|The Write Space and Time|
Oklahoma head coach Sherri Coale will spend her summer leading Team USA's World University Games women's basketball entry, a team that includes Sooner senior-to-be Aaryn Ellenberg. Follow her exploits with her daily journal in a special edition series of The Write Space and Time.
|Team USA Official Page|
July 16, 2013 -- USA! USA! USA! Earning a gold medal by beating Russia in Russia is a beautiful thing. What an experience this has been!
Today has been ridiculous. We had a meeting this morning at 10:30 a.m. before practice, then we had shootaround at noon ... then we packed our bags so that they could be loaded on the truck at 6 p.m. ... then we left for the gym at 7 p.m. ... and we're at the airport now and it's 2:45 a.m. Somewhere in the middle of all that we played really well and won a gold medal at the World University Games.
Our team played our best game together at the most important time. We shared the ball on offense, we ran in transition, and we got down and guarded a Russian squad that can shred you if you're not all on the same page. We defended their ball screens and adjusted to their adjustments while flooding the paint and daring them to launch three's. And we had a counterpunch for every punch they threw. That's what great players do on big, bright stages.
I am so proud of our team's approach to this game. They knew personal tendencies and played them appropriately, and they were way more worried about winning the game than who would get the credit for it. That's the only way you get a gold medal.
I would be remiss if I didn't write a bit about my two assistant coaches, Coquese Washington from Penn State and Brian Giorgis from Marist University. Both are excellent basketball coaches and both completely and totally invested themselves in their roles, preparing thorough game plans for our opponents and being everything that I needed them to be. Becoming an assistant coach for a month is not an easy thing when you're accustomed to calling all the shots. But they were tremendous. Giving up a month of summer and a significant period of recruiting evaluation is an enormous personal and professional sacrifice that I am indebted to each of them for making.
The same is true of our 12 players. Lots of things tug at collegiate players in the summer--being selected to participate in USA Basketball is obviously an honor but accepting is a choice. And it's a choice that puts the players who make it in a completely different place. It's an adventure that stretches young student-athletes in ways they never imagined. If they pay attention they can learn a lot about themselves and the game. If they really invest, they come home with a chance to shove their university teams up a notch. Every kid I have ever had participate in international play has done that--from Stacey Dales to Caton Hill to Danielle Robinson. Oklahoma Basketball got better because one teammate came home and re-drew the boundaries.
As I stood on the medal stand with my team and staff watching the American flag rise slowly to the top of the pole, I felt an enormous sense of pride and I wondered how Olympians' hearts kept from popping right out of their chests. In the weeks before the competition I had thought a lot about how it might feel to be there dripping in that moment. And then the competition began and all I thought about was trying to score more points than the other guys, so the moment actually snuck up on me. What I discovered was that I felt way more like a proud American than I did a basketball coach. Once again the game was just the vehicle. And what a ride this was!
Bringing home the gold,
July 14, 2013 -- Whew! Wow. That flag got HEAVY. We survived the semifinal game against Australia, though I felt like I was holding on to a rope while all the threads were popping. Thank goodness for a day off--it takes a bit to recover from escaping from the jaws of death. It took us until this morning to realize for sure that we were alive.
These games are challenging because most of our competitors have been together for long periods of time. Most are very experienced in international play (Australia had 26 years of experience on their roster), and most have logged hours and hours and hours making the same cuts, delivering the same passes, and running the same counters. In short, their parts are good; their whole is better.
We're just the opposite. Our parts are very good. Our whole is a definite work in progress. We had eight days of practice before traipsing across the world together to live on top of each other for three weeks and attempt to play team basketball. Nothing easy about any of that.
With 10 minutes to go against Australia, we had a 16-point lead. At seven it was 10. At four it was 5. Then it was gone. And we had to score on our last possession to get it back. What followed was a 14-second defensive stop that lasted forever and a day. But we got it! And we live to play for gold.
Our lead dissipated for obvious reasons. We took bad shots. We turned it over. We committed silly fouls. And we didn't block out. That alone can do it. But add to that the fact that you can't call a time out unless the other team scores. If you call a set and kids are confused, too bad. You won't get to stop and talk about it. If you score and want to change your defense, sorry Charlie. You can't take a timeout to make that happen. So players have to think on their feet and they have to be able to communicate and that's were eight days of prep versus eight years rears its ugly head.
So here we are: a day to pinch ourselves as a reminder that we're alive. And a day to prepare for the Russian machine. Less than 48 hours from now we'll be on a plane to Istanbul with the rest of our lives to talk about the 40-minute game that awaits us.
God Bless the USA!
Working for Gold,
July 11, 2013 -- Ok, so I just spent 20 minutes trying to figure out what day it is before writing my journal. Somehow I've missed one. Somewhere after the three days of mush spent traveling, I went from labeling my entries as days to labeling them as dates. And now I have no idea where I am. But I do know one thing: we're two wins away from gold.
