David Griffin’s Blog
He's not likely to claim ownership of Phil Jackson or any other NBA coaches in the following paragraphs. He's not looking to land a book deal or a TV sitcom by sharing his experiences online either. Suns assistant general manager David Griffin might just entertain you, though, and he will most definitely educate you on the process of international scouting, as he joins Mark Cuban and Paul Shirley in the world of bloggers. Check back regularly over the next couple weeks, as he takes you along on his travels throughout Europe.
Posted by David Griffin, Feb. 18, 2006
From time to time, NBA personnel on the road will go to dinner in groups and lie to each other about, well about everything, I imagine, but dinner is always good. Tonight is one of those nights and again, names and teams are omitted to protect the innocent. Okay, the name Marco Crespi will never be omitted. Il Crespino is the only reason we can read the menu here. He selects an exceptional Spanish wine, a tinto, which is a red. Rioja Reserva de Castilla y Leon. I don’t have any idea if Sportsman’s carries it, but if so, don’t hesitate. Of course, until two years ago I thought Pinot Noir was a French film style, so take that for it is worth.
I really can’t go any anywhere in Spain without thinking of my last visit, which could have easily been my last visit anywhere. We are in Barcelona and staying at the Arts Hotel, which is, in my totally biased opinion, the best hotel I have stayed in on THE continent. Bryan Colangelo and I met in the club lounge prior to heading to La Barca de Salamanca, which is walking distance from the hotel and given the amount of Dorado our fearless leader can consume in one setting, that is critical. Alas, I digress. Even as I type, my palms get sweaty here.
Okay, Okay, already, BC had to give me the Heimlich as I was choking on a piece of prosciutto-like ham that is a staple of tapas para picar. He has me off the ground and is shaking me like a rag doll and I projectile the intruder toward the sofa - a sofa in a trendy lounge, in a tremendous hotel, with mortified on-lookers. I am alive and for that I will be eternally grateful, and, we made our reservation at La Barca. On the downside, I will not eat that form of prosciutto ever again. Alright, that is also probably a positive, but take it easy…
Deano - whose name I will use liberally here because he is neither innocent nor does he need protection, makes it to Madrid for the semi-finals. You may recall he made the decision to stay in Bologna in order to go to Forli. The idea was that if he got stuck in Milan, he would not see any games that day, and that, in our profession is not really an option when you have gone that far already.
When his ride finally arrives, they are having car problems. I mean if you consider a high pitched whistling sound coming from the engine block a problem. After returning to the city to get a rental car for the journey, they get to a toll booth, at which his driver hands over a bill that is not accepted. They tend not to take counterfeit currency much of anywhere. Mercifully, he makes his game in Forli, but the draft prospect in it plays all of nine minutes, committing five fouls as fast as our main man, Mark West, ever did. Are you kidding me? This guy needs a travel exorcism performed immediately.
Pamesa Valencia vs. Unicaja Malaga was billed as the first semi-final. It should have been billed as Ruben Garces vs. Daniel Santiago. Both players have Suns ties, of course, and they started at the center spots for their respective teams. Other former NBA players in the game included Junior Harrington - who turned in as dominating 11-point performance you will see for Valencia, Pepe Sanchez whom he dominated and Marcus Brown, also of Malaga. Brown is one of the players mentioned in an earlier entry that has done so well here financially that is tough to leave. He totals 16 on the night, but Unicaja can’t overcome Mindaugas Timinskas’ 32-point, 11-rebound performance from the three spot. Timinskas is a 31-year old Lithuanian performer who has been a very solid, if unspectacular, player since leaving Iona in 1997.
Tau vs. Real Madrid lives up to it’s billing in terms of emotion and atmosphere, but you never really get the sense that Tau can be beaten. Not in this game or by any other team in the tournament. Serkan Erdogan of Turkey a gritty, tough combo guard carried the scoring load with 22 points and hit five of six from long range. Scola (20 points, nine rebounds and clutch plays on both ends) and David (15 points in 22 minutes) were also key for them. But again, Prigioni was Mr. Everything. He controlled the game from beginning to end and made Louis Bullock’s night very difficult. Bullock is recovering from a calf injury and could not keep Pablo in front of him. It is not often you look at five points, eight assists in a stat sheet and feel as good about a performance as Prigioni should. BASS-CONE-YA; BASS-CONE-YA will be stuck in my head for far too long, I am sure.
Once you pass through Puerta de Alcala, one of the original gates to the city center which was built in 1773, you can see straight down Paseo del Prado. It is just a exceptional visual. Plaza de la Cibeles – the Roman God of nature and the plaza’s fountain Fuente de la Cibeles are amongst the most famous and visited in Madrid. You really have to see it at night to get the full impact as the use of directional accent lighting is unrivaled. Again, you can’t help but feel humbled at the sight of these things. I am reminded of the line in Steve Martin’s movie L.A. Story, when he is pointing out the sights in L.A. to a woman from London: “Yes, some of these buildings are over 20 years old.”
Posted by David Griffin, Feb. 17, 2006
We get back to the hotel at 1:30 a.m. and the wake-up call that promises to liven me up just enough to get on another plane will come at 4:30 a.m. However, I have a better plan. We play Houston tonight, so I will just stay awake, watch the game on NBA League Pass Broadband and head off to my 7:00 a.m. flight to Madrid. It is a two-hour flight; I can sleep on it and even grab a nap in the hotel before meeting Marco to head to the gym at 5:15 p.m. That was my plan.
I also planned to attend Taiwan National University, speak Chinese fluently upon graduation, call my dad, Rob, to wish him Happy Birthday yesterday and to pack my razor in Athens. Planning, it seems, is somewhat over-rated. I mean, really, isn’t life what happens while you’re planning to do something else?
