to come back to go to school and forego playing opportunities daily. When my friend Kevin sent me a link to a website which showed the Red Claws were having an open tryout, I signed up. If I play well and get invited to camp, I'll have a chance to play with NBA-ish talent every night, to prove myself on a daily basis, and to have my chance to play again.

I use the term “tryout” loosely. An open tryout is like an open mic night; it's an invitation for quantity rather than quality. For the Red Claws, my guess is that this was a publicity event (more people follow the WNBA than the D-League, which is depressing) as well as a revenue generator (players were charged $150 if they pre-registered, and $200 for registering on the day of the tryout) for a minor league team that by its nature will struggle financially to stay afloat. Times are tough, and you need to make money in any way that you can. I think this tryout is a great idea for the team.

Eighty players showed up for the Boston tryout, after 95 showed up in Charlotte. Walking into the gym, I could pretty much tell who was a legitimate player, who was a has-been, and who was a never-was within the first five minutes. This latter group was there for one of two reasons. First, some guys are so incredibly delusional about their talents that it boggles the mind. Guys that couldn't make my high school team (a rural/suburban group of white kids, two of whom could dunk (barely) we were laughed at when walking into urban gyms because we looked like the cast of “Hoosiers”, complete with the tiny shorts and buzz cuts) puff out their chests thinking they've been defeated not by their lack of skills but rather by the politics of basketball. “People be hatin'” is a common phrase among these folks, meaning that there was some sort of bias created, though no fault of their own, by a group of those in power who control the destiny of basketball players worldwide. They compare themselves to guys in the NBA, claiming that their skills rival or surpass those in uniform, though they've never stepped on the same court as the even the 12th men on the bench. Believe me; I've played against those guys. They can play. Period, end of story. When they look foolish on TV, it's only because guys like Lebron or Kobe are otherworldly; remember that even Brian Scalabrine, a perennial benchwarmer on the Celtics, averaged 16 points a game for his career at USC, not exactly some little cupcake D3 institution.

The second reason that these never-was guys showed up is obvious. It's the reason guys do anything; to pick up chicks. I can imagine them sitting at a bar later that night in Boston, chatting to some lucky lady how they had a tryout with a pro team earlier in the day. Some chicks wouldn't realize that this 5'7”, 140-pound white guy looks like he plays checkers rather than basketball; the story would eventually work on somebody.

Out of the eighty players, I'm guessing sixty played college ball, thirty had played some level of professional ball, and fifteen had a legitimate shot of being invited to training camp. Out of this 15, one or two would be selected to join the team for camp. The Red Claws stated that between the Boston and Charlotte camps, they would select three players total for camp. Three spots out of 175 total players. That's a 1.7% chance. Almost nil.

My chance of making any team, though, is always better than nil. It's not because I am that talented; on the contrary my physical skills are on the decline and have been for a few years. I have two skills, though, that 95% of my competitors do no. The first is more of a gift than a skill; I'm 6'11” in sneakers. The famous phrase “you can't teach height” is one uttered by every coach who has ever blown a whistle. I also have a 7'2” wingspan makes me, as Jay Bilas likes to say, very long. My wingspan, much more than my athleticism (which rivals my 78-year-old father's) helped me become the fifth best shotblocker in D2 history.

My second skill is that I have a (relatively) functional brain. I used to be a cocky bastard, thinking that I was smarter than just about everybody else. But as I age, I believe it's true that the more you know, the more you know you don't know. Life experience is nothing if not humbling. Still, I have been around basketball for 22 years; I know what coaches want. And more about what they don't. Realistically, the three players chosen out of 175 will, if they're lucky, make the team as the last few players on the end of the bench. They'll be reserves, not stars. Now, I know it's possible that there might be a diamond in the rough, but more likely those playing will be reserves, doing the things that reserves do. They won't be hunting shots, they won't be going coast-to-coast against five defenders, they won't be bitching at the refs. But this is what most of the guys at these tryouts do. They're trying to stick out for what they feel are the right reasons (their jumpers, they're dribbling ability, their charisma), but they often end up sticking out for all the wrong reasons (their inability to hit open shots, their selfishness, and their lunacy).

Everyone has heard the cliché that those who fail to plan, plan to fail. But I'm not a planner. To me, “plan” is a dirty four-letter word. I once wrote a best man speech on the back of an envelope an hour before the wedding, I studied for one night before my law school entry exams, I try out for minor league basketball teams because a friend sent me an email a week ago telling me to. I don't plan, I just...do. So this concept of planning is foreign to me. I like to think that my plan was more of an idea, to think as a contrarian. Contrarian thinking in a nutshell means that you aren't a sheep. When everyone says that X is the right answer, you say it's not. This is because the masses are typically asses. My idea for this tryout was to do exactly the opposite of what others thought was a good idea.

Instead of hunting shots, I'd hunt people out to set them screens. Instead of dribbling around, I'd throw full-court outlet passes. Instead of bitching at the refs, I'd joke with them during timeouts, and admit my mistake whenever they made a call in my direction. In retrospect, this wasn't some grand scheme; it's just the way I play. It's the way I've always played. I'm pretty positive that on 99% of the teams I've ever played on, I've been the least talented player. That's not an exaggeration. I can barely dribble, and have only developed a consistent jumpshot in the years after I stopped playing professionally. It is my willingness, and more so my desire, to do the things that no one else wants to do. This makes me a valuable commodity. While you can't teach height, it's almost as difficult to teach someone to take charges and dive on the floor.

We began play at 9:30 AM, a half hour later than expected because registration went over its allotted time. We were gathered as a group and were told that we'd be doing an hour of drills, then we'd split into teams and scrimmage for the rest of the day. It was going to be a long day. We were on schedule to be in the gym until 6 PM. Even if we took an hour lunch, that's a lot of basketball. While my body felt good, I'm not 16 years old anymore.

As we went through drills (basic stuff like three-man weave, full-court dribbling and basic passing) it was clear who could play and who couldn't. The problem was that because these were team drills, those who couldn't play were making those who could look bad. I worried that this would carryover to the games; often players struggle when surrounded by bad players. It's a trust issue. The bad players become ignored on the court because their teammates don't trust them to make the right play, cut or pass, so you end up playing 4-on-5 or even 3-on-5 on offense. This inequality brings down the level of play and makes everybody look bad.

After drills, we were split up into teams by the coaching staff. My team looked pretty solid; six out of our ten players looked at least quasi-legit, while the jury was out on the other four. I began the game as a starter, winning the opening tap for our team.

My plan went well. I played hard, using my size advantage to grab a boatload of rebounds. I took a charge, and spent the majority of my time on offense setting screens. On the few times I posted up, the defenders collapsed on me, allowing me to find a man open for a jumper or cutting down the lane for a layup. Sometimes balls just seem to bounce in your direction. That's what seemed to be happening today. We finished the game, and I was satisfied with my play. The competition wasn't the best, but regardless, I looked good, even though I was doing things that the common fan wouldn't necessarily recognize.

After the game, we had some time off. I tried to stay loose, stretching and doing some yoga on the sidelines. A young guy affiliated with the team came up to me and introduced himself. He was the trainer for the team, and he informed me that he was sent as a messenger to talk to me. The GM of the team wanted to know ho healthy my back was. Whoa. Word travels fast. Sixty minutes ago I wasn't even on the team's radar, and now they know my medical history? I was honest, telling him a little about the history of my injury, as well as what I've done to get healthy. He was surprised to know that I had five bulging discs in my back; surprised as in he was surprised that I was walking, let alone playing basketball at a high level. I assured him that I was OK, that I had played for a month in Ireland with no ill-effects just a few weeks ago, and that I wouldn't show up to the tryout if I didn't think that my back was unhealthy. That would be dishonest, something I am not.

During the break, I did an interview with a reporter from NPR. NPR has a sports show? I had no idea. Apparently they have a weekly sports show that's based out of Boston. One of their reporters showed up for the tryout for a segment he was running about minor league basketball. I'd seen him earlier in the day with an airplane pilot-esque headset, which I thought was strange until I saw a guy following him around with a microphone that looked like it was stolen from the set of a bad 1980s Communist spy movie. The reporter was shooting by himself, so I walked over and asked him if he was an air-traffic controller doubling as a basketball player. A lame joke, yes, but it started a conversation about what he was doing and where each of us had played, etc. I wished him good luck after about 10 minutes, and didn't see him again for a few hours. He approached me later in the day looking for an interview, so we recorded a 15-minute conversation, talking about the mentality of an athlete, my experience in Europe, why I stopped playing. I deadpanned the entire thing, but he had a good sense of humor, so he actually picked up on and laughed at my sarcasm. I hadn't done an interview in years, but it was a nice little lift to my ego to be on the microphone again. My voice sounds like a cross between Yoda and Chewbacca, so I'm not always radio-friendly. The dude must have noticed this, because I only get one line in during the segment (though the whole segment is only about 10 minutes long, use the link below to access the show and my line comes up about 3 minutes in).


After a few more games, the coach of the team, Austin Ainge, came over to me while I was on the sidelines to introduce me to the team's GM. I had talked to Austin a few times earlier in the day. The first time he pulled me aside to ask me a few questions about my game, my history, and my health. I felt like an idiot after this first time because I'd been out of breath and sweating profusely, so my answers came in somewhat short bursts. Also, my team was still playing, so I ended the conversation and said I needed to get back to the team. As I walked away, I felt like punching myself in the face. The head coach of the team I was trying to make engaged me in a conversation, and I was the one who ended it and walked away? Poor decision making. The second time, he was speaking with a GM of team for which I'd formerly played. The three of us chatted for ten minutes or so. I do admit that I had my doubts about the guy before I spoke with him today. The son of Celtics' legendary player and current GM Danny Ainge, Austin's previous coaching experience includes only an assistant coaching job at Southern Utah. I suspected nepotism was in play with this situation. But after talking to Austin these two times, he seems like a pretty cool dude, and knowledgeable about the game. I found out that he played at BYU, which means two things. One, he played at a high level, and two, at some point he went on a two-year mission to help out an underprivileged sector of the world. That's commendable.

The GM, Jon Jennings, was an assistant during the 1980s with the Celtics, meaning he had the best seat in the house for the best basketball in the history of the NBA. He's also worked in the US Senate and as a professor at Stonehill College. Not a bad resume. The three of us spoke for fifteen minutes or so, being cut off only because my team was starting a game. Before I left, Jon said he liked what he saw; in particular one pass he'd seen me make. I'd caught a rebound on the defensive end, saw a teammate cherry-picking on the other end of the court, and threw a two-handed overhead bullet pass that caught him in stride for a layup. I liked that pass too, mostly because it gave me a chance to catch my breath while I waited for the opposition to come back on offense. Jon asked me if I wanted to come to training camp with the team. He wanted me to be one of the three out of 175 that the team took out of these tryouts. I couldn't help but smile. Of course I'd come to training camp. Why else would I subject myself to a 10-hour tryout which cost me $150? I told him I'd be there.

Now I look forward to training camp in early November, where I'll be given a shot to make a team which is one step away from the NBA. If I make it, I'll be paid less for five months than what most pro players make in a single game. But I will be on a team, and I will be given a chance. For now I'll enjoy the moment, but later I'll no doubt be contemplating the adage “Be careful what you wish for, you might just get it”.
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Something Left In The Tank [Aug. 29th, 2009|11:15 am]
8/29/2009 Something Left In the Tank

The entire time that I’ve been in Ireland, I’ve debated whether or not my decision to return to competitive basketball has been a good decision. I question my motives, my desires, even my sanity on a daily basis. Thus far, all signs point to my inability to compete like I have in the past, when I was a top player in a great European league. In the 30 years since that time, my body has aged, my play has deteriorated, and my desire has wavered. But I chose to return to show that I might have a little flash of greatness (or at a minimum competency) left in my body. Thus far, my return has been less than triumphant, though my performances have improved steadily since I arrived in Dublin earlier this month. Tonight, I’ve been given one last opportunity to show that I can still play at a high level. I figure I might as well take advantage.

Earlier today, our head coach pulled me aside after shootaround for a private conversation. On Thursday of this week, the team voted anonymously for whom they thought should start our last game against Slovakia. We were each given a scrap of paper by the coaching staff, on which we wrote down the names of the five players we felt had earned the right to start in the final game. I voted for myself, and since I had a somewhat strong performance against Luxembourg in addition to a decent week of practice, I thought that I stood a good chance of being voted by the team to start the game.

My coach had similar sentiments. He told me that the coaching staff had discussed the possibility of me taking over the starting center position, but in the end decided that it would be best not to rock the boat of the current starting lineup, as it might be damaging to the psyche of the individual I’d be replacing. I understood, and said it was no big deal. And it’s not a big deal who starts the game; it’s more of an ego trip to say that you’re a starter for a national team. Part of me wanted that ego stroked, and most of me thought I deserved a shot at starting the game.

A long time ago (or so it feels) my volatile college coach, Max Good, told our team that it doesn’t matter who gets to start, rather it is what you do with the minutes you’re given once you enter the game that truly matters. This philosophy makes sense. Hall of Famer Kevin McHale is the prime example of this phenomenon. His best performances for the 1980s Celtics dynasty came in a role in which he was the sixth man rather than a starter. Not that I would ever begin to compare myself with such a legend, but I could make the best of my situation, and perform when I got my time on the floor. In our three previous games, I have had sequences that show I deserve to be on the court, but I’ve had others where my play should give the Irish government reason to revoke my citizenship.

In the end, my ego is far outweighed by my desire to win. If I’m told that our chances of victory are increased by my presence on the bench rather than the court, I’ll gladly take a seat. A big part of me, though knew that if I stayed on the bench in this game, I might never be asked back to be part of the team. This fact hadn’t dawned on me until that moment; I could be suiting up for the team for the last time tonight. When the team asked me back, it was partly out of necessity but also partly out of the fact that they wanted to take the risk and see if I could help the team like they thought I would before I got hurt. Up until today, this risk has gone unrewarded. I had come to Ireland to prove to myself, as well as to the team, that the risk was worth taking.

I felt pretty good in our pregame warm-ups, feeling a little extra bounce in my jumps that could be attributed to a either a bout of nerves or the sugar rush I was feeling from the two bananas and one Snickers bar I ate on the five-minute bus ride from our hotel to the game. After our team introductions, I took my seat on the bench. I wouldn’t be there long.

Our starting center began the game in style, hitting a 15-foot jumper on our second possession. But he picked up a quick foul, and didn’t box out or help out on a few defensive possessions. With four minutes left in the first quarter, I got the call from our coach to sub into the game.

I grabbed a rebound on our first defensive sequence. A few minutes later I blocked a shot, then scored a lay-up on the ensuing possession. My sugar high hadn’t yet died out, and our team seemed in sync. We cut into the 10-point deficit that had accumulated during the first six minutes, and got on a roll. Slovakia, though, was tough. They hit any shot in which they were left open and played aggressive defense; denying passes, bumping cutters and being generally rough when guarding our players, a fact that the Eastern European referees were apparently oblivious to. I played until about three minutes left in the first half, at which point I had run out of gas and needed a break. Playing for that type of stretch, especially when the opposing team is constantly subbing fresh players in and out, is exhausting. We went into halftime down nine.

At halftime, we lamented our play, and vowed to be tougher on both ends of the floor. We aren’t more talented than most teams; we generally compete on scrappiness. I felt that in this game, though, we had the talent advantage, and were just being out-scrapped by Slovakia. I downed a bottle of water, ate another banana, and felt reenergized for the second half. When we got back to the bench, my coach announced that I would be starting the second half. Ego stroking engaged. My play in the first half deserved this recognition; I played very well, and we cut into Slovakia’s lead when I was on the court, going down again when I was on the bench. I wanted to validate this decision, though, as my coach had reversed the coaching staff’s earlier decision to not start me. I recently watched “Invincible”, the story of Vince Papale, the Philadelphia resident who defied the odds and walked on to the Eagles in the 1970s in a gimmick marketing stunt provided by rookie coach Dick Vermeil. After Papale played badly in his first game, on the verge of getting cut, he says sorry to Vermeil. Vermeil says “Sorry? Don’t tell me you’re sorry. I stuck out my neck for you, now start playing some football!” In his decision, my coach stuck out his neck for me. I didn’t want to have to tell him sorry if I failed.

We began to chip away at Slovakia’s lead. I had a near-YouTube moment, an opportunity that I feel I’ll regret for a long time. It’s not often that you get the chance to play against someone that stands 7’5”, and even rarer when you get the chance to dunk on someone of that size. Slovakia had a player that tall, and I had my chance.

I never fully understood the phenomenon of dunking on people. I guess the best way to describe it is to say that to dunk on someone is to take away his manhood, because you are forcing your will on that person when he is doing everything he can to stop your efforts. And the bigger the defender, the bigger the prize. Everybody tries to dunk on me. Hundreds, if not thousands, of these attempts have been made on me in my career. I’m an easy target, and everybody wants to dunk on the big white guy. In my case, I think there’s a subconscious race element involved as well; black players (and this may be total bullshit but it makes a little sense) ALWAYS try to dunk on me. It may be because the majority of players are black, but it also could be that there dunk is one small victory in a race war that has been waged for hundreds of years. By dunking on me, they are sticking it to the (white) man. Luckily for me, for all the attempts, I’ve only been dunked on six times in my life. Not bad considering the attempts.

So I got my shot at dunking on this Yao Ming-sized defender. And I had it. I fucking had it. But at the last second, as our bodies met midair, the ball slipped from my grasp and the ball clanged off the inside of the back of the rim, rattling out. I got fouled on the play, but I was disappointed. Had I gone up with two hands, as I generally do, instead of one, I think I would have completed the and-one dunk on the giant. I had to settle for two free throws instead. Sigh.

Our team was competing, and I was playing well. I grabbed every rebound I could, and I knew that my stats were mounting. More importantly, we kept getting closer to even. I was doing everything I could to get us ahead: I took a charge, blocked a few shots, set hard screens, dove out of bounds to save a loose ball; I wanted to win.

In the end, it just wasn’t enough. We missed a few key shots down the stretch, and were forced to foul to try to get the ball back. They hit their free throws, and walked off the court with a seven-point win. I was disappointed, and had a sour taste in my mouth knowing that the better team didn’t win that day. I would leave Ireland with a 1-3 record, instead of the 3-1 we could have realistically had.

At the same time, though, a part of me was validated. I finished the game with the following stat line: 11 points, 20 rebounds, 2 blocks. Twenty rebounds. Bill Russell might scoff at that number, but few others can. In last years Olympics, no one grabbed 20 rebounds in one game (Hell, nobody even came close- only 3 times did anyone grab more than 12 in a game, with Dirk Nowitzki holding the record at 17 in one game). Granted, the competition at that level is higher than an Ireland v. Slovakia match, but it’s still a boatload of rebounds. I asked members of the team, and they couldn’t remember anyone on the Irish team accomplishing the feat. Hell, it might even be a national record. I’ll have to find out.

So while our team lost, a part of me felt victorious; and vindicated. Finally, after four weeks and four games, I played well. Though my body ached from the trauma I put it through during the game (6’10” bodies aren’t meant to take charges or dive headfirst at full speed multiple times on a hardwood floor) my spirit smiled. Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe the ball bounced my way tonight more often than it would in another game; I was just lucky. Maybe it doesn’t mean anything. But maybe it does. Maybe I can still play at this level. Maybe I am scratching the surface. Maybe I can still make money playing this game. And maybe I still want to. All I know is that, before I fly back home tomorrow, I will get a film of this game sent to my agent. He’ll send it to teams in Europe and let them know that, for the right price, I’ll at least consider coming back and playing as a full-time professional. If nothing else, this month has taught me that while you’re only young once, sometimes second opportunities present themselves; and when they do, you need to grab them and hold on tightly. And at least on this night, I felt like I showered in the fountain of youth. It's good to be young again.

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Cliffhangers [Aug. 25th, 2009|11:11 am]
8/25/2009 Cliffhanger

Three nights ago we celebrated our first win of the campaign, a 100-83 victory against Luxembourg. I played reasonably well for the first time. Everyone felt good, so e went out to celebrate. We arranged to go to a club called “Sin” at 1 AM, but ventured into the city around 11 to find a traditional pub to grab a few pints of Guinness to get the blood flowing and the muscles relaxed after a physical game in which I came out with a few bumps and bruises. But a nice supply of booze always helps ease those issues, at least for a short while.

The “traditional” pub we ventured into turned out to be a tourist trap, and our round of three pints cost my teammate $28. Jesus that’s expensive. The bar wasn’t even that cool; it felt kind of like an Irish version of TGIFriday’s, complete with all types of stupid paraphernalia on the wall. It felt tacky, not traditional. Many Irish pubs, specifically in Dublin, operate under the guise of old-fashioned surroundings, but they merely take advantage of those tourists who have descended on their city to visit the Guinness factory and sample a full Irish breakfast. Call me a cynic (which I clearly am) but a visit to Ireland should be, if at all, spent briefly in Dublin. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a vibrant city, and I plan to study there for a year (if I can figure out how to swing it) but if you go to Ireland, you’d be better off flying into Shannon, renting a car and driving along the southern and western coasts. For all its benefits, Dublin isn’t worth it for a vacation. You want to go to a nice pub with a traditional Irish feel? Save the airfare and head to South Boston. You want Irish Ireland? Follow my advice.

After our first round at the pub, we headed to Sin. Before we made it to the club, we were bombarded by a group of drunken college kids from Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania. Turns out they play basketball at that D3 institution, and were on a tour of Ireland playing different club teams in the country. This fact in itself highlights the state of professional Irish basketball. The club teams compete with D3 American colleges. Contrast that with basketball in Spain and Italy, for example. Top D1 schools head over to these countries and get smoked by 30 on a regular basis. Irish basketball just doesn’t have the money to lure top American professionals nor the youth programs to produce an abundance of quality native players. It stems from a lack of interest (or possibly, lack of genetics) from the population.

So these players, kids really, as a few revealed they were still teenagers, were belligerently drunk, stumbling over the cobblestone roads that make up Dublin’s Temple Bar area. They had seen our game earlier that day, and a round of high-fives and fist pounds ensued as they recapped the highlights of our victory. They then made drunken claims about the fact that they thought they could beat us. I’m tolerant to a point, but drunken dudes, especially when they talk nonsense, aren’t my idea of a very good time. I made my way to the club.

Nothing too eventful happened at Sin, and I made my way back to the hotel with Carolynn around 3 AM in search of a little more action.

I got up Sunday morning slightly hung over and headed out to pick up my rental car. We planned a trip to the west coast (for once I followed my own advice) so I could show Carolynn the majestic views that part of the country has to offer. I booked the car with Enterprise, the company that is supposed to pick you up, but they refused my request and told me to get a taxi. In my experience, most Enterprise employees look like they’re fans of Roofie Coolattas and Japanese porn. Most have mustaches. Because it was the only car rental office open on Sunday, it was my only choice. So I took a $29 cab ride to the office, and rented my car.

Let’s just say that my description of the Enterprise employee holds true in its international offices. I took my keys and headed to my supposedly full-size sedan, which in America would be sold as a compact. Using my rediscovered yoga skills (I just started practicing again a few months ago after ignoring the practice for a few years) I wiggled my way into the driver’s seat, which is on the right hand side of the car, opposite of what most of the world, including America, employs. The coffee I had just imbibed improved my ability to function slightly, but I was concerned that my hangover would be detrimental to my driving skills, especially because everything on Irish roads are reversed directionally from America and because the rental car was a stickshift; automatics are a rare commodity abroad.

I quickly mastered driving, and picked up Carolynn and my teammate Naughty at our hotel. We planned to meet my teammate Conor and his sister Louise in Doolin, the town closest to the Cliffs of Moher. To give you an idea as to the size (or lack thereof) of the country, Dublin is on the east coast and Doolin is on the west coast. If you’re hustling, you can drive there in less than three hours. And only half of that is highway; the rest is on roads that are barely single lane (a lot of times you have to pull over to let the driver in the opposite lane pass you, all the while avoiding the stone walls that line each road. In less than the time it takes to get from New York to Boston, you can easily drive across Ireland. Ireland is like the Vern Troyer of Europe (I was going to use “Gary Coleman” here, but since there are a total of seven black people living in Ireland, it seems inappropriate).

My teammate Paddy suggested we take the scenic route once we hit the west coast and started our journey south towards Doolin. His suggestion couldn’t have been better. We went on Ireland’s version of the Pacific Coast Highway, through what’s known as the Burren. The name Burren is from the Irish “bhoireann”, meaning a stony place. An English would-be conqueror once wrote that the “Burren is a country where there is not enough water to drown a man, wood enough to hang one, nor earth enough to bury him.” Ironically, though, on the Burren grows a grass that is able to sustain cow grazing, and some of the best beef and milk in the country come from this area. Pictures like these do not do it justice. No pictures of Ireland’s beauty do any justice to the reality of its splendor.

We made it to Doolin at 3 PM, met with Conor and Louise, checked into a quaint bed and breakfast, and made our way to the Cliffs of Moher. I visited the Cliffs in 2005, but my return viewing was worth the trip. The Cliffs are just that; you can literally walk to the edge and look over to the water that is over 700 feet below you. That’s the equivalent of almost three football fields. One side of the Cliffs is fenced; the other is open. People sit on the edge, crawl on their stomachs and look over, or just stand looking at the ocean. The only other place in the world I can think of where you have this freedom or this view would be the Grand Canyon, though I’ve never been. Honestly, you can keep the Grand Canyon. I’m sure it’s great, but at the end of the day I’m looking down at a depleted river and forward at a seemingly endless desert. On the Cliffs, I can feel the mist of the ocean spraying its cool waters on my face, I can smell that fresh ocean smell that no perfume could replicate, and I can see the Atlantic Ocean, a vast body of water that allowed my ancestors to emigrate to America many years ago, enabling my visit back here today. Like I said, keep the Grand Canyon.

Quick side note: O'Brien's Tower is a round stone tower at the approximate midpoint of the Cliffs. It was built by Sir Cornelius O'Brien, a descendant of Ireland's High King Brian Boru, in order to impress female visitors. Nowadays, those with a midlife crisis (or 3-inch penis) buy Corvettes for the same reason. Times change, but people stay the same. At least Cornelius put some effort in to get a piece of ass.

After dinner, we headed out to a bar called O’Connors, where we were told we’d find good craic. Dating back to my first visit to Europe, this word was my first encounter with a language barrier, even though I was in a country that speaks English. The problem is that the word is pronounced “crack”. So, four years ago, on my first day in Ireland, I asked someone if a certain bar was a good place to go. The person responded, “Oh yeah, they’ve got great craic.” Excuse me? Great crack? I thought that epidemic saw it’s heyday in the 80s, and I’d be sketched out to go to any place where people were smoking crack. It was quickly explained to me that craic meant fun. Gotcha. So we went in search of some good craic at O’Connors, which our innkeeper told us was a 10 minute walk away.

Naughty is our resident navigator, even though we had two native Irish people with us and Naughty is from Chicago. But he’s been to Ireland more times than I have (and I’ve been six) and knows more about Irish history than any of my teammates, or so it seems. He is everything an overseas professional player should be. He embraces the culture of every country that he plays in (a list that includes Switzerland, Spain, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Austria and most recently Japan) and loves to get out and view all that he can see during the time he is wherever he’s at. We instantly hit it off three years ago on the Irish team, even though when I played against him in Switzerland I thought he was a douchebag. I didn’t know him at that time, and didn’t realize he was Irish, but when he played for Geneva and I played for Lugano, our teams met in the first round of the Swiss playoffs. Naughty has long hair, he’s all tatted up, and at the time he had an awful looking goatee that hung about 2 inches below his chin. My first impression was that he had douchebag written all over him. My suspicions (at the time) were confirmed when I was guarding him in the game. I left him to help out on a guard that was driving unopposed to the basket, and the player I picked up dumped it to Naughty on the block. Naughty went up and dunked with two hands, yelling as he did so, even though there was no one within 5 feet of him and his team was down about 20 points. He glared at me as he ran by. I stopped for a second and thought “What a fucking douchebag”.

So when I saw him three years ago in the Dublin airport, recognizing him as that douchebag from Geneva, I thought I was going to hate being on the Irish team. But I was (thankfully) dead wrong. The dude is awesome, for all the reasons I explained above. Since 2006 I’ve been to his wedding and also to the American premiere of the independent film he wrote and directed (which is a really fucking cool thing to do), “RiffRaff”, which I honestly thought might suck but was pleasantly surprised when I saw it in the theater; I laughed out loud multiple times. While my main goal of taking the opportunity to come back and play for the national team was to prove to myself that I could still play at this level, it’s guys like Naughty that will make me want to come back again and play in the future.

So Naughty is the Magellan for whatever excursions we might take, with maps and a Lonely Planet book never far from his reach. We followed his lead on the 10 minute walk to O’Connors. Forty minutes later, we were on the same road on which we started, but O’Connors was nowhere in sight. Nothing, for that matter, was in sight, because there wasn’t a fucking streetlight for about five miles in either direction. We could see only by the light of the moon. We decided to turn back, and found a bar, though not O’Connors, in which to have a few pints.

Whenever I walk into a bar, people gawk and stare and ask questions. I’m 6’10”, so people want to learn about things they don’t see on a regular basis. I’m just one of those things, which some people call freakshows. When I walked in with Naughty and Conor, who are both 6’9”, as well as two attractive ladies measuring 5’10”, it’s a circus, especially in a town the size of Doolin. The locals had questions, they wanted pictures, a kid standing about 6’3” said that he was born and raised in Doolin and hadn’t seen anyone taller than he in five years; he was also absolutely hammered, so who knows what type of truth there is to that statement. The whole “being tall” thing can be uncomfortable at times, so it’s nice to have others to share in the gawking. Although for my two teammates, they always take the opportunity to be short and put the attention on the tall guy, i.e. me, as I’m an inch taller than them. I’d probably do the same thing if a seven footer walked in the door, so I can’t blame them.

We got up the next morning, again hungover, to catch the 10 AM ferry to the Aran Islands. The Aran Islands is comprised of Inis Mor, Inis Oirr, and Inis Meain. Inis Mor is the largest of the three islands, and that’s where we were headed. The ferry didn’t arrive at 10, though; it was 75 minutes late. Weather that day was miserable, and the ten-foot waves were rocking the ferry so badly they were considering canceling the day’s trips. Don’t come a knockin’, I guess. But eventually we boarded the ferry, attempting to avoid nausea at all costs. Seasickness will ruin the your day as well as the day of anyone around you.

Thankfully, everyone in our group avoided seeing our breakfast for a second time, despite the difficult ride. We rented bikes for the day when we arrived at Inis Mor after being told that the return ferry to Doolin would depart at 3 PM. I looked at my watch; it was 12:30. Though the island is small (roughly 2/3 the size of Manhattan) there was a lot I wanted to see and do. But if we were to get to practice the following day, we’d have to amend our plans to get back on the return ferry. We figured that since the morning ferry left 75 minutes late, a return ferry would not be leaving exactly at 3 PM, so we ventured off to see the sites.

We made it to the far end of the island to a place called Dun Aonghasa, at 1:30. Dun Aonghasa is the most famous of several prehistoric forts on the Aran islands, and is built on the edge of a 3oo foot cliff (the view from the fort was very similar to the Cliffs, but only about half as high). Dun Aonghasa is an important archaeological site that also offers a spectacular view. It is not known when Dun Aonghasa was built, though it is now thought to date from the Iron Age. It was originally constructed as a circular fort several hundred meters from the coast, its present precarious position being the result of centuries of coastal erosion. Dun Aonghasa has been called the most magnificent barbaric monument in Europe, and it was a sight to behold. Seeing as how this was a former military operation, I overcame my fear of heights, did a military crawl to the edge of the cliff, and looked straight down. It’s an intense view, and I’m guessing that hundreds of years ago, foreign conquerors would have second thoughts about trying to take over the island after seeing what they were up against.

I looked at my watch, and it was 2:30. Begrudgingly, we started making the trek back to the ferry. We made it back at 3:10, just in time to see the ferry leaving port, and any chance for getting back to morning practice nonexistent. Shit. I have never missed a practice as a professional for any reason other than injury (but God knows I’ve missed about 1,000 for that reason) and it disappointed me to start now. In reality, we were just missing a shootaround and weight session, to get the blood flowing after two days off. We were told that we’d be able to catch a ferry leaving port the next morning at 11:30 AM, giving us enough time to make it back for evening practice. We called our coach, who made morning practice optional but expected us back for the evening session. I felt slightly relieved, but at the same time guilty. The coach is a good guy, someone I consider a friend as well as a coach, and I didn’t want him to think our absence was intentional or intentionally disrespectful. Plus I’d have to spend an additional amount of money on lodging, food, and rental car expenses. And booze, of course. Though I do have to admit that a lot of me was happy to spend some more time on the island, go to the beach, see some more sights, and have a few extra pints.

We booked a room at another bed and breakfast, stopped at a grocery store and picked up a few six-packs and headed off on our bikes to what’s known as The Wormhole. Basically The Wormhole is a giant naturally created rectangular rock formation holding a pool of water that separates the land from the ocean. Water from the ocean rushes over the top of the rock as well as from underneath to create this crazy ebb and flow and fountain effect, sending mist and foam through the air and onto any visitor that passes by.

The Wormhole? Amazing. Breathtaking. Awe-inspiring. Majestic. That shit is crazy. It’s off the beaten trail, and not many tourists get to view it; I mean we had to walk through people’s yards, over stone walls, through slippery rock formations covered in salt water, past thick brush with pricker bushes leaving me, the only idiot in shorts, covered in blood from my shins down. But it was worth it. Once again, no pictures can do it justice.

After a quick trip to the beach, as it was nightfall and the area where we were BUI’ing (bicycling under the influence) had no streetlights, we headed back to the hotel for a shower. Since none of us brought clothes (all our stuff was in the car back in Doolin; this was supposed to be a daytrip) we put on whatever we had, even if it smelled a little funky (which mine clearly did) and headed out to the pub next to our bed and breakfast. Now THIS was a traditional Irish pub. Cheap pints, good music, weathered Irishmen with their caved-in red faces that life has beaten down, and moderately attractive women who you might consider taking home after a few drinks. People wonder why the Irish have drinking problems. Anyone who has ever visited the island knows that about 90% of the population, men and women, are unattractive. Booze helps the mating process. Question answered.

We ended up drinking with some locals, and after Carolynn headed back to the bed and breakfast and Naughty and Louise were talking with some people at the bar, Conor and I made our way to an after party at some sketchy guy’s apartment, which was located over the restaurant where we’d eaten earlier in the day. I got a weird vibe once we got there (I mean we were in some random dude’s apartment, invited by some lady friends of his, and not he himself, who he was likely trying to hook up with, plus he looked like he like a fan of the nose candy (maybe there was good crack as well as craic on the island)), and once we found out they had no beer and it would be an hour before they retrieved some from another apartment, I motioned to Conor for us to get the hell out of there. I had no interest in cockblocking some cokehead who was clearly not into the fact that he had two huge guys hanging out in his apartment, and the ladies preferred talking to us rather than him. So we made our way back to the bed and breakfast, unscathed.

The next morning, we found out that the 11:30 ferry had been cancelled, even though the seas appeared to be calm. In fact, it was gorgeous out, sunny and 75 degrees. But we were fucked. The next ferry left port at 4 PM, which meant that after the ferry ride and drive back to Dublin, we would arrive at 9 PM at the earliest. We would miss evening practice as well. That knowledge sent a wave of sickness through my stomach. Missing a shootaround was one thing. Missing practice is another. If this were a team for which we got paid, we’d be facing at a minimum a fine and possibly a suspension. Normally, that wouldn’t matter because players generally have some cash to burn and a suspension doesn’t mean a whole lot at this level, other than the fact that you have a little extra pressure to perform the next time you play. Mostly it means you can go out drinking a few extra nights. But this is different. It’s precisely because we don’t get paid that made me feel badly. I am in Ireland because I want to be, and because the team wants me to be here. Missing a real practice is a slap in the face to team, regardless of any excuse we may have, independent of the fact that we had no way of knowing nor any power to rectify the situation once it happened. And that sucks, because we felt like we were letting our team down. After the momentum we had gained by beating Luxembourg, we wanted to sustain that feeling this week leading up to our important match against Slovakia. This event took the wind out of our sails.