We took full advantage of our day off yesterday with a shopping trip to a pedestrian street in downtown Kazan. We took the metro, which was easier, cheaper, and way less harrowing than the cabs, but it s best utilized with the assistance of an interpreter. This language is so indecipherable; it gives you no clues, so you can't figure out street names or read signs and you sure can't ask anybody a question. Luckily for us, Beth was our Savior. Getting there and back was a breeze.
The girls bought Russian dolls and Tartar dolls and postcards and Kentucky Fried Chicken! And they took lots and lots of pictures. Some rode in bicycle carriages, some tossed pennies in the fountain, and some held an owl on their arms (strange but true--they have the claw marks to prove it). It was a good morning--but Sweden never left the back of our minds.
When we returned to the village, we rested a bit and then had a meeting and film session to prepare for our quarter-final game vs Sweden before our practice. The Swedes do lots of things really, really well. They play hard. They move intentionally and with high intensity away from the ball. They screen and cut and space and they do it all for one purpose: to break you down off the dribble. And they all do that incredibly well. So the game plan was simple: keep the ball in front. Easier said than done.
We watched their sets on film; we practiced defending their tendencies when we went to the gym and in between and all around we talked about playing together as if it were the only that mattered in the world.
I've been really impressed with our athletes. They have been respectful and responsible, and they're trying really hard to make this the special sort of experience it can and should be. Great players generally are so because they understand how to focus. That's really started to show here in this competition as the ante is upped.
Sweden was really hyped for our game. They had a high energy warm up and over the top spirited introductions; and despite our early 10-2 lead, their energy did not wane. They attacked and we fouled. They missed jumpers and we didn't block out. So we fouled again. And before we knew it, via lay ups and freethrows, we were down by 3.
Then our great players decided it was a big game and they took over. We got a couple of stops, kicked it up the floor in transition, and promptly went on a 14-0 run to take an 11 point lead in at halftime.
In the second half we did a much better job of keeping the ball in front and flooding the lane versus the dribble. Rashanda Gray did a terrific job of keeping the ball out of the post and of blocking out, and Odyssey Sims ran the show. Trish Liston went 3 of 4 from 3 and Crystal Bradford made things happen in the open floor and on the glass. Next thing I know, I look up and we're up 26. It happened in the blink of an eye and we never let it slip away.
Our guys can sense the importance of every possession. They have a sense of urgency about them. They get it.
Off to scout the game that will determine our semifinal opponent. Two to go...
Working for Gold,
July 10, 2013 -- Today we had our final game of pool play. We beat the Czech Republic last night and then had a really quick turnaround in facing Brazil. We did a verbal scout in a tiny classroom, then boarded a bus and left for the game. The Czechs had beaten Brazil, we had beaten the Czechs, it was three games in three days, and we had no shoot around or formal walk through -- a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, Vegas hit four 3's in the first quarter so we blazed to a 22-5 start that would carry us for the length of the game.
I said `fortunately' because the game got uglier and uglier as it went on. I'm not sure if we were already in the medal rounds in our heads or if we were still in bed, but we certainly weren't where we were supposed to be. The game was crazy physical - crazy -- like tackling and full-out lineman blocking where normally one would screen. But we survived. And while we certainly weren't as engaged as I'd hoped or as sharp as we wanted, in the great scheme of this adventure, I'm thinking it's wise to concentrate most on the present. So we moved on.
After the game we came back to the village for a while before taking our team out into the city of Kazan for dinner. Tomorrow we have a day off so this was a perfect opportunity to immerse ourselves a bit into the culture of this place. We left the village gate at 5:45 p.m. and returned some time around 10. That was dinner. Consider us immersed.
We took taxis -- which is an unexplainable and inconceivable nightmare to anyone who has ever tried to travel by taxi in almost any city in the world. They're not on every corner. You don't just jump off the curb and wave one down. It's an ordeal (and trust me when I say that word does not do the situation justice).
The World University Games do not provide team transportation for anything other than practice or competition. So if you want to go to dinner, or to other sporting events, or to visit the Kremlin, you have to figure it out. It's hard enough moving 22 people around in a foreign land if you have a bus at your disposal 24/7. Doing it without it is almost impossible.
Fortunately, our leader, Jamie, is smart and quick on her feet and perseverant. So we made it there and back unscathed. However, she's gonna need a vacation that involves a lot of sitting on the beach and staring, just to get back to center.
Our opponent in the quarterfinals is Sweden. They lost to Russia tonight, but they shouldn't have. They are talented. Very athletic. And very sure of one another. They are really skilled with the dribble and their post guy is tough and smart and versatile. But what impressed me most was just how hard they play. They do not take possessions off. So we have our work cut out for us.
