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Mark Woods
A writer and columnist for a number of British newspapers, including The Sun, The Herald and Scotland on Sunday, Mark Woods has covered basketball and the NBA since 1990, scribing on everything from the high stakes of the Finals to the pre-game meal of a team mascot. A regular face on Sky Sports and voice on talkSPORT, he still plays - dodgy right knee permitting - for Darroch BC in his home city of Edinburgh, UK. His own website is at

Lessons from Europe Live

So Europe Live comes to an end, for another 50 weeks. The trunks have been packed up. The private jets have slipped quietly from the VIP departure lounges and set course for a route across the Pond. Fun while it lasted? Sure it was. But what did we learn from the dozen or so games on both sides of the Atlantic involving clubs from both the NBA and the Euroleague?

1. A pre-season game is not a genuinely attractive contest when it involves two NBA teams. The best match-ups, at least from the perspective of the paying public, are when you throw in the novelty of Europe against North America – plus the dynamic of one side (guess which?) being fired up to get the scalp.

2. Minnesota is not as bad as people imagine even though they’ll have to win with heart and hustle rather than talent. Boston has got three terrific players but that isn’t enough to contend. Toronto may struggle to repeat as Division champions but the huge positive for the Raps is the clear improvement and enhanced maturity of Andrea Bargnani. As for Memphis, it could be a Grizzly year ahead.

3. There is a market for live games. Sure Rome didn’t sell out but elsewhere, the reception was warm and enticing. David Stern has hinted that the concept of training camps overseas will be re-visited when the review of this whole initiative comes along, given that the coaches aren’t able to do quite as much as they do on home terrain. However we can expect to see as many, if not more, trips to foreign soil – including potentially regular season matches in London – and in 2009, in Berlin.

4. The best clubs in Europe are not that far behind the worst of the NBA. Anyone that claims that the victories of Malaga over Memphis and Real Madrid over Toronto are anything more than one-offs is barking up the wrong tree but neither should they be dismissed entirely. It’s interesting that any of the NBA coaching staffs I spoke to over the last few weeks did actually scout their opponents, indicating an appreciation of their threat and the respect now earned.

The heavy defeats suffered on Thursday by Panathinaikos and Maccabi Tel Aviv were almost a surprise (let’s remember than neither side, nor their opponents New York or Houston, were at full strength). However the intriguing idea – ventured by Wolves head coach Randy Wittman (see below) – that somehow a European champion could get a berth into the NBA play-offs becomes all the more intriguing.

5. None of this going to happen unless more top notch arenas are built in Europe. The 02 in London is as good as anything I’ve seen across the Atlantic and Stern told me it’s very likely the new Berlin Arena will host pre-season games two years hence and be at the level required to be the home of any European NBA franchise. Plans to have similar buildings in Madrid and Rome are also under consideration, he said. All of which is good for European basketball, not just the NBA.

6. It’s time to bring in the Greeks. There seems to be a fear among league officials about taking Europe Live to Greece which is apparently based on the past behaviour of the fans there. It’s an understandable apprehension but it’s also a great shame that Europe’s second most fervent hoops nation (after Lithuania) has been excluded from the party. Pana against San Antonio in Athens? That would be anything but a friendly.

Posted by Mark Woods on October 12, 2007, 10:03 a.m. ET

A List - and rest - gather in London

As you'd expect for a NBA game - even of the exhibition variety - there was ample celebs attracted along to Docklands to see the NBA hit town.

Top of the bill, fresh off a flight from Beijing, was F1 ace Lewis Hamilton, sitting courtside along side West Ham defender Anton Ferdinand. Perhaps he was being kept discretely apart from Chelsea striker Didier Drogba, who - wearing more glitter than a panto dame - was roundly booed when his face appeared on the Jumbrotron. But Hamilton's security (two of them) took evasive action when he was approached for a photo by an attractive brunette in the fourth quarter.

Footballing NBA fans were in plentiful supply. "I follow the league all the time," Spurs hitman Darren Bent told me. "My team's the Cleveland Cavaliers, because of LeBron James. I thought they did pretty well to do how they did last year getting to the Finals. It's going to be interesting to see if they can do as well this time."