Because I had pushed my three mini-beds together to make one piece of furniture large enough to comfortably sit on, there are two small gaps between the middle and end sections. One of those gaps is now imprinted on the right side of my face and one is ironed into my pant leg. I awake to a knock on the door and “Griff, you awake. Our taxi is waiting.”
Dean Cooper, or “Deano” as he is known to me after this trip, is probably the only reason I will even see Madrid on this day. Of course, with the negative travel juju this guy has working right now, just being in his gravitational subset could be the only reason I was in jeopardy of not making it in the first place. If you are sensing that there is more to this story, you are so very correct.
Marconi airport in Bologna is not terribly large, nor is it terribly crowded. As we are in line for check-in, they announce that Alitalia Flight 1300 to Milan (we are connecting to Madrid, which in and of itself is a bit of a farce) is delayed 30 minutes due to fog at Malpensa. By the time I get to the front of the line, the flight is now delayed two hours. The timeline that follows below is the best account of the next 9 hours and 15 minutes I can give you without taking up 14 pages.
7:00 a.m. - Get through security and arrive at the gate.
7:14 a.m. - Milan airport is allegedly closed due to this brutal bout of fog.
7:22 a.m. - Flight to Milan is announced cancelled for the first time.
7:31 a.m. - Dean and I get to check-in counter lobby area. Unaware that Dean has been on a nightmarish travel streak for the past 5 months, during which Murphy’s Law repeatedly holds true, I wait with him.
8:45 a.m. - We are next in line. Alitalia has only assisted 4 passengers in the past hour and 14 minutes.
8:46 a.m. - “Alitalia Flight 1300 will be boarding in 30 minutes."
8:55 a.m. - Arrive back at gate.
8:59 a.m. - Flight is cancelled for the second time.
9:04 a.m. - Arrive back at check-in area with the rest of the passengers on this flight.
9:15 a.m. - Dean holds place in Alitalia line while I place on hold two tickets at Iberia counter for direct flight at 1:00 p.m. to Madrid… just in case.
10:45 a.m. - Dean cancels his flight, fearful he will get stuck in Milan, missing the next connection and see no games today. He decides to return to Forli for more Coppa Italia and will go to Madrid the following day instead.
10:47 a.m. - I decide I will go on the direct flight. I am next in line and will cancel my flight as well, retrieve my bag and be on my way.
10:48 a.m. - “Alitalia flight 1300 now ready for immediate boarding.”
11:10 a.m. - After refusing to return my bag, Alitalia finally relents and I head to baggage claim.
11:19 a.m. - Negotiating with Police to get back to carousel three to take said bag. I am given an armed escort. It seems word of my refusal to leave the counter without my bag has caused a bit of a commotion.
11:35 a.m. - Check in for Flight 367 to Madrid.
1:00 p.m. - Flight 367 to Madrid delayed 20 minutes – no kidding.
4:15 p.m. - Arrive at Hotel Urban on Carrera de San Jeronimo, 34 in Madrid.
I believe I used the phrase “all is well that ends well” in an earlier entry. Right at that particular juncture, I am not sure that was my attitude. However, after taking in two very competitive games featuring worthwhile draft prospects, I will be far more willing to accept that premise.
The Palacio De Deportes Communidad de Madrid is a striking facility. Perhaps the finest venue in all of European basketball, it was originally built as a bullfighting ring or Plaza de Toros in 1874 and stood as a sporting icon until 2001 when it was completely destroyed in a horrific fire. Local authorities rebuilt it as part of their bid to attract the 2012 Olympic Games and it was reopened on February 15, 2005. Now, almost exactly one-year later, Spanish basketball fans converge here for Copa del Rey, 2006. The building seats 14,000 and apparently there was some sort of memo circulated that everyone in the building must bring a thunderstick noise making device, drum or trumpet. The atmosphere here is almost indescribable.
In the first game of the night, DKV Joventut faces Tau Ceramica. Tau features former Suns’ guard Casey Jacobsen and former Hawks guard Travis Hansen in an all NBA wing tandem. Additionally, Predrag Drobnjak and Kornel David have played significant minutes in the league while Luis Scola and Roko Ukic have been drafted already and their rights are owned by San Antonio and Toronto respectively. This is a very talented and deep team, and one that is a legitimate threat to repeat as a EuroLeague Final 4 competitor. Joventud’s Suns’ connection comes in the form of Robert Archibald while their point guard, Elmer Bennett of Notre Dame fame has authored a tremendous International career, some the best seasons of which were played in a Tau jersey. Now 36, Elmer has his hands full with Pablo Prigioni, a quick, aggressive Argentine playmaker who is 7 years his junior. Leading 27-14 at the end of the first, the Tau fans begin to make their sizable presence known.
Born in Vitoria as Arabatxo Baskonia, Tau is the pride of the Basque region of Northern Spain and southwest France. The Basques have long sought independence from Spain and actually do enjoy a different system of taxation than the rest of the country. The most industrialized and perhaps the wealthiest portion of Spain, Vitoria lies at the heart of a Basque culture that also clings to its own language and entirely unique alphabet. It is not an exaggeration to say that this sporting club, Baskonia, like Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, is a cultural phenomenon – replete with hopes, dreams and layers of meaning that most North American sports fans have not experienced. To that end, their fans are chanting BASK-OWN-YA with transcendent zeal. They have a section of the upper deck filled with a full marching band, and the best conditioned horn section you can imagine. They are full bore, for 4 quarters of game action.
Joventut scraps back into the game in the second and third quarters, but ultimately falls 92-72 as Ceramica makes the Semi-Finals where they will play the winner of the Barcelona vs. Real Madrid match-up.