Tomorrow is a day off. Another chance to explore Kazan (while also exploring a different sort of transportation!) And a day to prepare to play a really good team.
Part of me wishes they weren't quite so good, and yet a part of me knows how much more a win would mean because they are. What is it Tom Hanks says in "A League of Their Own:"
"It' supposed to be hard. If it weren't, everyone would do it. It's the hard that makes it great."
I'm counting on it.
Working for Gold,
July 9, 2013 -- Every afternoon I try to take a little jog around the village. It's therapeutic. And there is always plenty to see. I find it funny that the outdoor courts that join flag alley in the median of campus are a magnet for athletes from all countries. There are nets and goals and hoops, but by and large people gather there to shoot baskets. Plain and simple. Sometimes boxers shadow fight themselves in the corners and occasionally people hit a volleyball back and forth, but mostly athletes gather just to hoop. It's so funny. Most are ridiculously awful and yet seemingly unashamed--I suppose their prowess in their own respective venues more than tides them through.
We actually had a game plan for today's second contest vs. the Czech Republic. We saw them play live and we had a game tape, so we were able to prepare a scout and have an organized walk through. I think it helped a lot.
Our kids were focused and intentional about what they did on both ends of the floor. The flip side of the Czech team's precise, methodical execution is their predictability. When they guard a screen, they guard it one way. When they run a set play, you can count on a blueprint pattern. So we took advantage of a little of that by taking away their bread and butter actions and exploiting their defensive tendencies. But mostly we just made them play fast.
It occurs to me that styles of play so often reflect the homelands of the players. Eastern block teams enter the gym in military like likes. They warm up surgically. They rarely smile. They wouldn't dare laugh. They play to the beat of a drum on offense and they defend with a constant urgency. I can't remember seeing one ever out of a defensive stance.
But they are so rigid. Don't get me wrong, they know how to play. They click through offensive counters like Tom Brady clicks through his reads, and they'll bite you if you slip. But they want to dictate pace. They want to control tempo. They want you to conform to them.
And we weren't having any of that. So we jumped their ball screens and gambled in their passing lanes. We picked up their point guard in the back court, and we ran off every basket make or miss. They got open shots--quite a lot of them actually. But they were in such a hurry when they took them that hardly ever went in. In essence, we made them seem way worse than they were.
But that's what good teams do I think. And it's what we'll have to be able to continue to do if we want to leave here with what we came after. Two down in pool play and one to go.
Working for Gold,
July 8, 2013 -- The athlete's village has a countenance that morphs with the ebb and flow of competition. The first day it was sort of park-like -- not too crowded, everybody trying to find his way, a quiet hush of equal parts awe and sleep deprivation.
Then the pace quickened as more delegations arrived and flag raisings began to occur on a regular half hour basis. Then we had opening ceremonies and the place had a bounce seeping with anticipation and pent up energy. And as quickly as it bubbled, it froze into an almost steely resolve to attend to the matters at hand.
This place has a lot of Disneyland in it: you never see trash--even the street cracks are continually swept--except that you never see it happen. It's just perennially clean. Like the drink coolers that are continually stocked. And the sea of volunteers who never seem to sleep.
In a melting pot like this it would seem logical that countries might stick together and move in droves, but that doesn't really happen. It's certainly comforting to be able to sit down beside an American in the dining hall to share conversation and learn about respective roads to this place, but the desire of people from different lands to connect is intriguing. I've not met anyone unwelcoming.
I think the practice of pin exchange in the village is one of the ties that bind. Athletes who are separated by fortresses of language can tunnel through via the offering of pins. It becomes sort of a game to see who can acquire the most...or who can gather the most unique collection. And it gets pretty competitive.
On the way to the bus for shoot around today, our players were all comparing and lamenting the one that got away or the one they couldn't find. We loaded and up and just before the bus door closed, Vegas jumped off and ran toward three passing Australians. As aggressive as I have ever seen her be, she pointed to her USA pin on her lanyard and asking the three mates , "Pin? Pin!?" The guys looked at her sort of oddly, so she said louder and more slowly, "PIN???" As they handed her theirs and took hers, their faces reflecting sheer amusement, our fearless leader (with all the straight face she could muster) asked Vegas, "You know they speak English, right?"
It's just so hard to help yourself sometimes.
Today was Game 1 of pool play. Mali was completely overmatched. We were bigger, faster, stronger and more skilled. After we spotted them 5-0, it quickly got out of hand the other way. But it was a fun game nonetheless. Everybody played almost equal amounts and our guys really got lost in the process of making each other look good. Shoni Schimmel put on a show in full court distribution and everybody got in on the scoring act. For the most part we were disciplined and attentive to detail in a game that could have easily become recess. And it's always good to be 1 -0.
Tomorrow's game vs. the Czechs won't be so easy. In many ways they are a mini-Russia: machine like, very good perimeter shooters, disciplined defenders. So we'll have to be on our toes. Wouldn't want it any other way!