To add to the X-List, the man from the BT adverts and 'My Family' Kris Marshall sat up with his posse in the less expensive seats. To think he could have watched it all on broadband…

Posted by Mark Woods on October 10, 2007, 4:55 p.m. ET

Stern ready to assist

NBA Commissioner David Stern has pledged to help British basketball capitalise on the 2012 Olympic Games by providing additional support to both the national teams and grassroots initiatives.

Speaking at London's 02 Arena ahead of the pre-season contest between the Boston Celtics and Minnesota Timberwolves, Stern admitted that consideration is already being given to hosting the league's annual All Star Game in the UK as well as, potentially, regular season games.

And with Chicago Bulls star Luol Deng providing the NBA with a British homegrown talent to promote, Stern told me he is eager to take advantage and provide tangible backing to bring together the myriad bodies involved in the sport here.

"We have a meeting scheduled with British Performance Basketball, with the Federation, with the BBL," he revealed.

"We've been asked by the Minister of Sport to use our power to talk to all parties. We met today with the London Olympic Committee. We're going to do all we can to help grow the game of basketball in Great Britain, including anything we can do in the way of training. Of coaching, games, preparation, you name it.

"We think that's a good thing to do. It can only help that GB qualified for the A division of European basketball. Everything seems to be coming together as we head towards 2012. The market is good commercially and economically but has been lagging in basketball. We think that's about to change dramatically. Basketball's a huge part of the Olympic competition. We're thankful that FIFA make the (soccer) competition 23 and under."

The contest in the Docklands was part of the NBA Europe Live tour which has seen four of Stern's teams train and play games overseas. With The 02's standing as the most modern arena outside of North America, I'm told it is all but certain that London will be part of the initiative's schedule until 2012.

However hopes that an accompanying training camp could be staged outwith the capital appear to be unlikely after some coaches expressed concerns over the additional travel involved.

"It's hard to move them around, then to make sure that the teams have the opportunity to really train because that's what they're doing, they're preparing," Stern added.

"The more important thing is the games. When you bring teams over, to have them clustered might seem anti-social but I understand it. Because it's very important for teams which are new together to bond and practice."

Posted by Mark Woods on October 10, 2007, 3:40 p.m. ET

In UK, Allen re-visits old haunts

The Boston Celtics didn't practice on Tuesday, opting instead to rest up with a few among their party to despite to do the court dedication which has become a familiar part of the NBA's community ingratiation wherever it goes in the world.

Most were kept well away from Commissioner David Stern's visit to City Hall to meet London Mayor Ken Livingstone. No word on whether he's planning to hit the league with a congestion charge for any traffic in the lane at the 02 on Wednesday night (boom, boom!) but it was hard to decipher who was the statesmen and who the master of all he surveys.

For one part of this travelling circus, touching down in the UK has provided a touching piquancy. On Sunday, Ray Allen hired a car and drove, two hours north, towards Suffolk.

It was here that he spent two years of his childhood, as an Air Force brat. Before that day came when it was time to leave and suitcases were hurriedly packed without time to reflect and bid farewell.

"It was good to go back and get closure," the Celtics guard said of his visit to Saxenmundo, near Ipswich. "You move around a lot when your Dad is in the Air Force. That's the nature of the job. But I got to go back and see some places where I grew up. It felt good to have that."

There was his old house. The base. A few sights which remain in the memory.

But, I asked him, what sticks out most in his mind of his British sojourn?

"Fish n chips," he replied upon due consideration.

Some cultural icons never die although as a pre-game meal, it'll never catch on.

- The UK's ongoing ties with the NBA were underlined when Steve Bucknall showed up at practice to survey the scene. Buck was the second player from these shores to make the league when he had a brief stint along side Magic Johnson at the LA Lakers before embarking on a glittering career in Europe.

"It was a great time," he said. "Not long enough but I wouldn't swap it." Appropriately, in his new role as a sports development chief in nearby Lewisham, the one-time England cap gets to bring through new prospects (as well as in his other role as a rookie coach of BBL newcomers London Capital). Lakers by the Docks? You never know…

Minnesota v Boston is televised on Five US from 7pm on Wednesday night

Posted by Mark Woods on October 9, 2007, 10:52 a.m. ET

London calling, NBA ready to answer

It was summed up in the words of that Shakespearean wannabe Eminem.

"Please come back. Please come back."

