Road Trippin’ PER Hollinger

BILBAO, SPAIN – Made it. After 16 hours, three flights, three countries, the world’s slowest rental car counter and one winding drive into town, I have just enough time to squeeze in a short nap before slurping some coffee into my jetlagged brain and head off to a game an hour’s drive away.

Welcome to the glamorous world of overseas scouting, where I’m on the first leg of an eight-day excursion around Europe in search of (hopefully) the next great Grizzlies import, something that has become an increasingly important task in the NBA over the past two decades. Few teams have benefited more than ours -- we’ve been fortunate enough to yield two All-Stars from a single household in Barcelona, Spain, as well as several other players (most recently, Nick Calathes, JaMychal Green and Jordan Farmar) who joined us after playing in Europe.

These days, scouting overseas is a constant endeavor – we can watch video of nearly every game from the comfort of our lair in FedExForum, and we also have a full-time scout over there constantly combing the continent for talent and information.

Alas, remote scouting only gets you so far. Some things just don’t translate that well over video, especially when the production values on the camerawork aren’t exactly Francis Ford Coppola material. We have to see these guys in the flesh, too, and that’s why I’m in Europe right now. Twice a year, I head over the ocean for a week or so to get a closer look at the most intriguing talent.

While the idea of gallivanting around Europe may sound alluring, this isn’t exactly a Rick Steves traipse through cafes and museums. We have to go where the games are, on the days they are played, and they selfishly set up the game schedules and flight connections without my comfort in mind. On a typical trip I’ll spend most of my waking hours in the 4-A club: airports, airplanes, automobiles and arenas. Perhaps 95% of the remainder will be spent trying to steal a few winks in a hotel room. (Best example: I once spent three straight nights in a Paris airport hotel without seeing a single inch of Parisian soil).

On this trip, I’ll start by going to three cities in Spain (Bilbao, Madrid, Barcelona), and finish by spending three nights in Belgrade, Serbia to see our 2016 second-round pick, Rade Zagorac. While 4 cities in 7 days may seem hectic, by the standards of a typical scouting trip this is an extremely civil itinerary – I’ve had trips where I’ve changed countries every single day.

Getting there is half the fun. As you might have guessed, there are no direct flights between Memphis, Tennessee and Bilbao, Spain. After hopscotching to Atlanta, pretending to sleep on an overnight flight to Amsterdam, sleepwalking through EU customs, and connecting again from Amsterdam to Bilbao, I’m finally here.

Bilbao is a pleasant but often cloudy mid-sized city in north central Spain that straddles a river, with green hills going up one side and a light rail line along the river – making it reminiscent of my former home of Portland, Oregon. Although nominally part of Spain, the locals speak Basque, an impenetrable tongue that has no relation to Spanish or any other known dialect. Normally if English fails, my replacement-level Spanish gets me by in this country, but in the Basque region things can get more complicated.

The city is known mainly for two things – its food, especially the local tapas known as “pinxtos”, and the architectural wonder of the Guggenheim museum. Not that I’ll get to experience either on this schedule. I land at 4 pm, have to drive an hour to a game that starts at 9 pm, and will fly out the next day.

Thus, my tour of the cuisine scene will be an exquisite place called “Gela-Zerbitzua” – it sounds fancy when you tell friends, but actually it’s Basque for “room service.”

As for the museum, I’m fortunate enough to be staying directly across the street from it, which will allow me to play tourist for maybe four minutes tomorrow morning before I go back to the airport. This is the third time in two years I’ve stayed directly across the street from the Guggenheim, and I’ve yet to go inside. (I know, cue the violins…).

What I’ll be doing instead is driving to Vitoria, Spain for a Euroleague game between Baskonia Vitoria and UNICS Kazan. Most teams in Europe play in two separate competitions simultaneously – one game a week in a pan-European competition (the Euroleague, in this case) and one in a domestic league. It’s a little bit like what college sports would be if non-conference games were organized as a completely separate competition.

It’s fortunate in this case – UNICS Kazan has several talented players worth seeing, but the team is based in the Russian hinterland; I can see them here instead. Meanwhile, Baskonia Vitoria has six former NBA players on their roster, and a couple of young players that are also worth watching.

The arena experience here is also something different, and much more varied than the NBA -- it’s a box of chocolates depending on which team and which country you go to. Only two things are guaranteed: 1) Parking will be an entirely improvisational, order-free affair, and 2) inside, there will be an unusually large “moat” between the court and the seats.

In Spain, the arena experience feels like a good college game – the arenas are large but smaller than those in the NBA, and most don’t play music during the games. Instead, the home team’s fans will crowd together in one section (they do this in much of Europe, even if the rest of the place is totally empty) and chant and sing the entire game. The more enterprising fan bases will have a percussion section banging away too.

On this night, the Baskonia fans are singing and dancing like crazy, as the home squad’s NBA vets do whatever they want on offense and beat the tar out of Kazan, 102-70. On the way back, I get some accidental culture by witnessing first-hand how the Spanish do time – It’s near midnight on a Thursday, but the streets that were deserted when I left at 7 pm are now completely swarming with people, and I’m caught in a traffic jam.

Rinse, lather and repeat seven times, and you have a scouting trip. Tomorrow I get to do this all over again in Madrid, watching Euroleague powerhouses CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid. With any luck, Gela-Zerbitzua will have a franchise in that city too.