Working for Gold,
July 7, 2013 -- We have officially reached the point where I have absolutely no idea what day it is. Actually, I know very little for certain right now, but I do know this one thing: I am really, really grateful that we do not open pool play today based on the length of our night last night.
As `once in a lifetime fabulous' as the Opening Ceremonies were, they were not created with the athletes in mind. We returned to the village around 3 a.m. this morning, at which time approximately 10,000 starving athletes and their coaches descended upon the cafeteria before making their way to bed. The sun was already on its way up and our bodies had already shifted to the next day. Sleep would prove impossible. Try as we may, there was little any of us could do about it.
We had previously scheduled a friendly with Japan for noon. We had a 12 p.m. practice slot; they had a 1 p.m. practice slot at the same location, so Japan had requested the day before that we combine our time and scrimmage. We agreed and the concept was run through all the appropriate channels. Permission was granted and all seemed a `go'. We thought it was both a lovely and a logical idea. So, we all met up at our bus stop at 11--the Japanese and our team. We exchanged pleasantries and began to attempt to board only to find that the host committee workers weren't having any part of it. They apparently didn't find it to be such a lovely idea at all.
It made too much sense. We were all in agreement. No additional work by anyone would be required. It was simple. Except it wasn't. Because we were in Russia.
Here's what I mean by that: formal permission had not been given to the paid workers whose job it was to man the bus stops. The girl working there would not be swayed despite the most earnest pleas and logical explanations. Her job was to follow the exact line of her orders and not to vary from them. She would be out of work if she deviated. She was intense and adamant and the Japanese were not allowed to board.
We made it work-- Japan came a little early on their bus, we stayed a little late after our practice, and we got in about 35 minutes of scrimmaging anyway, which was probably as much as either of us needed.
But the take away was this: repression leaves residue. This is a country in which its workers are not empowered to make decisions. Creative solutions to unexpected problems do not arise, because they're not allowed. That was eye-opening for me. It seems quite obvious how America rose to dominance as a world power at lightening speed: freedom. Freedom to think and act and collaborate raises the collective intelligence and advancement of a society, period. Our constitution removes the lid. What a beautiful and taken for granted thing.
Tomorrow it begins. Pool play for us starts at 8:30 p.m. We face off against Mali in round one. The first game is always a toss up. We go in blind in terms of personnel preparation, so the goal is to make them far more worried about adjusting to us than we have to be about adjusting to them. It will be good to compete. This is what we came here for -- to measure ourselves against the best in the world. The best news of all: we're all way too tired to be nervous!
Working for Gold,
July 6, 2013 -- I always tell our team that the most important thing about a loss is how you react to it. We reacted well. We scrimmaged Canada today and shot off one pass way less often and talked on defense way, way more. Our play was feistier. We did more things for each other and discovered that we got a lot more in return. We looked like we were choosing to try to become a team. A big step in the right direction.
The day had a good beginning but it had an amazing end! Tonight was Opening Ceremonies for the 2013 World University Games. Trust me when I say, no expense was spared. While I can't say what happened while we were outside of the arena meandering through the world's longest serpentine line, I can speak to what occurred once all the athletes were inside. It was absolutely magical.
Getting to that point, however, required all the patience, poise and sinew we could muster.
We lined up to board buses to travel to the arena at 8 p.m. -- the festivities were to begin at 9:30. We bused the 15 minute drive, and then stood in line as the sun slowly dropped to dusk.
Once night began to fall, fireworks from the arena top signaled the official start of the pomp and circumstance. The athletes broke into intermittent chanting, they exchanged Olympic pins, they took photos with one another (especially popular were those in fine regalia), and every American in line had his or her phone camera out and running. Each country's delegates, outfitted in their own patriotic paraphernalia, repeatedly rode the wave of anticipation to fervor only to flat line in exhaustion, like a roller coaster drop. This happened over and over and over again for almost three hours.
When they finally handed the American Flag to Luke Hancock, member of our men's basketball team who would lead our delegation around the track, we all roared! We were punch drunk and we were starving, but mostly we could not wait to see what was going on inside!. As we made our way to the tunnel waving flags and chanting "USA! USA!", I was buried in the magnitude of this event. Goosebumps turned to tears and just when I thought I couldn't stand the confines of that tunnel -- figuratively and literally -- anymore, we rushed onto the track. And I want to write about what that felt like but I do not have the words. I will some time -- probably in the near future. But I simply cannot find them right now.
The ceremonial walk around the track was surreal. The crowd was a little tired --they'd been there since 7:30. We rationalized that they were all out of exuberant cheers by the time the announcer got to the "U"s, but when the host country marched in last, it was obvious that the crowd was not weary, only focused. We were three-quarters of the way around the track when the passion was unfurled. The roar came quickly and was deafening. And it did not die away.