After sulking through breakfast, we decided to make the best of the situation. After all, we had a perfect day of weather on a beautiful island that we may never see again. We set off to find a beach we were told was quiet and gorgeous.

No one told us that the reason the beach was quiet was that to get to it, you had to wade through what amounted to quicksand. We mucked through this quicksand for about 200 feet, sometimes getting sucked in to our ankles, sometimes to our knees. It was pretty treacherous, but we made it across. The beach before us was worth the hassle; there was no one on it, the sand was soft and the sun was warm.

After 30 minutes of hanging out, with no one but us five on the beach and no one within eyeshot of our location, Naughty asked me what I’d do if I had the beach all to myself, with no one else able to see me. Without missing a beat I blurted out “naked yoga”. I don’t know why I said it, other than the fact that 10 seconds prior to his question, I thought that this would be the perfect place to do yoga. In a word, it was serene. And most things are better done naked, so it seemed like the perfect thing to say. Everyone laughed, and they jokingly said that we’re all friends here, so go do it. I scoffed at their suggestion, and said I was going on a walk. I strolled down the beach along the water, letting the cold ocean water cool my feet. After a few minutes I looked back, and saw the group talking amongst itself. They were about 250 feet away. What the hell, I thought, let’s do this! I ripped off my shirt and shorts and began going through my yoga routine in nothing but my birthday suit. I heard an explosion of laughter as I went through the sun salutation, though I do have to say that the upward dog position was relatively uncomfortable; hot sand can be unforgiving on certain body parts.

Naked yoga is very liberating. Naked anything is pretty liberating; the unconfined body can move and flow uninhibited in any direction it pleases. Wind breezes on uncovered skin, whipping over parts of the body usually covered by clothes. It almost makes one want to wear a Speedo to the beach. OK, maybe that last part isn’t true.

Fifteen minutes after I started my routine, I decided to put my clothes back on. One, at some point somebody would walk by, and I’d rather not get arrested for lewd behavior in Ireland. Two, I hadn’t applied sunblock to any…ahem…private areas, so I feared the inevitable sunburn that would develop on specific parts of my fair Irish skin. I’m sorry, but when it burns when I pee, I want it to be from my gonorrhea. I mean, what? Moving on.

After a few more hours at the beach, we decided to head back to the port, 30 minutes early this time. We bought our tickets, returned our rented bikes, and waited for the ferry. When it arrived, we boarded. The 4 PM ferry left right on time…at 4:20. My guess is that the one and only time the ferry has left on time was the day we decided to show up 10 minutes late. We would make it home for 9 PM, long after our team was done with their drills for the night. Although we missed practice, and I feel badly that I let down my team, I can’t help but think that my time spent on Inis Mor was more productive (and clearly more memorable) than a night running around in a gym throwing a ball through a hoop. Now I just need to find some aloe to soothe certain reddened parts of my body. Ouch.

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They Have A Team? [Aug. 22nd, 2009|11:08 am]
8/22/2009 They Have A Team?

Earlier this week, my…friend…Carolynn came to visit me in Ireland. Only two people previous to Carolynn have come to see me play in Europe, so this means a lot to me. A lot of friends told me that they would come to see me while I was playing, but either I got hurt, cut, or they didn’t make the proper arrangements. She had a six-hour layover in Amsterdam to contend with, but she made it to Dublin at 3 PM this Thursday, and had enough energy to hang out and have dinner later that night with the team. She spent Friday by herself in Dublin, which is a reason I like her; a lot of people aren’t independent enough to travel themselves; they need to be led around. Carolynn is as happy exploring by herself as she would be with me showing her what I know about the surroundings. That’s sexy. When she told me she wanted to come to Ireland, I told her to schedule her trip around her Luxembourg game; I knew there was a good chance we’d win that game, and the feeling after a win is 100 times better than that of a loss.

Luxembourg is a tiny nation of under half a million people. It is best (and really only) known for having the world’s highest per capita GDP. But rich kids, traditionally, can’t play basketball. Luxembourg has been a doormat for most European teams in any and all recent legitimate European competition. I know, I know, it’s not like Ireland has been on par with the Dream Team. But if European basketball was like the 50 states of America, Ireland would be on par with New Hampshire: we don’t have much, but we have some cool things like no income tax, cheap liquor, and the first Presidential primary. Luxembourg is more like Rhode Island. Why bother?

With our record standing at 0-2, though, we were not about to take this game lightly. Still licking our wounds from the 25-point loss we took at the hands of Georgia, we prepared for this game as if it were the most important of the campaign. In some respects it is, because it is the one game we are supposed to win. If we lose, Irish basketball would be given a black eye. And no one wants a black eye, especially when it’s dealt by the snot-nosed runt of the class.

Yesterday, we had individual meetings with the coaching staff to discuss areas of our game in which we were thriving and also in which we needed improvement. Very similar to a job performance review, meetings for different guys lasted between five and fifteen minutes. I wondered what each meeting would be like; it’s not like anyone was going to be fired after the review, as they could be in real life, so would our coaches (bosses) be brutally honest or use kid gloves when criticizing our performances? How badly would they rip apart the two abortions I’d put forth in the first two games? I prepared myself for whatever.

I was the last review of the day. It was hard to read the faces of those coming out after their reviews; no one seemed too pissed or self-satisfied; I’d expect more of the former rather than the latter considering the overall performance of our team thus far in the competition. When I was called in, I sat down and faced our three coaches. They told me that they saw snippets of the player they remembered me to be, but felt I was holding back; that I seemed scared to test out my back to its full ability, to push the boundaries I may or may not have set up for myself after the injury I sustained a few years ago.

I hadn’t considered this to be the reason that I was faltering in the games. I thought I was just now too slow, too out of rhythm, too far removed from the game to recapture the abilities I had once held. It makes sense; whenever I’ve had surgery or injury, the most difficult obstacle to overcome is always the mental block of worry that the injury, or a more serious one, will occur when you step on the court. Athletes thrive on their swagger; when their confidence is stripped by an unfortunate incident, it can have a crippling effect on their psyche. Some never recover. Thus far I hadn’t recovered, in their view. They pleaded with me to bridge the mental gap that was disabling me from performing at a high level. They want to win games; it’s how they keep their jobs. I want to win too, but I also want to play well for personal reasons. I think that they believe those desires go hand in hand: the better I play, the better the chance we have to win. It’s a relatively simple concept.

Before today’s game, I sat in a conference room that was set up to serve refreshments to VIP guests at the game. I ordered a coffee, which has become my beverage of choice before games. I used to feel sluggish during games, my mind and legs not as alert as they should be. As any Monday morning commuter knows, coffee helps.

Feeling good from my caffeine binge, I headed to the locker room to get my gear on. Most players were already dressed and were stretching in the hallway. I had the locker room to myself for a few minutes, and I thought about the significance of this game, both personally and for the team. For Ireland, if we lost, we’d collectively walk with our tails between our legs, shamed by a defeat at the hands of an inferior opponent. After our first two losses and a tough Slovakia team for our fourth game, we could go winless if we left today without a victory. In a broader sense, if we lost today, Ireland may rethink the structure of the program entirely. They bring over Irish Americans like myself because the native players have difficulty competing against other European competition. It is more expensive to bring Americans over; it means plane tickets, meal money, lodging costs, etc. If we lost all four games, well, they could easily do that without any Americans. Why spend extra money if it doesn’t get you anything? A loss today might prompt Ireland to axe the Americans. That would be me. I don’t necessarily think that it’s probable that they’d immediately cut Americans in the future; but it was possible. I like my free trips to Ireland. I wanted to play well.

We came out firing. We quickly got up ten. Then twenty. Shots were falling and we were quickly rolling to a blowout. I was playing well in the minutes I got. My first two shots dropped, and I exerted my will on the boards and defense. When my group got in the game, the score was 29-15. When we came out eight minutes later, the score was 53-19. We went on a 24-4 run, locking Luxembourg down defensively. We were helped offensively by one of our guards, Ian O’Boyle, sinking six straight threes. I’d never seen that kind of display live. After he hit his first two, I and the power forward on our tem went headhunting for Ian, setting screens as hard as we could to knock his defenders on their asses, opening Ian up for open shots. He didn’t disappoint. Luxembourg was on life support. The starters came back in with five minutes left, and played pretty well. We ended the half up 58-29.

Morale in the locker room was high. We wanted this to be a message game; we wanted to show Europe that our first two games were lost because we lacked preparation time, not talent. A strong showing in the second half would put us on stronger footing within the basketball community.

The second half was sloppy, though. We weren’t playing aggressively like we were in the first half. Our outside shots weren’t falling, and Luxembourg was getting open look after open look. Luxembourg employed a strategy of going small against our big lineup, and it was working. At one point in the game, I was defending against a 6’3” guard. They tried to isolate me three times on the wing, but for whatever reason, I was able to turn him away every time. I’d always been known as a defensive stopper, but my Achilles’ heel has always been guarding smaller, more athletic players. Fortunately for me, I still have some guile in my game, and I used that more than my feet to get the stops. We turned the tide eventually in the fourth quarter. Our lead was whittled down to 11 before we made a stand and finished the game 100-83.

We survived the second half scare to come away victorious. My stat line for the night: four points, eight rebounds, one block. Not great, but not bad. A definite improvement over the first two games, albeit against less talented competition. Tonight was the first time I felt as if my timing was back close to where it was a few years ago; I got into a rhythm and did a lot of positive things. My legs felt good. I defended well. I felt pretty good about my individual performance, and great about the team’s victory. If only for tonight (but hopefully longer), we can walk the streets of Dublin as winners and not be embarrassed when people ask how our last game went. This win has given our team a glimmer of hope to finish the campaign with a .500 record. That would be a great morale victory for the club and for Irish basketball as a whole. I’m going to go rehydrate with some Guinness; my guess is that it’ll be fresh, seeing as how I can almost walk to the manufacturing plant from my hotel. Life is good.
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Two Game Recap [Aug. 15th, 2009|11:05 am]
8/15/09 Quick Recap

Two games, two losses. It’s hard to swallow. Games in Europe are relatively more important than games in America. Seasons are so long in the States that the regular season (82 games in the NBA, 162 in the MLB, with games every or at most every other day) becomes just one long time period of white noise; fans at those games often are indifferent to the play on the field or court, if for no other reason that they’re bored. And who can blame them? For that period of time, fans give 100% of their attention, and in no way are players giving 100% of their efforts. It’s just not possible to hold onto the intensity necessary to be at full blast for that long.

In the European season, though, there’s one game a week during the season, so players give 100% on gameday. Fans give 100% on that day. In the competitions like the one I’m playing in, where the season is even shorter and the stakes higher, even one loss can sway the fortunes of a team. We only play four games. Two losses can kill this season.

First, we lost to Sweden. Granted, we have only been together for five days; they’ve been together for six weeks. They played eight exhibition games. Their players get paid. They went 4-0 last year, and are the favorites to win all four again this year. But they suck. OK, maybe they don’t suck, but they’re not as good as people think they are. They’re big and physical, and they slow the game down so that it’s played at a snail’s pace. Players hate that. Princeton used to give athletic teams fits in the NCAA tournament because they were a bunch of white guys sticking to the most unathletic, basic, boring system possible. But they won with this system, because like fans can’t pay attention to long seasons, players can’t pay attention to long possessions. Our defense broke down in those long possessions, because we’re not tough, and we’re not disciplined.

On offense, they punked us. We scored two points in the first quarter. That’s embarrassing. I’ve never heard of that happening even in a rec league game. We shot too many threes, didn’t finish around the rim, and missed free throws. Those are all indicators of a team that is soft physically and mentally. I blame myself; I should be better. I can’t get my footwork right, I’m not grabbing boards I should, and I can’t get it going on offense. The best I could muster was setting picks as hard as I possibly could; a small victory. But even those weren’t as solid as they once were: I’m about 20 lbs below my professional playing weight, and 235 lbs picks don’t do as much damage as 255 lbs ones do. I was running better at this lighter weight, but with Sweden’s slowdown gameplan, I couldn’t use this to my advantage.

In the end, we got beat 66-50. Only scoring 50 points in a game might be more embarrassing than two in a quarter. The problems that plagued us in the first quarter hung around for all four quarters. To play that way in a game when you’re representing your country on your home court is nothing short of upsetting. I doubt the full house that packed the arena tonight will be making it to our second home game against Luxembourg.

Our game against Georgia was a little different. First, it was in a former Soviet state under Soviet-like conditions. We began our journey here on Tuesday night, taking a flight from Dublin to Istanbul at 3 PM. We got to Istanbul at 8:30. After contemplating taking a taxi into the city to explore during our three-hour layover, we grudgingly decided against it. We boarded our second flight at 11:30, getting to Tbilisi, the city where we were playing, at 2:30. By the time we got to sleep, it was 4 AM.

The hotel was nice; it had marble floors and a beautiful view of the partially gray city. The beds, though, were a throwback to communist times. They were basically cots, not even six feet long and at most two feet wide. I’m 6’10”; do the math. It was an uncomfortable night’s sleep.

Breakfast was followed by shootaround, which was followed by lunch. The food for each meal remained unchanged; even our post-game meal later that evening was the same type of food (and possibly the remnants of what we hadn’t eaten earlier in the day) as we ate at breakfast and lunch. After lunch, we noticed that there was a piano in the lunchroom at our disposal. I dabbled in the art until I was 11, when I was forced to make the choice between music and basketball. The choice was made because of my obvious physical size. I always want to go back and learn how to play again, but up until this point I haven’t found the time. I can still play a few songs, though, and so can another teammate, so we sat at the piano, playing and singing along to whatever the other was playing. Our coaching staff scared at us with quizzical looks; two near 7-footers singing Billy Joel and Five for Fighting songs hours before a game? They cracked jokes that most guys listen to gangster rap to pump themselves up before games. Here we were singing love songs; not to each other, just in general. Really. Maybe it’s not the type of music one’s supposed to listen to, but I like it nevertheless. Plus Tupac is tough to play on the piano.

In the game, I couldn’t do anything right. Literally nothing. I did have one spurt in the second half where I blocked four shots, but other than that, nothing. One rebound in 17 minutes. That’s pathetic. Our shooting guard led us in rebounding. That’s worse. Georgia, for their part, was good. Long, athletic, strong, and talented. They had three guys that are currently or have played with NBA teams. The rest of their guys are on top-level European teams. I’m in law school. You figure out the results of that equation.

Our team showed a lot more heart in this game than the last. We fought with Georgia, never letting them to punk us like Sweden did. They were just better than us, and after seeing them, I can guarantee you that they’ll beat Sweden. We kept it close, and cut their lead to seven early in the fourth quarter. Every time we made a run, Georgia got a basket to stop the bleeding. Eventually, they pulled away with a 98-73 win. Even though we lost by 25, the game was much closer than the score. This 25-point defeat was more encouraging than the 16-point loss we suffered at the hands of Sweden, if that makes sense. We made progress in multiple areas, namely offense. There’s a lot we can take away from the games, even if we lost. Two losses can kill a four-game season, but maybe this season is more about team building than wins. Part of me knows that last sentence is bullshit; it’s always about winning. But in a tight budget season where we’ve been behind the 8-ball in terms of money, scheduling, and travel, we need these moral victories for morale. If we can build on this loss, maybe we can turn our experiences into a win against Luxembourg later this week, it may not be in vain. At this point, we’ll take any victories we can get.
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Wrestlin' With Things [Aug. 13th, 2009|11:03 am]
8/13/09 Wrestlin’ With Things

Earlier today I watched “The Wrestler” with a teammate. Mickey Rourke stars as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, a has been WWE performer from the 1980s, an era in which steroids, coke, and a recession plagued the country. The more things change, the more things stay the same, right? Anyways, the film chronicles a washed-up Ram’s life in (yes, he still wrestles even though he’s in his fifties) and out of the ring. Stockboy for Acme Foods Monday through Friday and a former legend working the local wrestling circuit, comprised mostly of up-and-comers, hangers-on, and never-made its on the weekends, Ram is shown defaulting on his trailer home rental payment, getting taken back and then disowned forever by his estranged daughter, and self medicating to the hilt to deal with his injuries and enhance his ability in the ring. At one point, he has a heart attack. This guy’s life is a fucking train wreck. And I can see myself in him. And THAT is a big fucking problem.

Here’s the deal. I know that I’m not the Ram. For one, I’ve never had the initial success he experienced, so my fall from grace would not be so great. In addition, most athletes have only one thing; the body they were blessed with and the ability they have honed through years of training. Though I’ve trained for years, my body has been cut not from steel; it’s rusted from years of injury. But the premise of an old, washed-up athlete who can’t let go of the game in which he once excelled is a scary proposition to me. I walked away in 2007. Strike that, I was forced out by an injury caused by a cheap shot artist Italian; one who was 39, a.k.a. over the hill just like the Ram. In one instant, I went from leading a great European league in rebounding, already counting the zeroes on the contract I knew was coming the following year to a bloated (I ballooned up to 275 lbs in the months after my injury) cynic with back pain. I’m not sure anyone knew how badly I hurt. I had five bulging discs in my back. Some days I couldn’t get out of bed. Often I self medicated (with booze, nothing more, though it was a whole lot of booze) in private or public, depending on my mood I’m guessing this was caused not only by the physical injury but also the stress of embarking on a new career, the strain of a crumbling relationship, and the longing for the glory (and a serious paycheck) that so soon before had been within my reach.

Fast forward thirty months. I weigh 235 and am in great shape, mentally and physically. I just finished a year in law school and sold my half of my business, deciding in March to pursue law school full time. When I was presented with the opportunity to play for the Irish National team again, I jumped at the chance for no other reason than I’d b getting a paid vacation to a fantastic European city with a great group of guys. But as my departure date grew ever closer, a feeling emerged inside of me that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I began to entertain the idea of playing again. I began talking myself into it, then allowing others to talk me further into it.

With this year’s global recession, salaries are down in every industry, including sports. Any contract I sign this year wouldn’t (most likely) hold the amount of money I could have made in the past, and it would be discounted further by the fact that an injury has kept me off the court for more than two seasons. People forget, especially when you weren’t that memorable to begin with. I would make a comfortable salary, but it wouldn’t blow even the simplest mind away. So why would I want to put my body at risk?

Two reasons. First, move to another movie, "Rocky Balboa" (a surprisingly well-done movie, especially after the abomination that was "Rocky V"). In it, when discussing his possible comeback to Paulie, who makes fun of Rocky for his apparent senility, Rocky says that there's some stuff in "the basement" that he has to deal with. The basement is your gut; which often times is filled with regret or longing. Every single person has this basement; some hide it better than others. Athletes often have difficulty hiding theirs. They hang onto their glory days, living in the past to forget their present and future. Every single one of them longs for one more shot to prove that they can still be the best. I don't live in the past, but i do long for one more shot. I want to clean out my basement.

Second, the Ram’s final words, in response to a stripper friend’s (the only person in the world in the world who doesn’t either overtly hate or superficially care for the Ram) plea for the Ram to quit his life in the ring and run away with her, are “Out there is the only place where I get hurt” (out there meaning the real world). This is by far the most poignant scene in the movie, and this line resonated with me because the Ram is right. And that’s the point. No matter what happens in the real world, inside his four ropes or my four lines, reality disappears. For those few precious moments spent running up and down the court, basking in the sounds of squeaking sneakers, swooshing baskets and the roar of the crowd; I am at peace. I hate the game for a number of reasons, but I love it just the same. More importantly, I still can’t escape its grasp. Like Odysseus’s sirens, as much as I try to ignore the call of temptation, I find myself back on the court. Most people question my motives because they just don’t understand, but I know that the Ram would be proud. I’m not really sure if that’s a good thing.
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Four Fine Irishmen [Aug. 12th, 2009|10:56 am]
In 2006, the Irish team drank pretty much every night. A veteran-laden squad plus an easy practice schedule equaled numerous opportunities to close down the bar, sometimes even paying the hotel bartender to serve drinks after closing time. This year’s team, young and inexperienced, does not share the same attitude, in part because we are young and partly because of that 2006 team, only two Americans remain, with a third member from that team serving as coach. The Rat Pack atmosphere has receded, and a new era of hotel dwelling has begun.

But because we have tomorrow morning off from practice, tonight we went out for a drink (or twelve). Dublin, home to two of my favorite beverages, Guinness and Jameson’s, is a vibrant city with a vibrant nightlife. I wish that I could be here on September 24 to go to the party that will make the 250th anniversary of the invention of Guinness. If only Arthur Guinness had perfected his smooth gravy a month earlier, I’d be present for one hell of an occasion. Nonetheless, I was excited for my first night out.

Three teammates and I went to an area known as Temple Bar, a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. We started at Palace Bar, a traditional Irish pub, complete with Irish music. After a few pints, we’d had our fill of the bar’s music, and looked for something a little more modern. We decided to go to Fitzsimon’s, a three-story bar with live music on the middle floor, sandwiched by a club atmosphere on the first and third. The band was good, playing spot-on renditions of U2, Oasis, and The Killers. I sang along, poorly of course. Thankfully their volume drowned out my off-key stylings. People were staring at me. Usually this happens because of my height, but now I imagined it could be because of my Mohawk or the fact that I was wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Gumby on the front with a reference to smoking weed. Probably a combination of all three.

By this point, two girls and a dude came up to talk to our group. Slowly I ingrained myself in the conversation. I found out that the two girls, one French and one American, were staying with the guy, who was from Dublin, but they weren’t friends. They had each found him on couchsurfing.com. The premise of this site is to enable travelers in need of a place to stay o crash on a friendly inviter’s couch for a night or two. Members must provide a couch for any travelers wanting to visit their neck of the woods, so you have to be willing to give to receive. In theory, it sounds great. In reality, I have to believe it’s a breeding ground for predators and perverts. You are putting some serious trust in a stranger when you take their offer to sleep on their couch. I love how the Internet has torn down so many barriers, so many of them uber-creepy.

I tired quickly of the French girl, as she spoke broken English. The Dublin dude said not a word the entire time he was I our presence. I assume he was counting down the minutes before he could get the two chicks back to his apartment where he may or may not have plans to roofie them. I turned my attention to the American, a Detroit native named Beth.

Beth was an interesting character. She is a regular user of couchsurfing.com, and travels all over Europe for indefinite periods of time, spending very little money. She’s tattooed from head to toe and has piercings in her ears, wrists and neck (at least those were the ones that were readily visible). She happily mooned the entire bar to show us the tattoos on her ass cheeks, and my favorite, the word “No Regrets”, was emblazoned across her shoulder blades. It appeared to be her life motto. The permanent announcement seemed a little superfluous.

Beth looked like she was having a good time talking with our group. We left the second floor pub and went to the downstairs techno club. I don’t like clubs to begin with, and techno clubs are the worst. It’s always hot, the trendy DJs play synthesized beats that some qualify for music, and generally the people are obnoxious, skanky, or pathetic. But I went along for the ride, because that’s what I do.

The club was as I expected, hot and ridiculous. One teammate mockingly joined a group of gay dudes dancing on a railing. He fit in surprisingly well. Beth bought our group a round of Jack Daniel’s. She said it put hair on your chest. I’m pretty sure she could out party Motley Crue. Another teammate and I briefly discussed the fact that his wife recently went off the birth control pill, so now they were using condoms to prevent a pregnancy. Now, I think condoms are simultaneously the best and worst invention of all time; they prevent unwanted babies and STDs, but take a lot of the spontaneity and feeling out of sex. I questioned the teammate when he said that he actually enjoyed using condoms; he said it was a nice change. I highly doubt this weak argument. Any dude (and most chicks) will tell you that condoms are a necessary evil, and they do not feel great. And by don’t feel great I mean that they’re like penis Novocain. In my swinging single life, I’d use condoms because I’d rather not have a child with nor receive an STD from a person I barely knew. But in a committed relationship? Carl Djerassi is my hero.

Slightly inebriated, I turned to Beth and repeated my teammate’s claim that he liked using condoms. She made what can only be described as a sour lime face, and exclaimed “Condoms? Who uses condoms? Condoms are fucking terrible!” Whoa. Now I knew what Beth reminded me of (from movies…never in real life…yet, anyways): a truck stop hooker; the bottom rung on the prostitute totem pole, directly below pre-op transvestite hookers. She looked and now sounded the part. I’m moderately sure that this may be her former (current?) profession. But she sure was entertaining.

After a few more pints, I could see the Dublin dude getting antsy to leave. Beth began making the rounds, saying goodbye to everyone, kissing each of my teammates on both cheeks in traditional European style. I was last, and Beth made it to me, I went in for the double peck.

Beth had other plans. She came in for the real thing. Open mouth. I didn’t know what to do, and realized what was happening about five seconds in, at which point I pulled away, half laughing, half horrified. I had just kissed what appeared to be a truck stop hooker. Gross. I walked away in the opposite direction, ordered a shot of vodka, and used it to wipe my mouth off, hoping to disinfect myself from whatever disease I probably just came in contact with.

My teammate came over laughing, and said “Condoms, my friend, are a good thing.” I couldn’t agree more. On that note, we headed back to the hotel, somewhat sobered up from the short-lived, unconsenting makeout that happened a few moments before. One thing is for sure- that story will be told, retold, embellished and never forgotten by the guys on this team. Should make for an interesting breakfast.
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Eau de Toilette [Aug. 10th, 2009|10:55 am]
Toilets fascinate me. I know. I’m weird. But it’s true that they do. I’m always struck by human habits and cultural differences, and toilets can tell a lot about a society In terms of its cultural advancement. America, which has been the beacon of advancement for 100 years (though that will most likely change in the next 100), has the best toilets. Simple and functional, our toilets flush with power and precision, and when you’re finished, unless you’ve absolutely destroyed the toilet in a manner for which it wasn’t designed, the American toilet looks like it did when you initially found it. If only the American car industry could be as efficient.

Europe has the second best toilets. Their toilets look very similar to America’s, but have a front flushing mechanism that doesn’t quite do the job. It uses less water than an American toilet, but often the first flush doesn’t do the job so you have to flush again, negating the initial reduced water usage. This has been the toilet Europeans have used since the chamber pot became obsolete for them in 1997. The European toilet works OK. It’s not bad, it’s not great; it just is what it is.

Asian people are stuck between the past and what they perceive to be the future. In rural areas, people have rudimentary sewer systems; in high class neighborhoods they have bidets. I think that I’m pretty open minded, but I am not comfortable using a bidet. It’s just a weird feeling. I’d like to stop talking about it now.

People in Arab countries like Morocco take shits in holes that they dig in the ground. Enough said.

This discussion of toilets actually has a point. I am concerned with the facilities at our National Basketball Arena, specifically the urinal situation. When I was six years old, I went to Fenway Park. After drinking too many sodas, I had to pee. My father led me to the bathroom and instructed me to go inside while he waited outside, presumably to chug a beer or seven. When I walked inside, I was horrified. At six, a lot things can horrify you. I had been in public restrooms before, and expected to see a line of urinals in front of me, a daunting enough task for someone so young. Instead, there stood in front of me a single trough, a porcelain nightmare for which I had no choice but to endure. Unbeknownst to my six-year-old self, caffeinated soda is a powerful diuretic. Two paths diverged in a bathroom, and I took the one apparently much more traveled. I sidled up to the receptacle, partially filled because debris had collected in the drain, no doubt thrown there consciously or absentmindedly by that day’s fans. I unzipped my trousers and pulled out my thumbtack-sized penis (come on, I was six) and waited. And waited. And waited. It probably only took a few minutes, but as any guy can tell you, any delay at a urinal is an incredibly emasculating occurrence; this felt like an eternity. I stood there with my tiny penis and pushed my bladder, willing the urine to exit my body. When it did, it flew so fast that when it hit the lake of urine that collected from previous clients, it splashed back on my hand and pants. To this day, that experience has caused me to have stage fright at urinals. It’s kind of embarrassing.

On my first trip to the National Basketball Arena in Dublin, I had the need to use the bathroom. I decided to use the public toilets. To my dismay, I was confronted with the demons from my fecal past: a single metal trough collecting community urine. In 21 years since my Fenway fiasco I had not again seen such a beast. But I’m a man now, so such things should not affect me. This urinal could be a mini-Everest for me to climb; or at least pee on.

Now this trough had a slightly different design than Fenway’s. Fenway’s resembled a long bathtub, while this looked like a “J” hanging off the wall. The smell was awful. The urinal cakes meant to freshen the smell of the bathroom smelled like mothballs smoked in…urine. It was nauseating. At least if I threw up I’d be close to a toilet.

I strode up to the urinal and prepared to engage. I noticed immediately the urinal’s design flaw. When you pee on the back wall, it sprayed back at you. When you pee on the bottom it sprayed up. The only alternative was to pee to the side, so I turned left. This worked for two seconds until someone approached my left, so I turned right, which worked until someone came up on my right. I had to slow my stream down as I turned forward, a painful process. But in the end, I didn’t pee on myself. Small victories.

Though I think that differing cultures are great for overall society, and the homogenization of cultures is depressing. I vote for the world to accept America’s version of the toilet. At least, that is, until I get used to the bidet.
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Two Minutes Turkish [Aug. 9th, 2009|10:54 am]
My flight from Boston included a layover in London’s Heathrow airport, a destination no-so-fondly referred to by many as “Death Row” because so many vacations and business trips have been murdered by three-plus hour security lines, incompetent baggage handling, and the sheer size of the place (the airport covers five square miles, making it roughly 1/5th the size of Manhattan). I’ve been to Heathrow multiple times; not once have I had an easy experience. I took this flight rather than a direct from Boston to Dublin because it was $200 cheaper; our paltry budget needs to be stretched as far as possible in these tough economic times.

I traveled with a teammate named Bryan Mullins, a point guard embarking on his first professional year abroad after a successful career at Southern Illinois University. My first impression of him is that he’s a good kid, a little on the quiet side. My coach routed his flight from Chicago through Boston so he could fly with a veteran, even though there are direct flights from Chicago to Dublin. So now he was flying Chicago-Boston-London-Dublin, better known as “The worst scheduling decision anyone’s ever made”. Good intentions, terrible results.

Things went smoothly on the way to London. Though I didn’t get an emergency exit row (and please, for the love of God, give up your emergency exit row if a seven-footer ever comes calling for it. Normal sized people cannot begin to imagine the discomfort normal airline seats cause. Believe me, the giant whom you do this favor for will pay it forward in some way), I sat in an aisle seat next to a 35-year-old woman who spent four years working in India in her 20s, and currently works placing students in study abroad programs. Not your typical flight companion. Usually I get the fat, pungent businessman or the haggard, suicidal soccer mom on my flights. Or even worse, someone who is just…boring. So many people are boring. It sounds condescending, and it is; but it’s also true. Walk into a bar sometime and pick five people at random, male or female, it doesn’t matter. Talk to each one for ten minutes. If you find one out of five that can hold your interest for that long, and I don’t mean some bullshit about what they do for a living (unless, of course, it’s something amazing like placing students abroad) then consider yourself lucky. I’ve done this social experiment before and walked away empty-handed on more than one occasion, totally disinterested by the conversation. I’ve concluded that this means one of three things. First, I spend too much time in bars. Two, I meet the wrong people. Three, I’m kind of a snob. While all three might be true to some extent, I feel that I’m not the problem.

The last seven words in the previous paragraph are the root cause of most of America’s current problems, but I’m getting sidetracked. In fact, this whole paragraph is a sidetrack and now I’m getting sidetracked from my sidetrack. Where was I again? Oh yes. Most people are really fucking boring. End of story. Let’s continue. Our flight was delayed for 30 minutes, as our plane waited its turn on the runway, so I found myself with ample time to talk to my interesting seatmate, Erica.

Right before takeoff, a male…ahem…steward informed me that there was a whole row open in the back of the plane. I could have it if I agreed to perform sexual favors for him. Just kidding, but I do wonder how many men in this profession are not exactly heterosexual. 101%? Not that there's anything wrong with that. I weighed my options. One, I could stay and talk to this seemingly interesting lady but risk both being uncomfortable for six hours in my tiny seat as well as the possibility that one of us would fall asleep, thereby negating any benefit derived from the decision to stay. Two, I could take the legroom and hope for a good in-flight movie. Even after all my bitching about not meeting interesting people, I chose option two. Though my brain wept, my knees and back rejoiced at my decision.

We took off on time and were soon safely in the air. Some shitty Zac Effron movie (I probably don’t need the descriptive word in front of his name; it’s superfluous) came on. I chose to not put on my headset to listen along. When I saw Matthew Perry “starring” alongside this teenie bopper prince, I shuddered (thinking about the rise and fall of once A-list celebrities) and picked up the book, “A Fine Balance” I’d brought with me for the flight. After 100 pages (and what I assume was a “poignant” moment in the movie, as Matthew Perry’s bloated body was shown in an ill-fitting basketball jersey) I dozed off in my seat(s).

I awoke just as we touched down in Heathrow. I scrambled back to my seat, which was closer to the front of the plane, so as to not get stuck near the back as people exited the plane as slowly as cattle at a slaughterhouse. I felt a pang of missed opportunity as I discussed my book with my original seatmate, as she’d read my novel and I’d read what she’d been reading during the flight, “The Hour I First Believed”. I envisioned the conversation we could have (would have?) had longingly, though my great expectations probably wouldn’t have been fulfilled. I could imagine that, ironically, she would have gotten bored with me.

Bryan and I exited the plane. We had a 90-minute layover between flights. Sounds like a long time, but I knew that we would have to fire on all cylinders to make our flight connection to Dublin. We had to walk from one end of our terminal to the other, board a bus, go to the opposite end of the airport, then walk into and through a second terminal to a security gate. Once we got through security, we’d have a 15-minute walk to our gate. This was no Bradley International Airport. Everything was going smoothly, though, until we approached security. Once I saw security, I took out my Irish passport, and prepared to show it to the on-duty guard.

Anyone who has ever flown abroad knows that going through security and customs sucks. It’s like going to a dentist because your tooth hurts. You know that once it’s over, you’ll be enjoying your favorite food freely, but you have to will yourself to drive to the office and get in that chair, and it’s agonizing the entire time he’s working on you. The beautiful thing about holding a European passport is that European citizens float relatively unencumbered among and through any and all European countries. Europe has become somewhat of a melting pot, with varied results. But the huge positive for me is that my Irish passport enables me to virtually bypass customs. It’s like having an EZ-Pass on the Mass Pike. I’m still paying the toll, but I’m cruising through while others are burning fuel and time waiting for the delinquent attendant to collect the change of the people in front of you. You almost forget that you’re paying the toll, which can be a problem. The EZ-pass gives me one more reason to hate Jersey. Taking the Jersey Turnpike from one end to the other costs $9.10. I know because I paid it twice last month. I remember thinking “I just paid $9.10 to drive through Jersey??? It’s fucking Jersey!” Do they use that money to subsidize the guys that pump gas for those lazy, oiled up Guidos that can’t get out of their cars to pump it themselves? You could find a hooker in Atlantic City that would be less expensive than the Turnpike toll. And I guarantee you she’d still smell better than Newark.

Anyways, my EZ-pass-esque Irish passport is a huge pickup. When I grabbed my passport, I flashed it to my rookie teammate and asked if he had his passport ready. He said he did.