Winterthur FC Barcelona as they are officially known is, like Real, a football (soccer) club first and foremost. In much the same way that big-time NCAA football programs (not Iowa State) fund the rest of the schools’ sports programs, soccer pays the bills here. Their fan club is enorme’ and travels very well. Basically one-half of the upper deck has made the trek from Cataluña (Barca’s region) and they are heckling a Real team that “backed into” the Copa. Singing and hammering out FUEN-LA-BRADA in an incessant drum beat, they are relentless. Given that the Top 8 in ACB (1st division Spanish league) qualify, Real really shouldn’t be there. They finished 9th in the seasons first half but got an automatic bid as the host city. Fuenlabrada, a team from just 10km outside of Madrid proper was the final qualifier and thus, got bumped.
Barca, the top seed, is led by the dynamic backcourt duo of Juan Carlos Navarro and former NBA and North Carolina guard Shammond Williams. Now listed on the roster as a Georgian citizen – not Atlanta, but the Republic of Georgia, Williams’ “nationality” is a tremendous story. Originally one of the former Soviet states, Georgia, the nation from whence our own Nikoloz Tskitishvili hails, ushered in a new ruling party in 2004. Apparently, their President, Mikheil Saakashvili is a huge basketball fan and wanted to turbo charge his country's European Championship chances and thereby solidify his National Movement Party. In offered a passport to Williams in exchange for his participation on the Georgian team. For Shammond, that meant a great deal as European leagues only allow a set number of Americans on each team. With a Georgian passport, he offers coveted roster flexibility, which in turn makes him more money. You can almost hear Shammond now, “What a country!” This paragraph brought to you by the CIA World Fact site, which is so groovy you might not sleep tonight either.
Navarro is a prolific scoring guard and has been with Barcelona for all of his 9 professional seasons. Amazingly, he is still just 25 years old after nearly a decade in first division. “La Bomba” as he is known to his fans, is dubbed such for his propensity to make triples Dan Majerle-style - meters (or yards in Thunder’s case) behind the arc. He was MVP of Spain’s Junior World Championship team in 1999 after hitting 7-8 from long range in the Final and the moniker has stuck since. Drafted in 2002 by the Washington Wizards in the second round (40th overall), Navarro is hot early and Barca has a 23-15 lead after one.
The game is very competitive until the fourth when Igor Rakocevic takes over for Real. A driving Rakocevic is penetrating at will and La Bomba looks more like La Statue on the defensive end. The 28-year old Serbian hits a runner in the lane with 7:08 to play in the fourth and Real takes the lead for good. The Real faithful then return the FUEN-LA-BRADA chant toward a suddenly silent Barca crowd. Oh, this is good stuff. As are several varieties of Spanish vinos tintos, but that is another story for another day. Tomorrow, we will be treated to Pamesa Valencia vs. Unicaja Malaga in Game 1 and Tau vs. Real in the nightcap. Don’t be late. I don’t have a plane to catch, so I probably won’t be either.
Posted by David Griffin, Feb. 16, 2006
The STAR Excelsior Hotel is my home in Bologna, a city of 374,000 in north central Italy. Known now for one of the most eclectic blends of people and commerce in Europe, Bologna is a university and culinary city of the highest order. Here, as they are throughout the rest of the country, the locals are obsessed with style. Their fashion, architecture and décor, are sources of civic pride and modern, Bang and Olufsen-like shops mix in amongst 15th century piazzas and renaissance artwork.
Fortunately for you and me, it is also a city obsessed with basketball. “Derby”, the match-up of the town's two 1st Division teams (Virtus is the other) is an absolute must when you fill out that list of things to do before you die. As intense as any you will see, it also does not typically disintegrate into the same chaos we just saw in Greece. This culture is “too refined for such a thing,” or so our good friend Marco Martelli, an Italian basketball journalist tells me. Il Signore Martelli has graciously offered to drive to Forli, the site of 2006 TIM Cup and we will be joined by Dean Cooper of the Houston Rockets and Yarone Arbel an Israeli reporter and walking European basketball encyclopedia. He is consumed by his affection for the game, its players and their stories and his work can be found on the web at www.eurobasket.net.
Formerly known as Coppa Italia, this mid-season tournament features the eight best teams in Division A1 (nice work, that is 1st Division). Our hosts in Forli are 45 minutes to an hour from downtown Bologna, but light years from their 1st Division roots. They have not had a team for sometime but PalaFiera remains a beacon for Italian Basketball fans and hosts the event each and every year. Paired with the Copa del Rey in Madrid, this tournament is a big draw amongst NBA scouts. Tonight, representatives from Boston, Sacramento, Milwaukee and Cleveland are visible and others are sure to arrive later in the week. The opening game of our double-header is a laugher, pretty much from the outset as Montepaschi Siena tops Whirlpool Varese 90-68. Rimantas Kaukenas, who you may remember from Seton Hall led all scorers with 23 points. Apparently the basketball culture is not so “refined” that frustrated Varese fans can avoid lobbing soda on the Siena management below. But really, at this point, what is a little Coca-Cola stain and obscene hand-gesture amongst friends?
Forli is meant to serve as a sort of neutral site, but Climamio Bologna or Fortitudo Bologna as it is known here, has ¾ of the 7,000 available tickets for their match-up with Lottomatica Roma. It is fitting that Roma is sponsored largely by company that runs the state lottery here as they are a long shot in a hostile environment. Apparently no one told David Hawkins, a former 1st Team All-Atlantic-10 performer at Temple who is turning heads in his first full season in 1st Division Italy. “Hawk” pours in 21 and is powering past the slower Climamio backcourt in the open floor for much of the game. When he finally slows, Vlado Ilievski of Macedonia takes over for Rome, making a deep three and turning a steal into a pair of Hawkins free throws.