Once all of the athletes were seated, it was Show Time! We each had waiting on us in our chairs, a backpack full of props for the performance. As is often protocol at large arena productions, the crowd is involved at respective junctures. We had a globe that glowed neon green when switched on; we had two flashlights, one white and one red; we had 3D glasses; and we had a bell. The large videoboards in the corners cued us in our roles. It was overload for the senses!
There were videos with accompanying voice overs....there were dancers in the water and dancers in the air....there were props rolling endlessly in and out and around the center stage and every single movement had a purpose. The show was designed around Russia's past, present, and future, and each "chapter" of production was accompanied by a live Opera performance by some of the most talented artists in the country. I learned so much, yet I'm certain that my basic lack of knowledge of Russia's history caused me to miss so much more.
When the performances ceased, four Russian Olympians ran in the torch. Together they made a lap and then, in their second, they stopped at their four respective platforms around the track. We were then led in the athletes' oath. We observed the judges' oath. Then we watched and listened to Putin (yes, he was there -- 50 yard line in a very royally roped-off area, wearing a dark suit and a red tie) welcome us all and officially open the World University Games. In an explosion of pent-up anticipation coupled with delirious exhaustion, the crowd erupted as the four torch bearers lit the lead that ignited the official games' torch on top of the arena.
Fireworks rained down and I felt like a voyeur with a really great seat for somebody else's life.
Working for Gold,
July 5, 2013 -- Today was exposure day! We had a "friendly" scrimmage with the Russians, and, unfortunately, we got caught with our pants down. It was doomed from the get go. And a lot of that was my fault for not setting the tone. There's a lot of unknown here: How much warm up time do you get? Is there a whiteboard in the locker room? Can you move the cardboard guardrails they keep in front of the bench in order to gather for a timeout? The list goes on and on and on. And that is why we do it.
Supposedly it was a closed scrimmage, a chance to get a feel for how a FIBA game goes and a chance to face some competition other than ourselves. I'm assuming somebody forgot to tell the TV camera that was lodged under my armpit during every time out. So we kept it vanilla just in case the world was watching. We also kept it ugly. The vanilla was part of the plan; the ugly was not.
What transpired over our four quarters tonight was an exhibition of chemistry versus lack thereof. It was obvious that the Russian squad was a well-oiled machine. They had a system and they were puppeteers of it. They exposed us on ball screens. They exposed us on double-down screens. They exposed us when we switched. They curled us to the rim when we stayed. They were intentional with every single thing that they did. And they read each other like a book.
We, on the other hand, looked like we had only been together for ten days. Our timing was off. Our spacing was worse. We didn't cover for mistakes with either effort or communication. We settled and we splintered and it was all exacerbated by the fact that we could not make an open shot.
Russia was bigger than us (so that was an obvious problem), but only at positions one through five. That discrepancy hurt us at times, but it really wasn't the maiming blow. Lack of awareness was. Our away from the ball defense was observatory and our help of the sleeping defender was nonexistent.
We just don't trust yet. And that's such a tough thing to build in 8 to 10 days. A squad can survive without it, perhaps, given that the squad is immensely more talented than it's opponents. But if you're evenly matched, forget it. We are not supremely talented in comparison to the people we will play. So we have to find a way to construct some togetherness in a very short amount of time.
As is always the case, this could serve as a wake up call--a friendly reminder that you do not win just because you walk in the gym with USA on your chest. Victory has to be earned.
We have a lot of work to do. And most of it is between our ears. Competition is so revealing. It almost makes your skin see through. We'll see if our guys were bothered by the version of themselves they displayed tonight. If so, we `ll have a fighting chance. Tomorrow is a really big day.
Working for Gold,
July 4, 2013 -- What the city of Kazan has done to prepare for these games is truly unreal. Our village is a collection of apartment complexes that surround a landscaped two-laned median they call flag alley. Inside of the village is a cafeteria--an enormous tented space that houses restaurants from every area of the world. There is even a McDonalds. Also inside are lines of seven foot coolers seemingly always full of row upon row of soda, water, and juice. This Taj Mahal of eateries has nice hours too--it's only closed from 2 to 5 a.m.
And volunteers are everywhere.
Twenty-thousand of them to be exact. And they were selected from three times that many who applied. Each team is assigned an "attaché" who works directly with them to translate, help organize outings, and generally simplify life in the village. Ours is a tiny little American from North Carolina who teaches English at the University. Her name is Beth and she's fantastic.
There are roughly 10,000 athletes living at the village from around 170 countries. Everyone is extremely friendly and we have all learned quickly that utilizing the native language of the person to whom you are speaking is flattering--even if you only know one word. It's amazing how quickly the eyes of a stranger warm when an effort is made to meet them on their turf.