12 years after the Houston Rockets defeated Buckler Bologna to win the (much lamented) McDonald's Championships at the Docklands Arena, the NBA returns to London on Wednesday night when the Boston Celtics face the Minnesota Timberwolves.

'Great!' you might say. 'So what?' you may exclaim.

It's an exhibition game, between two teams who have bigger things on their minds than a minor tune-up in the UK. A chance to have an early look at the C's 'Big Three' before they take a seat in the third period and let the scrubs battle it out for a minimum salary contract and the opportunity to be bit players among the grandees. An opportunity for Randy Wittman to assess just how decimated the wreckage over which he presides is, courtesy of Kevin McHale's trading handiwork.

Like you said, great.

Look beyond this one, though. Focus not on the banality of what looms large and think about the possibilities which lie ahead.

More of these kinds of fixtures, perhaps even featuring top European sides (which makes them altogether more fascinating match-ups). A larger presence for the NBA here - and the resulting spin-offs for domestic basketball, including the Great Britain teams. And the chance to entice new fans and sponsors into the sport thanks to the glad hand of David Stern.

There is no doubt The Commish sees the United Kingdom as a fertile market. Why else would the league's Euro HQ seem destined to cross the Channel in the years to come? Stern views The 02 as the most NBA ready building outside of North America. If anywhere is going to be the epicentre for pioneering new overseas initiatives, it will be by the banks of the Thames.

An All Star Game? Out of season tours and clinics of the kind which China has been staging in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. 2012 is coming next. Expect the Association to follow the trail.

More likely is a regular season encounter (of which there has only even been one outside of the US and Canada), Stern admitted in Rome on Sunday.

"I think that time is coming closer," he said at the half-time of the Toronto Raptors 93-87 win over Virtus Roma. "That has historically been a matter of Euros. It costs many Euros to buy a game from a regular season because our teams do so well.

"But with the new O2 Arena in London, with the new arena in Berlin, with the proposed arena in Rome, Europe is beginning to develop buildings that look much like the ones that we have in the United States. And those buildings will yield more revenue for such a game."

However, before anyone starts saving up for tickets, there is still work to be done. "We need to develop a revenue model that works, both as to ticket pricing and television rights fees," Stern added. "But in the meantime, nothing we do is meant to be against that eventuality, it just all helps the game grow, and we will see what will be will be."

The days when international expansion, particularly in Europe, was the buzz phrase emanating from New York appear to be over. No longer is it Stern's ambition. The D-League is growing on home soil while talk of taking over the league in China appears, currently, a more enticing financial position. It has been a few years since chatter of a European Division of the NBA rose above the hubris. Silence, on that front at least, now is less than golden.

"It's going to be hard, how that would be incorporated," admits Minnesota head coach Randy Wittman, who is getting a taste of the traumas of trans-Atlanticism this week. "I don't think there's an easy way we can have a division which is integrated with the other divisions we have right now, simply because of travel.

"If we end up broadening our horizons to put a European division in the NBA, it will probably have to be that the winner comes over for the play-offs. Down the road, it will be interesting to see how that plays out."

It's an intriguing compromise. Perhaps the victor of the Euroleague enters the NBA play-offs with ties staged on either side of the Pond. Then the title of world champions - still a misnomer for the North American titlists - would be wholly more appropriate.

That would bring a genuinely competitive dimension to the NBA's forays into Europe. It would also be the true showcase for the best of the best. Don't expect that rarefied level of competition on Wednesday. But beyond then, the possibilities are enticing indeed…

Posted by Mark Woods on October 9, 2007, 8:51 a.m. ET

For Rookie Coaches, Relief Starts with a W

There's only one way to win as a first time coach in the NBA. And that's actually … to win. Many have tried, only a few have truly succeeded. The failure rate is high. And the amount of much-hyped arrivistes into the role who have lasted just one season before scuttling back, chastened, to whence they came gives it all the job security of a Tottenham Hotspur manager.

Still, if you were asked, wouldn't you give it a shot? Never mind the decent pay cheque (or check if you prefer, since only Sam Mitchell - and the rest of the Raptors staff - gets a 'cheque' in the NBA). Or the long hours, the nightly tribulations, or the XXL sized egos. It's the pinnacle of professional basketball.

This week, three seasoned playcallers will walk onto the floor at training camp, look around and face an utterly new challenge. My team. My ideas. My responsibility. My word!

