HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Mike Fratello has spent decades making himself comfortable on the basketball court wherever he’s been. But Fratello has always felt especially at ease in the baby blue and gold he wore at Hackensack High back in his native New Jersey.
Those North Jersey roots were on Fratello’s mind as he prepared his latest team for EuroBasket 2011, where Ukraine’s national team will sport the same colors this week as they attempt to chase one of the top spots in the tournament and the spoils that come along with being one of the best teams in European basketball.
“I do feel very comfortable putting the old blue and gold on,” Fratello said with a chuckle. “Plus, this competition is as big as it gets right now in the game of basketball, given the circumstances with the lockout and everything else that’s going on right now in the NBA.”
You’ve read about it all summer, this wave of NBA talent that will hit foreign soil to play ball if the regular season is delayed because of the lockout.
You won’t have to wait around to see NBA talent in action now. With EuroBasket in Lithuania Aug. 31 through Sept. 18 and the FIBA Americas being played in Argentina Aug. 30 through Sept. 11, there will be plenty of familiar faces on display, including reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki and Clippers center Chris Kaman leading the German team in EuroBasket. Brothers Pau Gasol of the Lakers and Marc Gasol of the Hang Time Grizzlies headline the Spanish team.
Spurs star Manu Ginobili and Rockets star Luis Scola are the biggest names for the host team in Argentina. Mavericks point guard Jose Barea and Celtics point guard Carlos Arroyo will run the show for Puerto Rico while Hawks All-Star center Al Horford will team up with Kings swingman Francisco Garcia and Pistons forward Charlie Villanueva for the Dominican Republic.
Our nearly two month hiatus from basketball as we know it comes to a momentary end this week with the game itself back on the global stage with national teams on both sides of the globe vying for those coveted early invites to the London Olympics. Every game can be seen on ESPN3.com.
Automatic bids to the Olympics are at stake for the top two teams in each competition. Four more teams — the third through sixth place finishers from EuroBasket — will also earn bids to the Pre-Olympic Qualifying tournament next July. Three more teams — the third through fifth place finishers from FIBA Americas — will earn bids to the Pre-Olympic Qualifying tournament next July.
Fratello, a TNT analyst when he’s not calling the shots for the Ukrainians, knows his team is more than a longshot to snag one of those top spots at EuroBasket. He knew that when he accepted the challenge of coaching a team in what most observers agree is the most competitive field in all of the Olympic qualifying tournaments.
For a man that coached at the highest level in the NBA, guiding the Cavaliers, Hawks and Grizzlies to playoff berths during his career, the decision to dive back into coaching came with the same demands he’s always placed upon himself.
“I knew if I did it, I would want to do it all the way and not just do this for two and a half months of my life and then check out,” Fratello said. “I tried to put together the best staff I could for the country and the federation. Dealing with the language barriers, the teaching and the fact that it’s a very young country that’s only had its independence for 20 years and they’ve not been in EuroBasket since 2006 … we’re in the formative stages of the program here. Some of these other countries have had outstanding programs for years and have been able to build up to this point over years and years. It’s a great challenge, because the history and tradition here that we’re a part of right now is truly remarkable.”
Remarkable would be Fratello’s Ukraine squad pulling off an upset along the lines of what Tunisia did over the weekend in a stunning upset of Angola for the AfroBasket title, earning one of just three bids already awarded for London 2012. The U.S. team is already locked in by virtue of their World Championship title last summer and Great Britain received an automatic bid as the host nation.
“The competition over here is really good,” Fratello said. “You’re talking about Nowitzki leading Germany, [Pau] Gasol for Spain and Marc Gasol is the backup center for Spain. Greece is playing so well. This is a 24-team field that will be tough to deal with. But we can’t worry about the 24, you have to worry about the other five teams in your group. And we’re talking about five games in six nights and you have to finish in the top three just to move on to the next phase. It really is a grueling endurance test.”
And right now, it’s the best bet to satisfy your basketball jones, at least for the next few weeks.