As each delegation's athletes all arrive, a formal flag raising takes place in the median. It's complete with traditional Russian dance, a parade of athletes into the square, and Olympic caliber pomp and circumstance. The only oddity is no country's anthem is played. The same song is played for each--I assume it is a FISU rule. They say anthems are not played at the medal ceremonies either. The victory tribute remains generic. This is the second largest world athletic competition, the only one bigger being the Olympics, and yet the defining moment is neutered a bit. I find that really strange.
The other thing that's a bit on the wild side here is the amount of time that it's dark, which isn't much. The sun goes down around 10 p.m. and it comes back up between 2 and 3 a.m. That little scenario is not helping our jet lag one bit.
This excursion will no doubt test our maturity. It will measure our mental toughness and it will ultimately be a barometer of our pride. A lot is on the line and the circumstances are less than ideal. We're still just getting to know each other and yet we face off with teams that have in some instances have been together for years. That's a recipe for exposure. Our warts will be hard to hide.
So the challenge awaits. And I can't wait to see what competition holds. Today is our country's birthday and I've never been more proud to wear the colors. Happy Independence Day America!
Working for Gold,
July 3, 2013 -- Whew! Three days at once because all three, 24-hour periods bled mercilessly into one another. So we might as well treat them as one. We left the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs at 10 a.m. Monday morning. We checked into our rooms at the Olympic Village in Kazan at 5 a.m. on Wednesday. The time in between the two is mush in all our minds.
We flew from Colorado Springs to Washington Dulles, the first leg of the journey, where we all split to find our favorite American food before the overseas travel began. Then we boarded for Istanbul, Turkey. Ten hours and two lousy airplane meals later, we landed. We were half way here.
The five hours we spent in the Turkey airport really passed by pretty quickly. It had a Burger King and a Popeye's -- so all the players were pretty pleased. And it was clean and air conditioned and flooded with a constant train of people from all corners of the earth. I walked every inch of the place twice -- partly for exercise and partly because I was just enamored by the people.
In what appeared to be the newest wing of the airport, an urgent young man from Mali made a beeline toward me (it said "Mali" on his shirt). "201", he said with imploring eyes. Three or four times, "201!" as both palms and shoulders went up in the universal signal for, "I don't know". I felt badly for him that he was asking someone as clueless as me to help him navigate. But, since out of the hundreds of people milling, I was chosen, I would not disappoint.
I had no earthly idea where gate 201 was, nonetheless, I went - urgently -- on my own to find out. I figured he chose me because I was a walking billboard for America, so I certainly had to rise to the occasion. He continued pushing his bags in a cart, frantically, as I sprinted off in a different direction in pursuit of the missing gate.
I found it -- down the corridor whose numbered gates began at 518. Go figure. As I sprinted back to find him, we crossed paths. I pointed with great animation in the direction of 201 and smiled really big. He nodded, with returned vigor, and smiled even bigger. And he was off!
Little, tiny interaction; big reminder. Though we look and sound and seem as different as the day is long, people share a common bond that distance and culture just dance around. My new friend from Mali reminded me that at the end of the day, we're really all just trying to find our way.
The ensuing flight to Kazan was an experience. The plane was full of athletes from several different countries -- France, Turkey, Canada -- lots of energy, lots of long legs, a less than adequate air cooling system. To add insult to injury, the distance between seat rows was the slimmest I've ever seen. Our men's team was absolutely folded into their spaces. For three and a half hours it was complete and total mayhem. The French players sat in the aisles, they congregated in the exit rows, and everybody played their own music and sang. It was nuts. We asked our stewardess for water, she said "five minutes". We asked her how much longer the flight was, she said, "five minutes." I didn't know if it was the only English she had a handle on or if she had been on a road trip with small children before thus finding that the best answer to questions you have no control over is often a lie.
However, the flight was smooth. My 6-foot-9 neighbor from Iowa reminded me of that as we landed to a beautiful sunrise at 2 a.m. I liked Aaron, the power forward with whom I shared my Nutter Butters, immediately. If he could find the good in that mess, he would be somebody I'd like to be around.
There is a country song that says, "If you're going through Hell, keep on going..." Tremendous advice, as the next three hours would try a saint's soul.
It began with customs: lines that move slowly and lots of folks who don't believe in standing in them. Subsequently, Team USA was the last to leave baggage control. Though I was really, really tired, I was kind of proud of that. Unnoticed by many though it may have been, we were leaving our mark already.
On the bus ride to the village our liaison was explaining village entry -- just like an airport. (Only worse.) No liquids, no weapons, no snacks. Metal detectors. Scanning tubes. It's serious. He said they would dump your food -- and they would find it no matter where you had it packed, so you had two choices: fill the trash bins when we arrive or consume. We must have set a record for Pringle and Oreo consumption at 3 o'clock in the morning. The United States of America had a `Junk Food Partay' on the road to Kazan.