I approached the customs line and was greeted by some thin, balding English guy with a chip on his shoulder the size of Big Ben (the clock, not Roethlisberger). Security guards, cops; pretty much anyone in low-level positions of authority always scare me. Not because I feel subservient to people in positions of mediocre power, but rather because a lot of those employed in such professions either got the shit beat out of them by jocks in high school or are morons as adults. Think about this for a second. If I told you that I wanted a job where they paid me to be an asshole who suspected everyone I encountered while on my job of doing something illegal, given the ability to detain these people for up to 72 hours without legal representation, and be implicitly protected by a brotherhood of allegiance and a public who explicitly defers to your judgment…would you want to be my friend? No. You’d probably refer me to a mental institution, or at least run in the opposite direction. On the whole, I fucking hate cops, as well as their retarded step-cousins, security guards.

This guard seemed relatively reasonable at the start. There was no line, so I stepped up to his desk. This is the entirety of our conversation:

Him: Where are you headed?
Me: Dublin.
Him: OK, go on through.

Wham, bam, thank you ma’am. I told you, I love my Irish passport. I walked by the guard and headed to my gate.

I turned around after a moment as I didn’t hear Bryan behind me. I stood roughly fifty feet from the customs desk, with Bryan looking flustered and confused. Then I saw it. His American passport. Shit. When I asked if he had his passport, I didn’t specify which one. My bad.

I walked back to the desk. I heard the conversation that was emerging. The way the limey was in interrogation mode you’d think that Bryan was part of the IRA. He asked why Bryan was going to Ireland. When he responded “to play basketball”, the guard requested to see a copy of his contract; a ridiculous question. In addition to the fact that our participation on this team is on a pro bono basis (besides our expenses), who carries their contract with them? I’ve never carried any of my paid contracts with me, first because they weren’t worth the paper they were printed on, and second because it’s a ludicrous proposition to begin with; who carries their contracts with them, regardless if they’re an athlete or a janitor?

It was a mistake to tell the guard that he was doing anything but sightseeing. Like the kids from “Super Troopers”, when asked why you’re going to Montreal, even if it’s to consume a copious amount of drugs, you say “for French fries and gravy”. When asked why you’re going to Dublin, even if you plan on joining the IRA, you say you want to drink a pint at the Guinness factory. As I’ve said before, people in this line of work aren’t that smart. Anything other than this placid remark sets off their inner-hall monitor. It’s never a good idea to match wits with a gatekeeper, especially if he is a moron. Once you’ve incurred his wrath, you can do no right in his eyes. If you try to apologize, he wonders why you’re apologetic. If you seem aloof, he tries to take you down a peg. If you try to be funny, he gets frustrated and angry because he’s not programmed to understand humor. God forbid you get mad that this little twit is holding up your flight, because then he’s got you where he wants you. It’s his get out of jail free card to use the excuse that the traveler became unruly because that anger justifies his actions. Pissing contests cannot be won against a security guard. Their bladders are inexhaustible.

After interrogating Bryan for five minutes, the guard took Bryan’s passport and flight information and walked away from the desk in my direction, because at that point I was standing idly in front of the security gate. Bryan looked desperate, but the guard couldn’t be smugger. I stopped him and asked if there was a problem. Generally people heed requests made by 6’10” guys, especially if they have spiked up Mohawks like I do, but I worried about the Napoleon factor in this situation. Lucky for me, the guard was cordial, even forcing a half smile as he told me that he had to double check Bryan's documentation and the process would only take 5-to-10 minutes. He sighed, halfheartedly, as if to convey that he felt badly about the situation. Bullshit. He loved every second of it. In “the Departed”, Leonardo DiCaprio’s psychiatrist says that a lot of her patients needed her help because they had fired their gun in the line of duty. DiCaprio cannot believe this statement, answering “They signed up to use their guns, most of them”. Just like cops sign up to use their guns, security guards sign up because they couldn’t meet the mediocre standards by the police, so they instead control through less overt but equally as punishing means of control.

Forty-fucking-five minutes later, the prick saunters back and says that everything checked out and we were free to go to our flight. The only hiccup in that plan was that by the time he gave us the green light, our flight was already boarded and bound for Dublin. The guard seemed to stand a little taller as he let Bryan pass.

Bryan would later tell me that before he left, the security guard said he’d have to call “his people in the Irish government” to make sure Bryan could enter the country. Um. Ya. Right. Se spent that forty-five minutes either smoking, drinking coffee, or watching online porn. Or maybe all three simultaneously.

Because we’d missed our connection, we had to go to an AerLingus desk to reschedule our flight. The next flight to Dublin was in two hours, so we decided to bet breakfast. I ordered a frittata, a bowl of fruit, a side of toast, and a water. The total? Fifteen English pounds. That’s $27 in American dollars. I know airports are expensive, but that’s robbery. I should send the security guard my bill. An hour later, we finally boarded our flight.

We were met in Dublin by our assistant coach Mark Keenan and player/head coach Jay Larranaga, two great guys for and with whom, respectively, I’ve played before. Because our flight was delayed, we had to go straight to practice. It wasn’t really what I wanted to do after that trip, but I rarely agree with coaches. Jay told me that two Irish-Americans, both of whom were starters and very talented, pulled out of this year’s competition at the last minute due to personal reasons. That sucks. After seeing our first practice, though, even in their absence I think we have a shot at competing. We have a scrappy group of guys with some sneaky talent. I’d rather play on that type of team than one loaded with talent and assholes.

No matter how the team is comprised, though, I’m back. I’m back in Dublin, back in Europe, back in the saddle. And that feels pretty damned good.
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Ireland 2.0 [Aug. 8th, 2009|03:52 pm]
8/8/9 Top O’ the Blog to Ye

"Everything has changed, absolutely nothing’s changed”. Eddie Vedder's lyric is in my top five, from the Pearl Jam classic “Corduroy”. It applies to so many facets of life, but for now I’ll use it to explain my present circumstance: once again, I’m playing basketball in Europe.

Let’s recap my life since I last made an entry in this blog: I got injured in Italy (five bulging discs in my back), came home, bought half a company, gained weight, became single, “dated” liberally, got into law school, lost a lot of weight, drunkenly made out with a whale in Vegas, sold the business, and signed up to play again for the Irish National Team. That recap only took one run-on sentence. Either my writing skills have floundered (that’s assuming I had some to begin with) or my life just hasn’t been that interesting. Probably a little bit of both. Anyways, I’m in Dublin playing for a squad I first joined in 2006.

For those who don’t know why an American can play for a country not of his birth, I’ll explain. In most European countries, one can gain citizenship from a country if his ancestors emigrated to America from that country. Most allow you to go back two generations (though Italy allows you to go back five in some cases…rules seem to not apply in that country). Since my grandfather on my mother’s side was born in Cork, all I had to do was fill out some paperwork, wait for a few months, and bam: suddenly I’m an Irish citizen. I love loopholes.

One can imagine the sad state of affairs of Irish basketball if they’re happy to have an out of shape and injured law student playing on their team. I haven’t played in Europe in 30 months (Jesus, has it been that long?), and my last professional basketball experience was 18 months ago with a team in New Hampshire for which I’d drive up on Saturday morning and leave on Sunday afternoon after playing in two games and collecting $500 for my troubles. I had a lot of fun, and both the management and team was great, but neither the play nor the pay was on par with professional clubs overseas. Thankfully for me, the Irish National Team is looking past this information because I am currently the team’s tallest player. Know any tall Irish guys? We could use some. Wait, don’t go looking, they’ll probably take my spot.

Can I still play? The jury’s still out. What happens if I fail? I don’t know. What if I succeed? I haven’t a clue. All I know is that for the next 24 days, I will once again be a European basketball player. For better or worse, for now, it’s where I’m supposed to be. I just hope that while I have changed, my game hasn’t.

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The Final Countdown [Jan. 20th, 2007|11:36 pm]
All my bags are packed, and I’m ready to go…

When I got to the airport this morning, I had an odd feeling come over me: is this the end?

It very well could be. I mean, my back is pretty messed up- the doctor from Milan found three separate bulging discs, as well as deterioration in others. Also, I’m fed up with dealing with the teams of Europe (by the way, I find it quite hilarious that the name of this journal is an ode to a song from the 80s, sung by a band named Europe. OK, maybe I am the only one that finds that funny) and all the metaphorical fecal matter that you must wade through on an every day basis. Don’t misunderstand, I love basketball. Not only is it a great game but also a vehicle to a lot of money (if you can collect it) in a short period of time. But I hate being hurt. And I dislike very much giving up control of my life to a group of people who I deem to be unfit to have it. This may sound trivial, but to me, it most definitely is not.

So the question is, do I play next year? I’m guessing that I will not. I have other options that look pretty rosy right now. I have to consider my long-term health, which to me is the most important thing. I can make money doing other things. My talents are not limited to throwing a round ball through a cylinder (at least I hope).

Am I ruling out a comeback? Of course not! I mean, come on, I’ve got some reasons to play. I’m still a day short of 25, and, the better reason, my favorite movie series is, of course, “Rocky” (1-4 of course, as mysteriously they skipped from #4 to #6, the latter of which I have not seen, but will within the first 30 minutes of my return home). Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or haven’t watched TNT) for the last, wow, 30 years, you know that Rocky is the ultimate underdog story in which the main character makes ridiculous comeback attempts against all odds to prove (mostly, to no one but himself) that he is still able; still relevant. The one difference is that Rocky is a fictional character whose makeup and camera tricks show how much pain he’s in. My pain, on the other hand, is not imaginary. And while Rocky has, in the first four movies, come back from a) blindness in one eye (to Apollo), b) a broken spirit (to Clubber), and c) severe brain damage (from Drago, though one could argue he had this condition when he originally fought Spider Rico), I believe it will be difficult, maybe impossible, to stage a comeback.

Now that I sit in this airport terminal, I reflect on all that I’ve done, all that I’ve seen; how I have lived. I have to think about these things now, if this is to be, I can’t believe I’m saying this, my last journal entry. Now I feel the pressure to perform. This will not end well.

For me, it really has been a tale of two seasons. Last year, I played for six teams. I was cut by four, left of my own volition for a better opportunity from one, and won a championship with the last. Last year, I ended on a high note, but anyone who read any of last year’s entries knows that there were far more downs than ups, at least on the court. I did get a chance to play in and observe some interesting places that I would not have on my own dime. And something last year must have been calling me back. I mean really, how many people have ever been to five countries besides their own in their lifetime? How did I end up working in that many in one short year? It boggles the mind.

This year, I was the leading rebounder in one of the best leagues in Europe. The leagues over here have what is known as a valuation statistic, similar to the PER the NBA uses. Basically, it is an overall rating of a player’s performance in all aspects of the game; their production efficiency while they are on the court. Points, rebounds, assists, defense, etc., every conceivable stat is worked into the formula. I ranked 17th in the league in this category, and when the stat is prorated based on your performance for the amount of minutes you play, I rank 11th. I did this while averaging only five shots a game, less than half the amount of anyone ranked above me. In terms of production per dollar amount paid, I was easily the top performer. It’s not even close. Even guys that ranked in the 100s made at least more than double what I earned. And this is due to my performance from last year. The greedy part of me sometimes thinks about what I could make next year.

But like I said, it really hasn't ever been about the money. Last year I wanted to see if I had what it took to play overseas. After that debacle, I came back this year to prove to myself that I wasn't really as bad as the entire European community thought I was. I, like Rocky, wanted to prove to no one but myself that I could go the distance. I wasn't as fortunate as Rocky in this respect, but I have to believe I've made it further than anyone ever thought I could. I am secure knowing that I played with some of the best, and I hung in there.

But really, the question that keeps popping up into my mind is this: Was it worth it? Looking back, this is a difficult question to answer. You can’t change the past, nor should you try. Obviously, there were both positive and negative outcomes due to my decision to play these last two years. On the bright side, I did see the world, play a game I love, became quasi-fluent in a foreign language, met some interesting people, and learned the harsh reality of some business practices. On the downside, I’ve lost touch with a lot of people I used to be very close with, racked my brains on certain days when I felt zero self-worth, and blew a relationship that could have been the defining one in my lifetime.

So, was it really worth it, then? Jesus, I don’t know. I have been trying to pull a pearl of wisdom from my eclectic knowledge of music to correctly convey my feelings concerning this subject. The lyrics of many songs typically generalize in a good fashion how people feel about a certain situation. But so far it’s been a difficult process. At first, I wanted to go with Steven Tyler’s “Life’s a journey, not a destination”, but then remembered that the Aerosmith frontman, in the early 80s, had more experience with 8-balls than Minnesota Fats, so he’s out. Then I thought, how about Brian Wilson’s “God only knows”, but then I remembered that the Beach Boys’ resident genius spent a substantial amount of time under stringent psychological supervision, and contemplated suicide on numerous occasions. Out. Finally, I decided to go with my boy, George Michael, who once sang, “I’m still standing, yeah, yeah, yeah!” I mean, what in his career could make me think twice? Wait, don’t answer that.

Look, there’s been good times and bad, but that’s true of every life experience. It pains me to think that the one thing in life that has seemed to define me for over half my life is coming to a close. But that’s the reality of the situation. I really wanted my career to end in a blaze of glory, not a feeble retreat. But those who fight and run away live to fight another day. In my case, the field of competition may be different, but I will attack it with no less passion than when basketball was my main pursuit.

To anyone who has read even one of these entries, I thank you. If this is to be the last entry I make, I apologize for wasting everyone’s time. It has been quite a journey, and I’m glad to have been able to share it with a few of you. Once again, thank you.
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Sweetening The Pot? [Jan. 19th, 2007|11:34 pm]
When I returned home last night, after my decision to leave was made, I called my American agent. He usually has good advice regarding a number of topics, and tonight I requested his opinion on my decision (though this in no way would affect my choice; my mind was made up and I only wished to ask for his opinion). He told me that although he didn’t fully agree with my decision, he could see that in some ways it made a lot of sense. Obviously, to any outside observer, and honestly, occasionally to this writer, it looks foolish to give up the money I am rightfully owed. But he knows that the most important thing for me right now is to get healthy.

Right at the end of our conversation, he asked me if I had contacted the Italian players’ union, a group to whom I’m a member. No, I hadn’t, as I thought that obviously this would be something my Italian agent would recommend if he thought it would be beneficial to my cause. But he hadn’t, so I hadn’t thought of it.

After this phone call, I wrote a long email to my representative in the organization. In the letter I had laid out all the circumstances surrounding the situation (in my opinion, of course) and told her that I would be going back to the US immediately. Though it wasn’t high on my list of priorities, I wondered if I had any recourse in securing any monetary compensation from the Club.

A very nice lady in her mid-50s, my representative was immediately responsive to my concern. Yes, I did have recourse. Yes, the team is legally obligated to pay me. Yes, what they are doing is illegal. But also, yes, if you leave in this manner, they can by all means do whatever they want.

My interest piqued by this conversation, I set up a meeting with her. Luckily for me, her office was located in Bologna, a mere 30-minute drive from my apartment. I arrived, and we talked.

In the end, we came to the decision that we would file the necessary paperwork so that I would legally be able to go to the US without the team being able to cut me. This involved faxing a letter to the team and the league stating my intentions, as well as understanding that I have obligations to keep both parties updated as to my health status during the time I am home.

About two minutes after the letter was faxed to the team, my rep’s phone rang. It was the GM, and he was not happy. And I don’t blame him, as the team thought they were getting out of this deal with no financial worries. But since I would be going to see a doctor at home to handle my rehabilitation, I figure why not just do a minuscule amount of work and see if I can get what I am rightfully owed.

Now, I know I sound petty after being so altruistic in my previous entry, but I think I’m only being rational and fair. I mean, to be honest, I still don’t believe that this will end in my receiving any money from the Club. But at least the effort was made. We’ll see where it goes, if anywhere. At this point, I still stand by my decision of last night. Anything more than getting home is icing on the cake.

I left my rep’s office, and proceeded to the gym. There, I said goodbye to all of my teammates and other members of the organization. It is likely that I’ll never see any of them again if the status of my back does not improve drastically in the very near future. In any team, you bond with your teammates due to shared experiences and (relative) struggles. This was a great group of guys, and if it’s true that I won’t see them again, then this makes me a little sad. But with the vagabond life I’ve led these last two years, it was not my first experience of its kind. This is the life players lead, no matter if they play for the best or worst clubs in Europe. Players you see everyday quickly become only a memory the next year, the next month, and in some cases, the next day. Believe me, this part of the experience is not very likable.

Now I have to pack for my journey home. The only thing standing between me and the US is an airplane ticket. When that is your fiercest opponent, you know you’re doing pretty well.
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Apathy And Irony [Jan. 18th, 2007|11:29 pm]
This morning, I woke up in high spirits. Yesterday, I visited a doctor who I believed to be, at the very least, quasi-competent, and at best, on the money with his diagnosis and prognosis of my situation. I thought that it would be a matter of days, if not hours, before a final agreement would be reached between the club and me, and that I would soon be able to start my rehabilitation in the US. This morning, my orange juice tasted extra good.

Last night my Italian agent asked me what I wanted to happen. I told him that I desired two things regarding this situation. One, I said I wanted to go home as soon as possible. Every day that I’ve spent here has been a day that my condition has worsened; I want to get on the road to recovery immediately. Two, I said that I needed to leave with some money. Although I’m supposedly guaranteed by the league to receive the entirety of my contract upon an injury that will keep me out for the year, I wanted only enough money so that I could pay the medical costs I will inevitably incur when I go home. I’m not greedy, but I’m not wealthy, either. My Italian agent agreed that these were reasonable requests, and that we could expect things to be taken care of quickly.

And the situation did get addressed in a timely fashion. My first request? No problem, go home if you want, the team said. That, of course was the easy part. Number two was where it got tricky. Or, actually, for the team it was quite simple. If I crossed the Atlantic to seek medical treatment, they would cut my contract. No money. They thought this was a fair deal. In their mind, there was no negotiation. And after all, I am a stranger in a strange land. And as I’ve seen in the past, it’s hard enough to squeeze a dime out of teams over here when you’re actually playing, let alone when you’ve spent the last three games off the roster.

Now, I am generally a calm and reserved person. Occasionally, I’m called a gentle giant; though I’m not sure this is a good thing. But every once in a while, I lose my cool. And when my agent said that he had done what he could for my situation, I let him have it.

How could I not? Here, I’ve been hurt for 44 days and counting. My pain has gotten progressively worse, and yet nothing has changed. I would not accept the “pound sand” agenda anymore. I blasted my Italian agent for being useless, for wielding no power, and for working for the team, himself, the guy selling hot dogs at the games; certainly not for me. Now, you have to understand that this guy speaks limited English, and I was cussing him out at such a rapid pace that there’s no way he heard the specifics of what I was saying. But the tone and volume of my voice were unmistakable; I was pissed.

But I calmed myself down. I made some lunch, thought for a minute, and then sent an email to my American agent. To clarify, I have two agents working for me at any one time. My American agent remains a constant; he is basically a headhunter who makes his players available to agents overseas. This is where my Italian agent comes in. He is the one that makes the deal with the teams, and supposedly takes care of any problems that I may (read: most definitely will) have during the season. So I sent the email, telling him that I would be circumventing the Italian agent, and talking to the team myself. I hate not having control of something that affects me so greatly, and honestly, I was fed up by the incompetence I was seeing.

I told my American agent that I would offer the team two options. Both options centered around the necessity of my return to the US. The first said that I would leave and re-sign with the club next year as a quid pro quo for them paying me the entirety of this year’s contract. The second stated that I would leave and the team would pay me half of what I was owed.

Now keep in mind two things. One, I have a league contract that is supposedly guaranteed in case of injury. Legally, the team cannot cut me, but I’ve found that the legality of any situation over here, and many other places for that matter, are never black and white. Two, in either situation, the money I was asking for was negligible. OK, not negligible, but it would not break the bank of any professional team. I’m not going to go into specifics, but let’s just say that the second option’s settlement would be less than many people I know pay for rent in a single year. Yes, I do have a master’s degree.

So I went to talk with the GM of the team. Now, I like the GM. He’s always been decent in his dealings with me and the other players. He does what he can to make things better, and sometimes he succeeds. And he’s always liked me (I think) because I really don’t ask for anything except for my monthly check.

As I sat in my car outside of the office, I resolved myself to stay calm. Negotiations are a lot like poker; the less emotionally involved you are, the better. It’s difficult to negotiate, and this is why a third party is brought in most of the time. But in this situation my third party had proved to be about as helpful as a midget for a ceiling painter, so I vowed to stay as emotionally detached as possible (which many people would say comes to me naturally-definitely don’t think that’s a compliment).

We had the conversation. Any time I felt my blood boil, I took a deep breath, and spoke slowly and softly (as softly as I can in my Macho Man Randy Savage-type voice). The GM seemed sympathetic to my situation, and said that he would talk to the President of the Club, who would make the final decision as to my situation. Great, I said, and thanked him for his help in the matter.

Tonight, I once again got a phone call from my Italian agent. He had been in contact with the team. Though I thought my offers were not only fair, but rather overly generous, the team did not agree. They just love the feel of their fists impacting the beach ground on a hot summer day. I thought that I was going to explode, but just the opposite happened. I was disturbingly calm.

It was during this episode, after my Italian agent told me that if I went home I would receive no money, that I said, OK. He thought I had misspoke. But I reiterated. It’s OK, I said. At this point he must have thought that I should not be going back to the US to see an orthopedic surgeon, but rather a serious psychiatrist.

It was a very weird feeling. Only hours ago, I was livid at the notion I would walk away from nothing. But, I thought, this was not true. I would walk away with no money, but this is not equivalent to nothing. What I would receive by going back to the US is hard to quantify in pure dollars-and-cents finance. There are many intangible things that I get by going home, things that I don’t care to write about on these pages.

In the end, the money was not as important an issue as I thought it was. Sure, it would be nice to walk away with some cash, but I’d rather walk away with some pride, dignity, control, and eventually, a clean bill of health. I’m 24, (somewhat) intelligent, and driven. The 22 days that I’ve spent here doing nothing and the 22 days before that playing while getting injections have been filled with lethargy, pain, and worst of all, a little apathy. With my decision to go home, I will erase all of these things from my life. And that, to me, is more valuable than any amount of money they would have thrown at me.
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Riding That Train, Full Of Back Pain [Jan. 17th, 2007|11:35 pm]
Italians love to boast. Oh, they say, this is wine from the best region in Italy, or Italy has the best beaches. Part of me has to assume that this is a language barrier issue, and they only want to convey the message that they believe whatever they are talking about is very good. But they use the term “best” so often that part of me is starting to believe that they use the term for two reasons. One, to generate confidence in their listener about whatever subject they are talking about, and two, that because their world is so small, they have no idea that their best, is, in fact, quite mediocre.

Now, someone overstating the quality of a wine or beach is one thing; making a similar overstatement about a doctor is quite another. So far, I have been to the two “best” doctors in Imola, as well as the “best” doctor in Bologna for the problems I’ve had in my back. In “The Rock”, Sean Connery has a great line about people talking about their best. Unfortunately, I try to keep this page PG-rated, so I won’t restate it here. This is day 43 of my injury. It seems that the “best” has not been cutting it.

Today, I went to what is supposed to be the best doctor in Italy regarding orthopedics. Now, I have reason to be skeptical. So far, I have gotten four different opinions here from the three doctors, and no, that is not a misprint. It’s been a frustrating process, as my pain has gotten progressively worse, while the team has taken few steps to help the problem. All they do is bring in more doctors to diagnose the problem, but when this is done, they continue along the same path that they hope will lead to my recovery. Europeans may hate President Bush, but they do love to emulate his “pound sand” approach.

So this doctor I saw today actually has some credentials. He is the orthopedic specialist for Armani Jeans Milano Basket, which has historically been one of the top teams in Europe. Kobe Bryant, in fact, owns a piece of the team.

My Italian agent, not the team, was the one who set up this meeting in the first place. He has players all over Italy, and has known this doctor for a very long time. Because he is Italian, he said this doctor, was, you guessed it, the best.

I arrived off of the train after a two-hour journey into Milan, regarded as the most cosmopolitan city in Italy. Stepping from the tracks to the spacious station, I was struck by the contradictions of my surroundings. The building was moderately new, by Italian standards, but the floors were frescoed, an ancient Italian art, in designs of nature, war, and religion. A mix of the old and the new, I also saw electronic ticket machines side-by-side with peanut vendors who looked to be out of the 1920s. To me, it represented the classic clash between old and new, and judging by my surroundings, unlike a whole lot of Italy, here, new was winning in a landslide.

After exiting the train, I had to catch a subway to my agent’s office, which was five stops away. From there, after a 45-minute wait in which I unsuccessfully tried to call my agent to let him know I had arrived, I sat down for a meeting at my agent’s office to discuss what was going on.

I recalled for him the events of the last 43 days. The initial injury, the anesthetic shots enabling me to play a few games, the MRIs, the multiple diagnoses, the team’s mentality; everything. When I mentioned the shots, I was scolded like a little kid, as my agents said that this is something I should never do. I told them that I knew this to be true, but that they had to see things from my vantage point; last year I played on six teams, and I wasn’t trying to give this team a reason to cut me. I’m not a sailor; I shouldn’t be going from port to port.

After the meeting, we visited the doctor. He seemed genuinely nice, and I appreciated his affability. I began to talk to him in choppy English, as I do with most of the Italians here. When he responded to my first statement quite fluently I laughed, apologized, and told him that I didn’t expect him to speak so well.

He looked at my MRIs, and told me that I had some problems. One disc in my upper back and two in my lower back were compressed, deteriorated slightly, and had herniations. He made the distinction between having herniations and being herniated, and I took this description to mean that he was saying that they were bulging, a more common term for his findings. He said that he found no fractures in my back, and that he thought my injuries would require no surgery. He recommended aggressive physical rehabilitation (now I was gaining confidence in him) and therapy, as well as regular massages and chiropractic visits. When I asked how long it would take for the pain to subside, he told me that it’s different for everyone, and that it may be three weeks, one month, three months, or an even longer period of time. This was a little depressing, but I knew he was right.

I thought this guy was competent, definitely the most able out of anyone I’ve seen here. Subconsciously this may be because he spoke the most fluent English; I really don’t know. What I do know is I want to get better, and I think the only way this will happen is if I go back to the US. Before being dropped off at the train station for my trip home, I talked with my agent, who said he would try and negotiate my release. That’s great, I said; just get me home so I can get better. All I want is to be healthy, and I think that this will only happen if I’m in the US. I could come back to Milan on a daily basis to receive treatment there, but that would be a little extreme. I think it’s better if the team and I reach an agreement, I come home, and we go from there. Now, let’s see if that happens. Just before I closed the car door after stepping out of the car, my agent said to me, “Don’t worry, I am the best agent in Italy.” I shuddered, and tried to forget what he said.
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Tits On A Bull [Jan. 8th, 2007|04:18 pm]
As I stated in my previous journal entry, my life in Italy has been quite mundane of late. Some people have even said that on the phone I’ve become monotonous in my tone, more like Ben Stein and less like the Jolly Green Giant that is my usual delivery. And that is a combination of two things. My frustration at the state of my current health, as well as the absolute boredom that engulfs my life.

My daily schedule would, for some, be a welcome respite from the turmoil that is their world. But for me, it is anything but. I am bored out of my mind. With basketball in my life, I served (minimally) a purpose. Without it, I’m as useful as Mike Tyson being the keynote speaker at a conference titled "Intelligent Budgeting Decisions". This is how pathetic my life has become: while my team practices, I read. I’ve already made it through two books since I’ve back, and at present I’m halfway done with a third. I mean, yeah, I thoroughly enjoy reading, but as a leisure activity in my free time. I don’t like doing it at what is supposed to be my job, but at this point I have no other choice. I tried watching practice, but this activity made me physically ill, for two reasons. One, it’s hard for me to watch somebody else play when I want to be on the court myself, and two, our team pretty much stinks. That’s not a shot at anybody, but rather a statement of fact.

So I read, and when they’re on water breaks, my teammates comment about how I have it pretty sweet, “la dolce vita”, they call it, and claim that they wish to switch positions with me. I, for one, do not feel their envy is warranted. I love playing. But injuries have been a big part of my career, and now it seems that injuries will doom it (but really, I wasn’t that good to start with, so it’s not that big of a loss).

What I’m saying, though, is that if I have to rest, and read, and basically stay off the basketball court, then I want to do it in America. I’ve told my agents this fact, and they’ve talked with the team about it. The team wants me to stay, but in the next few days I will be visiting a specialist who hopefully will be able to give me a definitive diagnosis about my problem. This should happen later on this week, though it may happen in March, with how things move over here. No matter what, I think that it’s in my best interest to go home, and just get healthy. Basketball is, I now realize (hopefully not too late, although it is pretty damned late), not worth one’s long-term health.

As for my team, in my absence they actually won a game! They beat a team from Fabriano that has been struggling of late, and is about to make some changes. I’m happy for my team; after two months of losing, they’ve finally won. My pronoun use in this last statement, I think, shows how I feel about my status with the team. I actually was not in attendance to even watch this game live; the team thought it better that I stay home and get therapy rather than travel three hours on the bus to see the game. I followed it online, though, on a website that updates the score every five minutes or so. I first logged on about midway through the second quarter, and my first reaction was, man, they’re down 17 already? But then I realized that I was reading the box score incorrectly, and said, out loud to myself; wait a minute, they’re up 17?! I was stupefied, but happy.

After this win, the team played against Casale, the team we beat in the first game of the year, and the team that I consider to be the weakest in the league. I saw this game in person, as it was played at home. The game was an abomination. Terrible to watch. The final score was 61-57. Neither team could hit a shot, and the game was marred by sloppy basketball. One sidenote- during halftime of this game, I gave a halftime interview with the TV station that was broadcasting the game. When asked to do this, I agreed, thinking that I could use one of my teammates, who was not in uniform, as a translator. But moments before we went on the air, the interviewer said that the station wanted me to answer questions in Italian. He said it would be "simpatico", or, translated into English, "funny". You can also see the word derivative "sympathetic", and I thought this would be a meaning more appropriate to my situation, as the Italian viewers were sure to be sympathetic to me sounding like a complete fool.

But it wasn't that bad. I answered three questions; one about my back, one about how our team was playing, and one about the very low halftime score. Afterwards, the interviewer told me that he was surprised and impressed by my ability to convey my message to the audience. Now, I wasn't reciting Shakespeare, merely answering a few questions about basketball, but nonetheless, I'm glad I didn't look like a complete fool. My only misstep may have occurred during this last question, when I answered that it looked like two elementary school teams playing each other. Meant to be a joke, I'm hoping it was taken as such. I made sure to smile and laugh after I said it, and literally say that I was joking, but comments like these are not often taken well, especially when the team ends up losing. But if these people are really that thin-skinned, that's their problem. So yeah, expect me to be heavily fined.

After the game, the coach’s wife and son got into a shouting match with the home fans as she thought they were being unfair and mean to a team comprised of young, emotionally-fragile players, which escalated into the coach getting involved and publicly chastising the media, the fans, and the team’s society. An ugly season hitting a new low. But, as I write this, it’s time for me to go to practice, where I’m sure to get some good reading in. I can’t say the same for your activities over the last five minutes. Sorry about that.
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Therapy Session [Jan. 6th, 2007|03:30 pm]
Psychiatrists always talk about a person’s self-esteem, self-worth, etc. as being an important part of that person’s ability to find inner happiness, tranquility, and confidence. Because I engage in self-deprecating humor on these pages on a regular basis, I’m sure most of these therapists would tell me that I’m a pretty messed up individual. And that’s OK, because I’m not inclined to take advice from a group of professionals who overmedicate their patients (and many times, themselves) when all they really need to tell them is that a) in all but the worst-case scenario, their problems pale in comparison to 95% of Africans, 75% of South Americans, and nearly 100% of the rest of the world in general (that is, if they live in America); and b) when in doubt, refer to reason a.

Now, I’m always the first one to admit that I love the opportunity to play, feel lucky that people who do the hiring for these teams are fooled into thinking that I actually can play, and hate the fact that sometimes I feel badly about the situation that I’m currently in. But now, I really am questioning the time I spend in Europe. I am hurt, I am not getting better, and I am beginning to get frustrated.

As readers of this journal know, I originally got hurt on December 5, and re-injured myself in a game on December 22. Between these games I felt slightly better, but since the second game, the pain has only gotten worse.

I’ve been going to a treatment center here for the past two weeks, ever since I returned from the Christmas break (and yes, I’ve just read O’Reilly’s “Culture Warrior”, and agree this should not be called the holiday season), but like I said before, the pain in my back has gotten worse in this time period. I don’t blame the physical therapists who try to help me, as they are kind and caring, but rather the technology and methods they employ. They use machinery and methods that may have been in vogue during the time that Don Johnson patrolled the streets of Miami, but today are deemed less than state-of-the-art.

Also, whenever I’ve gotten hurt in the US, in addition to the therapy I’m given, I’ve been instructed to engage in physical rehabilitation. Now, though therapy and rehabilitation may sound like the same thing, I believe they are different. Therapy involves a trainer-assisted activity in which the patient (me) is passive. Rehabilitation occurs when the patient engages in physical activity to strengthen the injured area. Rehabilitation works in two ways. One, it strengthens muscles to take pressure off of joints, tendons, or in my case, discs; transferring the load that these injured areas must carry. Also, these exercises help against future injury, as a strong area is less likely to get hurt.

But so far, while I’ve done therapy (if you can call it that), I’ve done no rehabilitation. And part of me is scared to even offer the idea, as the team may believe that since I want to try to do something physical, this must mean I’m ready to get back on the court. But at this point, I’m not. I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to get back on the court, if ever. If this is actually a degenerative issue, then I won’t risk my long-term health to continue playing. Many athletes do this, as they either have no alternate source of income, or the income they will make because of this continuation outweighs the physical risks involved in the undertaking. I don’t fall under either category.

So, what to do? Since I’m not getting better under the current circumstances, obviously there needs to be some change. As of now, the team has made little effort to get me to see another doctor here, some sort of specialist that may able to give me some insight as to what I can do to make this problem go away. Ideally, I’d like to come home to see another doctor about the problem, or at the very lease engage in some therapy that will actually be beneficial to my recovery. But I’ve asked the team to do this, and they’ve said they don’t want to. They are keeping hope alive that I’ll just get better. This is like religious zealots who refuse traditional medicine, instead trying to pray their disease or condition away. After that last statement, I’ll willingly accept God’s inevitable smiting.

But seriously, this whole thing doesn’t make sense to me. But then again, I’m in Europe, so I’ve given up hope that anything over here that anything makes sense. I do hope that I can get some actual help at some point to alleviate my problem. But something tells me that this won’t happen until I cross the Atlantic; let’s just hope that this doesn’t occur in late April.
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Disc-O Inferno [Dec. 31st, 2006|06:18 pm]
It’s been an interesting couple of days. First, the break. I had an awesome time, although I’m sure everyone I saw knows that. From the moment I stepped off the plane to the moment I had to board, I was happy, and for good reason. I saw my family, partied with friends, and made a trip to NYC with Tanya that was pretty much as good a day as I’ve had in recent memory. All in all, it was five days spent just the way I wanted them, and now it’s back to the grind that is Imola.

The only question is, how long am I going to be here? Most teams don’t cut the league’s leading rebounder, unless that guy is an absolute bastard off the court, which I don’t think I am, and don’t you dare disagree with me. But if that guy can’t step onto the court, then he is of no value to the club. And right now, I’m that guy.

On the 27th, I visited an orthopedic surgeon in Connecticut. This was not the doctor who has performed three operations on me and whom I trust immensely, but rather another MD in his group that specializes in back problems. He checked me out, took some x-rays, and gave me an opinion of what he thought the problem was. His diagnosis? Compression of the discs in my upper back, with signs of thoracic disc disease. He suggested I take a month off and do nothing but strengthen my core to take some stress off of the discs and my vertebrae. By no means should I participate in basketball activities. He also said that I should be reevaluated after a two-week period to see what progress I’m making. As for the pain involved in the injury? It sucks. Let's just say that I can't sit in one position for a long period of time, if I stand for too long the pain radiates down to my hips, and no matter what position I'm in, I look like Ray Charles laying down a track on the piano, except his swaying was cool, while mine is just disturbing.

