For those who enjoy travel and love hoops, there are worse ways to spend a summer.
It is late August 2013. I journey to Puerto Rico and Venezuela, part of the Canada Men’s Basketball staff. I am an advance scout, tasked with providing intel on the countries set to compete in the FIBA Americas qualifying tournament. At stake is a coveted place in the prestigious World Cup, to be held the following year in Spain.
The work starts months in advance. I slowly build dossiers on our likely opponents. Splice together snippets of game video and various You Tube clips, check stats from college and club teams. In addition, articles from foreign newspapers and magazines, many crudely converted into English via Google Translate, assist further in piecing together information. Hopefully some ideas of player availability, player tendencies, offensive sets, preferred defences, free throw %s, end game specials and more, will emerge.
From there, the first stop is San Juan, home of the biannual “Tuto” Marchand Cup. This competition, held the week prior to the FIBA Americas event, invariably gives a strong indication of the top teams in the federation. I watch the first two days of play, happy enough that much in my notes seems to jive with the on court action. The host Puerto Ricans do look strong, as does Argentina. Canada, its roster strengthened by a growing number of NBA players, drops its opening two games, yet appears on an upward trajectory, a legitimate medal threat.
The tournament continues, though without me. Instead, I take a United Airlines flight south across the Caribbean. Once settled in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, I am to assess the merits of the hosts, as well as Uruguay, Mexico and Jamaica. These four teams, not involved in the “Tuto”, instead are playing their own exhibition series, with the full ten team FIBA event to then follow.
The plane lands at Simon Bolivar airport, and I soon enter a crowded arrivals hall. Here my luck changes for the better, as, for reasons still unknown, I am pulled aside and ushered quickly through security. Then, my passport stamped, I exit via a side door.
Outside the terminal, a jet black Range Rover gleams in the bright sunshine. Its driver, Juan, impeccably dressed in a navy suit, red tie and pocket square, announces he will drive me to the hotel. Somehow, my travel bag has already been collected. We motor along La Guaira highway to the city centre.
I cannot fathom my good fortune; can only assume I have been somehow mistaken for a high ranking FIBA alickadoo. But I keep these thoughts to myself. Indeed, Juan ends up my personal chauffeur for the next few days. He speaks excellent English, even if somewhat reticent to fully explain his role. I decide on a policy of don't ask, don't tell. Officially, he works for the tournament.
The capital is certainly an interesting place. Juan, handy at the wheel but also a treasure trove of information, advises I take care if wandering about. Caracas is an annual contender for "most dangerous city in the world" he tells me.
I learn some Venezuelan history. Colonized by Spain early in the 16th century, the country subsequently endures plenty of drama and turbulence. Slavery, assassinations, political turmoil, coup d’états, authoritarian leaders, economic collapse feature regularly. There are pockets of extreme wealth, but also grinding poverty.
There is beauty as well. Juan insists I take the Teleferico gondola to the top of nearby Avila mountain. It is a breathtaking ride. On return we lunch at a local restaurant, feasting on pabellon criollo, the national dish of rice, shredded beef, black beans and tomatoes. All washed down by icy Polar beers.
Come late afternoon it is back to the job at hand. Juan drops me off at the Poliedro, a 13,000 seat arena lying beneath a geodesic dome. A busy multi-purpose facility, it hosts everything from beauty pageants to trade shows to the circus. As well as all manner of sporting events. Boxing, ice skating, volleyball. And, for the next two weeks, basketball.
I watch the action closely, jot down a thing or two, pick up videotape, then return to the hotel to finalize my reports. With the exception of Paraguay, between the “Tuto” and the games here in Caracas I have now seen, live in the flesh, all the teams who will contest the FIBA tournament. The contests at the Poliedro only reinforce my beliefs, namely that there are thousands of outstanding players dotted all about the globe and that NBA talent will not necessarily translate to immediate international success.
Indeed, there are other intangibles to consider. As is the case with many Latin American teams, Venezuela, if not necessarily easy on the eye, plays with tremendous emotion, spurred on by a passionate head coach and delirious local support. In addition, there is the punishing tournament schedule, potentially nine games in 12 days, not to mention the vagaries of FIBA rules and random officiating. Bench strength, fitness and overall health will also all factor in. As will Lady Luck.
The Canadian squad duly arrives from Puerto Rico. Optimism prevails. The team is improving daily, thanks in large part to solid defence and strong rebounding. We are in with a chance.
A meeting at the hotel is scheduled. I am to present my views to the full coaching staff and management. A definite “who’s who” in Canadian basketball circles, they are an intimidating group, headed by Toronto Raptors Vice President Maurizio Gherardini. A European hoops legend, first at Forli, then in Benetton, he knows everything there is to know about scouting.
Eventually, it is my turn to speak. General consensus suggests that Puerto Rico and Argentina, finalists at the “Tuto”, are elite teams. That Canada should threaten. It is very tempting for me not to rock the boat, just to agree with these sentiments. To do otherwise could leave me badly exposed.
Still, taking a deep breath, I plump for Mexico. This draws not unexpected reactions from the others, from puzzled looks to raised eyebrows. After all, Mexico is a very late addition to the tournament, only taking part due to Panama's recent suspension for financial irregularities.
Nonetheless, I persevere. I hand out various updated statistics, the analytics deemed so necessary in game planning and preparation. But more significantly to me, there is just something about the Mexicans that excites. They are very good, as solid a selection as I have seen through the summer. I have a gut feeling their spirit, their fervor, their deep, quick and skilled backcourt, along with 6’9” power forward Gustavo Ayon, can do damage. Ayon, in my opinion, is a very special player, in his "day job" an NBA journeyman but Superman when he dons national colours.
I depart Caracas for home early the next morning. I extend best wishes to the Canada squad, and to Juan. I am sad to go, but safe in the knowledge I can watch the tournament unfold via livestream TV.
To my delight, Canada begins well. Three handsome Pool A wins over Jamaica, Brazil and Uruguay outweigh a single defeat to Puerto Rico. Then, in the first cross over game, we put Mexico to the sword by 89-67. I must confess I have egg on my face, some of my pre-tournament analysis looking decidedly shaky.
However, FIBA qualifying tournaments are nothing if not multi-layered and unpredictable. A single result can be misleading, a one point loss the same as a twenty point loss. Teams limit the minutes of, even rest completely, star players. Throw in the towel if and when necessary, in the hope of later success. Significant momentum swings are therefore commonplace, yesterday’s victory or defeat forgotten or replaced swiftly by the importance of the next game.
Alas, we falter at the wrong time. On course to reach the medal round, despite imposing defensive credentials we struggle to record key stops. Erratic outside shooting and ill-advised fouls further contribute to three consecutive narrow defeats. A Canadian return to the World Cup, basketball’s international shop window, must wait.
By way of contrast, Mexico recovers from its Canada pasting, scraping into the final four. Once there, though fatigued and hobbled by injury, the team scrambles past Argentina in one semi-final. Then, mounting an impassioned, gutsy fourth quarter comeback, it upsets Puerto Rico 91-89 to claim a first ever FIBA title. Ayon is voted MVP.
In this regard, for me personally at least, the Mexico success provides some consolation. If nothing else, a vindication of sorts.