Arrival at the village gates gave us more opportunities to reveal patience and exercise that sense of humor we so deliberately packed. Looking back I am absolutely amazed by our kids. There was no whining, no complaining, no rolled eyes, no heavy sighs. They did what great kids do: they turned it into an experience!
We laughed as Theresa Plaisance hid her Cheez-Its in her socks and spread her sack of Green Apple Suckers all across the contents of her bag. Kaleena Lewis hid Sour Straws in her water bottle and the whole group ate peanut butter crackers by the boxfuls. Lots got busted. Some made it to the other side. When Vegas went through they said, "Food!". So she opened her backpack and gave them a couple of Power Bars. She's always been a step or two ahead of the competition -- her Oreos and Skittles survived unscathed.
In all seriousness, security here is really high. The city of Kazan has done an amazing job preparing for these games. It's an honor to be here and it's humbling to be the recipient of the Russian's detailed preparation and sincere hospitality.
The whole experience has already been entirely surreal. More on the Village tomorrow...got to try to get my body and my mind on Kazan time.
Working for Gold,
June 30, 2013 -- So, just like that, training camp is over. It went by so fast! Today at our last practice, we polished some things that we know will be hugely important and we introduced some things that we think we might need. It's hard to know, now, what to expect or what to prepare for, so we do our best to cover bases and yet not do so much that our players get overwhelmed. It's a fine line.
Though our guys were a little tired and stiff today from yesterday's scrimmage, it was obvious that they know what's on the line. The anticipation of measuring themselves against the best the world has to offer is growing. You could feel it in our gym.
Tonight was a farewell to all that's familiar as we treated the team to dinner and a movie. Tomorrow is the beginning of two days of airplanes and airports where day will turn to night and night will turn back to day again while we will seemingly be running in place. International travel is never easy -- it's best broached with a backpack of snacks and a strong sense of humor. I feel certain our team will be armed with both.
Thanks to all who are following our adventure! We'll keep you posted once we get there. And be sure to check ESPNU as the semis and finals will be carried live.
We all feel honored and blessed to represent the United States of America. We'll do our best to make you proud!
Working for Gold,
June 29, 2013 -- Today was Olympic Day at the USOTC. I'm not exactly sure what that means except that throngs of people were touring the campus. We were in essence part of the experience as our intrasquad scrimmage was open to the public. So I worried a bit that our performance, with only six players per side, would get raggedy. The old saying, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all" kept rattling around in my brain. And that is so not the display you hope to present at a place like this. So I approached our game with baited breath.
But our team didn't disappoint. We went for an hour in a spirited exchange showing some toughness and some resolution, and even some moments of passion. We finally found some cadence, after going way too fast against the guys the previous two days. Our post guys decided to post and we decided to reward them for it -- the result being much better basketball (duh). And we took two handfuls of charges and had some pretty offensive exchanges that elicited oohs and ahhhs from the crowd. Up until this scrimmage I had seen a bunch of good players, afterward I felt like I had begun to see a team.
At the close of the scrimmage, we had the unique opportunity to hear from a couple of decorated Olympians. TC Dantzler is a Greco-Roman wrestler who came to train for the Olympics in 1995, but didn't win a title for a decade. He won bronze in the 2000 Olympics in Beijing. TC spoke to our kids about seeking out challenges, about being careful what you measure yourself against, and about competing for people you care about--how playing for others will stretch you far further than you would ever go for yourself. His reverberating theme: it's not what you did, it's what you're doing. Our guys were glued to him. They watched him like the kids who lined the windows of the gym watched them. It was the proverbial ladder to the sky. Pretty cool to see.
Joey Cheeks, five-time Olympian in speedskating, also shared his story with our team. An avid rollerblader, Joey decided to be an Olympian while laying in the living room floor watching Dan Jansen catch the world by storm,. So he left home at 15 and did.
He talked to our team about leaving a legacy, making the point that somebody's going to always break your records and people will eventually forget who you are. What's important is the good you can do while you're here. His proverbial theme: when you get a stage use it to impact, that's really the only part of it that matters or endures. By the way, he didn't tell us this, but he donated his gold medal winnings to refugees in Darfur. All of it. And in case you aren't aware, speed skating is not a lucrative profession. Talk about walking the walk and talking the talk.
Olympic day got us on both sides--we were able to inspire and we were the recipients of inspiration. Really neat to live in the middle for a bit. Tomorrow is our last day of training. Monday morning we board a plane for a couple of days (literally) and when we land it's on.
Working for Gold,
June 28, 2013 -- We've been here just long enough for the personalities to start to come out. That's when it gets fun. We took the team out for dinner last night and I couldn't tell if they were more excited about the chance to order whatever they wanted at a restaurant or the opportunity to wear "regular" clothes. But they were wound up. They're a happy bunch and they seem to all enjoy each other immensely. We'll see if that holds true after about 20 more days of attachment at the hip!
