If you're a basketball fan, you probably remember the gold medal game at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Lord knows I do. I had just finished my first season playing in Spain (and my second professional season overall), so watching my native country, the United States, and my adopted home, Spain, get it on for the gold was something that gave me an embarrassing amount of joy. Predictably, like a lot of basketball fanatics in the States, I stayed up late on the East Coast to catch the 2:30 a.m. tip-off. The game turned out to be a classic, and it was worth every sleepless second.
Team USA had control for most of the way, but Spain would not quit. Ricky Rubio, then 17 years old, was impressive, and Rudy Fernandez had a dunk on Dwight Howard that I can only describe as "muy bueno." It was crazy, and by the end of the game Team USA's lead had basically disappeared. I was in heaven at this point, rooting for my country but definitely relishing the unbelievable circumstances of a down-to-the-wire gold medal game. I had also obliterated a bag of trail mix over the course of the game, so that helped keep my spirits high.
That U.S. team, of course, was absolutely stacked: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, to name a few. Are you kidding me? That is just an absolute monster squad, probably one of the best and most dynamic ever assembled. For their part, the Spanish team had some pretty good ballplayers, too: Ricky, Rudy, Jose Calderon (who was out for the gold medal game), Juan Carlos Navarro, and, as they call them in Spain, los hermanos Gasol. Spain had talent on that team, no doubt, but nothing close to the absurd collection of NBA stars that wore the red, white and blue.
So, as someone with experience playing in Spain, was I amazed that the Spaniards pushed Team USA to the brink? Was I shocked out of my jammies when they cut the U.S. lead to as little as four with just over two minutes to play? Truthfully, I wasn't the least bit surprised, nor did I think they got lucky. Any time two teams step foot on a basketball court, crazy things can happen, but I didn't consider the competitiveness of that game to be even the slightest bit crazy.
As I had already learned, the basketball in Spain is just really, really good. Their top league, the ACB, is widely considered to be the best domestic league in Europe, with five teams having already qualified to play in the Euroleague, a competition of all the top clubs overseas. That's two more teams than any other country. Spain's domestic ball is stellar, but so is its national team. Aside from the silver in Beijing, Spain is also the defending European champions (having won the last European Championship in Poland in 2009), with a full roster of talented players, many of whom have had legit success in the NBA.
I've played two more years in Spain since watching the United States win gold, and I've only grown more convinced that Spain's continued basketball success both internationally and at home is no coincidence. There has to be a reason for it. Like Ron Burgundy said: "It's science." Granted, it may not be molecular biology, but based on my experiences as someone who has lived the Spanish culture of basketball for many years, I have some ideas as to what it may be. I can't talk about what other countries do wrong, only about what Spain does right, and one thing seems clear to me: they're doing something right, and I'm not just talking about the paella, which, it must be noted, is phenomenal.
If you're looking at Spain's success on the basketball court, you have to start with their player development. How they teach the game, starting at a very early age, is pretty remarkable. It's definitely different than my experiences growing up, when I played a lot of games on travel teams, school teams and AAU teams, without much organized time devoted to my individual development as a player.
In Spain, young players don't just play basketball, they learn basketball. It starts with the coaches, who need to be certified by the Spanish Basketball Federation. Even coaches who work with young players need to be knowledgeable and dedicated enough to get certification, and I think that helps, because players obviously benefit from experienced instruction.
The Federation, which receives substantial support from the government, also focuses on player development by keeping binders of information on young talent from around the country, starting when the players are about 16 years old. If kids succeed in their local program and are on the radar of the national team, the Federation makes a binder about them. The only binder I had at that age was the unfortunate neon-green Trapper Keeper my mom bought me for high school, but for these young ballplayers in Spain, their progress and development is carefully monitored as the years go on. Their dossiers are then passed on to their various coaches so information can be added and their development can continue uninterrupted.