This all presents a problem. I mean, last year I got cut four times when I was reasonably healthy and willing to get on the court (save for Argentina, where I was in a similar situation and got cut a few days after my injury), so now that I am sidelined, why would a team keep me?

There are three reasons for the team to keep me, for at least a short period of time. First, I’m producing. I’m giving them more than almost any center in the league statistically, as well as the intangibles I provide that can’t be measured in the box score. They know that. Second, I’m cheap to keep. I don’t make a lot of money (quite an understatement), so it doesn’t cost them much to wait this out at least for a few weeks. And even if they do decide to cut me, they are obligated (theoretically, at least) to pay m e the remainder of my contract, per regulations of the Italian Union, a group I’m now happy I joined earlier in the year. Third, they are holding out hope that I am going to get better, as the team “doctor” has told them I should be ready by the second week of the New Year.

Now, to each above argument, there is an equally compelling argument for them to cut me. First, I can’t produce while I’m sitting on the sidelines. Sure, Michael Jordan (please excuse the comparison, because this is like comparing filet mignon to gristle) was the best player in the world in 1993-94, but he couldn’t help the Bulls win, because he wasn’t in uniform. As long as I’m out, I won’t grab a rebound, make a shot, or take a charge. And I don’t look too good in a cheerleader outfit. Don’t ask why I know.

Second, because I’m cheap to keep, I’m also cheap to cut. Buying me out of my contract would not do a whole lot of damage to their checkbook. They are going to have to pay me in full anyways, and finding another player at this pint in the season, with only about 15 weeks left, should not be that costly.

Third, no one really knows how long I will be out. Back injuries are funny (not haha) like that. The “doctor” here says two weeks off and I’ll be ready to play, but my US doctor has said that at this time I should be reevaluated, not reactivated. At this point, my back feels no better than it did when I originally injured it, so that’s not a good sign as I approach the team’s assumed return date. And think about this. I haven’t done anything in little over a week that could be considered physical activity. Even in the best-case scenario, I would be completely out of basketball shape by the time I came back. So I would be no good on the court anyways.

So what is the team going to do? I don’t know. What I do know is that while it is difficult to stay over here while you’re playing, it’s impossible for me to stay here and do nothing. I will not waste a great amount of time just hanging around here; there is way too much that I could be doing elsewhere to justify this waste of time. Whatever happens, I hope it happens soon. If it doesn’t I’ll probably create a Tyler Durden-type character for myself, and at that point, I’ll know I’m in trouble.
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Nothing For Novara [Dec. 21st, 2006|11:51 pm]
There are no two ways about it. Tonight’s game is a must win. We are playing arguably the worst team in the league, if you discount my team, we’re playing at home, and we’ve been told that if we don’t win, that we either aren’t going home for the break, or some of us won’t be returning for the second half of the season. Do you need any more reasons for motivation? I don’t think so. But to try to get my teammates a little more riled up while simultaneously making them a little more relaxed, yesterday I cut my hair into a Mohawk that I will wear in tonight’s match. At this point I’ll try anything to try and give this team a little energy.

The lead up to this game, for me, has been difficult. I have not had the week-long break between games that has helped me play through this time of injury, as between games I basically don’t practice, opting to rest and heal as much as possible before once again subjecting my body to peril. It’s not really what I prefer, as one needs to practice if he is to maintain an advantage over his opponent. Believe me, even a few days away from a basketball makes the object feel foreign in your hands. Luckily, my game relies more on brute force than on poetic finesse, so the decrease in functionality has been minimal, though still noticeable.

I would be matching up, for at least part of the game, against an old teammate, Steve from Roseto. He’s a really great guy, and one of the few former teammates I stay in touch with while overseas. In one of my earliest journals I wrote that he had been my counterpart in the first intelligent conversation I had while in Italy, and we still debate a wide variety of topics whenever we talk or see each other. In the basketball world, Steve is a rare breed, but one that is welcomed by guys like me.

We started the game playing well, with our team shutting them down defensively, as well as scoring consistently on offense. We did have one miscommunication where I helped out against a driving guard, and got no rotational help from a teammate on the weak side, for the 859th time this season. I chastised this younger player, in my gentle giant-like manner, hoping that this wouldn’t be a theme of today’s game. The score flip-flopped for much of the first quarter, and the period ended with our side up 22-21.

One thing I noticed was how few people had come to watch the match, and moreso how quiet those in attendance were. Usually these people act in ways that would get a person walking on the street a mandatory stay in a padded room and a straightjacket, but tonight they were self-restrained and despondent. Usually I’m not a rah-rah guy, but every time we came out of a huddle or timeout, I looked to the most vocal section of the crowd and started clapping, hoping to ignite some enthusiasm. Usually this worked for about thirty seconds, then the library-like atmosphere would return. It was a bit of a depressing atmosphere to play in, but I can’t really blame the fans for their actions; in the past two months we’ve given them little to cheer about. The best we could give them on this night at the half was a tie score, 41-41.

Then the s*** hit the fan. In easily the sloppiest quarter of basketball that I’ve ever played in, and possibly has ever been played, we lost the game. It was embarrassing. On four straight possessions, we literally handed Novara the ball like we were giving out free samples of beef teriyaki at a local Chinese restaurant. In a flash, we were down double digits, then more. We got booed by our own fans. In the third quarter. And we deserved it.

To make matters worse, I got myself injured even worse than before. While trying to drive by a guy (a stupid idea in the first place), my defender (a 6’10”, 280 lbs former NBA player, stuck out his hip and gave me a spinal realignment that I neither wanted nor needed. It was like having your back cracked by a dropout of the South Central LA Skool of Kyropractik Medisin. I lay on the ground for a solid minute, with pain shooting up and down my spine. It was difficult to breathe for a moment, but eventually I got back up and headed over to the bench, where I got a five-minute break before reentering the game, pain in my every step. Yes, I’m stupid. But at the same time I have this need to win, and even though the game was probably already lost by the time I got back in, I thought we could turn it around.

But we couldn’t. We got beat 89-74, but the game was not nearly as close as the final score indicates. In the locker room after the game, our coach was not happy. He told us that he would most likely be quitting, even if the team decided not to fire him. He called out one of our Americans, telling him that he was cut and could go home and stay there after the break. I thought that he would give everyone this message, but for now, only one guy is going. But don’t believe for one second that this is the last of the changes that the team will make; by the end of the year, the entire may be different from even this last game. For now, though, I will take the next five days off and go home to visit loved ones and forget about this place, if only for a short while. Luckily, we are being allowed this luxury, even after dropping our last eight games, though at this point I don’t know if the team is going to extend a return ticket my way on the 28th. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve gotten cut, and if that happens, I’m sure that I’ll find something else. But for now, I’m just going to take my break one day at a time.
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Homebound [Dec. 21st, 2006|10:09 am]
Just wanted to share that I am ecstatic to be coming back to the US after tonight's game for a few days, and hope to see everyone when I'm home.
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Sloshed In Sassari [Dec. 17th, 2006|11:00 pm]
Tonight’s game featured our squad against the league’s current basement dwellers, Sassari. Though they have the league’s worst record, they are no longer the worst team. They’ve brought in two new Americans, one of whom spent a few years in the NBA. They’ve also changed the head coach, who last year was an assistant in Roseto, and a hell of a nice guy, as well as, I thought at least, a good coach. But his team was having a rough year, so he got cut. After losing our last six games, I fear that our team will suffer the same fate if we lose unlucky number seven.

My back had been bothering me a bit the whole day. It’s not nearly as bad as it was when it first began to hurt, but it doesn’t feel that great, either. I’m sure that our travel schedule yesterday did nothing but worsen it, too.

Sassari is located on the island of Sardinia, off the western coast of Italy. It is known as one of the most beautiful islands in the world, and boasts vacation homes from many celebrities, such as Magic Johnson. To get to our destination, we first had to take a three-hour bus ride to Milan, as there were no direct flights to the island from the nearest airport in Bologna. After sitting on the bus for that amount of time, my back was aching. I stayed on the bus after all the players had exited, and the trainer gave me a muscle relaxer/anti-inflammatory injection. It calmed down my back a bit, and enabled me to sit at the airport through our three-hour wait before the flight, the hour-and-a-half flight itself, as well as the half-hour bus ride to our hotel. In these cramped positions, i.e. the flight and bus ride, my back really starts to bother me, but I got to the hotel with no major problems.

This morning we had a light shootaround, which for me consisted of about five minutes of shooting followed by a whole lot of stretching. I haven’t practiced for more than 20 minutes in the past 10 days, which sounds like a sweet deal but in reality is not that great if you’re a player. It’s amazing how fast you lose your timing, your touch, and your legs. I hoped that I would not encounter these problems in tonight’s game, which, even after the MRI debacle of the past week (I still haven’t received the images) I had decided to play in.

Before tip-off, I took a few injections from our trainer. He gave me eight tiny injections of Lidocaine, which, like last week, served as a local anesthetic for the pain in my back. He also gave me an injection of Toradol, which is a drug classified as an NSAID, similar to ibuprofen and the like. But this was no regular Advil. This drug, especially in injection form, comes with some side effects that I was unaware of before taking it. I became acutely aware of the problems associated with it about 10 minutes after the injection. I stepped onto the court, and felt immediately like I was drunk. Not tipsy, not light-headed; drunk. As in like I had just pounded about 15 shots of tequila in the locker room. It was bad. I felt off-balance, I was having trouble focusing, and the lights from the gym were affecting my vision. And I had a professional basketball game to play in about 30 minutes. This was not a good thing. . It should be noted that after the game, I related how I felt to an Italian teammate, who could not believe they gave me what they did; he said that this drug was given to surgery patients post-operation to help them go to sleep. Also, I Googled the drug before writing this entry, and side effects on a website are stated like this: “may cause some people to become dizzy or drowsy. If either of these side effects occurs, do not drive, use machines, or do anything else that could be dangerous if you are not alert.” You think that basketball may qualify as one of these activities?

So I ran through warm-ups like Gary Busey on an all-night bender, literally focusing all of my efforts on not falling down. In the past, when, er, “other people” have told me about being intoxicated, as I myself have surely never experienced the sensation, they’ve told me that sometimes they feel like their drunken state is diminished when they get their blood flowing in some sort of activity, sort of like running it out of your system. I tried to employ this tactic in our warm-ups, in an attempt to move the drug through my bloodstream and to try to have its effects run its course.

But really, this course of action did zero to alleviate me from my inebriation. I played literally the entire game (38 total minutes) this way, and had a not-so-great time of it. Usually I would try to recount what actually happened here in detail, but to be honest, the whole game was like a blur. Even after the game was over, I felt intoxicated until I went to sleep. During the game, I wasn’t able to provide us with what we needed for a victory. Our team didn’t do enough to pick up the slack. After the game, our coach yelled at us, claiming that we aren’t playing to our full potential. I think that we are playing hard out there, but we aren’t really playing smart. We make stupid mistakes, don’t execute, give up easy baskets and don’t capitalize on the other team’s mistakes. Youth and inexperience are no longer excuses. We’ve now lost 7 games in a row.

After the game, the ax dropped like I knew it would. The team actually cut a player, an Italian, right after dinner. Before we even made it home to Imola; they cut him in the hotel. He’s a good guy, too, which makes it that much worse of a situation. And while he is the first, if we lose this next game, he will surely not be the last. Everyone’s job is in jeopardy, from the coach right on down to the last guy on the bench, including yours truly. And though I would be able to handle the situation if I do, in fact, get cut, after last year it’s not really something I’m interested in having happen.
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But I Want It! [Dec. 15th, 2006|10:04 pm]
It’s been a difficult week. After getting a two opposing opinions from our team doctor about the condition of my back, I wanted to get a third. This meant getting the MRIs to my doctor back in the US. There was only one problem; I couldn’t get my hands on the results.

In a joint meeting on Wednesday with the GM and doctor, I asked to have the MRIs emailed to me by the hospital. Had I gotten them that night, or in the following two days, I could have emailed them to my doctor in the US who, after a quick assessment of the images, could have advised me on what course of action to take concerning the upcoming game. But I did not get them that night, and was told that emailing the results was impossible. Now, to my knowledge, nothing is impossible. And from previous experience with the same hospital under the same circumstances, I know for a fact that this is possible. When I got an MRI taken on my knee here two months ago, I asked the radiologist myself for the results by email, and received them that night. So basically they were not being wholly truthful (blatant euphemism) with me. They said that what they could do was get me a CD of the results, but it would take a little time. How much time? They didn’t know. Well, at that point I had about 48 hours before we left for the game, so that should give them ample time to get this done, right?

Wrong. Tonight, after sitting out another practice, I was told that they still had not even made a request for the MRIs. A request? How could this not get done? How long does it take to say, or even write down, “I need Mike’s MRIs?” Five seconds, tops? Sorry, couldn’t spare five seconds today, tough luck. Well, guys, this is a little important to me. When you’re 24 and a doctor tells you that you have a degenerate back condition and early stages of arthritis, and then a day later completely reverses his own opinion, don’t you think said player would be slightly concerned? Of course not, why would he be?

So, I took matters into my own hands. I was taught long ago by my dad that when you have a problem, cut out the middlemen and go straight to the source. So tonight I walked into the hospital and tried to get the test results myself.

I got to the hospital at about 9 PM today, after we had practice and a Christmas basketball mini-camp with kids from the local area. Had I not had to go to the hospital, that would have been the subject of today’s journal. But since I would rather write about this, I’ll just make one comment about the event. I love little kids, but some are really greedy little creatures. After the camp, we were giving out gifts, based on a lottery system; we called out numbers, and whoever’s number was called would be next in line to receive a gift. There were about 200 kids there, so this process took a little while. Kids started to cheat and say their number was called when it really wasn’t, others were pushing their friends out of their way in their rush to get to the gifts, and all of them were reaching towards the front of the crowd with their hands extended waving their tickets, a cross between traders on the NYSE floor and beggars in a food line. It was an interesting scene. But I digress.

I followed the signs of the hospital to the radiology department, where I found the late-night secretary and radiologist still working at this hour of the night. I asked if either spoke English, but each said they did not. It was time for me to try out my language skills, on multiple occasions, have done nothing but cause a comedy of errors.

But this time I actually got my message across. The lady seemed to know what I was talking about, and I gave her my email address so she could get the results to me. I started to get excited about things, but then everything changed. While she was taking down my information, she printed out a copy of the radiologist’s results so that I could view them. She grabbed the results out of the printer, looked at the page, and then told me that the information she had could not be released without the doctor’s approval. So, basically, I can’t have my own test results. That makes a lot of sense. Could I at least have the results she just printed out? Nope. To add insult to injury, she took the paper out right in front of me and ripped it to shreds. Why would she do that? Did she think that I would try to sneak back and grab the results out of the trash when se wasn’t looking? Well…maybe I would have. But seriously, was what she did really necessary? Methinks not.

I guess in some respects I am similar to the children I saw earlier this evening. We both saw something we wanted, and tried to do everything in our power to get that item. The difference is that they actually received something they desired, while I was stonewalled for something that I need. That is quite the distinction.

So now I am at the mercy of the doctor and GM, who have been slow to help me get what I need from the hospital. I’m not saying that they necessarily have something to hide, but their behavior regarding the matter has been slightly suspicious. I have a game in about 48 hours, and with no further information on my back, I have doubts about whether or not to play. Since I am a thick-headed athlete, I probably will, but if I don’t get the results by next week, I won’t be playing in our last game before the Christmas break. You have to draw the line somewhere.
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Back It Up [Dec. 13th, 2006|10:00 pm]
I played our last game with a whole lot of back pain, partially numbed with a local anesthetic I had injected prior to warm-ups. I was told that this problem was muscular, and that the tension was caused because my spine was shaped in a fashion that limits pressure to be released along my vertebral discs. This diagnosis was made with no diagnostic testing, rather with our doctor’s visual opinion. Because the pain has persisted, though, a few days ago I went to get some x-rays done on the problematic area.

Yesterday, the doctor read the images, and a concerned look ran over his face. I asked him if everything was alright, and he gave one of those faces you give at a restaurant when you find a strand of hair in your salad but don’t want to be too rude to the waitress about it. He told me that there was a problem. Because of the shape of my spine, the discs in my upper-back had become compressed. Because his English is not perfect, he had difficulty finding the correct translation for his diagnosis. But when he said the Italian words “degenerante” and “arthrite”, I could easily make the translation. I had a degenerative back condition that was in the early stages of arthritis. Everyone knows what arthritis is, but just so you know, a degenerative condition is one that is in a state of decline or deterioration, which will only get worse with time. And yes, I am twenty-four years old. He told me that for a person my size, it is not uncommon to have this problem, though it usually doesn’t show this quickly.

I thanked him for his diagnosis, asking virtually no follow-up questions to his analysis. I proceeded to go to a local cinema where I watched “Flags of our Fathers”; as this was the once-weekly movie being shown in English at the time. And I went by myself. Please don’t judge me. But anyways, after viewing this (though good) downer of a movie, I drove back to my apartment and it finally hit me. My doctor just told me that my back is pretty much shot. Stick a fork in it. So, what then of my basketball career? If high-impact activities, i.e. basketball, are accelerating the process of deterioration of my discs, will I be forced to retire? I hadn’t planned on playing for a long time, but a career-ending injury is really not the way that I wanted to go out. If it is really as serious as the doctor has said, then I will hang it up. There is life after basketball, and I would like to be able to walk when I’m 45. OK, well at least until my late 30s.

Today, I learned that our GM had ordered more tests. That’s the GM, not the doctor. He wanted an MRI of my back, which would give a more-detailed view of the problem. So I went to the hospital, got stuffed into the claustrophobia-inducing (they slide you into an opening whose width is equal to that of my shoulders and whose highest point is roughly three inches from my face) chamber, and came out twenty minutes later. I left the hospital, needing to go to watch practice (I haven’t participated all week), so the GM took care of picking up the results of the test.

At the practice, the GM walked into the gym and told me that the doctor had found no problems with the MRI. Hmm. So now I was getting a second, totally different opinion from the same doctor, the one who yesterday was positive that I had a serious problem, and had not suggested that further tests needed to be done. And this was the same GM who told me that there was no problem with my knee earlier in the year, even though the MRI had shown a small tear in my cartilage. Now, I like our GM. He seems like a nice guy, and he’s always helped out with any problems I’ve had here. But he’s also under the gun to win games, at any cost. And because I am looked at as an asset, as every player is, my long-term health is viewed as expendable. For me that’s unacceptable.

Later, I talked to the doctor, who seemed a little sheepish when I asked him about the test results. I didn’t ask him why there was such a discrepancy between the two tests. I know that the MRI is the more definitive test when it comes to diagnosing a problem, but it should not in any way give a totally different answer to a problem than the x-rays did. The whole thing just doesn’t make sense. So now I’m looking for a second opinion (well, technically it’s a third, as the first doctor gave me two different analyses) from my surgeon in the US. I have asked the doctor to have the hospital to email me the images from the tests so that my doctor can review them. His will be a much more objective view, as he doesn’t care about my basketball career; his only concern is my health. That’s the way it should be with the doctors over here, but I’ve found, now and in the past, that this is just not the case.
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Rough One Against Rimini [Dec. 10th, 2006|02:49 pm]
Things around Imola aren’t that great nowadays. We haven’t won since November 1, with all five of our losses coming in the form of single-digit defeats (here I’m counting the game against Soresina, because they scored their final bucket at the buzzer when no one was playing defense to win by 11). Taking losses in this fashion means a few things, some good, some bad. The good news is that we’ve been in every game, playing our opponents evenly throughout, and showing that at any given time we can play with the best in the league. The bad news is that it also shows we can’t close teams out, we crumble in the important moments of the game, and we don’t have a winning mentality to grab victory out of the hands of defeat; we often grab defeat out of the hands of victory.

In this brief time we have gone from being the toast of the town to a piece of toast left burning in the oven. We are no longer everyone’s darlings; we are their redheaded stepchildren. But all is not lost. With one win, we can change everything; we can win back fans, increase our confidence and morale, and better our chances for making the playoffs. Tonight’s game was a big one; for the fans, the biggest of the year. It’s another derby, and this time it’s the real deal.

The entire time I’ve been here, people have been talking about this game. It is the one game they look forward to the most every year. Bigger than the derby against Ferrara. Bigger than anything. This is the derby against Rimini. For whatever reason, people from these two towns want to kill each other. And that’s no exaggeration. Just ask the police hired to safeguard the gym tonight; triple the amount that are usually on the job.

Tonight’s game was a big one, but we would not be 100% for the affair. For one, we were still missing one American, who has yet to recover from his eye surgery. And second, I would not be at my best. I guess on the bright side, I’d have well-rested legs for the game, but that’s only because I haven’t practiced since Thursday. Actually, I’ve barely made it out of bed since then, when, in a non-contact drill, I took a misstep and felt my back stiffen up and fill with pain. I hobbled over to the sidelines, laid down, and stayed there for about an hour before I was able to get up, get dressed, and go home. Since then I’ve only stepped on the court once, for the team walk through yesterday. I moved about as well as Monty Burns, and was about as effective. The majority of my time has been spent laying in bed.

I’ve also seen the team chiropractor about the situation. He has told me that the problems I am now having were caused not by some freak accident, but rather from how I am built. Apparently my spine does not have the natural curvature it should; mine is more straightened out. This means two things. One, I do not possess anything that could be distinguished as a voluptuous derriere, and two, of more concern, pressure caused by high impact activities, i.e. basketball, cause an undue amount of stress to be placed on my spine and back muscles. This stress is usually meted out throughout the spine, but because my back is straight up and down, the pressure gets locked at certain points, and has nowhere to go. This is a problem. The solution? For now, more frequent chiropractic sessions and medication. OK, I guess the solution is to stop playing, and these are just band-aids for the time being, but for now, they’ll have to do.

Speaking of medication, since my injury I’ve been getting some injections. I’ve stated before that athletes aren’t regarded by their teams here as much more than pieces of meat. We’re a commodity, and we’re expendable. They don’t care about my long-term health; all they care about is their short-term success. Just as President Bush has stated that either you’re with us in the war on terrorism, or you’re against us, these Europeans believe you’re either helping the team, or hindering it; there is no middle ground. I can’t say that I believe either is a pragmatic way of viewing things. To increase the chances that I’d play tonight, I’ve taken more injections than a fiending heroin addict in the last 72 hours, six in all. These shots contain two different types of muscle relaxers, which means I’m taking twice the normal prescribed amount with each session. And the shots have helped; my back feels better than it did before, but still not up to par. I just don’t know if they are causing my body more harm than good.

On to the game. Because I was not at full capacity tonight, before we began warming up, my coach gave me the option of sitting this one out. Last year, in Argentina, I kept myself out of a game because the team wanted to give me an injection to numb the pain I felt in my recently sprained ankle. At the time, I felt it was the best course of action. Tonight, a similar offer was made to me. The doctor said that he could give me tiny injections of what amounted to Novocain to the problem areas of my back. This would temporarily numb any pain that I had and allow me to play in the game. This time, I gave the team doctor the green light.

In basketball, like everything else in life, you must understand the risk/reward relationship of any situation. In Argentina, I felt that there was a great chance that I could re- and possibly permanently injure my ankle (like both of them are not useless already) if I played in the game, so I sat out. Tonight, I took the local anesthetic because I believed the likelihood of further injury at this point was low. Yes, I know it’s not good for my back in the long-term. And yes, I’d be sore as hell in the morning, but that’s true for me of any day after the game. So I decided to play. And yes, I do realize that I am now a piece of meat, a sell-out, and an ignorant athlete who does not know when to hang it up. And I’m OK with that.

With my back numbed, I made it through layup lines and got ready for the match. I spoke with our trainer before the game, and told him that when I came out of the game, I would be laying facedown (I forgot to mention the fact that because of the injury I’ve been able to sit down for 72 hours, as this action immediately begins to lock up my back, so it’s either sit or stand for me) on the sidelines, and I wanted to have a heating pack placed on my back. Since this is Europe and we are living in the modern 1960s, heating packs don’t exist, so he would bring me a bag of hot water, which would be an adequate substitute. I do have to say that it is quite disheartening to have to do this sort of thing when you are but twenty-four years old. But that’s life.

I would like to write here that my efforts to play meant that we came away with a victory, that karma was on our side and we are now back in the hearts and minds of the locals. But that is not the truth. The truth is that we got blown out by 27 by our bitter rivals on our home floor, and that the starting five, which includes me, got benched in the fourth quarter with six minutes left in the game, as our coach could watch no more of the abomination that was unfolding in front of him. That’s probably the most embarrassing thing that can happen to a player, and I can say that I was not pleased it happened to me.

Personally, I managed only 2 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocks. I also took three charges, which was just plain stupid. But when I get on the court, I have pretty much total disregard for my body’s well-being. After the game, our coach told us that the team wanted to make changes. People would be getting cut. This coming from the same guy who less than a month ago said that there would be no cuts on his watch. But a month’s a long time, and I can’t say that I blamed him. He also threatened to cancel our four-day Christmas break if we don’t win our next two games. That, more than the threat of being cut, got me depressed.

I sauntered out of the locker room, saw the team doctor and got myself yet another injection, and walked with my head down out of the gym. On my way to the car, I had to walk past the team president, who was absolutely berating the team GM. The GM, who’s a nice guy, looked like he was a dog getting beat for peeing on the carpet. The president was pissed, and he had a right to be. When I walked past, though, he stopped, shook my hand, and said “good job”. I was a little surprised, as statistically I didn’t have a great game, but I was told that he appreciated the fact that I even got on the court, and more so that when I was out there I was taking charges and diving after loose balls. What I thought was reckless he found to be valuable. This encounter made me feel a little better about my chances of not getting cut, but even my services will be rendered useless if we don’t get back on the right track. And though my back would thank me for this, I don’t want to see it happen. Not yet, anyways.
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A Regular Bill Shakespeare [Dec. 6th, 2006|02:23 pm]

A few entries ago, one unknown but apparently faithful reader posted a comment in which he or she asked when he/she could find my journal, in its entirety, on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.  At the time, I answered the comment with a sarcastic response. I do have to admit that I’ve entertained the idea of trying to get this thing published in the past, but thought that who in their right mind (besides friends and family, of course) would want to read the drivel that I post onto these pages.  But then I thought back to all the drivel I’ve read in the past few years, books that have neither entertained nor enlightened me, but rather stolen precious time out of my short life.  This latter thought prompted me to say, hey, if they can do it, then why not me?  Can’t my crap be better than at least one crappy book out there?


Before making any rash decisions, I had to consider a few things.  One, would such a decision negatively effect my basketball career?  I don’t think it would, as most of the humor in the entries is self-deprecating, taking aim at myself rather than others around me.  Also, it’s not like any of the stories show me to be a bad guy; I’m just a relatively normal human being reacting to real-life situations.  If any future employer has a problem with what I write, than hey, I figure it’s their loss, and their opinion of me as a player or human being should not be based on my sarcastic, sometimes twisted sense of humor.


Two, if I failed to get myself published, would I be embarrassed?  Well, let’s just say that I’m not easily embarrassed, and if talking about being cut from five teams last year is not embarrassing in itself, than the lack of publication of the stories from these teams would not make me squirm.  Many people, much better writers than me, have failed to get published.  It’s not that easy to do.  Do you know anyone that has written a book?  I’m guessing that even if you do, the list is very small.  So if it doesn’t happen, at least I gave it a shot.


Three, I basically need something to do with myself.  Basketball aside, my life has become somewhat of a barren abyss in which I’ve become dangerously similar to a household cat.  I eat, sleep, and lounge around much too often.  I feel stagnant, and I really need something to get me off of my ass so I can stop having a bad self-image.  So why not give getting published a try.  I mean, isn’t it normal for someone to publish their memoirs at age 24?


After reconciling myself of any fears I had, I decided to do it.  I went online to research the topic, and to find the right publisher for me (if there is such a company).  I was surprised to see how many options there were for getting published.  There are huge online companies that work on what is called the POD (published on demand) method, in which they don’t mass-produce the books, but only print them when they receive an order.  I didn’t think that this was the right choice for me.  Though it would be the path of least-resistance, it is a route I could always follow later.  For now, I wanted to try to hook up with a legit publishing house, which would provide me with a vehicle to actually get myself into some bookstores and have a chance at selling more than four copies.  Let me just quickly state that by no means is this a moneymaking venture.  I don’t plan on this becoming a best seller.  But at the same time I’d like to see if my writing is up to snuff with others I see in the bookstores.  This, as many of my other endeavors, is based on pride and self-improvement.


I quickly found that floating my manuscript to the major publishing houses was not going to happen; they only accept submissions from literary agents, which I don’t have.  So I’d have to go the independent route, which is more my style anyways; not a real big fan of the uptight corporate world.  I figure that by going with one of these houses, I’d not only have a better chance of decent chance of getting published, but if that actually happened I would become a valued member of their organization. 


I narrowed it down to a handful of houses, and sent out initial emails to their submission addresses.  This is the first step of the process; you have to send a query to the publishing house stating who you are, what you’ve written, and why it should be published.  Because there are so many writers out there, they would rather read through 100 queries rather than 100 manuscripts to see what perks their interest.  So, in my normal, “this is what it is” manner, sent out the following email:


I'm an American-born basketball player in his second professional year in Europe.  Last year, in my rookie season, I began keeping journal about my travels.  What I had planned as being an infrequent update to friends and family about my successes on the court became a nearly 102,000 word manuscript that chronicled the cut-throat business that is overseas basketball, its effect on me as a player and a person, as well as a humorous and sarcastic take of player interaction and the quirkiness of European life.  In all, I played for six teams in six countries over ten months. 


I graduated cum laude from Bryant University and obtained a Master's Degree during a fifth year in which I played basketball after obtaining a medical redshirt for a prior knee surgery.  I think my manuscript is different from anything out there because athletes as a whole aren't a very intelligent group, and anything they write is usually nauseatingly politically correct, as they hope to not tarnish their unblemished reputations in print while they engage in debauchery in their free time.  I'm a little different, in that I'm not as into debauchery as I'm into human relations and observations, and that's a part of what this manuscript is about.


Thank you for your time.



Is this going to pique the interest of an editor at a small publishing house?  I don’t know.  In reality, a big part of me doesn’t really care what an editor thinks about it.  I didn’t start writing this journal for any editor; I did it for myself, and over time for other people that took the time to read it.  I’d love for it to get published, but at the same time its publication (or lack thereof) will not affect my writing nor my self-image.  I just needed something to do, and I thought that it would be interesting.  If I get past this preliminary stage, then I’ll provide updates about what is going on.  If not, then you know where the editor put my query.  I’ll give you a hint; it’s in your bathroom and has a flushing mechanism.  But at least I gave it a shot.  Let's see where it goes.
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Slipping In Soresina [Dec. 3rd, 2006|02:42 pm]
This last month of the season has felt like a year. We haven’t won since November 1, and have dropped six of our last seven games. There have been talks of cuts and changes in rotation. We’ve been scowled at in the streets, and beaten up in the newspapers. As I’ve discussed before, losing in Europe is not a fun experience. People here dislike you personally if your team loses, even if you’re overmatched by your opponent. And in almost, if not all of our games, we are the underdog on paper. And this week, when we play Soresina, a team ranked third in the league, we are a heavy underdog. That’s because we’re playing without our American combo guard, who is one of our best players.

Now, the most important thing about this loss is not the fact that it’s nearly impossible to win a game when you’re without one of your two Americans, as they are usually the best players on the team. Rather, it’s why he is out. In last week’s game, he was poked in the eye, and sat out the rest of the game after the incident. On Tuesday he went to the doctor, who said that the player needed eye surgery. Eye surgery. In Italy. Now, the procedure that he would get would be only slightly invasive, but eye surgery? Would I trust these guys to mess around with my vision when their last patient had a broken nose fixed and was out for two weeks? Probably not. You can always fix your nose when you get back to the US. Fixing your eyes, unless I’m mistaken, is an impossibility. But he had the surgery, and three days later, it seems like a success. But, still, the long-term effects of any surgery cannot, by definition, be learned until many years later. I just hope that his decision does not hinder him later in life.

Tonight we got to the gym, and though our roster was depleted, our spirits were high. There were jokes in the locker room, and the discovery of a Turkish toilet in our bathroom. For those that don’t know, a Turkish toilet is basically a porcelain slab on the floor with a soda can-sized hole for human waste. Now, there is no seat, no handlebars, no anything; and this toilet is not just used for urinal purposes. I’ve only seen this type of setup twice in my life, once while playing in Taiwan, and once while traveling in Morocco with Tanya (though that one was in a women’s bathroom, and it made cultural sense, because women are regarded as second-class citizens, and by the way, hers had no porcelain, but was only dirt). Because that one was so dirty, Tanya couldn’t use it. In her words, "I saw it but didn't use it. I didnt even know what I was looking at for a few minutes but then finally it clicked in. I was shocked when it finally registered that I was going to have to squat in the dark, hover over a hole, and then pray I don't piss on myself but worse, step in someone else's waste. Nasty." With conditions in our locker room relatively clean, the question is, did I use it? The answer: how could I not?

So anyways, we began the game against Soresina with a lineup that included me, two other American-born players, and two Italian teenagers. They started a former NBA player, a former Euroleague star, and three veteran Italians. On paper, we were definitely overmatched. They played an uptempo style, and each team pushed back and forth throughout the first period. We were having some problems, as our other two Americans each picked up a pair of early fouls, which sent them to the bench for a short period of time. Though we were struggling, we finished the first quarter down only one.

They made a run in the second quarter, and pushed their lead. But we were hanging in the game; getting lucky bounces and having them miss some easy shots. It seems a lot of times that underdogs can stay in the game, as they play harder than the favorites because they know they have to or run the risk of getting embarrassed. At halftime, we were down three.

Our coach gave an inspired speech a the break, trying to convince us that we could, in fact, win this game that so many deemed an impossible hurdle. We were down three, and some of our guys had played limited minutes due to foul trouble. If we could keep our best guys on the floor, we might have a shot.

In the third quarter, we came out firing. I had a dunk over two of their defenders off a nice pass from our point guard, and I was cleaning up the boards on both ends. Our team was locking down our opponents, contesting shots that they found to be open in the first half. We gained the lead and pushed our advantage to five in the quarter.

In the end, though, they were too strong. In the fourth quarter, they retook the lead and in the final minutes we never got closer than four. It was a valiant effort, but the fatigue felt by our main players due to their running game and the lack of support from our bench contributed to our demise. After the game we were disappointed, but encouraged. We lost last week against Pavia in large part because we were sluggish, but this week we played with energy and desire. If we play like this in the future, we can definitely win some games. Personally, I finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds and four steals. I think if I were able to have had a bigger game, the outcome may have been different, but they were a good team. We made some good strides today, and I hope they can carry forward to next week. Now we haven’t won in over a month, a trend that I wish to discontinue.
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I, Robot? [Nov. 29th, 2006|01:40 pm]
At dinner last night, I had a conversation with my assistant coach about Americans playing basketball overseas. You always hear about players going home for a variety of reasons, whether it be failing to make an adjustment to their games, disliking the lifestyle, or just being idiots. He seemed to think that playing over here was incredibly easy. I argued that he was totally off base, for three reasons.

First, teams over here do not see you as a human being. They care only about your performance on the court, as if you are an unfeeling, robotic creature who does not run the gamut of human emotions during your time spent here. I’ll be honest, you do have to leave many of your emotions at the door when you choose to play here. Your life is reduced to two goals: put up numbers and win. Nothing else matters, and no matter what else is going on in your life, if you don’t accomplish these two goals, your career can end in an instant.