Now down 10 with 6:20 to play, Bologna gets huge performances from two of their American Imports, Nate Green of Indiana State and Travis Watson of Virginia down the stretch (Right you are, Coach Iavaroni is a UVA grad and was also an over-achieving banger). Watson is snaring every board and Green is making one gritty drive or step-back three-pointer after another. They fuel a 9-0 run over the next 2:00 minutes. Now up just one, Powerball, er, um, Lottomatica, forces a rushed three as the shot clock expires. Dejan Bodiroga, European basketball’s “Mr Clutch” for the better part of a decade grabs a key rebound and is fouled driving coast-to-coast on the ensuing play. He makes both free tosses to put Roma ahead by three.
This is the best game of the trip to date in terms of pure spectating enjoyment and on-court energy level. Roma intentionally fouls with 10.8 seconds remaining and sends Kiwane Garris, formerly of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, to the line. He misses the first and now has to miss the second and hope that Watson can tear down another carom. He misses, Hawkins grabs the board, hits the two free throws; drive home safely Climamio.
Posted by David Griffin, Feb. 15, 2006
Marco and I have braved morning traffic in fair Milano and made it safely to Milan Linate airport. The closest to downtown of the three La Grande Milano airports, Linate is the original air terminal in this city of nearly 4.5 million people, including the surrounding area. It has a stately feel to it, which is to say that it is old and, surprisingly, looks it. I say surprised as cutting edge design in all forms and the Milano culture seem inextricably entwined. You can rest assured that this city will not allow Linate to wallow in shabby chic for long.
Juxtaposing the stately nature of the building and interior elements of the airport, we have been overrun by a group of shrill, over caffeinated 12-year-old girls on a sight-seeing field trip. Some 27 strong, they are from a private junior high school and are furiously banging out text messages (probably to each other) and screaming to one another as though they are in a wind tunnel. I wouldn’t sound quite so cranky, but it is 6:30am and they are eating our bandwidth. Marco has been demonstrating some updates to our player database that now features on-demand video clips (no, seriously, the guy is ridiculous in his technological brilliance) and we have suffered cyber-gridlock as a result of their “delightful” presence.
On the plus side, the flight to Athens is nearly empty other than the aforementioned “I love gum” crew. This was a plus until a rather bumpy descent over the Greek isles (which are beyond breathtaking from 1000 feet). At that point, “I love gum” turned into Italian pre-teen for “AAAAAHHHHHH WEEEEE ARE GOING TO DIEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” All is well that ends well, we are on the ground and the fasten seat belt sign is extinguished. No one has DIEEEEEED, but apparently one our fellow passengers are being hunted by Interpol. As the door opens, we are greeted by Greek authorities who demand passports immediately. Marco and I are waved past and hustle to a taxi. I can only imagine what kind of juvenile criminal mastermind we had the honor of sharing an Olympic Airlines cabin with.
Athens appears to the right about 20 minutes by overpriced taxi, up and around the hilly pass that leads away from Eleftherios Venizelos airport. It is striking, tucked in, actually wedged and stuffed into, as small an area as a city of its magnitude could possibly be. I don’t know the actual statistics on most densely populated metropolitan areas, but this place must be in the top 10 globally. It also features as profound a difference between old and new as any city this side of Cairo and Jerusalem - a Mycenaean ruin among thousands of smart phones, smart cards and SMART cars.
For the record, a SMART is the only vehicle that a Phoenix native would have a prayer of parallel parking in this town. The 1/5 scale model of a hummer truck The Gorilla blasts the T-shirt cannon from in US Airways Center is roughly the same width, but I think it is too wide to fit in the SMART footprint. Really. You can get one for €12,000 in Athens and they are very much in demand as there are nearly 4.5 million residents and apparently, space for half of their vehicles. It is expected to be released on a limited basis in the US in 2007, but the waiting list is very long and the sticker maybe $30,000 once it passes US emissions. That said, you really must see one to appreciate it. I have attached the link, just for fun – www.usa.smart.com - but for a pinch more, I would recommend you see Tracy Moorman at Scottsdale Lexus and do it up right.
Ordinarily, three busloads of SWAT team members filing into any venue might signal that you want to keep your distance. In Maroussi, 35 minutes from downtown Athens, it signals “two hours until tip-off.” This, according to Christos Stavropoulos, is just “business as usual.” The current GM of Olympiakos BC, Christos was a very successful agent, but left his practice behind to take an administrative assistant-type role with this, his hometown team.
“Of course I wanted this position,” he told me. “Olympiakos is perhaps the same as the New York Yankees in America and I love it here.” He explains that because Olympiakos is a soccer club first and foremost, their fans turn out simply to curse the Maroussi fans for their support of Panathinaikos soccer. Maroussi is only a basketball club and therefore their “fan club” is a football vagabond. In terms we can relate to, how many New York Yankee fans go in droves to a Mets game to curse that team’s support of the Boston Red Sox? This is a crazy, devout, passionate group that cannot be properly written of. As a basketball fan, I implore you to attend a game in this city, between those two teams. Of course, that is an opinion that is not shared by the management of the Suns Legacy Partners, LLC, its partners or your mother, who would like you to get home safely.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Maroussi is destroying the mighty Yanks. I have taken in six second-hand cigarettes and you can barely see the floor through the smoke, but I think the riot police are filing out. Nice timing, I remarked, given the fact that the fans in the police ringed section just threw a lighter and a soda on the floor. Fear not, I am told. They will return before the horn sounds to keep the fans on the two ends of the court separated. “First they must take a coffee and cigarette.” No kidding. No exaggeration.