We've had two scrimmages--both against collegiate men's players-- and, as we knew would happen, we found out we're not as good as we thought we were. Their speed and size were large loads to handle in and of themselves, but they also had several guys who could really, really shoot it. But we adapted. Our performance the second time was much better than the first. We didn't back down and in the process of it all we were able to get a glimpse of what certain kids do when faced with adversity. And I think finding who can handle adversity and keep going is important because it will come at us in waves the next three weeks.
I don't know a lot about our team yet because we're just starting to become, but so far they have been great responders. Mistakes can be fixed. Schemes can be altered. Mismatches can be overcome. But only if kids respond. Part of the objective of training camp has to be ascertaining how to get to whom. And then, ultimately, how to move the group as a whole from wherever they are to wherever they need to be.
That's where we are now. Only a public intrasquad scrimmage, and a culminating "fix everything" practice, then we're gone! Gone to the land where all those personalities are going to come in handy!
Working for Gold,
June 27, 2013 -- At the USOTC the air is rare. And it has nothing to do with the altitude. Just walking from the car to the gym every day is sobering because excellence assaults you at every turn. Pictures capture the extraordinary. Boldly printed quotes urge greatness. And each and every facility begs to be the whetstone for the elite athlete's blade.
I think it's really hard to settle here. The steady drum of discipline is deafening, making this a place where good enough never is. If you train here, exceptional is expected. Honestly, I half expect Michael Phelps to peek in and glare at us when we don't get back on defense. The presence of the elite hovers over you as you work, and while that might seem heavy to some, I think the great ones love it. The air here stretches them at every turn.
There is much to be gained from lofty expectations.
Today, in between our two sessions, we took a short road trip to the Air Force Academy. Talk about a place that makes you want to stand up a little taller and walk a little straighter! The campus is gorgeous--understated elegance nestled in the arm of the Rocky Mountains. The cadet's chapel is breathtaking, and the people who study and serve there are my heroes. Their determined spirits permeate the place. They're made of a sinew I can scarcely understand.
We took our team there to help them understand what this whole adventure is really about. We took them there so that they might be able to connect the privileges we enjoy with the genesis of their possibility. We took them there to reiterate that the jersey comes with a standard that does not bend.
I was reminded as we drove away that what we're doing is a tiny little spec on an enormous canvas of things that really matter. But acts add up. And how we do what we do matters on every level. That's always the case, whoever you are wherever you are, but there are layers when you wear the red, white, and blue.
So we press on...with miles to go before we sleep.
Working for Gold,
June 26, 2013-- Great players love to compete and they detest losing. It doesn't matter if people are watching or if they get something tangible for a triumph--and it doesn't matter if It's a shooting game or a wind sprint or a four minute interval. Great players want to win. Period.
Being in the middle of that has been my favorite part of Day 2 in the Springs.
We went twice today. The first was really, really good and the second was a bit like trying to push a string. Our guys are a little stiff, and a little sore, and a whole lot tired. But that's as much of what training camp is about as anything.
Because nothing is easy in international competition. The women we'll play will be seasoned. They'll be physical and skilled, and it would make their year to beat Team USA. Consequently, we have to be tough enough for everybody's best shot.
So we push--the minds even more than the bodies. We work to sharpen focus and hone decision making. And we keep score.
And that's the part I love. Because these guys could care less about what happens to them if they lose. Consequences don't mean squat. It's the not winning that pierces them.
Tomorrow night we'll have a scrimmage against a local men's team, so we'll get a glimpse of what that competitive juice looks like when it's all in the same pot. My gut is that it will probably be a train wreck for a while and that our ultra-talented squad will probably get humbled a bit.. But that's ok. I just want us to compete our way through it. Can't wait to see what happens.
Working for Gold,
June 25, 2013-- Day one of our USA Basketball journey began with all kinds of pomp and circumstance for Vegas and me -- red, white, and blue balloons, confetti cupcakes, really creative good luck signs, and a rousing beat box patriotic medley by a bunch of guys who shoot better than they sing. We snapped a bunch of pictures and hugged everybody a couple of times before the grand finale landed the two of us covered in silly string. But what a way to go.
I'm not sure it gets any better than that.
I was impressed with our team's first practice. Kids had been traveling all day from both coasts and many spots in between, yet they were energetic and tuned in and they all seemed really, really excited about being here. Because of their approach, we got a lot done in two hours.
We have six days--five now--to prepare before competition. Six days. So success hinges so heavily on mindset and selflessness and an intense desire to get to the Promised Land by doing whatever needs to be done to get there. It will be way more about our willingness to play for each other than it will be about what defense we're in or what inbounds play we run.
We have really, really good players. And if they're willing to bind their hearts together, we'll have a really, really good team.
What an opportunity.
Working for Gold,