Blogging through the Copa del Rey (Part One)

Blogging through the Copa del Rey (Part One)
Feb 08, 2008, 11:23 am
The Copa del Rey is a celebration of Spanish basketball, an extremely important event on the European basketball calendar that has a huge following and is taken with the utmost seriousness by all the teams involved. It is a single elimination tournament, consisting of the top eight teams in the top domestic league in the world outside the NBA, the ACB (the Spanish league’s first division). Winning the event is considered a very prestigious addition to any player or coach’s resume, and we could notice that immediately by the playoff type atmosphere found here.

Last year virtually every NBA team was represented at the Copa del Rey, largely because of the importance of scouting then-draft-eligible players like Rudy Fernandez, Tiago Splitter, Marc Gasol, Marko Tomas and others. This year, only seven NBA teams are represented by 12 scouts or executives, as there really isn’t one player that can be pin-pointed as someone that needs to be scouted urgently, although Ricky Rubio and Victor Claver are good enough reasons to come out. Besides the draft prospects, though, this is a fantastic opportunity to take a look at the cream of the crop of European basketball, as well as rub noses with a large chunk of the basketball industry in a relaxed setting.

The event is being held in Vitoria this year, a small town deep in the heart of Basque country, home to one of the most successful teams in all of European basketball-Tau Ceramica, which has produced numerous NBA players over the past few years, such as Andres Nocioni, Jose Calderon, Luis Scola, Fabricio Oberto and soon enough, Tiago Splitter. The weather is terrific and the food is outstanding—there isn’t a whole lot to complain about to be honest.

The atmosphere in the cozy Buesa arena, which seats about 9,000 people, was excellent throughout the first day, with plenty of trumpets, and singing and clapping all around coming from the very rowdy crowd. The refs tried to steal the show to a certain extent initially in the first game (Tau Vitoria vs. Unicaja Malaga), whistling 16 fouls in the first twelve minutes, but then settled down in the second half and let the game flow for what ended up being a thriller. The arena really heated up in the fourth quarter in particular, where Tau’s home-court advantage became very noticeable on their way to a 78-71 victory, led by Igor Rakocevic’s 19 points and Sergi Vidal’s 18. After playing only three minutes in the first half, the second half for Malaga was all about Marcus Haislip, as he exploded for 15 points while showing a bag of tricks offensively and NBA-caliber athleticism. It was a very worthy way of kicking off what looks to be a fantastic event so far.

The second game was even more entertaining, pitting a true Cinderella story in Bilbao Basket (with their huge following coming from just 45 minutes up the road) against one of the richest teams in all of Europe – Winterthur Barcelona. Marcelo Huertas put on a real show at the helm of Bilbao’s attack, slicing up Barcelona’s offense to the tune of 18 points and 8 assists (on 7/9 shooting with only 2 turnovers in 26 minutes), clearly an MVP-caliber performance. The one time draft prospect seems to be improving day by day, to the point that he is now considered one of the best point guards in Spain. We’ll be covering him and all the other most intriguing players seen here—draft eligible or not—as soon as the event is concluded.

The sweethearts of the night, Bilbao Basket (final score: 70-69 over Barcelona), is a medium sized club by ACB standards, a team without any real superstars, but instead a true bunch of terrific role players who play terrific defense . They are a group of experienced castaways in a nutshell (Fred Weis for example is having a career year here), unselfish and committed to playing hard. It was fun to see them take down a team with a budget five times the size of them, just by playing better defense and moving the ball around. Their amazing record (tied for second place in the league) amongst the giants of Spanish basketball this year is clearly no fluke.

If you’re wondering about the popularity of Spanish basketball, look no further than the incredible gathering of journalists we’re seeing here in Vitoria. Yours truly might be the only non-Spanish speaking member of the media from what we can tell, but this event is hardly lacking for domestic coverage. The ACB, to its credit, is doing its part to provide the very best conditions possible for those covering the event, although we were warned at some point that for security reasons, special wave lengths will be sent out at times to remotely disarm any potential bombs that might be left by any local rogue terrorist organizations that are in the area. The Police walking around in riot gear are here to make a similar point.

Paper is clearly not in short supply in Spain. After every game we were bombarded with an endless stream of style handouts detailing many various aspects of the game, with flow-charts, pie-graphs, plus/minus and efficiency rankings, the most effective five-man units minute by minute, quotes from the press conferences, shot-charts, and other ridiculously in-depth statistics.

Another enjoyable part of the experience is noticing the stark differences between the press here and what we’re typically used to in the States. Cheering in the press box seems like a normal thing, and even more humorous was a particularly enthusiastic photographer who gave Quincy Lewis a high five on the court in the middle of the game after an important And-1 late in the fourth quarter. People aren’t allowed to smoke in the stands here, but if you go up the stairs and walk around the concourse, you are liable to get lung cancer if you aren’t careful. Every few minutes, we’re getting text messages from the ACB, telling us which teams are arriving and leaving the official hotel and when, where we can find a free cocktail party for the media, the location of the latest press conferences, and much more.

All in all, this has been a terrific experience so far, and we’re looking forward to another three days of excellent basketball. We’ll keep you posted.

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