As homage to Paul Shirley, in whose honor this blog is titled, I must mention that Maroussi was led, in part, by Jared Homan of Iowa State. To my knowledge, Homan is not writing a major television series nor has he secured a book deal. He is however a former Cyclone and that means something. Well, it means something to me, to (Suns Head Athletic Trainer) Aaron Nelson and to Sofocles Schortsianitis, the starting center for Olympiakos. Pronounced SCHKORTZ (like sports)-eee-A-neat-ease, SHOWF-a-cless is known here as Baby Shaq. That is likely due to the fact that he has very similar body mechanics and could have been 7-feet tall, had his 300 pound frame not been compressed into only 6-feet, 8-inches of space. Drafted in the second round of the 2003 NBA Draft by the LA Clippers, Sofocles is still just 20 years of age, but could be a Hall of Fame NFL defensive tackle. He has taken the measure of Homan early, but a big three-pointer by Homan at 3:21 remaining in the game puts the home team ahead by 11 and you can put this one in Al McCoy’s (also an Iowa native) “ol’ deep freeze.”
With 3:00 left in the ball game, our police presence returns to a rather “disgruntled” Olympiakos mob. They are down but not out. The first chair was thrown one-minute after Homan’s heroics. The last, woefully short, rains down in their fan club section and strikes a young agitator in the head. He appears unharmed after taking the “friendly fire.” Truth be told, he grabs his still burning cigarette and continues in mid-puff or mid-chant, but you can scarcely tell the difference. I am not sure this is what our good friends at ADHS had in mind when they coined the phrase “In-Hale Life.” The Maroussi fans, who for much of the game are nearly silent, are now emboldened by their stunning victory and they are wishing the mother’s of the Olympiakos fans well. Wishing them well, or slinging AA batteries at them, I am not too sure. Marco and I, along with scouts from Charlotte, the aforementioned LA Clippers, Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors take this as our cue to exit stage left.
Posted by David Griffin, Feb. 15, 2006
After a one-day sojourn to a practice in yet another country where we meet the most organized coach I have ever seen, we are back in a very cold and lightly snow-covered Milan. Names and nations have been omitted to protect the innocent, but this coach has individual “suites” set up for his players to use during breaks. A chair, foam roll used for stretching, a yoga mat, bottle of water and banana are meticulously arranged about five feet apart on the sideline across the length of the floor and when he says “get a drink”, they sidle up to their chair and sit alone, not speaking a word to one another. This is to keep focus, I suspect. Holy Smoke was it odd, but they did some terrific work there and again, the passion of this particular coach is fairly representative of the rest of our experience to date.
Okay, back to the cold part, it is -2, we have no idea where we are parked and I am certain I will perish in the carpark at Milan Bergamo Airport. Marco mutters a thing or two I dare not translate, but we survive and we spent Wednesday in Milan as Marco doubled as tour guide and shopping negotiator. There is nothing this man cannot do, I am telling you.
It has warmed up slightly during the day and we are heading to three of the most famous streets in fashion. I know, that word has nothing to do with either one of us, but indulge me please. Via Della Spiga, Via Montenapoleone and Via S. Andrea comprise what is known as the Fashion Triangle and everyone that is anyone in the world of clothing design and super models aspires to be housed here. I mean housed literally, by the way. Real Estate is at such a premium in this area downtown that apartments can sell for as much as $5,000 per square foot. And you thought Valley real estate had gone nutty?
Crossing the Piazza Della Scala and heading west through Il Galleria – an amazing 18th century edifice of shops, restaurants, ornate 100-foot ceilings and mosaic work, we came upon the world renowned mosaic Il Toro. Bronze and mosaic tile were used to create this icon in the floor of Il Galleria. Students historically come here to rub the bull with their feet before tests. When we make our approach, a German tourist runs up does a pirouette on it. Marco scoffs. It is supposed to be done with two swipes of each foot on the bull’s um, er um, nether region. If properly executed, great things follow. Sleep well Suns’ fans. We got it right.
Continuing West through Il Galleria and out into the next courtyard area, we see Il Duomo. THE Cathedral, as Marco describes it. A breathtaking Gothic cathedral, Il Duomo di Milano took 500 years to complete was started in 1386 using marble from the quarries of the Lord of Milan. Featuring 145 spires, 155 gargoyles, 3,159 statues, it is 157 meters long 109 meters high and is said to seat 40,000. This is something that simply cannot be missed.
Finally, Marco and I grab Sushi at Trattoria Giapponese. I am not sure if it was really as good as I thought it was or if the mood lighting and Valentine’s Day flowers made the moment, but it was a terrific nonetheless.
Tomorrow morning, we will head to Athens and Suns.com will no doubt be there too.
Posted by David Griffin, Feb. 14, 2006
As we are hurdling through a maze of bodies and duffel bags in the hotel lobby in Zagreb, Marco discovers that we are climbing over and around a Japanese club soccer team that was in town for some sort of tournament. If their faces are any indication of how their trip has gone, I am certain that I do not want to be anywhere near their next practice session. I could be reading into that a bit much, perhaps it is just far too early in the morning to be trod up by two wayward basketball scouts.
Unlike Schipol and Malpensa (our destination airport in Milan), Zagreb’s air terminal is very small and therefore easy to traverse. I am not in a terrible hurry however, as we are loading into a turbo prop plane that I am certain Nikoloz Tskitishvili could not lay across the width of. I am certain of this, because I watched 6-9” Mitch Kupchak, General Manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, attempt to fold himself into his bulk head seat. He is a tremendously affable man and I assume, used to the praying mantis routine he must endure. However, I can’t help but marvel at how at ease he appears. I am now much more grateful than ever to be a touch on the diminutive side.
Five-hundred twenty-nine kilometers, and one hour and 20 minutes later (329 miles) we touch down at Malpensa Airport, one of three airports with Milan attached to its name that I will depart from on this trip. After a 45 minute to an hour drive, we arrive at Chez Crespi. Marco’s wife, Simona, has prepared a phenomenal lunch featuring fresh mozzarella di bufala and Piadina. The mozzarella is made from the curd of water-buffalo milk, and is considered the original and best type, or so I am told. Piadina is a regional favorite from Pesaro, Italy, where Marco was head coach last season, which looks somewhat like a quesadilla. It is tortilla-like bread wrapped around sqaquerone cheese and prosciutto ham. One word – WOW! This recipe will be appearing in the soon to be famous Suns.com Recipes of the World section. No pressure Misters McPeek and Koek. The highlight of the visit however, is the tour of their home and more directly, Marco’s video room. He has outfitted his office with three different satellites, TIVO-like recorders, computer and video monitors that rival any you will see at NBA facilities, and a library of DVD and VHS tapes that is second to none. “This is incredible”, I remarked. “Yes, isn’t it incredible?”, Simona echoed, a knowing smile on her face.
