The FIBA Americas and the European Championships have tipped off in Argentina and Lithuania, respectively, and berths to the 2012 Olympic basketball tournament are on the line.
Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News is in Argentina for the Americas tournament, and its quite a bit further than the trip to Las Vegas back in 2007 to cover the beginning of the Olympic gold medal sojourn for Team USA 2008. He is the only reporter from the States that made the trip which shows the dedication of the San Antonio faithful for the sports of hoops.
Here is his opening report from Argentina where not an team representing the USA can be found since the Americans have already qualified for the Olympics by virtue of their 2010 World Championship victory:
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN BUENOS AIRES AND MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — The bus taking 42 basketball fanatics to the FIBA Americas pre-Olympic basketball tournament bounces along Argentina’s Route 2 past open spaces that look a lot like South Texas, minus the scorching heat. It is late winter in the Southern hemisphere, after all, and the temperature today is a delightful 53 degrees.This is a non-scheduled bus, but the first of only two Aerolineas flights from Buenos Aires’ Jorge Newbery Airport was canceled. A plume of volcanic ash from the Puyehue volcano in Chile apparently made it too dangerous for the small aircraft that makes the short hop to Mar del Plata.
Aerolineas’ second flight isn’t until 6:50 p.m. and there are basketball games to be seen, so Ivan Rivera, wearing a J.J. Barea Dallas Mavericks jersey, springs into action. Rivera is an officer of the Asociación de Turistas Olímpicos de Puerto Rico, which he announces loudly as he descends on the kiosk of a bus company serving the airport.
After 20 minutes of negotiations, Rivera has secured the names of the passengers willing to pay a premium to have a bus to Mar del Plata added to the day’s schedule. These include one American sports reporter grateful for the chance to tag along, at what seems a very reasonable $60 — a price that seems to outrage the others.
“They want $500 extra for the driver, but when you are a fan, you are a fan,” says Rivera, who has been to international tournaments from Beijing to Athens in support of Puerto Rican athletes. “When they said there was no airplane, I knew we were going to find a bus. Nothing holds us back.”
After fares are collected, the hoops dreamers cluster around their luggage and debate the tournament that will begin its first day without them, but not end before they have taken their seats at Malvinas Argentinas Stadium. These include plenty of Argentines — from Cordoba, in the Northwest, to Patagonia, in the South.
Danilo Ventura, a 44-year-old worker at an electrical company in Cordoba, speaks perfect English, having benefited from a year as a high school exchange student in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“I began playing when I was young, 8 or 9,” he says, “but the game I knew was different from what I discovered when I went to America. It was 1985, and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were the best in the NBA, although there was a young player named Michael Jordan.”
Ventura never dreamed Argentines would someday be stars in the NBA, but everything changed for Argentine basketball fans once Manu Ginobili joined the Spurs. Now Ventura is but one of the basketball-loving Argentines happy to assist in chartering the bus to see the team that is a national treasure.
“I bought my tickets the day they opened the sales on the Internet in July,” he says.
He chats at length with Cristian Kuhot, a Patagonian who calls Puyehue “el traitor volcano.” They agree making the tipoff justifies extreme hardship.
Five thousand miles from Route 2, David Stern and his NBA lieutenants will sit today across a table from Billy Hunter, Derek Fisher and other representatives of the NBA players’ union and scowl as the NBA lockout approaches its third month.
Ventura doesn’t understand how owners who offered big contracts they now contend have ruined their business can expect the players to save them from themselves.
But nobody at the FIBA Americas pre-Olympic tournament cares much about the gloomy doings in New York.
This tournament is about the love of the game, and it is about national pride, as is the Eurobasket tournament in Lithuania, where Tony Parker will begin play in a few days.
There are business issues that must be resolved in New York. But when you see the passion with which Ginobili and his teammates represent the host country, you wonder how anyone can be as committed to taking meaningful basketball away from the basketball-loving world as some of the league’s owners now seem.