Second, you lose total control over your own life. The team basically decides where you live, when you eat and sleep, and what you do during your “free” time. Our job is so physically draining that most of the time, after practice, all you want to do is come home and relax. I spend a lot of my days now watching TV, going online, or reading. But I’ve only had the first two out of these three at my disposal since the beginning of November, almost six weeks after I first arrived. This is a sleepy town without much to do anyways, so you’re basically left with two choices: stare at the wall in your apartment or start drinking. While I’m not totally condemning the latter one, I’m sorry to say that a lot of guys find solace in the bottle, in addition to other self-deprecating solutions.

The third reason is also the most important. While we are over here, people in our lives move on with their own. It’s the saddest fact of life, but time does march on. While others are furthering their careers, nurturing their relationships, and maturing in life, we are following a career path that unless you hit it big time (and even sometimes when you do) ends in financial disaster and remaining stagnant or even regressing in our personal lives. Relationships, even the ones you think have unbreakable bonds, are brittle. This is by far the hardest part of playing overseas. You forget, or more-often don’t want to believe, that people you love and care about have themselves to think about; their own futures to pursue. And you can’t blame them for this. It’s just that you want to come back every summer with things unchanged, as if time had stopped for the nine months you were away.

But it doesn’t. If anything, your life is the one that has stalled, while everyone else has moved forward. It’s difficult to be in the rearview mirror.

But I, as hundreds of players like me, continue to toil over here as we hold on to the dream of making it big. That is really what I play for. I’ve got so many things to go back home for that it often becomes difficult to remain here. I’m not a robot. But I’m not a quitter, either.
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Orange Mocha Frappuccinos! [Nov. 28th, 2006|11:23 pm]
It's been a long day. This morning I got up at 6 AM to drive Mehow to the airport for his plane trip home. I'm pretty sure he had a good time, I know I did, though I can say that his trip was summed up by something he said on the highway while driving home after a day trip to Florence. We had just seen Michelangelo's "The David", quite possibly the most famous sculpture in the world at the Galleria dell'Accademia. Millions see it every year. When he saw it, he said, "Hmm, that's pretty cool, I didn't realize it was that big." On the car ride home, he was admiring the highway barrier, which were see-through. He said, "Wow, those are awesome!" I looked at him and said that he had to be kidding with his two reactions. But that's Mehow.

Then, after our first practice today, I got a call from our GM telling me that after practice I would have to go to a local restaurant to get pictures taken with my coach for an advertisement. Though I have a face for radio, I am making it a point to comply with any and all of the team’s requests, as everyone is walking on thin ice- there’s been talk about cuts being made, and though for once I’m not the main target, I’d like to remain out of those conversations if I can. Plus I get a free meal out of it, so what the hell.

After our second practice, I followed my coach by car down a long and winding road, half-expecting it to turn to a dirt track after about 10 minutes. During the 15-minute journey, I passed no cars on the road (which was good, as my car took up about 80% of the pavement, and I drive a Fiat), and saw no real signs of life. When I arrived at the restaurant, I was shocked to see it packed, considering that it seemed to operate in its own zip code. But that’s when you know it’s a good spot. If a place has a horrible location, but is still brimming with people, it’s a quality spot.

We were greeted by a photographer, who was anxious to put us in a variety of predetermined poses, many of which were quite ludicrous. He may have well been shouting, “Dance, monkey, dance!” at me. So I got into photo shoot mode, which means two words and five syllables: De-rek Zoo-lan-der (you know you’re counting). At this point it was just a matter of choosing between Blue Steele and Le Tigre, whichever I thought would better show off my versatility. Actually, though, I had a small wardrobe malfunction (though it was nothing involving my breast), as my collar was unintentionally popped during the wine cellar-perusing sequence. I can only hope that none of those make it to print.

After all the photos, we ate dinner, with one of the assistants as well as one of the members of management joining us. They began to talk about a number of things, and I was able to follow somewhat in their rapid-fire Italian, while contributing a little as well. One subject they discussed were the changes that people wanted to make. Apparently, and this is my translation of the conversation, so it wouldn’t hold up in court, the team would not make any changes until January. But if we continued to play the way we have in the last four games, then they would be made. During this part of the dinner I tried to look as if I was concentrating on my dinner rather than the table talk. This was some interesting information that I was probably not supposed to be hearing, so I just played dumb. A good poker player never reveals his hand, and I wasn’t about to let on that I knew what they were talking about.

Towards the end of the dinner, the coach and I had a side conversation in which he said that he was going to ask the team to re-sign me before the season ended. I felt simultaneously happy and disappointed. It’s great to be wanted, but I know that if I play here next year it’ll be the third year that I make zero money as a professional, which is not something I’m interested in doing. Yes, obviously I make a little money doing what I do, but I really hope that my play this year will warrant a much better contract for next season. Though I really like the team, the coach, and the organization, and I love the fact that they took a chance on me, I look at this team as more of a stepping stone than a final destination. I can’t be like Adam Sandler’s character in “The Wedding Singer”, working for three meatballs a week (and believe me, that’s not a far cry from what I make). While that may sound selfish, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask. I’m not Latrell Sprewell, claiming that $12 million wouldn’t feed my family. Unlike my eating habits, when it comes to money I’m no glutton. But I would like to have a little taste.
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Problems with Pavia [Nov. 26th, 2006|11:54 pm]
I think that today marks the final period of my digestion of the Thanksgiving meal, which is a good thing, as the game we play today is of great importance. We’ve lost three in a row, and people are pissed. Fans, coaches, management; everybody. It’s not like we’re not playing hard, or even that we’ve been playing badly. Our three losses have come against teams that look to go deep into the playoffs. That’s what they were built for. Our team was built solely for survival. And still, we’ve been in every game, losing only in the final minutes. We’re a young team, and mistakes have been made. But this doesn’t constitute an excuse in anyone’s mind. Three losses are what they are. FYI- they aren’t a good thing.

Today we play Pavia, a squad coached by my first coach in Roseto. I really think the guy got a bad shake last year. He was given a team of head cases, and was fired when he couldn’t make it work. Roseto’s GM had been historically good with putting teams together, squeezing talent out of players who others thought were worthless. He miscalculated with last year’s bunch, though. And it wasn’t pretty. For more info, please refer to the first 50 (give or take) entries of this journal. It reads like a slapstick comedy show crossed with a chainsaw horror film. But the coach was a good guy, and before the game I made the journey to his bench to have a chat.

Italians have a special way of greeting friends: it includes a series of cheek kisses while embracing in either a handshake or a hug. It’s not that this somehow degrades my heterosexuality, which believe me, some players think, but rather I just don’t know how many kisses to give, and if you’ve ever been in the situation where someone is trying to give you a kiss and you pull back with the “I’m not really disgusted but rather I’m flustered and in two seconds we’re going to be in uncomfortable town” look on your face, then you know what I’m talking about. I’ve seen people give as few as one and as many as three. Are there rules regarding this practice? A calculation, maybe? Like number of years you’ve known the person intimacy of relationship (i.e. 1 for a coworker, 2 for an elder member of your family, 3 for your best friend, -2 for the milkman) number of altercations you’ve had with the person number of weddings you’ve attended with the person = number of kisses? Before I could do the math, I found myself shaking hands and then my former coach pulling me in for one, two, damn, I’m not sure if he was going for a third kiss, because I kind of pulled back, but I think I’m OK. And then we had a five-minute talk, shook hands , and went our separate ways. He’s still the same easy-going guy I remember, and I’m glad that he’s having some success this year, as his team is 5-4.

The game started badly for us. I picked up my first foul in the second minute while helping out a teammate. Before the game my coach told me that my guy was a horrible free throw shooter, and that I should foul him if he was going for an easy layup. The guy was an absolute beast, about 6’8” and 280, solid muscle. Legitimate animal on the boards, ranking second in the league. Someone told me he had a cup of coffee in the NBA, but that his limited offensive skills proved to be his downfall. But he’s still getting it done over here, except at the foul line, which is why we planned to foul him when we had the chance. Now, with one foul, I couldn’t do it. The team needs me in the game, and I couldn’t risk picking up a second foul so early, so I had to relax some of my defensive efforts. Well, maybe not relax so much as that I couldn’t take as many chances as I’d like. We shot the ball badly, but so did they, and at the end of the quarter the score was tied 18-18.

I’m pretty sure our second quarter was the worst in Italian basketball history. As a team, we shot 1-16 from the field, and scored only eight points. At this point in the game, I was rebounding really well, ending with 11 in the first half (and 18 for the game). But as a team, we just couldn’t put the ball in the bucket, and neither could I. I missed three shots, two of which I thought I got hacked on, but got no call. But even with all our offensive woes, we went into halftime trailing by only 11, still with a serious chance to win the game.

At halftime, our coach pulled a Bobby Knight, and went medieval on our locker room. He’s a passionate guy, and our performance pushed him over the edge. He threw a 5 gallon Gatorade jug off a table, punched over our chalkboard, and threw a cooler of ice onto the floor in an attempt to get us to put some emotion into the game. And he was right; we looked dead out there. When he left, the room was silent, so I merely said, look, we’re down 11, and we pretty much just played our worst half of the season. Let’s get out there and beat this team.

But it didn’t happen. I picked up my third foul in the second minute of the third quarter, and had to sit. I was steaming on the bench, because the contact I made to warrant the call was minimal compared to the punishment I was receiving when I touched the ball on offense. But that’s the way it goes sometimes. Either way, we were losing, and every time we made a run, they hit a big three to kill our momentum.

In the fourth quarter we never got closer than eight, and ended up losing 86-73. Now we’re 4-6, on a four-game losing streak. And it doesn’t get any easier. The next two weeks, we play two more teams that look to be playoff-bound. It’s difficult to be in this situation, not having won a game in almost a month, but that’s what happens when you’re on a team like this. There are going to be ups and downs. I just hope that our downs are close to being over, because if we continue on the same track, things can get really bad, really soon. Just one example: after the game our coach told us that some people in the organization were suggesting that the team change our two Americans and our one Italian-American. So that would be three out of four Americans, right? Who’s the last guy standing? This guy. I realize that’s nothing to be happy about, but it does feel good in an odd way after the debacle that was my first year to be the one guy on the team that is probably not going to get cut. But I do feel bad for the other guys. You can’t eat potatoes and expect to shit gold. Yes, we’re 4-6, but people expected us to be 1-9; 2-8 at best. So let’s build on that. Get a little more game time together, and see if we can’t get this ship righted. I just want everyone to be on board.
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Gobbles and Gluttony [Nov. 23rd, 2006|10:50 pm]
Last year I spent Thanksgiving alone in the hell that is known as Roseto. This year I envisioned a similar day, one spent practicing twice and then retreating to my room clutching a large bottle of red wine before laying down in the fetal position longing for a holiday dinner I would have to miss for the second year in a row. But this was not the case. I’ve written in the past that I’m thankful to have such great friends, and this week has proved to me that these claims were actually true. Aw, isn't that special.

Last week, my buddy Mehow gave me a call and asked if I was coming home for Thanksgiving. I sighed and told him that, no, I would not, but that I’d be home for a few days at Christmas. Well, he said, if I wasn’t coming home, could he come over to visit. I told him that I didn’t like stupid jokes. But, as it turned out, he wasn’t joking; he would forego his family holiday and come to Europe to spend a week with me.

He arrived yesterday after a long flight, with no visible signs of jet lag, which I thought was pretty amazing. Whenever I cross the pond, the thing I look most forward to is a comfortable bed. But not Mehow. He was fired up, as this was his first time in Europe. Since I thought that he wouldn’t have the energy to do anything, I hadn’t planned anything for him to do. So we went back to my apartment, looked online, and decided that we would visit San Marino, a town/independent country which claims to be the oldest republic in the world, with a history of independence dating back to 301 A.D. With a total land mass of 24 square miles, or 1/3 the size of Washington, D.C., San Marino is the world’s fifth smallest country (the Vatican is the smallest, with a size of 0.2 sq. mi.). It’s somewhat of a tourist trap, but I figured what the hell, let’s go.

Today, San Marino is known for one thing: it’s spectacular views. When we arrived in the country, today, though, we found that the weather would not be very kind to us. In fact, it was downright awful. I’m pretty sure that it could be classified as a monsoon. But since we were there, we figured we’d try to see the sights anyways. We took a ski gondola up the side of a mountain, to the town that sat on the top. Though it is a paradox, I am deathly afraid of heights. It may make me sound soft (which I am), but I was scared out of my mind as the torrential rain and wind rocked us like a dingy in a tsunami. I had to look at the floor of the cabin throughout the five-minute journey, and when we reached our destination, I was much relieved.

But I was not happy to see the view from the top of the mountain. Actually, there was no view. A heavy fog had settled in, and visibility was only about 150 feet. We would not see the majestic views that San Marino’s tourism website promised us. But we decided to make do and check out the city on the mountain. In three hours of sightseeing, we saw only four other people outside. It was just miserable. I may or may not have caught pneumonia- though does cold weather actually cause pneumonia, as I was told when I was 7 years old? Let it be known that I just researched this topic on WebMD.com for about 15 minutes, and found that, no, it does not. Damn parents with their lies and false knowledge and misuse of said information. Ahem, let us give thanks.

So anyways, back to today. This morning I had to get up for a 10:30 AM morning practice, which wasn’t difficult at all because it’s not like I was up until 3 the night before, possibly at a bar, possibly celebrating my friend’s arrival. Why would that happen? And it’s also possible that Mehow only made it to the bathroom today to engage in activities normally associated with ipecac, which were probably caused by something he ate, and had nothing to do with his behavior last night. Of course not. When in Rome, right?

After my second practice of the day (for which I got home at 8:30 PM) I returned to my apartment to find Mehow quasi-reenergized, which means that he had abandoned his horizontal position for a sitting one. I told him to get ready, as we were leaving in a few minutes for Thanksgiving dinner. Earlier today I received confirmation that a lady who owns a local restaurant had agreed to make us a Thanksgiving dinner for a total of $80, or $20 a head (two of my teammates would be joining in the festivities). What made the dinner offer weird, to me at least, was that this lady was Canadian. Last year, I had a pseudo-Thanksgiving dinner with a group of Canadians. I call it pseudo because they celebrate it in October, and in my book, Thanksgiving comes after Halloween. But that meal was a good one, and beggars can’t be choosers (and God knows that in Roseto I was quite destitute) so I was happy that this year I would get another chance at a turkey dinner. I’ve met guys over here who’ve never celebrated Thanksgiving in Europe. I guess the reality of the situation is that wherever I play in the future, I really should check out the Canadian embassy of the country to see if anybody is living in my area (that is, if Canada has embassies, as we all know it’s not a real country). But I can’t miss Thanksgiving (even the pseudo version). It’s my favorite holiday; when else are you allowed to eat until you nearly explode and then sit on the couch all day watching sports? OK, I’ll be honest, that’s my daily routine, but on Thanksgiving people actually don’t look down upon it.

So we sat down, and I can definitely say that the meal did not disappoint. Though there wasn’t any pie (I told Mehow to bring over a pie mix that I could make over here, but apparently he thought I meant an actual already-made pie, the logistics of which would have been impossible-but possibly still worth it) there was turkey, potatoes, stuffing, salad and bread, so we had all the basics covered. I have to say, my expectations of the feast were not very high going in. The lady said that it had been 20 years since she’d cooked a turkey. Part of me thought that her bird would rival that of Ellen Griswold’s in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”, but it wasn’t; it was perfect. I’m pretty sure that there’s a turkey gene that stays dormant in every woman until she hits 40. Seriously, during the holidays, who’s making the bird? Is it a new bride or is it your Mom, Grandma or Aunt? Methinks it’s one of the last three. Maybe it’s a menopause thing.

The night was going great, and everyone was having a good time, and then Mehow had one his 65-year-old man episodes. I shouldn’t make fun, because his back problems are pretty awful for someone who is 24, and now that I have some minor problems with my back I have a little taste of what he goes through. But honestly, who throws out their back getting up from the dinner table? I get hurt in a lot of ways, but most of them usually involve more risk than standing up.

Mehow couldn’t really stand up or sit down after his episode, so we called it a night, went back to my apartment and he took some anti-inflammatories in lieu of apple pie. His back was so bad that he couldn't really walk either, so when he had to move from one place to the other he looked like he was doing his own crippled version of the Super Bowl Shuffle. Even Walter Payton would have been ashamed. Anyways, I made and received a few phone calls with friends and family, who the holidays are really about anyways. It is hard being away from everybody, but it’s nice to have at least one friend here to celebrate. Though it may not have been the ideal Thanksgiving (and I won’t have one until I retire), I’d have to say it was pretty damn good.
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Reckless in Rieti [Nov. 19th, 2006|11:52 pm]
This week hasn’t been a good one to be a player in Imola. People in town were not very happy with the fact that we lost to a big rival, especially when we were up early, and lost because we didn’t box out in the end. Our coaches weren’t happy either, as their futures are predicated on our success this season. Things today don’t get any easier for us, either, as we play Rieti, a team with a budget about five times the size of ours, and in the upper echelon of the league.

Rieti is a team that has a balanced offensive attack, leg by their two Americans. As a whole, they don’t play much defense, but their scoring more than makes up for their lack of resistance. They basically just try to outscore you, and their damn good at it. There have been times when we’ve encountered problems putting the ball in the basket; that can’t happen tonight if we want to win.

We got to the game tonight, and found the locker room to be only slightly larger than a small closet. Their stadium would barely pass as an elementary school gym had it been in the US. Rieti is in the south of Italy, and as I wrote last week, the south lives a little differently, even by Italian standards. We got dressed and headed out to the floor.

We had to walk through a small tunnel to get to the court, and as we did so we could hear fans above us pounding on the top of the tunnel, making the walk deafening. When I exited the tunnel and turned around to see who was pounding, I was a little shocked to see it was a large group of children. But kids are like that; they love to make noise, and they were just having a good time. They like to party.

Five minutes later, though, as we were going through warm-up lines, I heard a chant that was a little disconcerting. Usually, once I’m on the floor, the noise from the crowd doesn’t affect me; most players will tell you they can’t even hear the crowd once they start playing. But this chant was different, not only in its words but also in who was shouting it. The chant, translated was, “Imola, Imola, F*** YOU!” A vulgar chant by itself, but magnified ad infinitum by the chanters, the same children who were making the noise on top of the tunnel. I literally stopped in my tracks, put my hands on my hips, and shook my head in disbelief. Seconds later, I realized that I looked both ridiculous and slightly-less-than-heterosexual standing there, and got back in line. But my thoughts remained the same: who taught these kids to say these things? They were literally eight and nine years old. The only thing I can think of is that they were imitating their parents, who make similar chants during the game. Can you imagine people in the US collectively shouting this during a game? It just wouldn’t happen. But that’s the kind of thing that goes on here, and even when little kids do it, no one looks down on it. I think that’s a little crazy. But when the parents are setting the example that these people are, I guess it’s not that nuts. For them, at least.

The first quarter of action was intense. Our teams traded baskets, and the points began to pile up. I had six points in the first four minutes, as we just ran the pick-and-roll, to which they had no answer. But we couldn’t stop them either. It seemed like they were wide open on every shot. And they weren’t missing. I had only one rebound at the end of the quarter, but I believe we only had four as a team. There just weren’t any to be had. By the end of the quarter, the score was 28-27.

As the game proceeded, a subplot was unfolding. That’s my inability to make free throws. I was getting ample opportunities to score, as in this game I got more touches than I had in any other game. And I was getting hacked when I went up with the ball, drawing numerous fouls. But I couldn’t convert at the foul line. I’m not a bad free throw shooter, but tonight I was having some serious difficulty. And even my misses weren’t consistent. I was hitting every area on the rim, and rarely did I get a shooter’s bounce for a made shot. At halftime, with my free throw shooting woes continuing, we were down eleven.

The third quarter was a different story. We came out firing, and they got ice cold. We made up the deficit in only five minutes, then the lead flip-flopped until we were up three with a few seconds to go. One of their players got a rebound, made an outlet, and as time expired, their point guard threw up a 60-foot running bomb. At this point I was on the bench, and watched the play unfold in front of me. As the ball made its way towards the hoop, I thought, wow, that’s going to be close. And then it went in. And the house came down. Whatever momentum we had built up over the last ten minutes had vanished in an instant.

The fourth quarter was a tight one, but in the end we didn’t have the manpower to get the win. Had that miracle shot not gone in, we may have been able to parlay our third quarter momentum into a better result, but as it is now, we’re 4-5, on a three-game losing streak. Personally, I had 20 points and 11 rebounds, but only made 8 out of 16 free throws. We lost by eight, which makes my eight misses even more disheartening. Now we have a six-hour bus ride home and a week of bad press and hard practices in front of us. Should be fun.
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Big Day Not-Off [Nov. 13th, 2006|07:49 pm]
After yesterday’s loss, I sat in the locker room depressed and disgusted. But at the same time, I realized that our season is a long one, as it doesn’t end until April. At this point I could do nothing to change the loss, and could only hope to do better in the future. I looked forward to our day off today to rest, relax, and get this loss out of my head.

But when I stepped out of the shower and began to get dressed, I heard the news: we would have practice on our day off. Now, most people think that, boo hoo, you have to practice today. But in truth, players need one day off a week. Many people think that because we have one game a week, the rest of the week is just a breeze. Physically, though, it’s not. We practice twice three days a week, and once two days. Your legs get tired after a while. And we use our day off not just for physical recovery, but mental as well. Because we have only one game a week, it’s kind of a big deal. You prepare all week for those forty minutes, and when you lose, you need to just get it out of your system.

Today, though, we would get no such break. We arrived at the gym at 3 PM, got dressed, and headed into the office. Our coach proceeded to yell at us for an hour, challenging our desire and work ethic. He said that the president of the club asked him if we were going to make the playoffs. I thought to myself, we’re only eight games into a thirty game season and you want a definitive answer as to whether or not we’ll make the playoffs? After the session, a teammate suggestetd that one of the Americans should have gone Jim Mora on our coach with his famous "Playoffs?!?!" rant. We came to the conclusion that we'd probably get stared at by all the Italians, then there would be an awkward moment of silence following our raucous laughter, then we would get cut. Even so, I think it would be worth it. Moving on.

My coach did say one thing as we began to watch the game tape that made me feel a little better, if not a little confused. He apologized to me in front of the team. He said that he should have put me in the game, that we needed me in the action as no one else on the team wanted to rebound. I guess you could call it a half-apology to me, half-criticism to the rest of the team. He said that the reason he stuck with me on the bench was because he thought the guys on the floor would provide an offensive spark. Then he said he watched the game film and said that he saw I wasn’t scoring due to lack of skill but rather to lack of touches. Four times in the first five possessions I was wide-open two feet from the hoop, or in other words the extent of my shooting range. Instead of getting me the ball, we took a few bad shots, and came away empty handed. While we were watching, my coach demanded that, in the future, I get the ball whenever I was open. I’m not sure if this is because he actually trusts me with the ball in my hands or if it’s due to our paltry 28% three-point shooting (we average just under 22 attempts per game). Either way, it looks like I’ll have the ball in my hands a lot more in the future.

We watched the game tape as a team for about 15 minutes, then our coach gave us the option of going to the gym and shooting or watching the rest of the film. The four Americans stayed for the film, while all the Italians went to shoot. It seems that segregation is alive and well.

I hate watching myself on tape. I always nitpick and see things I should/would/could’ve done differently. I’m very hard on myself for the mistakes that I see being made, when I know I should be doing something different. But, for the first time in a while, I was actually surprised at my play in a positive way. I seemed to be moving well, helping and recovering quickly on pick-and-rolls, and boxing out my guy on every possession. While my numbers weren’t great, I thought that this was the best game that I’ve played all year. It goes to show that the stat sheet doesn’t tell the real story when it comes to how well someone played.

So while I came into the gym today disgruntled that I had to be there on my day off (imagine going to the office on Sunday), I left feeling better about the game I had as well as the future of our season. Our game this Sunday is very important, and tomorrow we’ll start preparing for it. I’m somewhat glad I had to come in today. What started as a nuisance ended up being constructive.
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The Imola Derby [Nov. 12th, 2006|09:45 pm]
Everyone has at least one rival. Admit it, you’ve got one. Be it a colleague, an opponent in a men’s league, or some guy that looked at you cross-eyed in the supermarket; unless you live in a bubble, you have a rival. Sports are filled with rivalries. It’s the perfect arena to have such competition. Lots of supporters loyal to one side, multiple confrontations between the two parties, and often multiple tasty alcoholic beverages consumed prior to attending/watching such a match. Some feuds have been going on for a long time (think Red Sox-Yankees), while others are just reaching a boiling point (more like Patriots-Colts). In a society whose political landscape is dominated by two parties, we have a difficult time choosing one side and not appreciating another side for his/her/it’s positive attributes (though in politics we often choose our side based not no how much we like our guy, but rather on how much we dislike the opponent-quite a sad state of affairs). I’ve seen t-shirts that say, “I root for the Red Sox and whoever’s playing the Yankees. But that’s the beauty of the whole thing. The rivalry is more often than not created by the spectators of the sport rather than by its participants. The fans love to love their team, but they almost love even more to hate another. A lot of people don’t have competitive situations in their life, so they attach themselves to their favorite sports team like junkies needing their next heroin fix. And when their side plays their hated rival, they go into overdose mode. It is this passion of the fans that makes these rivalries what they are. Yes, there are certain cases where athletes rival one another, such as Russell-Chamberlain, Magic-Bird, and now LeBron-Wade, but these duos represent more of a healthy competition rather than a bitter disdain between the two parties. For the most part, athletes respect one another. Plus, now in these days of free agency, players rarely have a loyalty to any one team. In almost every case, they follow the (in my case minimal) dollar signs rather than the hearts of their loving fans, thank you very much Johnny Damon.

Rivalries over in Italy take on a new level of ridiculousness. Over here, they have what are known as derbies, which are games between local towns (and don't include horses, only their asses). In Imola, we have two such derbies. And today, we would play our first of the season, against a team from Ferrara.

Ferrara is a team that most believe will make the playoffs. They have a solid squad, and are more well-rounded than many teams in the league. Each team entered the day’s game with a 4-3 record, so we knew from the start that we needed to win to get to 5-3, which looks a hell of a lot better than 4-4. We’re playing at home, which usually means a home court advantage in terms of fans rooting for our side. But because Ferrara is so close to Imola, their fans packed into our gym early in warm-ups. Extra police, wearing full riot gear, lined the court at certain points in the game when things started to heat up. That’s right, riot gear. LAPD style. That’s how nuts it gets over here.

Both teams struggled to score early on, as our side blew four shots from no more than three feet away. Their side settled for jumpers that weren’t falling. There were over four minutes of scoreless basketball, as each team clawed its way to its first basket. We finally got things rolling and made a few shots, and at the end of the quarter found ourselves up five points.

The second quarter was difficult, as Ferrara got back in the game, which ignited the fans for their side. I made my first basket of the night off of a pick-and-roll. We had been running a lot of these plays early on, as we do in all of our games. And just like the other games, my rolling becomes an exercise in futility, as I rarely touch the ball after setting the screen. I don’t really care about scoring, but I figure that my percentage shooting the ball from six inches away may be higher than someone shooting from twenty feet. I’m not saying that’s a fact, but it’s worth trying. Anyways, I picked up two fouls, one which was legit and one that I thought was pretty garbage, but my coach allowed me to play through it and we went into halftime down two.

By the third quarter Ferrara was playing pretty well. We were employing a trap (a double team on the ball) whenever they ran a pick-and-roll, and in the first half it worked pretty effectively, though it was very demanding on me as it was often my guy who was setting the screen. In the second half, though, they began to figure it out, and made some decent plays. In addition, they were getting a lot of hustle points, while our play was a little lackluster. As the minutes ticked by, though, we picked it up, and I came out with two minutes left in the period with our side down one. I figured I’d get some rest and gear up for the fourth quarter push.

But I just sat there. And sat there. Twelve long minutes passed before the final horn, and not once did my feet step onto the court. It was the third time in as many games that my coach didn’t play me at crunch time nor use me for more than 22 total minutes, both of which are very odd to me. I know what he was trying to do in this game, at least, which was go with a smaller lineup and try to pressure Ferrara into making mistakes. But this type of scheme has its drawbacks. One is the fact that you have no legitimate rebounders on the floor. And this hurt us. Badly. In a 3:30 span, Ferrara grabbed four offensive rebounds for putbacks, and the game was over. We lost, 83-79.

I cannot express my frustration at not playing in the game. One of the few things I do well is defensive rebound, and that’s what we needed at that point. But we also needed speed and some potent scoring, so that’s why I wasn’t in. It’s hard for me to argue with my coach’s decision, and I won’t, but it’s also maddening to watch your team lose when you know you can help.

As I left the gym, I saw the look on people’s faces as I passed them by. There would be no autograph requests today. Usually I am the first one to admit that I hate the fickleness of the fans over here, but this is the first time I’ve felt a twinge of guilt at not providing our supporters with a win. It really causes them physical pain when we lose. And as ridiculous as I may think that is, today I felt bad for letting them down. Maybe I’m getting soft; I don’t know. But it’s not a feeling I want to have again.
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Mea Culpa in Caserta [Nov. 5th, 2006|11:42 pm]
Yesterday we embarked on a seven-hour bus ride for a game against Caserta, the top team in the league. We’ve only had two days to prepare for this match, much less than the five we usually get. We knew that it would be a very tough game, and we were right.

This morning we had a shootaround in the gym where we would play tonight. Caserta is in the south of Italy. The South is what I think of when I think of the real Italy. It is full of open land, vineyards, mountains, and overall beautiful scenery. One week in the Italian countryside would be a dream vacation for a lot of people.

But one week is all that one could really spend there before becoming frustrated with their surroundings. That’s because the south of Italy is even more primitive than the rest of the country. The North, bordered by other countries, has assimilated to more modern ways of thinking and living, but because the South is surrounded only by water, they have been isolated to much of the progress made in the world. Everything is slower (even by Italian standards, so you know it’s a snail’s pace), technology is outdated, and customs are more strictly adhered to. And, in some cases, the people are out of their minds.

Like I said, this morning we had a shootaround. We walked into the main gym to find that the hoops were not set up, so the term “shootaround” was about to be quite the misnomer. Luckily, the team had an auxiliary gym where we could get some shots up. Unluckily, the gym we were in wasn’t heated, so it was the same temperature inside that it was inside. And let’s just say I didn’t wear flip-flops into the gym. So we had our shootaround, with most players wearing sweatshirts, sweatpants, and in my case, a winter hat. Not really the optimal conditions to get yourself loose for the night’s game.

After lunch and a short nap, we were ready to play the game. We entered the gym for the game, and I noticed that the temperature was the same as it was this morning. Apparently, fans walk in through doors only about 40 feet from the gym floor, and these doors connect directly with the outside. Even if the gym had a heating system, any warmth it generated would literally go right out the door. People who arrived at the game in winter coats kept them on for the duration of the game. It was cold. Though I’m not sure if they wore their coats for warmth or to hide the various items they would throw on the floor during the course of the game.

Things kind of went downhill after warm-ups. Two themes of the game: one, I played like crap, easily my worst game of the season. I don’t really want to talk about it. Two, as a group, Caserta was the biggest group of actors and floppers I’ve ever seen collectively assembled on one team. They had taken a page out of Emilio Estevez’s rogue team in ”The Mighty Ducks” when he said, “Take the hit, act hurt, can you dig it?” It was ridiculous. They acted like they got hit by a train every time they were tapped or touched or hit by a stiff gust of wind. But that notwithstanding, I played like crap, and we lost. Hopefully next game is a different story. I hope so, because I can’t play like this if we expect to win. And really, that’s what I want to do. Just win.
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Chiropractic Confidence [Nov. 2nd, 2006|06:49 pm]
Since my arrival in Europe in 2005, I’ve been skeptical of the medical profession overseas. This used to be the place where medicine, among other things, was the most progressive in the world. But from what I’ve personally seen, this progress went awry sometime in the early 90’s. Most times when I walk into a hospital, I’m astounded at the lack of technology, the oft-soiled surroundings, and the patients who have been treated by medical practices that have been out of date since George Michael was still thought to be straight. Consider that one of my teammates broke his nose, then was out for more than two weeks. That’s crazy. So when I had to go to a chiropractor today, I was justifiably nervous.

My back is one of the litany of pains that I’ve had to endure while playing both in college and professionally. Not that it’s a chronic problem by any means, but when you play like I do, i.e. dive on the floor for loose balls and bang underneath the boards, your back will need to be attended to make sure it’s functioning properly. I’ve been having a little discomfort in my upper back ever since my time with the national team, when I dove head first after a loose ball and ended up impacting the top of my head with a set of bleachers. In the past some of the pain I’ve experienced has been alleviated by the help of a chiropractor, so that’s where I was headed today.

Chiropractors are like the Kobe Bryant of the medical profession. Some people swear that they are a godsend, and that without their help the patient would suffer for years. Others take the opposite route, saying that there is no clinical evidence that they actually help the patient, and some even contend that they hurt their overall health. There isn’t much middle ground. I’m not trying to say that I’m a Kobe fan. I just want my back to feel better. And since I’ve had some success in the past, I hoped for some more today.

The chiropractor I actually went to today was a friend of our team’s athletic trainer. He said that he was very professional, and that he would do a good job. What, was he supposed to tell me that the guy was a quack? I was unsure about going into the office, and even more so after I walked in the door. It wasn’t the cleanest environment, and the chiropractor was dressed in wind pants and a tight collared shirt.

One thing you need from any medical professional is trust. I trust the surgeon I have in Connecticut, who has performed three surgeries for me. I trusted him from the first moment I walked in the door. Chiropractors really have to have the trust of their customers. You literally put your head in their hands, and with one wrong movement, they can do permanent damage to you. Let’s just say that, initially, I didn’t trust this guy.

What I really wanted was for this man to just crack my back and let me get on my way. But he insisted on putting me through a series of tests, which included one when he put me in a WWE-worthy full nelson. I had had about enough of what he was doing when he asked me if my stomach had been bothering me in the last few days. I thought to myself, how could he know that it had? Last night, in fact, after our game I had some bad stomach pains. Knowing that I don’t go through a monthly menstrual cycle, I had wondered what they were caused by. He told me that one of my upper dorsal muscles was out-of-whack (quite the technical analysis) and that this had caused my pain. It was at this moment that I put some trust in the guy. It appeared that he knew what he was doing after all.

A short time later, I got what I came for in the form of a few neck and back cracks. I walked out of the office feeling much better. I may have to come back and see this guy again as the season goes along, but at least now the apprehension I had walking in the door has been alleviated. Though I still don’t have a lot of faith in the European medical society, I believe I can put my trust in this guy’s hands.
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Good Timing And Great Expectations [Nov. 1st, 2006|09:29 pm]
We have been getting killed in the press this week. Journalist cannot understand how we lost in Ticino. Before Pesaro, they called me the “Flying Irishman” (I addressed this misnomer in a previous entry). Their latest assessment? He’s physical, he can defend, but what else? The community’s expectations of both me and the team had grown exponentially after our first three wins. Now that we have lost two in a row, they ask questions as if we are supposed to be the best team in the league, and I the star player. Neither judgment is the truth. I’m better than they thought, but I’m no superstar. My team got off to a surprisingly good start, but we will struggle to make the playoffs in this highly competitive league. Good fortune often brings with it unwanted responsibility. It’s what I call the Nirvana axiom (the band, not the state of being). In 1994, this three-man band from Seattle overnight went from living on the street to being the most popular band in the world. After this initial success, each member went on his own separate way. At this point in the season, I think that there are three ways we can go ahead in our season. First, we could be the Dave Grohl of Italy, building on the initial success by following up with win after win, and generating success that no one thought we could achieve before or even after we first hit it big. Second, we could go the Krist Novoselic route. Not familiar with the name? That's because he drifted off into obscurity when the band disintegrated. He floated around in the late 90's, and even wrote a book in 2004, but never regained his initial success. Like Novoselic, we could amble through the rest of the season, with no one paying attention to what we were doing, and finish as unnoticed as before the first game. Third, we could go the Kurt Cobain route. I'd rather not have my team commit suicide (in the win-loss column) by succumbing to the pressure of having to create genius every time we take the floor. Nobody's perfect. But sometimes people want too much, and the surrounding pressure causes you to implode. Let's just say I don't want our team to take the third option.