(Happy Valentine’s Day to my wife Meredith and all basketball widows that know Simona’s plight. You are a special, special group and your husbands thank you.)
You immediately realize once inside Palazzetto di Via Paietta in Biella, Italy that the passion Marco has for the game, a passion that I think our entire basketball staff shares, is embodied here in a very special way. Boasting a capacity of 3508, ticketed seating is available on three of the four sides of the floor, standing room comprising the rest. The media section, where we are sitting, is on the end nearest the front door while standard stadium type seating is to our left and right. Your eye will be drawn immediately, however, to the opposite baseline where Biella fans – and I mean this is the purest since of that word’s root – fanatics, are working into a fever pitch, 45 minutes prior to tip-off.
Each player warming up for the home team is regaled with a song that is tailored to their name. One player has a tune that sounds not unlike the Flintstones theme with LUCA, LUCA Garri as the opening line. From there, I cannot help you, but you get the gist. There are three drums that look like they were taken from the set of the movie Troy directly inside a plexi barrier that encloses the section. Team flags, banners and intricate homemade signs are waved as the group jumps in place, ala the Cameron crazies, and the drums begin to wail. Now everyone on the three sides appears ready for battle.
Flavio Tranquilo, the voice of Italian basketball, is a tremendous friend of the Suns’ organization, and has joined Marco and I on the one-hour 20 minute drive. He points out a hand-painted sign that reads “Albo Libero” or Free Albo! He and Marco proceed to explain the tale of Albo, a former fixture at PalaBiella who was banned from the arena for two seasons after a particularly raucous evening in which he was ejected and refused to leave. Now, as the story goes, he must go to the police station every home game night and turn in his ID. If he is found in the gym, he will literally be incarcerated. I did use the word fanatic earlier, did I not?
The opponent on this night is Benetton Treviso, a model franchise in sports, quite frankly, and a 1st division rival of the highest order. Everyone anticipates a great night and it is no accident that we are joined at this game by the aforementioned Mr. Kupchak and three other members of his basketball staff. Ronnie Lester, their assistant GM, Adam Filipi, their international scout and the recently retired Vlade Divac. The Chicago Bulls are represented in the form of Ivica Ducan, their Director of European Scouting and their Director of Player Personnel Gar Forman, whom I have encountered more in that last three months than I had in the previous six seasons. I will take this to mean that we are both at the right games. Sam Foggin, international scouting coordinator for the Orlando Magic rounds out the crew that has descended upon this small gym in the Piemonte Region of Italy.
In referring to Benetton as a model franchise, I was being quite sincere. Located in Treviso, Italy, and owned by the Benetton family (United Colors of Benetton clothing, among many other incredibly diverse holdings), they are routinely among the Top 16 in Euroleague and Final 4 in Italy. Once again, in case you haven’t caught on to the Mike D’Antoni is an Italian League icon theme we have going on here, it is the team that Coach led to the Italian League Title the season before we signed him as an assistant coach. I knew that part coming in, but to hear our boy Flavio tell it, Mike also has a statue in Il Duomo. I will save Il’ Duomo for a later paragraph. Alas, I digress… Maurizio Gherardini, Treviso’s President of Basketball Operations (not his actual title, rather, what he actually does) is widely recognized as the preeminent team architect in all of Europe. Admittedly, there is subjectivity involved in any such discussion, but you will not hear too many names before his when the question is posed to International Basketball aficionados. You could go on forever when discussing their operation, but simply put, Benetton has built a basketball academy and campus in Treviso that has been developing some of the best young talent in the world for many years. Their talent searching tentacles reach into literally six of seven continents and their current roster features players from eight different countries.
Originally a Division C2 team, Angelico Biella, the home team, is a tremendous story in its’ own right and very well respected club in the international basketball community. In order to understand what it means to rise from the 6th and last division of Italian Basketball to A1 or 1st division you have to do some work for me. Imagine a visionary from your local health club going around town plucking the best 18-35 year-old players in Phoenix Men’s leagues and starting a team. The players have to keep their day jobs, and they practice twice a week in preparation for their one game a week against other accountant types (sorry Mr. Pitman). Now, imagine that team makes slight roster improvements each year for 6 years and then regularly beats the league’s best teams in the 7th season.
That is truly the tale of this team. One of their founders, Alberto Savio, is a textiles magnate and among the most impressive high energy people you will have the pleasure of meeting. In much the same way that speaking with Cotton Fitzsimmons could raise your spirits and make you believe you could move mountains, Alberto makes you believe that the city Biella is moving them right before your eyes. As he explains “the passion the fans have for this franchise is unparalleled. They have taken us in from the beginning and we built this team for them.” Sound a bit like a little expansion team founded in the desert in 1968 that you might know?
Ironically, one of the most intriguing talents in the game, Thabo Sefolosha, is from Switzerland, itself not known as a basketball hot bed. He is playing with Biella after spending last season in Chalon, France. He is one of the “draft eligible” players I mentioned in an earlier entry as he is born in 1984 and is thus 22 years of age this calendar year. He came to Biella in part because he and his representatives appreciated the synergy that exists in the town and the franchise – well that and certain playing time in a tremendously competitive league. It is an environment ripe for growth both on and off the floor, or so Alberto tells me. I am not going to disagree, not with that guy.