For Reggie Theus in Sacramento, Marc Iavaroni in Memphis and Sam Vincent in Charlotte, this is a whole new ball game. And although each has paid differing due to get to the prime seat on the bench, you can bet there will be that exhausting combination of anxiety, excitement and anticipation about what lies ahead.

Iavaroni arrives with the most hype of all, having spent several years as an assistant, most recently in Phoenix where he was seen as the co-architect of the Suns' Fun n Gun system along side Mike D'Antoni. Of the trio, he was the hottest candidate for the unusually limited number of vacancies in the league. And he has had ample time to consider just what his kinda team will be.

"Number one we have to establish an identity that takes into account what this team was good at and was not good at last year, reflecting their personnel," he told me. "And I think if you're familiar with the status of this team they scored more points after the change from Mike Fratello to Tony Barone but their defense suffered greatly.

"It was just a lot of change and no-one is held accountable for that. But you know we were 29th in points per allowed per game and 30th in field goal percentage allowed and that's last in the leagues. So number one I think this team has to bond through the improvement of their defense.

"And I think that's because defense is a weak thing so we have to collectively come together and have pride in stopping other people and then using that type of mentally that confidence to attack the defense of our opponent in transition to create turnovers to create blocked shots, missed shots and take those opportunities and make sure we attack quickly. Because that's something I've become very comfortable from my experiences in Phoenix and also as a player in the '80's when that's what we did.

"So I think number one, we have to play better defense, two we have to have more toughness, three there has to be a feeling that we're all in this together and that we play with a lot of passion because that enabled me to play in the league for 7 years. I had decent talent but not that type of talent that could afford to take every possession or anything for granted."

Iavaroni is in a fortunate position. The Grizzlies had the worst record in the NBA last term. They play in the most difficult Conference. The only way is up. Reaching the play-offs would be an accomplishment. Missing out? Well, it wouldn't be a complete disaster.

Theus and Vincent will not have such leeway. The Kings are re-building, no question. The lottery beckons in California's capitol. However Sacto's owners, the Maloofs, demonstrated last season with Eric Musselman than they are as ruthless with their coaches as they are in their casino business. In Theus, a former NBA star, they are rolling the dice, given his still-minimal experience in the college ranks. But can he win? His predecessor suffered with the slumps of Brad Miller and Mike Bibby and the ineffectuality of Kenny Miller. Entirely his fault? Probably not. But still, the trigger was pulled and a new sheriff installed.

Hired by his old chum Michael Jordan, Vincent will nevertheless feel the greatest heat. The Bobcats are no longer an 'expansion' franchise. The times for baby steps are over. North Carolina - and club owner Bob Johnson - is expecting major strides, into the post-season at least. A still young team in Charlotte will be pushed ever harder with the burden of expectation on its shoulders. No excuses required or expected.

There has been much scrutiny of the personal toll which such pressure extracts. In the NFL, head coaches can put in 22 hour days. The psychological strains are immense. Families are forgotten. Life, as we know it, stops here. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has admitted to going home and watching nothing except more football on television. It is every bit an all consuming passion.

"There are a lot of different pressures that come on and it does not matter what professional sport it is: NFL. Baseball. Basketball," outlines Minnesota Timberwolves coach Randy Wittman.

"At this level you are dealing with the best athletes, the best players, and you are expected to win. I am as a competitor as anybody else. The goal as a player is to win and for the coach it remains the same."

What advice, though, has he received to cope with the stresses and strains? You have, Wittman insists, to delegate and use all the resources provided.

He adds: "You are never as good as you think you are and you are never as bad as you think you are, you are somewhere always in between, if you keep that idea when you're riding high and winning, that keeps you kind of humble and hungry. You know when you go on a downturn, it's the same type of thing. You're not as bad as you are, you're one step away from turning around. Have an overall picture more than living day to day, game to game.

"If you live game to game in our business, given that we play over 100 games a year, you are going to get burned out. Keep the long game plan that you have and not look at it day to day. That will help you survive in this league."

Sport, at its highest level, is a battle. It is the survival of the fittest. For the three rookies, when they walk onto that floor, staying afloat is the foremost ambition. And that's why each defeat is accompanied by that sinking feeling and each victory delivering buoyancy that makes the toil worthwhile.

Posted by Mark Woods on October 6, 2007, 7:38 p.m. ET