My friend who works in the NBA and is very familiar with the Spanish system shared some of these details with me, but I've also observed a lot of it firsthand. I used to see these Spanish youngsters, anywhere from 8-14 years old, working out in my team's gym, especially if I'd go in at night to get treatment from our crotchety old Spanish trainer. Once in a while, if our trainer needed a smoke break, I'd peek my head into the gym to watch them for a bit, and I was always kind of amazed. There would regularly be a whole team of players working with one coach. Their drills were serious and disciplined, without yelling or screaming or anything like that. Instead, the coaches would instruct and the players would listen, working on things like footwork, ball handling and shooting with the proper mechanics.
These kids were learning and practicing key basketball basics, but they were also being taught important social lessons about the game. Without even knowing it, they were learning how to take direction. They were following instructions. They were listening. They were trusting their coach and applying his advice. Also, because there were multiple players working with the same coach, they were all learning how to function in a group dynamic. Now don't get me wrong, they weren't singing Kumbaya or doing a team-building ropes course or anything like that. But they were definitely getting practical experience cooperating with other people, and I think this translates into better basketball.
These all may seem like little things, but they go a long way. The physical fundamentals are vital (duh) but so are the social ones. From what I've seen, this is one area where the Spanish really excel. They definitely have highly developed skill sets, but to be honest, I've never played with a Spanish guy who I didn't consider to be a great teammate. They all communicated well, they were coachable, they were willing to work together, they believed in the team concept and more than anything, they were committed to winning over individual success.
I've seen respected veterans get short-changed on playing time, but not say a word about it, and I've seen guys stand up on the bench and scream support for a teammate who was taking his minutes. The memory I have that best sums it up, though, is when I had a great game during my first year in Spain. After we'd won, our captain, a well-known player throughout Spain, ran up to me and kissed the top of my head. It was something small, but it said a lot about how much he cared -- about me, about the team and about the game of basketball.
If you look at the statistics in Spain's top league, the ACB, you'll see that on many teams, there are nine or 10 guys who each play around 20 minutes a game. That is very common there. When I played in the ACB, my team was like that, and no one complained about it. I think this winning spirit helps make their leagues extremely competitive, their national team ultra-cohesive, and, maybe to a lesser extent, their players successful in the NBA.
The rules of the Spanish leagues also help their domestic players develop. Unlike some other countries overseas like Germany, Israel or Italy, Spain only allows two Americans per team. (A few other countries do this as well, including Greece.) As a result, there's more of an emphasis on the local players. I don't think it's a coincidence that the national teams of both Spain and Greece have thrived, and their players are among some of the best that Europe has to offer. I'm not just speaking about guys from these countries that have played in the NBA, either. Spain has great players like Felipe Reyes, Alex Mumbrú and Victor Sada, just to name a couple, who have never logged a minute in the NBA. In Greece, it's the same way: Dimitris Diamintidis, Theo Papaloukas and Sofoklis "Big Sofo" Schortsanitis are all beasts overseas, and the Greek leagues and national team are also very highly regarded.
While I've never played in Greece, I spent three seasons in Spain, so I have an understanding of their basketball culture. I've seen how good their players are and how their youngsters are supported and pushed to get to that level. The system they've developed certainly doesn't guarantee success for every young basketball player in Spain, but it seems like it does a pretty good job of trying to maximize the possibilities. Good role models, good instruction, good mentality, good opportunity, good paella. That sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
On the surface, this may seem like an idealistic portrayal of the game of basketball, but I can only speak about what I've observed. While the system in Spain is obviously not perfect, they do a damn good job of teaching, playing and respecting the game. Empirical evidence would support this. I can't say what started this method of Spanish basketball, or why other countries haven't been able to replicate it with the same level of effectiveness. I can only speak about the reality of the situation as I've seen it, and about the paella, but only because I love it so much. The fact is that other countries overseas like Italy, Germany, Brazil, Russia, France and Turkey have larger populations than Spain, and though all these countries have had considerable individual and/or team success, they haven't consistently proven themselves to be the best basketball nation outside of the States. That honor goes to Espaňa. If you're interested, watch the Spanish play. It's a lot of fun, and I bet you'll see why they've closed the gap with Team USA to a tiny fraction of what it once was.