Perhaps, the most recognizable name to many of you will be Marcus Goree, who starred at West Virginia University from 1996 to 2000 before embarking on a very accomplished International career that has included stops in the alphabet soup of US minor leagues, France, Germany, Israel, Spain and now, Italy. He has become a mainstay of Euroleague contenders and is what our main man, Cotton would call a “Dirt Worker.”
Quite often, a player like Goree, who is roughly 6-8”, 245 and labeled a “tweener” by NBA teams, will be highly productive in Europe playing the larger of the two positions he is allegedly stuck between. If he attacks the game with a desire to win, a willingness to learn and develops his skill set, one of two things often happens. One, he will become so coveted by coaches in Europe that he will reach a very comfortable contractual level – upwards of $1,000,000 net in rare cases. This can make “trying-out” in a veteran training camp financially suicidal.
Our own Pat Burke is a case in point. He was a 30-year old rookie with the Orlando Magic two seasons ago because he didn’t really have the appetite to walk away from the career he had crafted for himself overseas. Now, he is more appreciative than ever to be back in the states, but more prepared than ever to knock down that lefty jumper from the top of the key.
In the other scenario, a player will re-enter the NBA radar a bit earlier. This is often the case with guards, as they do not demand the same compensation that big men do. Two players that come to mind immediately when discussing this phenomenon are Bruce Bowen of the Spurs and your very own, Raja Bell. Raja is really more a testament to the value of the US minor league system, as he did not spend too much time at Tau Vittoria in Spain, but he certainly represents the hard work, blue collar concept of the “dirtworker.” Also, if you say his name in the same gritty, RRRRRRRAJJJAAAAAAHHHHH Bell tone that Cedric Ceballos does down at US Airways Center, you almost can’t stop throwing his name around.
Angelico Biella fell 70-73 to the visiting Benetton club, or as you may have put together on your own, the clothing makers triumphed over the textile producers yet again. The game is extremely competitive and we head back to Milan in nearly a basketball coma. You know, the kind you experience after Thanksgiving when you are as blissful and bloated as you can tolerate. It is truly a special life experience.
Posted by David Griffin, Feb. 11, 2006
After staying up most of my first night watching EuroSport TV’s coverage of the African Cup of Nations soccer (football) final, I was perhaps a bit worse for wear, but it was worth it. Ivory Coast and host Egypt battled to a nil-nil deadlock that is only broken after extra time. In a shootout, which is the most exciting thing you can see on the pitch, Egypt prevails and the Cairo crowd, President Hosni Mubarak among them, goes beyond wild. Football crowds will be revisited later in this report, so consider that a primer.
As you may have noticed from my recap, I am a football neophyte and don’t really get it as of yet. However, I was riveted to the screen after the announcer, an extremely thickly accented Scotsman, described a player from Ivory Coast by the name of Kone’, as “a blur of a talent, midget striker.” How could I then turn away?
Of the many ways that European airports are light years ahead of their American counterparts, my favorite aspect of Schipol Airport in Amsterdam is the moving sidewalk that replaces your standard escalator. Picture a flat surface, angled slightly up or down, depending on your particular needs and a wayward, delinquent flier. The metal may as well be a runway as you can sprint along with your luggage in tow as bewildered on-time fliers look on in amusement. I mean… I heard.
Once checked in, you can browse the offerings in what is a full scale shopping mall right in the arrivals hall. Fortunately, the flight to Zagreb is delayed 44 minutes, so I will be able to wander a bit. Any and everything that you could need is available here - from a full service supermarket to the Holland Boulevard Casino. The Dutch propaganda that is available at the very tech-driven information booth refers to Schipol Plaza as a modern city, within the city and that seems fair. While I avoid the McDonald’s near Lounge 3, which is in and of itself a huge upset, I cannot fight off a quick coffee at the snack bar nearest my gate. The coffee seems to me to be Dutch derivative of paint thinner, but I am a Starbuck’s Mocha Frappaccino addict so what do I know of café’? Its accompaniment however is a wafer that you may want to look into securing. Known here as “siroopwafelen” which is Dutch for “syrup waffle”, it is essentially two pieces of Coldstone waffle cone sandwiched around incredibly rich caramel. Later in the day, I will come to believe that “siroopwafelen” is Dutch for “sugarbomb”, but that is a sad tale for another day.
Upon arrival at the hotel in Zagreb, I meet up with the aforementioned Marvelous Marco Crespi. Marco is a former and probably future Euroleague Head Coach and has an extensive resume that includes a stop in Milan as an assistant to Mike D’Antoni and numerous Italian and Spanish league head coaching stints. This has helped him develop a diverse network of contacts and they are essential to our International scouting efforts.
To put into perspective how many players you are dealing with outside of the United States, consider that there are 1024 active member institutions in the NCAA. Of those, 334 schools play Division 1 basketball. Meanwhile, there are roughly 4000 FIBA-level teams playing in 442 International leagues, spanning 143 countries. The most popular and extensive International Website, Eurobasket.com has nearly 94,000 player profiles in their database. If someone is going to get “discovered”, odds are that they will reside outside of the United States and tracking them is a tremendous networking challenging. Without someone like Marco pairing the field, scouting trips would be far too extensive and therefore expensive to be feasible. At least, that is my take on it.
All of that said, Marco handles our game schedule here and does a terrific job. Tonight at Sporthall Trnsko, KK Zagreb hosts KK Partizan of Serbia & Montenegro. KK, by the way stands for kosarkaski klub or “basketball club.” Partizan is the favorite to win the Goodyear Adriatic League nearly every year and also plays on the highest level of European basketball known as Euroleague, while KK Zagreb plays second fiddle in its own city to a club by the name of Cibona. Pre-game, it occurs to me that Partizan’s presence here might be similar to Duke University playing at North Carolina-Wilmington, but only if the North Carolina National Guard needed to escort JJ Redick from the floor.