Now, I don't have a problem with them expecting good things from me and the team. It’s better than what they thought of me at the start of the season, which was, oh yeah: nothing. Ditto for the team. But with these elevated expectations, when both the team and I perform badly, the press is going to jump all over us. That’s their job. If I were playing professionally in the US, one or two bad games would not be that bad of a thing. There, games are played every day or every other day, so your chance at redemption comes quickly. In Europe, though, you generally only play one game a week. Luckily for us, this week was one of two that we’ll play two games in a week. I couldn’t ask for better timing.

So tonight we played a team from Jesi. Last year, my first as a professional, they offered me a four-year contract, a length almost unheard of in European basketball. My guess is that if I turned out to be a good player, they could sell my rights to another team. Either way, the deal didn’t happen, I took (in theory) more money in a better situation for a shorter period of time. Yeah, that worked out well (see the first 100 entries of this journal for a moderately detailed explanation). This year, Jesi has been having some troubles. They’ve won only one game, but their losses have been close games. This game has similar implications for their Americans as our game last week against Ticino. Win, keep your job. Lose, have a nice flight.

Bottom line, we have a better team than Jesi. We’re playing at home. We should win this game. We knew it. So we went out and played like we knew it. In the opening minutes, we played like a cocky team. We put up shots from all over the court. We pressured them defensively. And after five minutes, we hadn’t scored a point and had they not missed a couple of shots a blindfolded, unguarded midget could have made, we would have been staring a double-digit deficit straight in the face. Luckily for us, they weren’t that good, and it showed. When we finally got our heads on straight and started playing like we should, things got moving.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t. Get moving, that is. For whatever reason, my legs didn’t feel right. That led to my back getting tight, and giving me a general feeling of…not good. I had only 3 points and 3 rebounds at the half, after only playing nine minutes. My coach seemed to notice my discomfort (or my horrible play) and sat me for quite a while. In my absence, my team was playing well, giving me a feeling of happiness while simultaneously also making me feel inadequate. My emotions notwithstanding, we went into the break with an eleven point lead.

A few of my teammates tried to raise my spirits during halftime. They gave me tips on how to play the opposition’s pick-and-roll play, as well as how to beat my guy on offense. Basically, they were trying to raise my confidence, which they thought was shot due to my demeanor in the locker room. But I wasn’t depressed or unsure, I was angry. Angry that I was letting my team down, angry at my legs for not responding when I told them to go, angry that my defensive assignment was having a good game, when I knew that 9 times out of 10 I’d make the guy look stupid.

Now, there’s two ways I could go with these feelings. Option A- stay mad and let it cloud my focus, which in turn would only amplify my bad play. Or I could go for option B- channel that anger to get my ass in gear, and actually play some basketball. As much as people think that I chose option A, thankfully I went for B. I came out, grabbed some rebounds, blocked a few shots, dove on the floor, and basically just played hard. My teammates did too. We would not have a repeat of Sunday. There would be no loss today.

We ended up winning by nine points; not a huge amount but sufficient enough to get it done. Afterwards, the mood was greatly elevated than after the Ticino game. Everybody was happy, and why not? We played well. I got it turned around in the second half. I only played 21 minutes, but had nine points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks in that time. Not a great night, but not as bad a night as I could have had. Now we’ll have a few days until our next game, when we play the best team in the league. You have to wonder what everyone expects. If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t worry about what others expect. Expectations change with time. And though it’s a double-edged sword, I hope that people’s expectations of us, and me, keep getting raised.
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Turned Away In Ticino [Oct. 29th, 2006|08:26 pm]
Even though we lost last week at Pesaro, we came into our game today with a record of 3-1. That would be three more wins than anyone in Italy thought we would have at this point, as our team was supposed to be fighting for its mere survival rather than fighting for a playoff spot, which the press is already talking about in the local papers. To gain this once thought to be unreachable goal of making the playoffs, we will have to win all of the games we are supposed to win (which isn’t many), and then hope to split the games where we come in as the underdog. Today, for the first time, we came in as the favorite. And a heavy one at that.

Today our opponent is a team from Ticino, a city in the northernmost part of Italy. It is quite close to where I played last year in Lugano, and is known as a tourist destination within the country. It’s a very beautiful place to visit, even in late October. Too bad for Ticino that it’s basketball team has not had, thus far, a season that matches the beauty of the landscape. Ticino comes into the game today at 0-4. They haven’t been in a game where the margin of loss has been in the single digits. Basically, they’ve been everyone’s whipping boys this season. To make matters worse (for them), they would have to play today’s game without two of their top three leading scorers. To the casual observer, it would look unnecessary for us to even play this game. Just chalk up the victory, and skip the four-hour bus ride to and from the game.

But basketball is never a gimme. There are quite a few interesting subplots to this story. First, when European teams start to lose, fingers are pointed, most often towards the expendable Americans. I knew coming into the game that their one uninjured American would be doing everything he could to ensure not only his, but the other American’s, job security. You see, sympathy is not these Euros strong suit. A hurt American is often the same to them as one that is not producing. If their injury means losses, they’ll get the axe. So now this one guy was playing for two jobs.

Second, two of their Italian players with big contracts were getting killed in the press for not living up to expectations. These Italians are a sensitive bunch, and the press can be ruthless. Unlike George Bush, these players read the newspapers. And similarly, public opinion can often be their downfall. The difference is that these players don’t have guaranteed four-year contracts. They actually have to do some good to keep their jobs.

Third, it’s the old adage of an injured animal is harder to kill. With two of their stars out, they were hurting. They knew their season was on the ropes, and that no one could change the situation but them. Their younger players, finally getting a shot to prove themselves worthy, would be playing to their full capacity. No, this would not be an easy game to play. We would soon find out just how hard it would be.

Our two sides played evenly in the first half, with their American putting up 16 points in the first half to buoy their depleted lineup. For our side it was a more well-rounded effort, as everyone seemed to be getting into the mix. They were getting too many easy buckets, though, as our defense was lax at times. When we buckled down, we were OK. But many times we looked asleep, and were punished for it.

At halftime our coach berated our lack of defensive effort. He told us that the game was ours to win (we were up six at the time), and it could be won in the next five minutes. The team knew he was right. Ticino had looked tired when they walked into their locker room, and rightfully so. If we just gave a strong effort in the first five minutes of the third quarter, the game would be ours.

We almost made it. Four minutes had elapsed in the third, and we were up fourteen. Ticino looked discouraged. And then an odd thing happened. One of their players hit a three-pointer. I inbounded the ball (somewhat lazily) to our point guard, who caught it and turned into a defender who was trying to sneak up on him and make a steal. The opposing player elbowed my teammate in the process, so my teammate threw him over his hip onto the ground in a move worthy of Monday Night Raw. Intentional foul. Two free throws, plus the ball. Add an easy bucket on their next possession, and they had scored 7 points in 10 seconds. Our lead had, in an instant, been cut in half, while their momentum and fan enthusiasm had doubled.

From there our loss was in the air. A funny thing happened after this first intentional foul. We started to play 8-on-5. Though it’s never fair to berate referees, they took my teammate’s wrestling maneuver a little too personally. A few minutes after the altercation one of our Americans fouled out. Then another player got tossed out of the game for preventing an opponent from entering a team huddle during a free throw. Another intentional was called after a teammate tried to steal a ball, knocked a player off-balance, and then tried to hold him up and keep him from falling.

Meanwhile, I got punched in the stomach while setting a pick, elbowed in the face while trying to take a charge (a no-call), and sandwiched by two opponents in a hit that would have been unsportsmanlike conduct in the NFL (another no-call). Games can get rough, but the way this one was going, someone could have gotten seriously hurt. Players are like rebel kids with pushover parents. They keep pushing the line further and further until their parents spank them. If the spank doesn’t come, then they never stop. I was half-expecting someone to pull a knife on the court. I’m kidding, of course, but it really got to a point of ridiculousness.

Tentative on defense and feeble on offense, we watched our lead slip away until we were finally on the losing side. We stayed there, finally conceding the game at 83-73. It’s a tough loss to take. There’s a big difference between being 4-1 and 3-2, especially when that one extra win was within your grasp. I make no excuses for my own play. Rough play or not, I should have been more assertive. I got a little caught up in the game, and lost focus. My game suffered, as I ended up with only 3 points 12 rebounds, and 1 block.

Afterwards the team’s mood ranged from somber to angry. Somber from the loss, but angry at ourselves for allowing it to happen. No matter what anybody says (including me), referees don’t decide the game. At best, they help. At worst, they annoy. But players determine the outcome of any match. And in this game, I’m sorry to say that tonight the better team won. They had more reasons to win, and we gave them the only chance they needed. Games normally aren’t decided on one play. Unfortunately for us, this game was anything but normal.
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Stay Tuned For Midget Volleyball [Oct. 23rd, 2006|10:49 pm]
Italians love sports. They love to play sports, but even more so they love to talk about sports. Across the country, people of all ages gather in the local coffee houses to sip some java and discuss the most recent sporting event, whether it be a soccer match, a basketball game, or a Formula One race. They live vicariously through the athletes they watch like few other cultures. Most Italians aren’t built for the long haul when it comes to sports, so they idolize those who are successful as professionals, regardless of their sport of choice. And on Italian TV, there are countless shows that have old men discuss games, players, and the futures of each. They get all worked up and red-faced, and it’s pretty evident that a very small percentage of them have ever participated in any of the sports they are discussing. But that’s true of most things; the critics are usually the ones who had no success with what they are assessing. But that’s also because if you put most athletes in front of a TV camera, they come off looking like recent prison parolees or recent graduates of an eight-hour English immersion class for illegal immigrants. Tonight, I would subject myself to the critics, bare the harsh lights of the television camera; I had agreed to go on one of these shows and be a guest.

I’ve actually been getting a good deal of press over here. I’ve been dubbed the “Flying Irishman” by the local papers, though this is a misnomer on two accounts; the only time I’m flying is on a plane, and I’m the offspring of two American citizens, only slipping through the cracks of the Irish citizenship board on a technicality. People have also saying that I’m the surprise of Italian basketball, which I think is both a compliment and a slap in the face. It means that they’re happy I’m playing well, but also that their expectations of me were lower than someone's expectations of Mike Tyson to not do something insane for more than a five-minute span (if that makes any sense). This attention is coming my way because I’m currently the leading rebounder in the league with 13.3 a game. To put that in perspective, the guy in second place is averaging 10.7, and after him there’s only one other player in double digits. So everyone’s excited, and they’re all telling me what a great job I’ve been doing.

But all of this interest, though it is nice, is not leaving me with an elevated sense of self-worth. One only needs to dip into the archives of this journal to see that a large number of people dismissed, discounted, and just plain dissed my abilities last year. And with good reason. There’s a great line from the movie “Blow” where George’s father Fred tells his young son, “Sometimes you're flush and sometimes you're bust, and when you're up, it's never as good as it seems, and when you're down, you never think you're gonna be up again. But life goes on.” While I’m presently flush, I was bust so often last year that things never looked like they were going to get better. And my experience has shown me that things can change, for better or worse, in an instant.

So I’m driving to my interview, which is to be held on TeleUno, the Italian equivalent of ESPN8 (the Ocho!). I’m guessing that after my show they’ll be showing some sort of obscure sport like midget volleyball or something. I had a difficult time finding the place, as the directions I received were a little subpar, and the sign for the building I would be taping in was the size of a small dog. We’re talking like a Pekingese here, so basically a cat. But I finally made my way inside the building, and was told that I would be going on in five minutes.

Thirty minutes later (how could this happen, it was supposed to be a live, scheduled show), I came on the set along with a journalist from a nearby city and a guy who plays in the third division in Italy. There was one interviewer, who spoke little English, as well as a twenty-something year old girl whose job description I didn’t know at the start of the show. It would, though, become evident later on.

I was told that I would be provided a translator who would convert the questions the Italian interviewer was asking me into English. I would then reply in five-second English bursts, which she would translate into Italian for the television audience. She would sit in the control booth and hear me through my television microphone, while I would hear her from an earpiece provided by the crew. Have you ever rewatched a movie from the late eighties or early nineties, when films loved to put all types of new technologies onto the screen? And while at the time they are state-of-the-art, today these items are ludicrously simple, large, and occasionally comical. I call this the Zach Morris cell phone phenomenon. Well that’s what this earpiece was. I have big ears, but this thing covered all their skin area and more. It was similar to the hearing aid that Mick had to wear in Rocky II. When giving the interview, I actually never turned to face forward at the camera; I got a little flustered and didn’t want people to see that I had a phonograph on my ear.

The interview started pretty easily, and after a few minutes I got into a groove of answering whatever question came my way. And, to be honest, most of the queries were softball lobs; there would be no discussion of North Korea’s nuclear program. It was more of, what do you think of the team, how can you improve, how do you like all the guys. This would not be an episode of The O’Reilly Factor. The only problem I encountered was the 3-4 second delay between the question I was asked and the translation from my helper. So I was basically looking at the interviewer nodding my head awkwardly in response to a voice only I could hear. Hope it didn’t look too bad.

During the hour-long session, I found myself watching the TV monitor in front of me. It displayed what was being shown, in real time, to the television audience. Because there were three guests, often times the cameraman would show a close-up of whoever was talking at the time. I noticed, though, that occasionally the cameraman would give the girl who was in the room a once-over, starting with a shot of her knees and ending with a five-second shot of her smiling into the camera. I was a little sketched out. You have to love how Italians are so blatant about selling their product with sex. How do you apply for a job like that? Is the description: no talent needed, we just want a piece of eye candy? Apparently so. Maybe I’m being a little too harsh. She also read messages off of a cell phone that were sent into the show by local fans. Tough stuff.

I made it through the entire interview without saying anything stupid. Well, almost. Throughout the hour I had put on my best face and tried to stay as positive as possible, which really wasn’t hard because, so far, this season has been positive in most aspects. The final question, though, got me. And it wasn’t a hard question. Simply, can we expect this success we’ve seen in the first four games to last for the entire season. My answer began, it’s hard to say, it’s a long season, yada yada. Then, out of nowhere, I just said, “I really can’t say for sure. I’m not Jesus Christ.” What? Well, no, wait, what? Not only was that an unwise thing to say in one of the most hardcore Catholic countries in the world, but it didn’t even make sense. In retrospect, I should have said I’m not Nostradamus, but he made some outlandish and ludicrous predictions that didn’t come to fruition. Strike that, I should have just kept my damn mouth shut.

But everyone involved seemed to laugh off the comment, however nervously. That comment ended the interview, and when the cameras shut off we all shook hands and went our separate ways. I thought, minus my religious faux pas, that it had gone pretty well. I had fun, and that’s all that matters. Let’s just hope the fans don’t throw bibles at me in the next game. I’ll keep you posted.
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Pesaro Pasting [Oct. 22nd, 2006|02:16 pm]
Today we had a game against Pesaro, one of the strongest in the league. A team with a proud history, they went bankrupt in 2005. A new group of owners bought the team, but due to Italian rules, they were relegated to the third division. The owners, though, didn’t buy the team to run it in the third division; they wanted back in the first league. So they broke out their checkbooks. The veritable New York Yankees of the third division last year, they won the league running away, so they moved up to the second division (in most European countries the bottom two teams in each league move down to a lower level, while the top two teams in the lower league replace them. This year it’s more of the same, as Pesaro has by far the highest payroll in the league. They have their eyes set on the first division, and today we would try to stand in their way.

Coming into this game, I was really tired. Tanya has been visiting me for the last week, and I had a blast while she was here. But doing a lot of the tourist things we did (like climb the stairs of a 50-story leaning tower in Bologna) left my legs in a less-than-optimal condition. Not that I would trade her trip for fresh legs (no way in Hell), but I worried that I wouldn’t be effective in a game tonight when my team really needed me. For the second straight game, we were playing without one of our Americans. It was only this past Friday that he was able to get out of his apartment and make it to practice, a full ten days after his nose surgery. He was in no shape to play today, so we would again go with a six-man rotation against one of the most potent offensive teams in the league. Fun stuff. And I failed to mention earlier that I had to drive Tanya to the airport this morning at 3 AM, then was unable to go back to sleep for the rest of the day save for about an hour right before our shootaround.

We began the game pretty strong; actually both teams did. The first quarter was one of the fastest I’ve ever played, both in time and in speed on the court. Pesaro loves to run, and I think they smelled weakness when they saw our six-man rotation. They seemed to run at every opportunity, hoping to wear us down over the course of the game. This is how shallow our bench was for the game: yesterday we lost our second guy off the bench to injury, and this kid was born in 1990. So we couldn’t even rely on a kid that has yet to get his driver’s license. Ouch.

Though I felt sluggish, I knew that I would have to overcome my loaginess if we were to stay in the game. My matchup for the night was one of the best centers in the league, a former national team member for a very strong Italian squad. He would be a tough cover.

By the second quarter, I realized that in addition to their running game, Pesaro was employing another plan to beat us. They had obviously seen tapes of our games and noticed that I’ve been hitting the boards at both ends with some force. They seemed to want to keep my offensive rebounds to a minimum, as I was boxed out by every single member of their team on various possessions, and sometimes by two and on one occasion, three players. While I appreciated their respect for my rebounding ability, I wanted very badly to tell them “Stop that.” It was really frustrating. Because our offensive structure dictates that I’m often 15+ feet away from the basket, I have to get a running start for any offensive rebound I grab. Pesaro’s team acted like an NFL offensive line, protecting rebounds like a quarterback. I tried every move I could, spinning, swim moves, and just plain trying to run them over like a train. In the end, I was only able to grab three offensive rebounds, but my efforts helped my team overall. With the opposition’s attention set on me, my teammates were able to get to the hoop unobstructed. As a team, we grabbed seventeen offensive rebounds, a healthy amount by any standard. And while our team was helped out, these aggressive tactics hurt me; literally. I took a strong elbow to the nose, and Old Faithful erupted. It’s a good thing our uniforms are red, and the blood that flowed out just blended in with the fabric. This happened in the last two minutes of the third quarter. I was subbed out, told the doctor to stop the bleeding, and told him I wanted to be back in the game by the start of the fourth quarter. And I was, with a healthy amount of gauze stuffed up my nostril. As I’ve broken my nose five times in my life, I’m guessing this is number six. Even if it is, though, I’m not getting it fixed. I’ve sworn off overseas surgery after my teammate’s deviated septum debacle.

Pesaro was incredibly strong offensively. Every player they have can score in a variety of ways. Some of our guys were simply overwhelmed, and our defense broke down. Five of their players finished in double figures. They shot 60% from the field, and hit nine threes in the game. It seemed like every time we put a run together, they would hit a three, and we would be back to square one. In the end, they would be too strong. Even with one of my teammates scoring 34 points, and me finishing with a line of nine points, 15 rebounds, and three blocks, we lost 82-69.

Though any loss is tough to take, I come away from this game thinking about the positives. We hung with one of the best teams in the league until the final minutes without our best player and one of our subs. We were playing on the road, against not only the team but also the refs and the hostile fans. I think this game is a good learning experience for younger players, and next time, when we play Pesaro at home, I think we might see a different result. For now, I’m going to put an icebag on my nose, and get some much needed rest. It’s a long season, and next Sunday we have a chance to get back on the right track.
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Shorthanded Success [Oct. 15th, 2006|01:35 pm]
Tonight we played our third game of the year, but had to do this one without one of our two American players, the guy who I think is the most talented person on our team. He broke his nose in our game last week against Montecatini, and the surgery to correct the fracture went worse than planned. Note to self: don’t ever, ever, get surgery done overseas, no matter how simple the procedure may be. His absence left us with a six-man rotation against a very talented squad from Reggio Calabria, which boasted a center with the highest PPG average for the position in the league. My work would be cut out for me, and for the rest of the squad as well. Teams that play with only one American aren’t expected to win. When your team has already won almost as many games as we were supposed to for the entire season, you definitely are supposed to just lay down and take one in the jaw. But we entered the game hoping for the best. With a group of young players hungry for success, sometimes adversity breeds the willingness to go the extra mile for victory.

Tonight’s game had some special meaning for me personally. Tanya is visiting this week, and it will be the first time in my professional career that someone I know has watched me play a game overseas. I wanted to impress, or at least just not fall on my face. In the opening minutes, though, it looked like I would do just that (fall on my face). I picked up a quick foul, and on my first touch I turned the ball over on what I thought was a questionable traveling violation. A timeout was called, and I went in to the huddle knowing I needed to regroup.

I came out and started going to work. In the next few minutes I had grabbed five rebounds and scored six points, with the last basket being an (slightly) emphatic dunk off of a great look from my point guard. We were winning, I was playing well, and the crowd was really into it. We went into halftime with a seven-point lead, 44-37. We had put up a whole lot of points on the board, but had let them score too many. Already signs of fatigue were showing from the lack of manpower on our squad.

The third quarter began as it had in our two previous games- we came out slow and let our opponents back into the game. I chalk it up to our overall inexperience as a squad, we don’t yet know how to go for the kill, and put teams away. If we come out of halftime and really get things going, most teams will fold their tents and we can cruise to victory. But this team apparently wants to do things difficultly, and so instead of an easy victory, we would face a tough second half, with Reggio Calabria having all the momentum.

In the fourth quarter, things got really tight. We battled back and fourth, and the lead changed hands a number of times. It seemed like any time one team would pull away, the other team would come back with a big three or some play that would keep it close. It seemed that at some points our fatigue was causing problems, and we had to dig deep into our bench to get our regulars a short rest. At one point in the game, I was the oldest player on the court for our team by six years; no one else was over the age of 18.

In the end, it was our youngest player that made a big difference. At age 16 (16!), this kid is a good player. He’s the coach’s son, and I think he’ll have a very long and productive career. He hit a huge three for us to finally turn the momentum back in our direction, and also played great defense on one of their better players. With his help, and solid play down the stretch from the rest of our players, we ended up coming out on top, with a 72-67 victory. I finished with eight points, 16 rebounds, and 3 blocks. It took me ten minutes to get off the court after the final buzzer, as the fans just surrounded me and the rest of the team to celebrate the victory. For them, it was extremely unexpected. But then again, that’s how this season has been going. Expect the unexpected. If we keep playing this way, instead of the people talking about how to keep us from being last in the league, they’ll be talking about how we’re going to do in the playoffs. Easy, now, people.
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"Dinner" Party [Oct. 12th, 2006|01:33 pm]
Tonight a group of our fans have invited the players to a dinner at a local restaurant to celebrate the beginning of the new season. Part of me thinks that they are only doing this because we are currently 2-0 when everyone thought we’d be 0-for the season, but that’s the cynic in me talking. Or, maybe, as my past experience has shown, the realist. Either way, a group of players would be joining a larger group of fans for a thirty-person strong dinner party.

Two players from our team didn’t make the journey tonight with us, for personal reasons. One of our Americans broke his nose in the last game, and was still recovering from his surgery yesterday to repair the fracture. Also we would be without one of our American-Italians, who skipped the dinner because it was the last night of his mother’s vacation with him, and he had to drive her to the airport early the next morning. So that left me with one native-English speaking person to sit next to, and as I wanted to have a little conversation with dinner, I took a seat adjacent to our other American.

The dinner began with a toast to the players for good luck with the season. During the season, and especially in the middle of the week during the season, I keep my drinking to a minimum. I used to drink a lot in my first few years of college, but have curbed that habit as I am unable to function on the basketball court after a hard night of drinking. Some guys can do it, hell some guys go out four or five nights a week and still produce unbelievable stats. My liver, for better or worse, is not as strong as theirs, so I shy away from alcohol when I’m playing. So I figured this toast would be one of the very few tastes of wine I would have all night. But then things kind of got out of hand.

During the games, the fans have a variety of chants that they yell out whenever a player does something positive. They are at it all game, and rarely, if ever are they not yelling, waving, or clapping; they are always making some sort of noise. For each player they have a unique chanting/clapping routine. For instance, for one of our guys, they have a chant where they say his name in the tune of the “Meet the Flintstones” song. It’s quite weird. For me they have a series of nine claps, at the end of which they yell out “Williams!” But because of their accent, it sounds more like “Wheel-yoms”, which is comical in its own way. In addition to this chant, when they say my name, they raise both arms in a quasi-Nazi salute, as if some Germans were yelling “Heil Hitler”, but with both arms raised instead of just one. Now I attribute this display less in reference to my Aryan features and more to them just looking for a show of unity. I’m pretty sure they gave up on Hitler in 1944 as they switched to the winning side (big surprise), and any remnants of Nazism is coincidental. Moving on.

The whole point (if there is one) of the previous paragraph is that the fans were yelling the same chants in the restaurant as they do during the game. Now this was a group of 25 fans in a small, quiet restaurant. No that they cause a scene, or anything. I asked a teammate why they were chanting, and he told me that every time they did your chant, you would have to take a drink of wine. And not just a sip; a whole glass. That sounds like trouble. Let’s go listen to some records. I asked the same teammate how many times this was expected to happen during the course of the night. He said nothing, and just smiled. This same teammate would later drink an entire bottle of wine in one shot when his name was chanted. He told me that, to him, wine was like water. Later in the night he would take a faceplant in the middle of the room. Apparently he had over-hydrated.

By the time the first course arrived, my chant had been yelled five times. Boy, that escalated quickly. Damn peer pressure. By the end of the night I lost count of how many times they had chanted for me; the only thing I knew was that tomorrow was going to be a long, long day. We parted after what (I think, not really sure) was a great meal, and I made it home safely. It’s safe to say that if the fans want to have any more of these dinners in the middle of the week, I may have to politefully decline. Maybe some guys can do it, but I know tomorrow I’m going to be like the walking dead, not a good way to be when you do what I do for a living.
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Injury and Victory [Oct. 9th, 2006|02:18 pm]
The past week has provided me with a few interesting experiences. Unfortunately, they stemmed from an injury I sustained in last week’s game against Casale. About an hour after the match, my twice surgically repaired right knee began to throb with pain. With every step, it felt like an ice pick had been jabbed into the outside of my knee. I hoped that it was just aches and pains from the game, but something told me it was not.

I saw the team doctor late Monday night, who gave me a few diagnostic tests I had undergone prior to my other surgeries. He performed one test which, when administered, gave me a shooting pain right inside of my knee. I knew from previous experience that this test was given to see if any damage was done to the meniscus inside the knee. Apparently, there was.

For those that don’t know, the meniscus cartilage in your knee acts as a buffer system between your femur (upper leg bone) and fibula and tibia (lower leg bones). The cartilage cushions the impact between the bones caused by motions such as walking, running, and jumping. Arthritis is caused by the breakdown and wearing out of this cartilage, so the feeling one gets when his cartilage is torn is similar to that of an arthritic joint, though often it is more excruciating due to the sudden trauma caused by the injury. The two surgeries I’ve had in the past include one to repair torn cartilage as well as one to shave off a piece. The latter is considered a less serious injury, but that’s only in the short run. In the long run, the less cartilage you have, the more likely it is that you’ll develop arthritis, especially with all the damage that comes with the territory of playing basketball at this high level. Pretty much what I’m saying is that my knees can take little more damage if I want to make it past my 35th birthday without needing a cane to assist me in walking.

So anyways, I didn’t practice this week until Friday. That’s the first day that the knee felt quasi-normal, and the day after I had an MRI taken to determine the damage inflicted on my joint. I had asked for the MRI to be taken as quickly as possible, but I had to wait four days for the test. When it was finally done, it took all of ten minutes, and I had my answer in an hour after that. The team told me there was nothing wrong, so I went to sleep Thursday night feeling better about the situation.

But wait, were they really telling me the truth? I wanted to see the test results for myself, so I had the hospital email me a copy of the MRI images. I’m no doctor, but I’ve had enough of these tests to know generally what a tear looks like, and to my dismay, I saw what appeared to be one in a cross-section picture of my knee. So now what? I had a meeting with our team doctor, who showed me the radiologist’s opinion of the MRI. There had been, in fact, a tear to my lateral meniscus cartilage. So the rosy picture that was painted the night before was not completely accurate. When the team told me everything was fine, they were relaying the doctor’s opinion that although there was a tear, he didn’t recommend surgery to repair the tear. Believe me, there’s a world of difference between “everything’s fine” and “the doctor doesn’t recommend surgery”. It’s hard to always tell whose interest the team doctors over here are serving. You want to believe they follow the Hippocratic oath of do no harm, but the thought remains in the back of your mind that this oath is to the team’s bottom line and not your own health. And that’s a sad thought to have.

I ended up having a long talk with the doctor, and in the end we decided that I would play on the knee, and if it hurt, we would reevaluate the problem. I thought this was fair, and I also knew that a second, American opinion is just an email away. So the past two days I’ve practiced with the team, conscious of the condition of my knee the entire time. This makes it more difficult to play, as all of your concentration is not focused on the task at hand, but it’s often said that the hardest part of coming back from any injury is the mental aspect; some players just won’t trust their bodies to perform at their pre-injury level.

So today I began the game against Montecattini knowing I would not be at 100%. Still, our coach seemed to think that me at 75% was better than our other options at the center positions playing at full capacity. While we have a talented first six, our bench is thinner than Kate Moss on a coke binge, so injuries will play a big role in what we can accomplish this year.

We started the game like we did last week against this veteran Montecattini squad. They had beaten the team last week, Pesaro, that everyone expected to finish first in the league. We knew that this would not be an easy game, so we wanted to jump out to an early lead, get the crowd involved, and not get involved in the half-court game these veterans wanted to play. So we ran the fast break, and got some easy buckets early. I was having a good game on the boards, and collected eight in the first half. I also dished out a couple assists, as Montecattini was looking to pressure the ball whenever it came into the post. We cruised into halftime with an eleven-point cushion.

The second half got a little messy. While I only had one foul in the first half, I picked up three of the quickest fouls of my career in the third quarter. Before the clock had run down to the eight-minute mark, I was sitting on the bench with four fouls. All three that were called were inconceivable to me. I hate complaining about referees, but these calls were literally comical. But the end result was that I was sitting on the bench, watching our lead slowly slip away until Montecattini eventually began to beat us.

I didn’t get back into the game until there were four minutes left in the game. I had sat for over fourteen minutes of game time, which is an absolute eternity for a player. At this point, the score was tied, and I knew it would take a great effort by all involved to get us back in the lead. And that’s what happened. Personally, I scored five points and grabbed four rebounds in this time, and the rest of the team did a great job on both ends of the floor to get the job done. While Montecattini’s defense had stymied us in the third quarter, we now scored at will. Though I fouled out with 20 seconds left on another phantom call, at that point the game was well in hand. We won by a score of 71-62. Now, we’re sitting pretty at 2-0 on the season, and people are already talking playoffs. To go from no to great expectations is a tricky thing. While our record may show strength, at this point we more likely resemble a house of cards. This past week nearly showed how quickly that house can fall. I’m just glad that at this point, we are (and I am) still in one piece.
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And It Begins... [Oct. 1st, 2006|07:48 pm]
Yesterday afternoon we embarked on a three-hour road trip that would bring us to the city of Casale, home to our first opponent of the regular season. Casale had been tabbed as a top-four team in this league, and had beaten our squad (minus me and one American) handily in an exhibition game a few weeks ago. But all of this happened before they lost one of their more valuable players, Julian Sensley, due to personal reasons. Once an NBA first-round draft prospect, he found himself at the beginning of the year in A2 Italy, which is not the NBA, but still a very good league to play in. Earlier this week, though, Casale released a public statement saying that Sensley had gone home, apparently to be with his brother who is about to go to jail. The story sounds pretty strange to me, but either way, he would not be playing against us, which means that their side is not as strong now, and we would have a good opportunity to steal a game on the road, starting the season off on the right foot.

We arrived in Casale at 8 PM last night, and checked into a hotel near the city center. From what I could see, Casale is not a big tourist destination. The city looked somewhat decrepit, and even at night the surroundings appeared rundown and in need of maintenance. Our hotel did nothing to dispel my thoughts that this was a second-rate city. I was told that I would share a room with another American, which was no big deal. A lot of times people stay to themselves during the season, but the road is where a team really bonds, as everyone is thrown together into one spot. It’s a good way to get to know your teammates.

When I walked into the room I was supposed to share with my teammate, though, I had second thoughts about the benefits of team bonding. The room was only slightly bigger than my apartment bathroom, and there was but one bed that seemed to be fit for a man of my size. Either the club had made a mistake, or they expected my roommate and I to get a little, shall we say, too close. I surveyed the room to see that, in fact, there was another “bed”, if you want to call it that, tucked behind a closet on the far wall of the room. I say tucked because the bed was so small that it literally was almost hidden from view behind this modest closet. Basically, if you put some vertical bars on it, it could double as a medium sized baby’s crib. Not the optimal lodging conditions for a man of my or my roommate’s stature (he is 6’9”).

The room itself was a little dodgy, as the molding of the door fell off when we closed it for the first time. A short time later I walked into the bathroom to see a tub with no shower curtain. I think I last took a bath eight years ago. While in the bathroom I used the toilet, which I quickly found was not bolted onto the floor. It really gave new meaning to the phrase “don’t rock the boat”. An inch further and I would have hit the ground with a mess all around me. But my balance held, and a calamity was averted. I immediately notified my roommate of this plumbing blunder, so that he would not suffer the fate I foresaw.

Back to the bed situation. We had one decent-sized bed, and one baby crib sans-bars. Since we are of similar size, we did the only gentlemanly thing; we flipped for it. In order to have objectivity, a teammate flipped the coin, and my roommate called it in the air. He won. Let’s just say that I slept about as much last night as I played in today’s game.

Ah, the game. The real reason I’m writing today’s entry (more or less). As I said before, the team we would face today is not the same one Casale expected to suit up for tonight. But sometimes this works in a team’s favor; a wounded dog is often more dangerous in a fight. We got to the gym 75 minutes before the game, and already fans were lining up outside the arena waiting for the doors to be opened. Casale has a solid fan base, and they expected a full crowd for the first game.

I really wish that people had an opportunity to see an Italian crowd in action at a sporting event. The closest thing is seeing the Cameron Crazies at Duke jump around for the entire game, but I still don’t think that compares. While the Blue Devil fans just chant the whole time, these people sing songs, yell “F*** you” and other expletives at players and opposing fans, and bang drums and other instruments for the entire game, even when their own team is shooting free throws. I’ve mentioned in the past how stupid some fans can be, and how I can’t understand how people could put so much of their lives into their teams, basically living and dying by how their squads played from week-to-week. But as a player, walking out onto the court (in my case for the first time in a real Italian game) gets your adrenaline pumping. For the first time in a while, I actually felt tingly when I ran out for our warm-ups. I actually said to one of our players who wouldn’t be playing in the game, “this is why I still play.” And it’s true. I love gameday, as every player does. Especially when you are playing in front of so many people who care so much about what you do.

I’ve played a few times in front of almost 20,000 people before during my college career. While today we would only play in front of 2,500, I can tell you that the atmosphere here was as electric as any crowd I’ve played before in my life. Yes, obviously when I played at school in front of family, friends, and people I cared about I felt like I was playing for them as much as I was playing for myself. I had never felt that way last year when I was playing. I felt almost emotionless at times going into games, missing that feeling of playing with pride and passion. Today, though, the feeling I had was close to that which I experienced while playing at school. It may have not been exactly the same, but the energy the fans brought to the game made the atmosphere feel like I was actually playing for something.

As we were getting ready for the game, I sized up the competition. Earlier in the day we watched game film of this team, and from what I saw, they played hard and fast. They ran on every possession, and played with a reckless abandon that generally comes with having such a young team. My matchup would be against a center who had played at Louisville, and was described as the Ben Wallace of this league. Though not much of an offensive threat, he hit the boards like an animal, utilizing his speed and athleticism to outwork his opponents for errant shots. I would have to be mindful of him as I went to defensive rebound, as his main source of offensive output came through putback dunks.