Zagreb is a heavy underdog and the crowd of 2200, roughly 300 below capacity seems to know it. From the outset they seem deflated and they are never really factor in the ball game. I have to admit to being shocked by this. Many of you will know this already, but there is still not very much love lost between the Serbians and Croatians.
Last year, Bryan Colangelo, Ljubisav Lukovic – our tremendous Serbian scout – and I were at a Zagreb Cibona-Partizan game in Belgrade that bordered on riotous throughout. While sitting in the first row along the floor, we felt coins, batteries and even cell phone parts flying past our heads and onto the court itself. This is so common in much of Europe that the benches often have plexi-glass shields behind them. That particular game was played the same week as a football match that saw Partizan faithful launch a home-made rocket, a hard core firework really, into the Cibona Zagreb crowd, injuring a dozen people. As a result, we watched that night as riot police in full regalia lined every aisle of the arena and the parking lot looked like a military staging ground.
On this night, there will be no riot and the home team gets trounced 108-68. Partizan is led, in part by Vonteego Cummings, who Suns’ fans will most likely remember as a member of the Golden State Warriors. He also saw time with Cleveland and Philadelphia before beginning his European career in Italy in 2003. Last season, he played for Hemofarm in Vrsac, Serbia and Partizan brought him in after an early season injury to their starting point guard. This is his first Adriatic League game of the year and while he does not appear to have his legs, he totaled 11 points and 3 assists in 24 minutes.
Because the game is so lopsided, younger kids play the bulk of the minutes and that is altogether acceptable for the seven scouts in attendance. In addition to your two Suns’ representatives, the Los Angeles Lakers had three pairs of eyes in the gym, Portland and Miami were also on hand. Not surprisingly, “underclassmen” make up a good portion of the talent pool over here as they do in the US and getting to see them play significant minutes is never a bad thing. Internationally, for the 2006 NBA Draft, underclassmen could be defined as anyone born later than 1984. Everyone born in 1983 and before, if their rights are not owned by an NBA team, would be considered a possible Free Agent signee. Obviously their contract status plays into that, but you get the idea.
Following the game, a group of us took in dinner at Gallo, a Mediterranean restaurant walking distance from our hotel. I recommend the local red wine, Seafood Salad appetizer and Crème Caramel dessert. In between, try a plate of Croatian Veal, but pass on the Scampi Risotto, which should have been called fish oatmeal.
We are scheduled to fly into Milan in the morning and I hope to get back to you after our game at Biella.
Posted by David Griffin, Feb. 10, 2006
The first leg of the trip starts with a quick 4-hour, 21-minute jaunt from Phoenix to Philadelphia where I will connect to Amsterdam and then Zagreb. There, I will meet up with Mi hermano, Marco Crespi our Director of International Scouting.
As fate would have it, I am seated next to an Enterprise Data Sales Director for Verizon Wireless. I call this fate as I am a gadget junkie and he is the classic High-tech salesman – which is to say that he asks very good questions and then answers them for me. Before too terribly long, he is explaining in incredible detail, the future of bandwidth, content management and the advanced nature of Asian wireless infrastructure. I can’t say that I understand enough of it to be of use to anyone, but suffice it to say that I need one of their wi-fi internet cards for my laptop post-haste.
For the purposes of this blog, I suppose the most important part of our extensive conversation was what he shared about his impressions of the NBA and our game. He is from Lower Merion, Pennsylvania and is not at all a fan of the pro game. He has however attended the occasional 76ers game and confesses to “really appreciate” Raja Bell, who played for Philly and was, according to my new-found friend, “a really good guy who played really tough defense.” “Where is he now?” he asks. “With us, actually.” “Really? What about Steve Nash, who does he play for?” I almost think this is a set-up at this point, but I of course mentioned that he plays for your Phoenix Suns, is like Raja, a really good guy and is the reigning MVP. “Wow! That is amazing for such a little guy. I like him because he gets everyone involved and doesn’t hold the ball too much… but, he really needs a haircut.”
I can’t grow that much hair, so I probably related that story due to latent aggression and jealousy, but what he mentioned about style of play is significant as it pertains to scouting in Europe.
For the most part, the international game is known for its ball movement and the size-to-skill ratio of their individual players. On the other hand, the NBA game has gotten the sometimes deserved rap as a league driven by athleticism, speed and power (can you say, Marion, Barbosa and Stoudemire). While I think that is far too simplistic a view, especially with the influx of International players in our league, I agree that traditionally, more emphasis is placed on a players’ abilities to dribble, pass and shoot in Europe. And, “holding the ball” is indeed taboo here which tends to lead to more unselfish, free flowing basketball.
During his time as a Championship player and coach in Italy, Suns Head Coach Mike D’Antoni obviously grew to appreciate this brand of ball. Perhaps it would be better stated to say that he loved playing that way and saw that it really can work once he started his illustrious coaching career. Using unselfish, free flowing basketball as a backdrop and adding the athleticism, speed and power of NBA athletes, I think yields Coach D’Antoni’s system. As a result, I believe that we employ a system that makes the most of what everyone has to offer and limits the exposure of their weaknesses. In other words, our coaching staff, including assistants Marc Iavaroni, Alvin Gentry, Phil Weber and Dan D’Antoni has created a hybrid of the International and NBA games that is an awful lot of fun to watch and tough to guard.
Additionally, they have created a system that is really enjoyable to scout to. John Shumate, Vinny Del Negro, Ljubisav Lukovic, Marco and I can spend the bulk of our time looking for players that can put the pressure on a defense with either their skill set or athleticism. Our President and General Manager, Bryan Colangelo often reminds us to “tell me what he can do, not what he can’t.” That mindset will be the template from which I write about the players we see on this trip. The mindset of a gadget junkie and a closet product marketer will probably explain the rest.