During the warm-ups, I got a lesson in keeping alert at all times. I was shooting near the basket, getting ready for the game with a series of short jumpers. Casale had employed some kids that couldn’t have been older than nine to be ball boys, to retrieve our errant shots and pass us the ball. Now, these kids are young and aren’t always aware of what’s going on. There was one kid in particular that kept feeding me the ball, but after about eight shots I missed badly and the ball went off into the corner. I put down my hands as my rebounder went chasing after the ball. Bad idea. I saw the ball too late, and felt it’s impact before I could do anything to get out of the way. A shot of pain ran up through my midsection, and nausea immediately set in. I had been hit in the testicles. Hard. I hit the deck like a sack of potatoes, and meagerly crawled over to the side of the court, where a teammate was sitting and laughing, as he had watched the whole scene unfold. It would be five minutes before I re-entered the court, still feeling the sting of the literal shot to my manhood. The game was about to begin, so I put aside the pain and tried to stay focused as we went through player introductions.

Though they were a tough team, we started the game on a 10-0 break. I had four of these points, as the first shot I took was from the top of the key, a 20-foot heave as I trailed the fast break. Nothing but net. I thought it was a three pointer, but later I would find out that I had stepped on the three-point line. Two points instead of three, but I had shown the opposition that I could shoot it (occasionally) from the outside, so they would have to play me honestly while I was outside, which generally opens up other offensive opportunities. The other shot I made in this sequence was a dunk off of a pass from one of our guards. Things were going well for us from the beginning, and we continued this good play throughout the first half. Defense was what was keeping us going, as we gave up only 29 total points at the break. We were controlling the pace of the game, limiting their fast break opportunities.

The second half was more of the same. Though they closed the gap to within three early in the third quarter, we pushed the lead to ten by the end of the period. Then all hell broke loose. We went to a zone defense in the fourth quarter, as one of our extremely talented Americans had just picked up his fourth foul. Our coach wisely wanted to hide him in a zone, and though we had never practiced this type of defense, every person to ever play the game knows how to play a basic 2-3 set.

Casale was so confused they did not know what to do. They were shooting desperation threes with only moments left on the 24-second clock, and we were scooping up the rebounds. Up to this point, I only had one defensive rebound. This wasn’t due to lack of effort, but more because of my assignment. I was to keep their center off of the offensive glass, and I ended up boxing him out on every possession. I ended up succeeding in my job, as he finished the game with zero offensive rebounds. In fact, at the end of the game our point guard would finish as our leading rebounder, with 11. Trust me, that will not happen again. As we went to zone, though, balls seemed to be coming my way. I grabbed four consecutive defensive boards, and this sequence spelled the end for Casale. While they were stymied on defense, we were scoring on every possession. We pushed the lead to nearly thirty before the last few minutes, when we substituted for some guys on the end of the bench who never play. We ended up winning by a score of 77-54; not bad for a team whose only preseason goal was to not finish in the bottom two places of the league.

In the locker room after the game, everyone was happy, though our coach reminded us that this was only the first of a thirty-game season. It will be a long road ahead, but right now we are savoring this initial victory. I ended the game with 10 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks. Not a bad first game statistically, but more importantly we won when not many gave us a chance.

As we were exiting the locker room for the bus, I ran into a small man who greeted me by saying, in a thick Italian accent, “congratulations”. I smiled and said thank you, and as the players were filing out and blocking my exit, I stuck around for a few moments and exchanged pleasantries with the man, who was all smiles. I thought he was just a fan of the team, and wondered how, in fact, he had gotten into the locker room. Then I heard my coach say, “Agents are all bad people, right Luigi?” Oh man, this guy was my Italian agent. The same guy I had met (and hated) last year in Italy. For whatever reason, I didn’t recognize him. I hope that he didn’t realize this fact, and from that point in the conversation I made it seem like everything was normal, though the entire time I was laughing to myself about my not knowing who he was at the start. He seems to be doing a better job this year, and hopefully his efforts will continue throughout the season. I talked to him for a few more minutes, then grabbed three bags of ice and headed to the bus. One game down, twenty-nine more to go. But I had to smile even though I was hurting. Winning is the ultimate painkiller.
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Business Ethics 101 [Sep. 28th, 2006|01:04 pm]
Today we had a team meeting with a representative from GIBA, the Italian player’s union. Now, they may sound like a big deal, but, trust me, they are no Teamsters. If I’ve learned one thing from my experiences it’s that players, especially foreigners in Italy, have no rights, union or no union. When I was on the Irish team, I heard a number of players who’ve played here say that they’re still owed money by various teams they’ve played for in this country. One guy has been owed money for seven years, has won multiple court cases backing his claim, and yet the team gives him the finger concerning the money and continues to compete in the league like nothing ever happened. Another player was going back to a team whom he’d signed a two-year deal with that still owed him money for last year. So he’s already in the hole to start this season. It’s ridiculous, but that’s the way it goes over here. It’s sad, but you just have to take it if you’re going to play.

But today, the representative shed some light on a few concepts I previously had no knowledge of. First off, when you play here, you have two contracts. First, a league contract, and second, what they call an image contract. The league contract is what the team shows the government as to how much they are paying you. This is your “official” contract. The club has to pay taxes on this money to the Italian government, and these taxes are credited to a player who is playing outside of his country of residence. For example, since I am a US citizen, on April 15 I will file my income taxes, and I’ll receive a credit for taxes paid while I’m in Italy, so I should have no debt to the government (though I’ll also receive no refund). The image contract, on the other hand, is what the team agrees to pay you when you sign the deal in the first place. It’s the amount that I signed up for when I received the offer while still in the US. The team pays no tax on the difference between the image contract and the league contract. This is referred to as “black money”, as the government is in the dark about it. Ken Lay could learn a thing or two from these Italians about cooking the books.

Now, before today I knew nothing about this. I thought the contract I signed in the US was a valid document. Today I found out that it’s as good as toilet paper in the eyes of the law. This brought me back to the first day of my stay here in Imola. The team threw a bunch of papers in front of me and asked me to sign. Though I read each one before signing, there was one that I didn’t understand. It’s header read “simple contract”, but there were no dollar amounts assigned where there needed to be. I asked why this was the case, and was told that they would be filled in later, but everything was in order. As I was still loopy from my flight as well as trusting in my new employers, I signed it. Now I find out today that they could have conceivably put $1 as my monthly salary. If there was ever a dispute between me and the team in a court of law, this would be the binding contract, and I would walk out of the courtroom with next-to-nothing. Once again, I never underestimate my own stupidity.

Before I got too mad at myself, a teammate told me that this was business as usual in Italy. It’s the only way that teams can afford to keep their clubs afloat, as the tax rate in the country is so egregiously high. It all just seemed a little fishy to me. But then again, most things around here make me queasy.

Besides the messy contract situation, the Italian federation has implemented a few odd rules and regulations that don’t do a whole lot to benefit the player. For instance, the team can use a player’s likeness for anything, i.e. shoe sales, ticket sales, whatever the case may be, and the player gets nothing. Imagine if, in the mid-80s, Nike approached Michael Jordan and said, “We’re going to use your likeness, and you’ll have to appear in as many ads as we want to promote these shoes, and you won’t see a cent, but your team will be swimming in cash.” Think MJ would go along with such a deal? Methinks not. And it’s not like I’m about to cash in on a shoe deal over here, but some players could definitely earn extra cash for hawking certain products. But it’s not to be. This rule, along with 95% of the others, represents the team’s best interest.

It’s a sad, but true set of circumstances. But for me, it’s a valuable learning experience. When I’m done with basketball, and get out working in the real world, I’ll know how to and not to handle a business, as well as customers and clients better now after dealing with these people. What I’ve taken away from this is pretty much do the exact opposite of what these teams do, and you’ll be OK. You learn something new everyday.
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Every Breath You Take [Sep. 25th, 2006|01:02 pm]
This morning I had my second doctor’s visit in a week, this time to prove to the World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) that the inhaler I take for my asthma is a medical necessity, and not used because I am the basketball equivalent to the Stay-Puffed Marshmallow Man. I had my first asthmatic episode when I was eight years old, and ever since I’ve carried an inhaler of Albuterol around with me, as the medicine inside would help me if I encountered breathing problems.

Asthma is a condition that is much more dangerous than most people realize. Millions of Americans are afflicted with the malady, and every year thousands die from asthma-related problems. As someone who has, on certain occasions, lost the ability to breathe, I can say it is a frightening experience, one that I wouldn’t wish on my greatest enemy. I can only describe it as someone applying a tourniquet to your chest; every breath you take is laborious and there is actually pain on every inhalation. Not much fun.

But anyways, my visit to the doctor today was to get a certificate telling WADA that my inhaler was for medicinal purposes. WADA, the same agency that tests Olympians and athletes like Lance Armstrong, has very stringent, and some say stupid, rules and regulations. Let’s say, for example, you have a cold. If you take a Sudafed for relief, you are just as guilty of doping in WADA’s eyes as some musclehead walking into a testing facility with back-acne, an enlarged head, man-boobs and a cartoon-sized needle sticking out of his arm with the words “high-powered steroids” written on its label. Mr. Sudafed can expect an immediate suspension, and sometimes dismissal from competition. This can lead to losses in an athlete’s income and more importantly, reputation. As for my medication, Albuterol, it is one of the most scrutinized drugs on WADA’s list, because the organization feels like some athletes who claim to be asthmatics aren’t really afflicted with the condition, rather they use the drug to give themselves more lung capacity. They’re a skeptical bunch, so today I had to see the team doctor, who I figured would look at the prescription I brought with me, see that I had an inhaler, and tell WADA that I could use my inhaler. That’s what team doctors do, right?

Wrong. The guy has responsibilities, and if there was ever a problem, his ass would be on the line. So he needed to run some tests. He told me that the tests would simply check my lung capacity. Quick and painless. And the first few tests were just that. The last one, though, was anything but.

The last test consisted of me inserting what amounted to a pipe in my mouth. This pipe was filled with a medicine that I would have to inhale in five-second installments. After each inhalation, I would have to hold my breath, and then exhale to see how the medicine was affecting my lung capacity. I didn’t ask what the medicine was, as I figured it was similar to what I had in my inhaler; something to help me breathe.

Wrong again. Instead of opening my airway, this medicine constricted the alveoli in my lungs, causing drastically reduced lung capacity. The doctor had induced an asthma attack, the worst of my life. I couldn’t breathe. I got scared. Quickly. In a state of panic such as this, when one fears that his life may be in danger, man’s most primal instinct kicks in- survival. Now, I’m not saying that I thought I was going to die, but at the same time, as I explained before, not being able to breathe is one hell of a scary feeling. I knew what had in the past alleviated my breathing problems, and I was lucky to have it in my possession today: my inhaler. I stood up from my seat, and fished around in my pockets for the pump. Finally, I grabbed it, not caring that at that point I didn’t know if the drug in my inhaler would negatively interact with the drug I had just inhaled. I don’t think anyone could have stopped me at that point, anyway.

With the first puff, my lungs began to feel relief, though not much as I could barely suck in enough medication to help my situation. I took another hit, and could feel the vice around my lungs begin to open. My third dose of the drug may have been excessive, but I felt it was necessary. I felt light-headed as I sat back down and regained my breath. The whole sequence probably took less than thirty seconds, but it felt like an eternity.

The doctor came back with the test results, and told me I had asthma. No shit, Sherlock. How about a little heads-up next time if you plan on suffocating me? If I were a lesser-minded person, I probably would have physically assaulted the guy for the lack of notification. But I didn’t, and I took his letter to WADA out the door with me.

So now, in the eyes of the sporting world, I’m officially an asthmatic. Now if I can just circumvent all those steroid rules, I may be able to call myself an athlete.
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It's Been Too Long [Sep. 24th, 2006|12:54 pm]
Sorry for the delay, folks, but this is Italy, which is more or less a Third World country when it comes to technology, and this is the first time I've had to post to the Journal. Below is a compilation of the last three weeks of my activities.

September 9, 2006 Romania Game

Following a heartbreaking loss to Switzerland, we used this week to regroup as a team, to correct mistakes we made in the game in the hope that our fate in today’s game would be different. We practiced well for the most part, and we had high hopes going into today’s game. On Thursday of this week my coach pulled another player and me aside and told us that he thought we were the future of Irish basketball. I had to wonder to myself how I felt about that statement. I mean, obviously it’s nice to hear that I will be an important part of the team for years to come, but what is the state of Irish basketball when that title is partially placed on a guy that played in six different countries in his first year of being a professional? I guess I’ll just go with it, and do everything I can to make this program successful.

Tonight we played Romania, a tough, experienced team that is known for their dirty play. We had extra incentive to play well tonight, as this game was nationally televised on the main sports network. This is the Irish equivalent of the World Series of Duck Pin Bowling being shown on NBC in prime time. Irish basketball just does not get this kind of exposure. On a list of public appreciation or knowledge, basketball comes in no better than seventh in popularity, and that’s being generous. It pales in comparison to soccer, rugby, Gaelic football (the national sport), hurling (a sport that was once described to me by a local as a cross between field hockey, lacrosse, and ax murdering), golf, and cricket. Yes, cricket gets more respect and recognition than basketball in Ireland. But today we had a chance to change all of that. We had been given a national forum, with possible viewership reaching into the tens or even hundreds of thousands. We were excited, and hoped to put Irish basketball on the map.

Unfortunately, we came out flat for the second consecutive game. Our passes weren’t crisp, our shots weren’t falling, and our defense was lax. We soon found ourselves on the wrong side of a one-sided game. My play in the first half was limited, but productive. I entered the game with 1:37 left in the first quarter, and grabbed an offensive rebound on my first possession, then got fouled going up for a layup off of a beautiful interior pass from a teammate on the second. I hit both free throws, and was subbed out with 29 seconds left on the clock. I wasn’t sure why at the time this move would be made, but I went with it.

The second quarter was one of the worst I have ever seen. Down ten after one quarter, I felt like we would come out firing in the second period, determined to not let the Romanians push us around on our home court. But it was not to be. During one stretch, we committed five consecutive turnovers. They converted each time, and by halftime we found ourselves down by twenty.

Second verse, same as the first was the theme for the second half. We couldn’t do anything right, and at one point found ourselves down 29 points. Now, Romania is good; but they’re not that good. They were dominating every facet of the game. We had but one bright sequence in the fourth quarter, when we cut the lead to twelve, but we ultimately lost the game by nineteen.

Embarrassment was the only feeling that each of the team members felt after the game. Collectively we had one of those “what the hell just happened” moments, and everyone just shook their head. Our coach stated verbally what everyone in the locker room felt, as nary a word was spoken between the players before his post-game speech. Afterwards, our deer-in-the-headlights expressions faded, and we were able to talk about what was wrong. Basically, everything. We didn’t execute, we didn’t communicate; we were soft. Personally, I only played a minute and a half, as I got into the game late in the third quarter. So much for the future of Irish basketball.

The one good thing that came out of the game was that we all vowed never to be beaten like that again, especially on our home floor. We had embarrassed ourselves, our program, our fans, and our heritage. That may sound melodramatic, but it’s the truth. And that’s how everyone felt. Some of our biggest supporters were unable to look us in the eyes after the game. Normally I would attribute that to them being fair weather fans, but there hasn’t always been fair weather in Irish basketball, yet they have been there through and through. Tonight, though, no words of condolence were deserved, and none were given.

We knew that the only people that could fix the situation was the players. A trip to the countryside made by a few players was cancelled, as they felt that time would be better spent working out the kinks in our game. We know that our game against Cyprus is a must-win if we are to have any hopes of winning our pool. We would go out tonight and try to drown our embarrassment in a few pints of Guinness, but tomorrow we would try to regain our spirits, and start rebuilding the team.

We hung out at the hotel bar tonight, listening to the resident lounge singer belt out Rat Pack tunes as we dissected tonight’s game and planned for next week’s. There was a wedding going on in our hotel at the time, and some of the guests were in and out of the bar during the course of the night. They were also in and out of the bathroom, as we would later find out they were snorting lines off the toilet seats like Chevy Chase during his more outlandish snow blowing days.

Just after midnight, after this group of wedding-goers entered the double-digit hour mark of partying (an unofficial bender), one of the women in the group asked one of my teammates to buy her and her friends a round of drinks. His response, taken from the movie “Barbershop 2”, went like this: “Sure, so let me get this straight. That’ll be three orders of hell no, two sides of ask yo mamma, and a large cup of Negro please.” Apparently this Irish lass has never seen this Oscar-worthy movie, and went on a rampage, yelling expletives at him, and acting in a generally unlady-like manner.

Turns out this girl had a Napoleon-esque boyfriend who happened to be into the bathroom blow sessions, and he came up to my teammate demanding an apology. He brought with him four of his friends, as small guys with chips on their shoulders often do. Now, I’m watching this from about fifteen feet away, and it doesn’t look good. So, I did what any teammate would do, and grabbed two of my guys and went to diffuse the situation. What basically happened was that I maneuvered my way in between the boyfriend and my comically-inclined teammate, and parted the two groups like Moses with my seven-plus foot wingspan. Only one move was made by the opposition, as a belligerently drunk and high guy tried to push my teammate. I gave him a stiff-arm, though, and stopped him in his tracks. I think this helped to diffuse the situation, as they backed off not long after. I’m just glad that I had a few large teammates there to help out with the situation, as even coked-out, Napoleon-complexed guys do have a few fleeting moments of common sense during their highs which tell them they are in the wrong.

A fitting ending to a terrible night, I guess. The only way it could have gotten worse was if we had gotten into a legitimate fight. I’m guessing we need to spend a little less time at the pub and a little more time on the court if we aer going to turn this thing around. And this week, that’s what we’ll have to do.

September 16, 2006 Cyprus Game

Must win. Do or die. All or nothing. We’ve all heard these sports clichés meant to motivate us into giving it our all for the good of the team. Tonight, though, these sayings rang true. If we lost this game, we might as well not even show up next summer for the remainder of the competition. There would be no point, as we would not be able to move on.

After our game against Romania last week, we were given three days off. Normally, after a loss like that, a team would be practicing the next day. We could have just partied on these days off, and worried about getting ready for the game come our first official practice on Wednesday. But as professionals, we couldn’t do that. On Sunday, the majority of the team went to the local fitness center to get in a workout. We didn’t pick up a ball until Monday, when we spent two hours in the gym playing half and full court 3-on-3. It was as much about getting back to just playing as it was about getting in better shape. During our first two games, we looked like robots on offense. You could tell that we were consciously thinking about the plays we were running, which is never a good thing when you are playing. So on Monday and Tuesday, we just played. Played like we were kids in the park, trying out different things, being creative, having fun. Basketball in its purest form- just a bunch of guys picking sides, throwing the ball up and going toe-to-toe in a game where the only thing you’re playing for is pride in yourself and in your makeshift team.

We needed those days to get into a mindset of positive thinking. Our practices this week were better than they’ve been at any time during this process. Everyone felt good about our chances tonight, and everyone knew that we needed a result in our favor.

I saw the Cyprus team this morning after our shootaround. We had watched them on film during the week, but seeing them in person made me laugh. Cyprus is an island in the Mediterranean Sea that is physically close to Turkey and Lebanon, but is culturally similar to Greece. The reason I laughed when I saw them was that the entire team embodied every negative stereotype one thinks about when he thinks about a Greek. Mullets…everywhere. Greasy guys with greasy smiles, this team looked like a group of slimy used car salesmen. I probably shouldn’t say such things, as Cyprus has a league on its island that can be lucrative to play in, but I have to be honest. They were hilarious, and I’m sure they thought equally as bad things about me. But I digress.

Tonight’s game was not televised (surprise surprise) but there were still quite a few fans in the arena, in fact it seemed close to capacity. We even got off to a good start, gaining a small lead early in the game. I got into the game with four minutes left in the first quarter, and played pretty badly. I missed a 12-foot face-up jumper off a post feed, one I should not have shot but rather taken strong to the hoop. I was working hard, but I was not efficient. I even dove incorrectly trying to save a ball that was going out of bounds. Not a good start for me. It seemed as though my inadequacy as spreading to my teammates as well, as we finished the quarter down by ten.

Tempers started to flare, and there was some yelling during the intermission. We had given up 26 points in the first quarter, and knew that was unacceptable. We would have to limit their offensive production, though at this point this was easier said than done. The Cypriots seemed to be hitting every shot they took- fadeaway threes, Kareem-esque skyhooks, double clutch runners in traffic; it was incredible. Most shots didn’t even hit the rim; they just fell through the net. But we knew this production couldn’t last. As long as we kept playing hard-nosed defense, we would be OK. The second quarter was a stalemate, with neither team giving way, and their lead remained at eight as we headed into the locker room for halftime.

With only twenty minutes left for us to save any chance of moving past this round of competition, we knew it was go time. We came out in the second half like a bat out of hell. We had given up 44 points in the first half, which wasn’t bad considering we gave up 26 in the first quarter, but it still was a poor display. In the pivotal third quarter, we conceded only ten points, while we went off for 27. Our defense was swarming all over the court, stifling their offensive efforts. The circus shots they made in the first half were no longer dropping, while we were moving the ball well, getting good looks, and hitting them (including a 17-footer from yours truly, which I celebrated by running down the floor fist pumping-which I believe is the first time in my career I’ve done such a thing on a basketball court). The arena was electric with excitement. The crowd we had disappointed during the first six quarters of our homestand were on their feet, cheering wildly for a team that had snapped out of its coma and had come to play.

Though there was a minor scare in the fourth quarter when Cyprus cut our lead to two, the game was won in the third quarter. You could see it in their eyes- the gleam that was there in the first half when they were whupping us was replaced by the glum recognition of their soon-to-be 0-3 record in pool play. We finished the game up seven, and afterwards signed autographs for little kids whose faith in their players was rekindled with the victory.

After the game we celebrated in the hotel bar (we don’t get out much) with our favorite lounge singer. Tomorrow, I have an 8 AM flight, but that didn’t stop me from hanging out until 3 AM, nor did it stop the other players with similar schedules. Most of us won’t see each other for 10 months. During this short period of time I think we bonded as a team, and I know that it was an extremely enjoyable experience for me. The guys are all great- friendly and funny; not a bad apple in the bunch. Our last night consisted of countless pints of Guinness and an impromptu a capella karaoke performance which lasted all night. Irish folk that were in the bar with us joined in the festivities, and we all had a blast. I knew it was getting a little late when I sang a song and people actually said they thought it was a pretty good performance. Seriously, though, could you even imagine a basketball team sitting around drinking and singing songs together? I mean, we aren’t the Provincetown Players over here. This is a team of virile guys, merrily singing the night away. It was quite the scene, but it’s one reason that I had so much fun playing, and a big reason I’ll be back next year. Everybody just wants to have fun, and I’m all for that. And next year, if we play like we played tonight, we’ll have our fair share of victories to celebrate, in complete karaoke style.

September 17, 2006 Reality Check

I awoke in a daze this morning to my alarm clock going off at 6 AM. Had I really gotten into bed less than three hours earlier? Was I still drunk? Yes and yes. Thankfully I had packed all my gear up the night before, so I was set to go when I called a cab five minutes after rolling out of bed. With an 8:30 flight out of Dublin, and a 30 minute ride to the airport, I didn’t have much time to spare.

I made it onto the plane with no problems, and quickly fell asleep before takeoff, waking up only when the plane touched down in London, where I would have a six-hour layover before boarding a plane for my final destination, Bologna. I stumbled into Gatwick airport, and had the odd realization that this was the first time in my life that I’d woken up drunk twice in one day. That’s probably a good thing.

London, as anyone who hasn’t lived under a rock for the last six weeks knows, recently had a terrorist threat at one of its airports. So now security is tighter than…well…let’s just say it’s tight. But is it really? I was kicked out of the security line because I had two carry-on items, my backpack and laptop. Technically, I shouldn’t have been allowed to bring either on with me, as even my laptop bag was too big for what they normally allow. The dimensions of one’s carry-on item is about the equivalent of one-and-a-half Oreos laid side-by-side. I don’t know what government bureaucrat thought up this awesome idea, but it just doesn’t make sense to me. Yes, I have two bags. Yes, they are both bigger than what you allow. So what? In explosives at that level, it’s not the size that matters, it’s the motion in the ocean. A bomb the size of a cell phone could take a plane down. Look at Richard Reid. The guy had explosives in his shoes. They could have fit in your carry-on dimension criteria. But the benign objects in my backpack don’t make the cut? I don’t get it. If you want more security, check all the carry-on items before you let them on the plane. Yes, it’s a hassle, but so is waiting by the luggage carousel and not seeing your bag come out; the bag that you used to be able to carry on (foreshadowing?). The bottom line is that I had to check my backpack, and carry-on just my laptop. Thank you British Airways.

Still pretty intoxicated, I made my way over to a bench, set my alarm for a half hour before boarding for my flight began, and made good use of my layover time. I had sweet dreams of owning a private jet and being able to carry on a U-Haul trailer full of stuff.

I woke up sorer than Peter McNeely after his 39 second fight with Mike Tyson, as the bench I chose to sleep on had slightly less padding on it than the concrete floor it rested on. Groggy, I figured I would grab some food before my flight. I chose what looked like an English diner, and sat down. I settled on an omelet and baked potato combo meal, then looked at the price. It was 5.95. But that price was in British pounds, which means that I just paid $11 for an omelet meal. I wouldn’t even pay that price at Denny’s in the US at 4 AM after being out all night. But my stomach was growling, and I wasn’t going to argue with it, so I begrudgingly made my order.

I had to run to my gate after eating, as I had lost track of time. In doing so, I left the book I was reading behind (a book that would have been inside my backpack had I been able to carry it on, thank you very much British Airways). When I made it to my gate, I found that the flight was delayed indefinitely, but that I shouldn’t go anywhere because it could arrive anywhere between 5 and 75 minutes from now. Nice ballpark figure. So I sat and waited. And waited. Until 90 minutes later, when I had finally boarded and we were set to take off.

I made it to Bologna 90 minutes late, and stepped out into a pouring rainstorm. Now, the last time I came to Italy, I had been on time, but my ride had been four hours late. Now I was the late one, so how would this work out? With no phone numbers for anybody related to the team, I had to rest my hopes on the competence and patience of the organization.

I made it through passport control without any problems, got to the luggage carousel, and, wait for it, big surprise, my backpack wasn’t there! I should have reported it to the lost baggage department even before I walked to get my other bags. The lady behind the desk was nice, though, and she told me that my stuff would arrive tomorrow, as it was placed on a later flight today. So we’ll see how that works out.

I walked out into the lobby of the airport, and, what do you know, my ride was there. A rush of relief ran through my body as I shook hands with Mario, who is a fan of the team and drives players to and from the airport. I got into his car and we drove to my apartment, where I found everything to be in order. I even have a car on the first day, so it seems like this team has it’s stuff together. I went out to dinner with the general manager, who seemed like a nice guy. It’s his first year in that role, as for the past three he was the team’s coach. The reason I’m actually here is because my Swiss coach from last year is friends with this guy, and he let him know about my skills (or lack thereof). We had an interesting conversation in which he told me that this team is very young, and the main goal of the season is to not finish in the bottom two places. Way to aim high. But I can see where he is coming from. I’m a virtually unknown commodity, we have two young Americans that haven’t played at this high of a level yet in their careers, and a former NBA player who from what I’m told has not played for a while. I’m not really sure about the details of that story, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough. I am not one to think lowly about myself or others, though, so I think the goal should be to finish in the playoffs, then see what happens.

Basketball aside for a second, the moment I walked into my apartment after finishing dinner with the GM, the reality of the situation sunk in. This will be my home (hopefully) for the next nine months. I felt a wave of nausea come over me. I felt alone, and really sad. In Ireland I had been happy, as I was surrounded by a great group of guys that I really connected with. But walking into this apartment, all of the negative emotions and memories I thought I had forgotten from my experience in Roseto came rushing back to me. Would this be another situation like that? How will I feel tomorrow when I meet the guys for the first time? I feel like I’m a kindergartener on the eve of the first day of school. And at the same time, I feel an emptiness in the pit of my stomach thinking about everything and everybody that I leave behind every time I go to play basketball overseas. Some guys love this lifestyle. I don’t really know if it suits me. Some guys need to play, as they have no other opportunities. I don’t need basketball; I play because I love it, because I feel I’m still improving, because I love the competition every time I step out on the floor on game day. Up until now that feeling has made all the negatives that go along with this lifestyle bearable. But as time marches on, I wonder how long that will remain true. I know I can’t play forever. I don’t want to. And it’s days like this when I question whether I want to play now. Don’t get me wrong, playing basketball is the best job in the world. I’m just not always sure it’s for me.

September 18, 2006 Relative Problems

Without reconciling so many of the negative feelings swirling through my body last night after arriving in Italy, I woke up this morning emotionally unchanged, still depressed with the fact that I will, in a best case scenario, remain in this place for the next nine months. Sulking, I called my dad, who is probably the last person in the world one should go to for sympathy, but I wasn’t looking for that; I was looking for an honest opinion, and for those that know him, he doesn’t mince words. He’s pretty much the politically correct anti-Christ.

But as I began to spin my tale of woes, he interjected and said he had great news. His grandson and my step-nephew Andrew, who is on his second tour of duty in Iraq, is on his way home. He has been there the better part of a year, and has seen heavy action virtually the whole time he has been there. I was told that the shower he took yesterday was his first in a month. A handful of his close friends have been killed right in front of his eyes; such is life in the armed forces. He has seen death on a daily basis, and yet the guy is not yet old enough to have a beer in a local bar. But now he is coming home, hopefully for good.

During this story, I felt worse and worse. Not about my situation, but because I had felt so badly for myself. Yeah, this lifestyle sucks sometimes. But while I’m shooting jumpers, dodging picks and picking up loose balls, he’s shooting an automatic rifle, dodging enemy bullets, and picking up the carnage that the war has left in its wake. In comparison, I live like a king. And so for the second time in two days, a wave of nausea overtook my body. But unlike last night, when it was caused by self-pity, this was because of self-loathing.

At the end of the story, my dad asked me what I had wanted to talk about. At this point I was just ashamed of myself, and contemplated telling him that I had forgot my original reason for calling. But I told him, prefacing the statement with the fact that I now felt like an asshole for even calling. After listening to what I had to say, my dad asserted the fact that I was indeed not an asshole, but that I was just being a normal human being. He said that as an adult, sometimes you have to put away these emotions to get whatever job you have done. Sounds like a nice little recipe for a heart attack at age 42, but I could see his point. So while Andrew had to fear for his life every day, for me there is nothing to fear but fear itself. He also reminded me that the opportunity I have is one that is wanted by many but attained by few. I had to agree with him.

So I will proceed like I did last year, cognizant of the opportunity presented to me, mindful of the drawbacks of the lifestyle, but appreciative that I’m still able to make a living playing a game that the vast majority of people play for fun. It’s like my college coach said- if you take your absolute worst problems, they still don’t even compare to the problems of about five billion people on this earth. I don’t even have to look that far to know this is the truth.

September 18, 2006 Let’s Get It Started

After shaking off this morning’s emotions, this afternoon I officially began my play for this year. Earlier in the day I had my team physical with a local doctor. I arrived at his office in khaki shorts and a t-shirt, expecting to do the usual blood pressure exam, turn to the side and cough; heck, I thought I might even walk out of there with a lollipop. But this was not the case. He told me to take my shirt off, and he proceeded to attach a dozen or so suction cups all over my check. He told me that this would be to check the quality of my heart. I had a similar test done in Roseto last year, so I didn’t think it would be a big deal. He then told me to get on a stationary bike he had sitting in his office. I protested a little, saying that I was not dressed for the occasion. He said, “It is OK. You need anyways. You are not too thin.” Thanks doc.

So I got on the bike, and began peddling hard. After four minutes I felt the first signs of perspiration. After seven minutes a thin film of water had formed on my skin. After ten minutes, I was sweating like a pig. This is when he stopped me, and told me that everything looked good. I supposed he was talking about my tests, as the khakis I were wearing were soaked. Worse still, this was my first stop of the day; I would have to walk around town for the next two hours looking like I needed some adult diapers. At least I was cleared to play, and now I could get started.

I arrived at practice that day at 5 PM, after a thirty minute drive to the gym. This is to become my twice-a-day commute. So roughly two hours of driving a day to get to and from practice. That’s like commuting to just outside Boston everyday from where I live in Connecticut. Not an appealing task. But just another small annoyance that one has to put up in. It’s not really a big thing.

I got to the gym and noticed that there were seven kids wearing the same practice uniform that I was. I thought maybe they were a high school team from the area. But no, these were my teammates. At least part of the squad. Here’s the deal with this year’s team: we have five native-born Americans; two who play as Americans, me who plays as an European from an outside country, and two who play as Italians because they have Italian passports. The five Americans will likely be averaging about 35 minutes per game. There is only one Italian on our team over twenty.

This brings up two serious problems. One is inexperience. The Americans only have eight total years of overseas experience between us. Many of the young Italians have none. This will present problems, as older, more experienced teams may be able to beat us during the season with wily veterans who just know the game. A second problem is depth. If somebody gets injured, we are screwed. It’s a long season, and injuries are part of the game. We need everyone to stay healthy if we are to have a chance this year. I hope that we do.

So that’s our situation. We’ve got talent, but no depth. Other teams have succeeded in this way, and I guess so can we. During this summer I told Harold to find me a job where I could play 15 minutes a game off the bench, and be an energy player, which I think suits me the best. But here I’ll have to play at least 30. And that’s OK. It’s not really what I wanted, but it will give me a chance to prove that I can play at a high level, and be successful doing it. And that’s why I’m still playing this game.

September 20, 2006 Model Behavior

Tonight, on my third official day in Italy, we had a game against a team from the Italian third division (my team, Imola, is in the second division). Though it may sound like a low level, in fact some of the better players in Italy, even some of the national team members, play in this league, so it is very competitive. Our opponents tonight were Ozzano, and it would be the second time my team would play them in the preseason. Oh yeah, they beat us the first time, though we were playing without me and one of our Americans. We knew it would not be an easy victory.

One thing I knew for sure was that I did not have my game legs. To play basketball at this level, one has to be in great cardiovascular shape. Seeing how my main exercise in Ireland was 12-ounce curls, I find myself at this point in less-than-desirable basketball shape. But with two-a-day practice sessions from now until the season ends, that problem will be remedied in no time. But for tonight, I would have to try to push myself to my physical limits to keep up with those who had been in training camp for a month; not an easy task.

I got off to quite a bad start in the game, though at least I was starting at the center spot. My first few minutes I was nervous, and fumbled the ball a few times when I should have had a firm grasp. I had to consciously think about all the plays I had learned in the previous two days, so I was quite robotic in my movements on offense. And on defense, my guy was running all over the court, so it was difficult for me to play my usual help defense (a.k.a. sit in the middle of the lane and take up space). I came out of the game with three minutes left in the quarter without accomplishing a whole lot.

The second quarter was a different story. I came out and rebounded well, scored nine points, and recorded my first block of the preseason, after which I yelled, “get that s*** outta here”, and after that I stopped in my tracks and slapped myself in the face for saying something like that. And even though my legs were tired, I was running the court well and staying with the pace of the game. I even picked up a rebound, and unable to find an outlet man, dribbled the length of the court and found a teammate for an open jumper. I was very Steve Nash-like. In reality, probably more like Steve Urkel, though.

By the end of the game, I had tallied 11 points, 13 rebounds, and 2 blocks, and we had won. Everyone seemed happy with the effort, and though we will face stiffer competition in the future, I believe that we have the opportunity to have a good year.

After the game, we proceeded to our official team presentation at a local restaurant. Every year around this time the local media gathers around and the team is introduced to the public. This year, though, we were being presented simultaneously with a local fashion designer’s fall collection. The guy’s name is Germano Zama, and if you haven’t heard of him, don’t feel bad. If you are presenting your fall line to the public at a presentation for a second division basketball team, you’re not really a big deal. But then again, any publicity is good publicity, right?

Two weeks ago, while I was in Ireland, the team sent me a fax requesting my measurements, as in, for clothing. I thought that they wanted to have these so they could fit me for my uniform, practice gear, etc. But today I was presented with a legitimate suit, to be worn at the presentation. Last year in Roseto, by contrast, we wore polo shirts that would be too short for Mini-me, sweatpants that looked more like the bottom half of a wetsuit, and large red shoes that Ronald McDonald would scoff at. So what I’m saying is that this year’s team seems to be a bit classier of an operation. Then again, Stalin was a bit classier than Hitler, so my jury is still out on the professionalism of this team. But I digress. So we get the suits, to be worn at the presentation.

At this point I realize I have a problem. I have no black shoes with me, and no belt. The black shoes don’t really present that much of a problem to me, as I have no shame wearing my sandals with any outfit, including this one. But not having a belt does present a problem. I gave them a slightly incorrect measurement on my waist size, so much so that I would have to gain roughly 25 pounds to fit into my pants. So what does one do in this situation? Ask and ye shall receive.

Five minutes after we arrived at the restaurant, I found the model’s changing area. And no, there were no models changing at the time, but this was the area where they would be changing outfits during the show. I spotted a model and motioned her over, just so as to not stumble onto anything not meant for my eyes. It turns out she spoke a little English, and I asked her if there was a belt around. She said she would go check, and a minute later she came back with a belt about four inches in width, much too wide to fit my pants. Now, I mentioned before how this designer couldn’t be a very big deal on the fashion scene, but what about these models? How low on the totem pole were they to be doing this show? Was this the Italian equivalent of modeling for WalMart? One step up from the strip club circuit?

Anyways, at that moment, a sun-bronzed man with a pony tail came over in my direction and began speaking to me in Italian. I told him I spoke only a little of the language, and asked the model to translate. She told me that this was, in fact, Germano Zama, the fashion designer whose show we were about to see. I looked the guy up and down, as he was dressed in a black button-down shirt, black pants, and…Chuck Taylor All-Stars? I mean, don’t get me wrong, that was my shoe of choice in the late 90s, but I am a dingy kid from the country. This is a designer in a nation considered one of the leaders in the fashion world. And he’s wearing Chuck Taylor’s? Probably why his show is where it is.

But he turned out to be a really nice guy. I actually told him (through the model) that I used to wear the same shoes, and he seemed to get a kick out of this. He asked me what I needed, and I said I needed a belt. So the guy just took off his own belt, and handed it to me. Quite a nice gesture, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on him. He’s just trying to make it.

So now I was ready to go. Ready to stand up in front of the crowd and the cameras. But there’s always a twist. We would not just be presented tonight. Each player would have to individually walk a model down the runway. Now, I had never shaken my little toosh on the catwalk, and it’s something I thought I would get through life without doing. But I considered the circumstances. One, I had not eaten in almost ten hours, as the last food I had ingested was my pre-game meal and it was now approaching 10 PM. Two, I am flat-chested as well as lacking in the derriere region, so my body type fits that of a runway model. And three, I am in an industry where you’re always in front of a crowd, so it’s no big deal. Hell, throw in an 8-ball of cocaine and there would be no discernable difference between me and a runway model.

So when my name was called, I strutted my stuff around the floor, flashing my best Zoolander face to the crowd, and laughing at the insanity of the situation I was currently involved in. I then took my position next to my coach as he said a few words about me to the crowd. Beside me there was a big screen that showed what signal was being sent to the television stations, and when I looked up the cameras were pointed directly at my feet, so I did a little shuffle, letting them know I was not self-conscious about my lack of quality footwear.

The night ended after all had been introduced, and all in all, it was a good evening. Just one more thing about Italy that I do not now, nor ever will, understand.

September 22, 2006 That’s Right…It’s Everywhere

When one has practice for a total of four-plus hours a day, he usually just wants to go home and relax, unwind, and rest the muscles that he has just pushed to the limit for more time in one day than most Americans do in a month. Usually this relaxation comes in the form of a book, a drink, or a program on television; sometimes all three. What he doesn’t want to come home to is a problem. I know that everyone has problems that they must deal with on a daily basis. But when you are in a foreign country, especially when you’ve only been here a few days, problems become magnified and complicated.

Last night I came home after practice to a sink that had filled up with water. Well, not exactly water, as this liquid smelled like old, stale chicken soup, and had the same appearance. Since I am a quasi-expert in all things that have to do with home plumbing due to my three summers of work at Skip’s and one at Wastewater Services, LLC, I thought I could fix the inconvenience. Most people view such things as disgusting, dirty, and disturbing. When they occur in other people’s homes in the US, I view them as dollar signs. But I am in Italy, and this is my home, so I saw this as an annoyance.

I began my repair by baling the fluid out of the sink with my spaghetti pot and throwing it off my balcony. I do live on the first floor, but why I did not just flush it down the toilet I don’t know. Seemed a good idea a the time. But anyways, after this I took apart the plumbing under the sink, and found that there was no blockage in my apartment. I deduced that there was one further on down in the system. I reattached the plumbing, and by this time it was 11 PM; too late to call anyone to fix the problem. I would wait until the morning.

This morning I left for my first practice, and my sink was clear. I thought that maybe someone else had had a problem, and they had fixed it. When I returned, though, I knew that the problem still existed. My sink had once again filled with the fluid. I called a team representative, who told me he would have it looked at. I waited around for a large portion of the afternoon, but nobody showed up. Finally, as I was leaving for my second practice of the day, the team rep and what appeared to be the building’s handyman showed up at my door, and said they would fix the problem. Great. So when I get home, everything will be OK, right?

Wrong. The first sound I heard when I walked into my apartment tonight was the dripping of water out of my sink. Though I dreaded what I was about to see, I flipped on my lights, and stared at the scene in front of me. There was shit…everywhere. I dropped my bags on my couch, walked out my front door, and called the GM. I wasn’t a happy camper, but I kept my cool, and kindly asked him to get somebody out there to fix the problem. And not like the last attempt at “fixing” it. Now I don’t know if the men who tried to fix the situation the first time left as the problem worsened, or if the trouble escalated after they left. Either way, it didn’t matter to me. There was shit everywhere.

I called a few teammates who were headed out to dinner. I joined them, and told them my story. They laughed, with the consensus being that Italy was one step above a Third World country. I sat through dinner wondering if I would come home to a toxic waste area.

When I returned home, there were about 10 people outside my building. Only two of them were actually workers who had been called to fix the problem. Basically my sewage problem had become a car wreck, and everyone wanted to see what was going on. I saw a pump truck similar to the ones I’ve seen in America, and after viewing the scene for five seconds, knew what was going on.

I thought all of Italy ran on sewer lines. Apparently not, as my building has a septic system. One that hadn’t been pumped in four years. Now, at Wastewater Services, we recommend residential home owners to have their tanks pumped every 1-3 years depending on a few circumstances. I know that this tank should be pumped more than once every four years. But I’m sure that someone wanted to cut costs, and unfortunately, I bore the brunt of their bottom line.

I actually talked to the septic guys when they were doing their work. I let them know that I have experience in the field, and I took photos of their truck and some of their tools, as I had not seen some of their stuff before, and thought it might come in handy back in the States. They, like most septic guys, were nice, even though they were giving up their night to come do this work. When they had finished, I thanked them profusely, and they seemed appreciative. Maybe I can get them work visas to the US.

So I went back to my apartment, which had, for the most part, been cleaned up. But for safety’s sake, I went over my whole kitchen with an antibacterial cleanser. Afterward, I thought it kind of ironic that a problem I could easily solve, even capitalize on in the US, had given me so much trouble. And let’s just say that I’ll be staying away from chicken soup for a long, long time.

September 24 Road Trip with Rimini

Today we play Rimini, a team in our division. It’s a road game, for both teams, actually. It seems that every year Imola and Rimini play each other in a town that is basketball crazy but without a basketball team. It’s like when the Celtics used to play in Hartford, before the Uconn women’s team started winning games and people started showing up claiming to be lifetime fans. Had they been born in 1994, this may be the case, as I remember when I was 12 showing up five minutes late to a Big East rivalry game and sitting in the fifth row after buying a ticket for…$1. Wait, where was I?

Oh yes, my game. Now, Europeans love exhibition games. They are called “friendly” games over here, as no one really cares who wins and loses. Since teams only play once a week in their country’s league, some teams actually schedule these exhibitions during the year, to the player’s chagrin. Most guys only give half-hearted efforts during these games, and they are not to be taken very seriously. Take last year for instance. I played in 13 friendly games with Roseto, winning 12. That team went on to win ten games the entire year. As you can see, these games are not a very good barometer of a team’s quality.

It’s really hard to judge how good a team will be until the season starts. Especially with this team, as it is hard to get competitive scrimmages going because we have so many young players. These guys will be good, but they aren’t there just yet. And that doesn’t help us out for this season. It does help to have these young guys (not like I’m an old bastard, but some of these players are still in high school, which allows me to refer to them as kids. Strike that, I am an old bastard) around though, as it brings levity to a lot of situations. Take yesterday, for instance. One of our players had brought a soccer ball with him to practice. Soccer is like a religion over here, except more popular. These people live and die for the sport. The Italian World Cup championship team walks around like the second coming, and are treated as such. So anyways, for our warmup, we decided to play a soccer game. And to make it interesting, we drew teams based on ethnic lines. Oh yeah, Americans versus Italians. With a total of one year of junior varsity experience (coming from yours truly) on our team, we stood little chance of victory. But we had our national pride, and veteran wile. Plus we were bigger and stronger than the kids we were playing against.

The game would be for 15 minutes, to be played on the hardwood. The structures holding up the hoops would serve as the goals. Game on. I scored the first goal in the fifth minute, devastating the Italians bravado. They were yelling at each other as we celebrated soccer style, as in we danced around a little less than heterosexually as we got back on defense. A minute later, they tied the score, but with two minutes left, one of our guys put one in, and we won the game.

It really looked like some of the Italians were going to cry. How had this group of American idiots just beaten them at their own game? They began pointing fingers, making excuses, and generally acting like spoiled sports. Even in the locker room after practice, they were talking about the loss. I am proud to be an American.

Back to the game. We traveled to the game in a vehicle that cannot be called a bus. It was more the size of the short bus some kids used to ride in elementary school. A little more high class than that, but the same size nonetheless. We all piled in and buckled up. Apparently the last time this team had an away game, their bus driver fell asleep at the wheel, and woke up only when he hit the rumble strip on the side of the highway. And he did this twice. No one was taking any chances on another such performance.

We got to the game, with most guys tired from the hard week of practice and ready to get going with the season. We warmed up, came out and looked pretty good in the first quarter, giving a strong defensive effort. But like what I fear will happen during the season, as the game went on we slowly went downhill. Most of the guys on the bench are just too young to play, but they do because we don’t have any other options. Hopefully they will mature as the season goes on. Especially in this game though, our weakness in this area was shown. One of our Americans got in foul trouble, with four in the first half, and another American with Italian citizenship got injured. Our bench was forced to play big minutes, and they weren’t always productive. It’s hard because I know they will be good someday, but their time isn’t now.

We ended up losing by four points. Not really that big of a deal, as it was only an exhibition. I think that during the season we will beat this team, but then again, you never know. They also could have taken the lacksidasical approach. I still think we’ll beat them, though.

After the game, we had dinner. With the other team. Brings new meaning to the term “friendly game”. It was quite the odd situation, as usually two teams that play one another want to get as far away from each other as possible after games. But there was no bad blood here, and the teams intermingled a little bit, though the coaches, for the most part, stayed away from one another. The winning coaches seemed to be a little arrogant (though that may be just them being Italian), while our coaches seemed a slightly despondent. But we had a good meal, and all in all it was a good trip. The biggest thing is that this was our last test run. Now we will prepare for the regular season. Though many do not have high hopes for us, I think we have a chance to do some good things. And as anyone can tell you, losing makes for a much longer season (that is, if you don’t get cut first), and that’s not really something I’m interested in.
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Swiss Miss [Sep. 3rd, 2006|02:08 pm]
Today we played the first game of three that we will engage in this fall during our European Championship qualifying. Our pool includes Switzerland (who we play today), Romania, and Cyprus. None of these countries are big players on the world basketball scene, but, then again, neither are we. And after our first exhibition game against a seemingly feeble Norway team, I will never underestimate any national team again. People play differently when they play for their own country. You can see it in their eyes. Often times when I look into the eyes of an opponent, I know if they really care about what they are doing. The love and desire to play generally dissipates after one goes to college. When you play in college, every time you put on a jersey you are representing your school, a community you believe in and that believes in you. It’s not like that at the professional level. Most guys play for themselves, just trying to earn a better paycheck. Not so for the type of competition like the one we’re playing in now. There is no paycheck. We play for pride- in ourselves, in our heritage, and for the four million people in Ireland and the millions more living abroad. Though whether we win or lose these games is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, I like to think that in some small way if Irish people hear that their national team is doing well, their second thought (after the first, obvious, “Ireland has a national basketball team?” thought passes by) is one of satisfaction. There aren’t many better reasons to play.

So, anyways, we began our journey today in Switzerland, a team that was filled with players I had played against last year when I was in Lugano. We were playing in Geneva, a stadium where I had not lost in two attempts. We had a few good practices leading up to the game, and I felt that our last two exhibition games had solved a few of the problems our team had in the early going. The circumstances surrounding the game seemed to favor our side. We entered the game in good spirits, wanting to get off on the right foot for these Championships.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start. I mean, defensively, we were OK. Switzerland struggled to score. We, on the other hand, would have had better success solving the Israel-Palestine conflict than we did putting the ball in the bucket. We scored only eleven points in the first quarter, 29 for the half, and 57 for the game. I’ve seen football teams put more points on the board. And though our scoring was more anorexic than a Parisian model on a coke bender during fashion week, we were still in the game.

We were able to stay in the game because we were making hard-nosed plays, and hunkering down on defense. We were outworking Switzerland, but it was like the old adage of how you shouldn’t work harder, you should work smarter. Our efforts were rarely rewarding, but we kept pushing on relentlessly. There was one sequence in the second half when we had five shots at the hoop in one possession. That possession ended fruitlessly, as Switzerland finally grabbed the defensive rebound after our fifth miss, came down at the other end, and hit a three-pointer. Those plays can break the spirits of teams, but we would not let that happen.

As the clock wound down in the fourth quarter, it seemed like Switzerland was trying to let us back in the game they had led since the opening minute. Our offense had found some legs, and we were scoring better than we had all game. Because we were behind with time winding down, we had to foul Switzerland on every possession. And they were missing free throws. Badly. Nerves were setting in, and they were playing not to lose rather than playing to win.

The game came down to one play. Down two with eight seconds to go, our point guard drove the length of the floor and put up a floater over two defenders. He got hacked, but didn’t receive a call. The shot missed, but luckily for us, a Swiss defender hit the ball out of bounds. We had .7 seconds on the clock. We called time out, with just enough time to get up one final shot. Our coach drew up a lob play for our starting center. The play actually worked, in terms of execution. Unfortunately, the final result was not what we wanted. The ball careened off the rim as the buzzer sounded. The Swiss team mobbed the floor; ecstatic with the result they received. Our team walked to the locker room, 1000-yard stares etched on everyone’s faces. We couldn’t believe what had just happened.

If we can take one positive thing away from this game, it’s that we only lost by two points. In these championships, we play each team twice- once this year, and once next year at the same time. That means that we get Switzerland again on our home floor next September. And in these championships, margin of victory is important. If we end up with the same record as Switzerland next year, and end up beating them by more than two points, we advance to the next round, while they go home losers. So while today was an opportunity lost, we are not dead on our feet. We have more chances to get ourselves back on the right track. But we better do it soon. If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves at home. That’s not the place we, or anyone else who has an interest in this team, wants to be.
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Redemption Song [Aug. 28th, 2006|06:39 pm]
Losing to Norway in our first exhibition game was the basketball equivalent of going on a first date with someone you really liked. You go on the date, excited for the events of the night, and right after you pick her up you proceed to spill soup on your shirt, call the girl by the wrong name, forgot your wallet so she has to pay, get outside the restaurant to find your car towed, and finally had some guy with a mustache in an ’86 T-bird pick up your date while you were waiting for the tow guy. Then to top it all off, you forget your AAA card and have to walk home in the middle of the night. And it’s raining. It was that bad. But while in the dating world the aforementioned stud would crawl into the fetal position, basketball players have the opportunity to make everything right only after a very short time span. For us, it was less than 48 hours. We wanted to make the most of it.

Last night we hosted Austria, an opponent supposedly tougher than the Norwegian team we’d played two nights before. You could see it from the moment they stepped on the floor for warm-ups. They were bigger and stronger than the Norwegians, and you know they had that Eastern European work ethic. We would be in for a tough game. I started this game out on the bench, which is fine with me. I feel that my skills are best utilized when I play 15-20 minutes a game. This allows me to play with a lot of energy, a level which I could not sustain if I had to play a full forty.

I got off the bench late in the first quarter with the score about even. The Austrian center had made two jump hooks early, and looked pretty nimble out on the floor, not a trait commonly held by seven-footers. He would be my matchup, and I intended to limit both his scoring opportunities as well as his success rate. I once again made an impact on the glass, grabbing a few boards in the short time I played. And wouldn’t you know it, I got my first two points in international competition, a tip-in off of an errant jump shot. It was an exciting moment, one that I would unfortunately not feel for the rest of the game. But at least I got those two.

My best play of the night, though, at least in the eyes of the coaches, players, and crowd was, oddly enough, a turnover. There was a loose ball under our hoop. I was in the mix of arms and legs trying to gain control of the possession. One of our players hit the ball, and it was headed out-of-bounds. I summoned all of my agility and dove after the ball (read: fell over like a redwood) as it went out of bounds. I managed to get my left hand on the ball and tap it back into play, albeit to the sideline where it rolled out of bounds. The thing that made the whole play impressive was what happened after I got my hand on the ball. I’ve been taught never to break my fall with my hands, as this greatly enhances the chances of breaking your wrists. After tapping the ball back in-bounds (briefly) I put both hands behind my back and did sort of a swan dive to the floor. Graceful I am not. To make matters worse, my jersey was soaked with sweat, which made me slide across the floor like greased lightning. The combination of my momentum and the Exxon Valdez-like sweat soaked into my jersey, coupled with the close proximity of the bleachers to the baseline made for a bad ending. That is, my head meeting the bottom row of bleachers with a whole lot of force.

After this nice little confrontation, I rested on the floor for a second. Usually I try to bounce right up after hitting the floor, but this time I felt like I’d just gone 12 rounds with Rocky Balboa (when he was fighting in 1976, not 2006). At least I got up before the trainer came over to offer me some help. That would have been embarrassing. I got up and sprinted down the court, to a round of applause from the crowd. Then I noticed all the players on the court staring at me; gawking really. Then I saw a substitute check in and call me over to the bench. Apparently all the stares and the substitution stemmed from the fact that my head was bleeding pretty profusely. I guess that pounding I was feeling in my head was not just pain but also blood flowing to and out of the point of impact. I would be ok, though, as my trainer got me bandaged up and ready to go again. The cut was pretty superficial, and although it bled a lot, it shouldn’t leave too much of a scar. Good for me, as I can’t afford to get much worse looking.

Oh yes, the game itself. Well, we won _____________. It was a good victory, most importantly for the morale of the team. Although we didn’t play that great, we came out with a win. And though we will face better competition, we know that our game can improve. This latter point is one that we tried to prove the next night in our final exhibition game, against Iceland. They had beaten both Austria and Norway in their games, and had a former NBA player on their team who is quite good.

The game itself was a good one. We came out and defended like crazy, giving up only 32 points in the first half. Once again I came off the bench to spark the defense and clean up some rebounds. The team seemed to be clicking on D, but once again we struggled to find offensive continuity and success. Though we had given up only 32 points, we were still losing by three.

The second half was a different story, though, as we came out firing. We scored in bunches, and most everybody got in on the action. I say most, as I was one who did not (though I had two points in the first half). In fact, I didn’t even play in the second half. But we won, which is a whole lot better than me playing the whole way and having us lose. Our locker room was upbeat after the game, and rightfully so. We had come a long way in just a few days.

The coach pulled me aside after the locker room speech, and told me that I didn’t play in the second half because he had to cut our roster from 15 players to 12 for the real games, and he had seen enough of my play to know what quality of player I was. I looked at him inquisitively for a moment, unsure of what that ambiguous statement meant. Did he mean that he didn’t need to see me any more because he liked or disliked what he saw? You never know. Noticing my confusion, he cleared it up by saying, “You’re on the active roster.” Relief ran through my veins, and the disappointment that I felt a moment ago due to my lack of contribution to tonight’s game was replaced by the thankfulness of knowing I was on the active roster that would be playing in the games that truly matter. I’m not going to be a star, but I’ll be there doing what I can to get the job done. That’s all I really can do.
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Baptism by Fire [Aug. 25th, 2006|06:37 pm]
After a week of tryouts in July and two practice sessions since arriving in Dublin two days ago, I’ve been able to get a general feel for my place on the team. I figure at this point that while I’m not going to be playing 40 minutes every game, I’m not going to have to pull splinters out of my butt, either. I mean, as I’ve said before, I’m competing for minutes with one current and one former NBA player as well as three guys that have played at a high level for a long time in Europe, as well as on this team. As a rookie without a whole lot of positive professional experience behind me, I’m just trying to get into the rotation and not screw up while I’m in the game.

But tonight, I got some relatively shocking news: I would start the first game of the 2006 campaign. Now, I didn’t read a whole lot into this news, though I did have to check to see if I had too much wax built up in my ears after hearing the coach utter this statement. What circumstances would allow me to make the start after the rest of these quality players? Well, my euphoric feelings of triumph were quickly shattered by the reality of the situation. Our coach had simply split our fifteen-man roster into three five-man squads by position that would be rotated during the first half. Mine had been chosen at random to begin the game. Nevertheless, it felt good getting the start.

Our opponent for the first game would be Norway. For a comparison, they are in quality to European basketball what the Kansas City Royals are to Major League Baseball- their mere existence entitles them to compete, but for a variety of reasons (read: lack of talent), they won’t be in the upper, or even middle echelon of national basketball teams. In their part of the world, any sport that does not involve ice is pretty much beyond the natives’ grasp. Our coach even insinuated that this was a confidence-boosting game, one scheduled to boost the morale of our team, as the winning team generally feels good about themselves after blowing out an opponent.

This type of game also allows a team like ours to practice our offense against an opponent in a real-game atmosphere. Our main offense is one that treats all the players on the floor as equals. It doesn’t discriminate. Dr. King would be proud. Basically we play a four-out, one-in scheme, where the one-in is stationed on the high post. Passes and cuts are made, and players find themselves in new positions. Any one player can find themselves in that high post position at any one time. More often than not I find myself outside the three-point line. Perfect for my sniper-like long distance shooting accuracy. Wait a minute.

From the beginning, this confidence boosting game was anything but. While our offense works well in practice, those sessions are conducted without a shot clock. We found out quickly in this game that we weren’t just fighting the five defenders to score, but also the 24-second clock, which proceeded to go off four times in the first fifteen minutes. That may not sound like a lot, but believe me, it is. To put it in perspective, during my thirteen games in Switzerland, we had only three shot clock violations. Frustration was mounting, and for good reason: we weren’t scoring, but they were. And they were getting confident.

We quickly found ourselves falling behind. This was difficult for everyone in the building; I think even the Norwegian team, to comprehend. Player-for-player, pound-for-pound, we were better. It wasn’t even close. I kept waiting for our team to pull ahead. But we weren’t. It was confusing to say the least.

At halftime we were down six. Our coach announced during his mid-game speech that there would be no more five-man rotations. Now we would be playing to win. It seemed that everyone in the locker room was excited at this proposition. Nobody likes to lose, especially when you are supposed to win. Big. There was no way we would let this scrub team do to us in the second half what they did in the first, right?

Wrong. Second verse, same as the first. We got down as many as fifteen in the second half. It was pathetic. We started jacking ill-advised threes, while they picked our fast-disappearing defense apart. Our coach called timeout with 2:30 left on the clock, and explained the situation. In international competition, unlike other basketball games, winning is not the important thing to worry about during the game. How much a team wins by is also quite significant. In pool play, if there is a tie between teams in terms of record, the first tie-breaker is point differential. So if you’re winning, you want to blow the team out. And if you’re losing, you want to minimize the damage. Our goal for the last 2:30 would be to minimize the amount of points we were losing by to, ugh, Norway.

At this point, I subbed in. The coach told me to clean up the boards, and jar the bones of our opponents with some picks to get our shooters open. I did both, and our guys started scoring. We whittled their lead down to three with thirty seconds left, but our comeback fell short, and we ended up losing by seven. One small victory in a loss that just boggles the mind. After the game all our players were baffled by what had just happened. The veteran players spoke up and said that this was not going to happen again. Knowing the type of players that we have, I don’t think it should.

As for my personal performance, I was satisfied with my first five minutes of play (I came out midway through the first quarter, when our coach made his first substitutions), as well as the other eleven that I ended up playing. In those sixteen minutes of action I gathered eight rebounds, had a block, and took a charge. No points, as I took but one shot, a 30-foot desperation heave with only a second left on the clock in an attempt to beat the (big surprise!) shot clock. My lack of offense is probably not a good thing, actually, I know it’s not a good thing, but it’s just the way I play.
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Week of Irish Team Tryouts [Jul. 31st, 2006|06:35 pm]
July 24, 2006 Loophole Lover

Professional sports, especially in recent times of inflated contracts and celebrity-like treatment (my experiences notwithstanding), has become an arena of mercenaries rather than passionate players. Especially in their twilight years, players continue their careers in large part due to monetary concerns. Well, either that, or the fact that they would be totally incompetent in any other job. Basketball players tend to be not the most well0rounded of individuals.

International competition has become really the only arena where one can see players giving it their absolute best every single game. It is one of life’s greatest experiences to represent and work for one’s country. There is a strong sense of responsibility, and more so pride, that goes along with these competitions. When I was 11 years old, I witnessed the greatest team ever represent the US in Barcelona, running rampant over every opponent that stood in their way. Ever since, I’ve wanted to be a member of the Dream Team (though, in recent times, the US team has turned into a nightmare).

The problem is, I’m just not good enough. The recent selection of the new version of the Dream Team lists future Hall of Famers, All-Stars, and at the very least, players that will earn millions of dollars over their respective careers. I, on the other hand, struggle daily to stay in the business. But for every problem, there is a solution. Or, if not a solution, then a loophole. And that’s what I’m good at finding.

This is where my Irish citizenship comes in handy. It allows me to play for the country from which my ancestors emigrated. That’s right, I’m trying out for the Irish National Team, the one that will compete in Europe for a chance to play in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now, this has led a few of my friends to engage in a little good(hopefully)-natured ribbing, with multiple references to Benedict Arnold being thrown around. But believe me, I am an American. I bleed red white, and blue. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t wear green, white and orange for a while.

So I leave today to Dublin out of Boston for the tryout. Although Irish basketball is not known as a world power, in recent years they have made great strides, and have become a respectable team. And for me personally, this will not be a cakewalk. The roster includes a former and current NBA player, as well as two guys that play in first division Italy and one that I played against in Switzerland. So that means I have to crack a twelve-man roster that has five quality, veteran big men returning to the squad. Plus, I didn’t find out about this tryout until two weeks ago, which means I am in less than enviable physical shape. Not that this is anything abnormal, I just like to use it as an excuse if I play poorly.

If nothing else, this week will give me a chance to compare myself against high quality players who have been around the block a few times. Knowledge can usually be gained in these situations, and at this stage in my career, I’ll take all that I can get.

July 31, 2006 And I’m Spent

Only in the perverted world that is professional basketball would a thirty-hour workweek push a person to the limits of their human capacity. But that’s what these past seven days have been for me. My teammates and I have pushed ourselves on the court, so hard at times that we’ve had to have people change uniforms mid-practice because their clothes were dripping with sweat so badly that puddles of water were forming on the court that made playing dangerous. OK, so 75% of the time that player was me. I sweat like a pig. But everyone was dying, as the sessions that averaged over four hours at a time were extremely physically challenging.

Even still, it wasn’t so challenging that we weren’t able to fit in some after-hours activities. And believe me, everybody on this team is a full-blooded Irishman in the true sense of the term. Over the course of the week we traveled all over the country in a promotional/educational tour. We gave basketball camps in the morning, practiced in the afternoon, and sampled everything each city we visited had to offer. And we received a warm welcome wherever we went. Everybody loves it when a group of huge guys walks into a bar. Especially in the land of the leprechauns.

But let’s not waste time on telling such boring activities like what happens when a bunch of basketball players go out at night. I’m sure nobody wants to hear about that. The point of me coming over here was to make the team, to beat out six of the eighteen players that came to training camp. Be one of the last twelve. And today, I found out the answer to this question. After practice, I walked into our head coach’s hotel room for a meeting, one that every other player on the team would have by the end of the night. As I entered the room, I found our three coaches sitting down like the judges from American Idol. I hoped that my reviews would be slightly higher than that of William Hung’s.

They sat me down and went over parts of my game that they did and did not like. The head coach made a comment about how I was an “unknown commodity” in the basketball world. I wasn’t sure if this was a good or bad thing, as it means that he thought I was a good player, but that nobody knows about me. Hopefully I’ll let people know how not bad I am this season. The bottom line is that I’m on the team. I’ll be in a competition whose end line is the Olympics. Beijing 2008 is the goal, and now I get to be a part of it. I love basketball.
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Rings and Reflections [Jun. 2nd, 2006|11:15 pm]
Murphy’s Law states that what can go wrong will. This axiom was, until the end, in full effect today.

First, we couldn’t get out of Lugano on a bus. The highway was closed because falling rocks had blocked a tunnel we needed to drive through to get to Boncourt. So we took a train two hours to just past where the rock slide occurred, and from there took a bus to the game. The whole journey lasted six-and-a-half hours, and we arrived 75 minutes before the game. This left the players’ legs stiffer than an Englishman’s upper lip (this is a PG-rated journal...some of the time).

In the first half, we played about as badly as a team could play. We amassed only 28 points, a prorated total of 56 for the game. To put that in perspective, we’ve averaged 88 points a game in the playoffs, and our lowest previous total was 76 (the only playoff game that we lost). The only good news that came out of the first half was the fact that we only gave up 32 points, as Boncourt was having difficulty scoring as well. We felt that our offensive woes couldn’t possibly continue in the second half, and that if we maintained our level of defensive intensity, we would be able to win the game.

Unfortunately for us, the first sixteen minutes of the second half were strikingly similar to the entire first half. Missed shots. Missed opportunities. Mistakes all over the floor. To make matters worse, I and a few other players were in foul trouble. I had to sit down with five minutes left in the third quarter. In this time Boncourt raced out to a fourteen-point lead. I sat on the bench helpless to do anything to help our cause. Even my cheers of encouragement were drowned out by a raucous crowd thirsty to get their first victory of this series.

When we called timeout with four minutes left in the fourth quarter, we were down ten, and I thought the coach was going to save me for Game 4, back on our home court. But one of our players had a back problem, and said that he couldn’t move on the floor. As our bench is thinner than an anorexic on speed, I got the call to go back in. The way things were going, I don’t think anyone in the gym, including me, thought that we were going to get back in the game.

But then things changed. I give all the credit to one of our Swiss players, who basically put the team on his shoulders and willed us back within striking distance. He came off a screen-and-roll with me and launched a 25-footer from the top of the key. Nothing but net. After a Boncourt turnover, he used my pick to drive to the basket for an uncontested layup. With just over three minutes left, he had single-handedly cut the lead in half. I don’t think anyone else even touched the ball on either possession.

Our spirits renewed and the momentum in our favor, we continued to hit shots that earlier in the game had been rimming out. I say “we”, though I believe I only touched the ball once on offense in the last four minutes. But I set about fifty screens, getting others open for good looks. I literally was throwing my body around like a pinball, laying into one opponent, then immediately running to find another red jersey (their color) to hit. I was more of a sumo wrestler than a basketball player, which makes since, as I have a physique better suited for the former rather than the latter. But I digress.

During our offensive resurrection, Boncourt completely stalled on their attack. They aren’t a particularly good shooting team, but at this point in the game, nothing they put up was going in. They had been relying on their interior play for their offensive outburst when I was on the bench, but when I got back in they couldn’t exploit this weakness anymore. I’m a big boy, with too much pride to let their inside guys, whom I’ shut down in the two previous games, run rampant with me in the game. Ain’t gonna happen. With a minute left in the final quarter, we took our first lead, and never relinquished it. We scored 48 points in the second half, including 15 in the final four minutes. We won 76-73, sweeping the final series and bringing a championship to the city of Lugano.

When the buzzer finally sounded, the gym was silent save for the team and the members of our organization who were celebrating at halfcourt. While we were hugging and jumping around, the fans and opposing team stood stunned trying to comprehend how their hard-earned lead had vanished in the final minutes of the game. I don’t know the exact reason for their meltdown. In most cases where something like this happens (which is rare, so there are few examples), the losers tend to play as if they are trying not to lose the game in the final minutes, abandoning the strategy that had helped them go ahead in the first place. As their lead evaporates, the apparent winners get tight, start making mistakes, and eventually unravel. But Boncourt made few mistakes. We just happened to make none.

So we celebrated, snapping pictures, drinking beers, smoking cigars, giving manhugs; smiles crossed every face. It has been a long time since I have won a championship- I believe the last time was when I was on a 13-year-old rec league team. It was a better feeling than what I had last year at the end of our NCAA tournament run, though the two games did have one similar feeling, and that was a sense of finality. My first year as a professional basketball player is over.

It has been a year riddled with “adversity”- the quotes are there to signify the fact that professional athletes seldom deal with anything close to the definition of that word. But it has been a year filled with experiences, both good and bad. The good: basketball has allowed me to play in six different countries, earn a paycheck, and learn the inner-workings of the business of basketball. The bad: I’ve moved around to six different teams; only once finding a modicum of success, I’ve gotten shafted on a large percentage of the money I’ve been owed throughout the year, and I’ve learned the hard way how ludicrous this profession can be. Wait a minute…

What a long, strange trip this has been. I am no longer so much the naive, optimistic, green rookie I was when I stepped off my first plane in Rome, but neither am I a hardened, angry, pessimistic veteran as I prepare to embark on my journey home. I'm somewhere in between, and that's probably a good thing. There are two things I can say about this past year. One, it has been an experience I shall not soon forget. The lessons I've learned should help me notonly in my basketball future, but in my later life as well. Some may call this first year a waste, but as Auguste Rodin once said, "Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely". A second is that I can say I ended the year on a high note. In any field, job, or hobby, all that one can hope for after a long run of disappointments is one shining success. I recently read a book called, “The Zen of Gambling”, in which author Wayne Allan Root says that you can fail 100 times in a row, and it won’t matter, as long as you come out on top in a big way on your next try. Whether or not winning the Swiss championship is a big thing is a subjective question, but I’ll take it. And though I’ve had the sweet taste of victory, I’ll not forget the bitter pills I’ve swallowed this season and before, and I’ll work all throughout the summer to prove to those GMs that doubted my abilities and treated me like a redheaded stepchild that they were wrong. I’m blonde, and we have more fun, and I’ll have a lot of fun next year going back to whatever country I play in (and God knows there have been many) and kicking the crap out of whoever they brought in for my position. And then I’ll laugh last, and best.

Isadora Duncan once said, "What one has not experienced, one can never understand in print." I hope that what I've written on these pages has defied that statement; and I thank all that have shared this experience with me through my writings. I’ll post again infrequently during the summer with any basketball related news.
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