By Jake Appleman

Thursday March 27th, 2008

Diminutive dynamite, Erving Walker, misses a three pointer. The loose ball caroms off the rim and heads towards the sideline. Walker beelines for the rock and barely saves it before running out of real estate and into Spain’s bench. Seconds later, his hustle karma pays immediate dividends and he gets the ball back on the wing, elbow extended. He lofts a similar trey. It goes down like a shot of bamboo liquor: smooth. The cozy, intimate gym filled with American army personnel, assorted Germans and other internationals explodes. 98-97, USA. The greatest youth track meet I’ve ever seen live is entering its kick.

(Think this is an exaggeration? Let’s ask Dick McCann, who coached Team USA for 31 years for his thoughts: “As I watched last night’s game, I checked back to the greatest game I coached in and it had to be the 1989 championship game against Lithuania. We played it down in the ice arena. We beat Lithuania by two points, with a 3 point shot with 2 seconds left on the clock. It wasn’t as exciting as last night’s game, though.”)

The next time down the floor, Walker is ripped. He and the opposing point guard end up on the floor. He’s assessed a foul. Bloody and uber-competitive, he briefly argues the call and picks up a tech; compounding the problem, he has to go to the bench to clean up his blood. Walker’s game is straight New York soul, an excellent combination of speed, visual awareness and shot-making. On the last night, I would nickname him, “Straight Robinson.” He would soon return.

On the other side, Spain is being led by Alberto Jodar, a dude whose last name is one vowel off from meaning “f*ck” (“joder”) in Spanish. We’ll call him Jaime Fack, for Feick’s sake. Fack, like his facking bomb-dropping amigos, has been torching the Americans from the perimeter. (Being on a military base for this shootout only felt right…)

Fack is the opposite of Walker. Tall and lanky, he’s a system player that does his job and does it well. It’s only ironic then that Fack ended up at the line with his team up one and the game hanging in the balance. He’d been a key cog in an arsenal that had been facking America inside-out—like, say, a recession—and now he was alone on the line, asked to handle the weight himself. La Puta Madre (the Spanish tend to blame her a lot…) must have put his brain on lock because he choked. Twice.

Walker quickly takes it the other way—all the way. “I coasted on them,” he said with a chuckle at practice the next day. (“Yeah, I was open,” Releford jokingly added.)

Walker’s layup puts the US up 102-101, and the GI’s are going nuts, water-buggin for the dude that one of them referred to afterwards as, “a Ferrari.” (Enjoy your need for speed, Billy Donovan.) Five seconds later it’s over, a hard fought win and a berth in the semifinals eked out by the better team.

Stoic New Yorker that he is, Walker finally cracks a smile. It only took him 32 points (12-22), 9 Assists, 8 rebounds, 6 turnovers and 3 steals to do so. Little army brats rush the court to get to know their new heroes a little bit better. A girl nick-named “bubbles” is trying to spit game at various players, but nobody’s interested.

The US trio of Walker (Tinier cross pollination of Monta and BD), Cashmere Wright (a big shot making southerner with Bill Raftery endorsed onions…Captain Jack) and Travis Releford (a more T-Mobile—two way—J-Rich…clinical finishing on the break and stellar on D; 13-17 from the floor for a cool 30 and 6, not to mention 4 steals) set a pace reminiscent of a high school version of the ’07 Warriors.

The Americans showed incredible resolve by clawing back from 9+ twice. Our young guns came back despite cooling off some in the second half because they were able to slow Spain’s hot hands by committing on close-outs. The first half saw them consistently cheat too far on dribble-drives, leaving shooters ample room with which to work. This was particularly problematic because, though Spain wreaked havoc with O-Board stick backs—another result of this getting caught “half and half” (think defensive spilt milk)—the Spanish never proved that they could consistently take it to the rack and finish at the rim.

Spain shot 53% (50% from 3)in the first half as a result. Fittingly, it was Walker’s buzzer-beating halftime 3 that seemed to give the American’s hope before a concise and impacting speech by coach Hollins that helped boost spirits and lent proper understanding to their situation.

Thoughts:

–Talk on the bus briefly centered on the McDonald’s game from last night. It’s ironic that a tournament (Albert Schweitzer) that is showcasing the globalization of basketball is robbed of talent by the most globalizing corporate force in the world.

–Marco Leon of Spain won the bi-annual European, “Foul? Who me? You’re kidding” award for the evening.

–While talking with Sven Simon, my main man from Five Magazine in Germany, I realized that Marc Gasol is Kevin Dillon.

–Late in the first half, number #9 from Spain, Nacho Llovet, was getting physical with the Americans, swatting a shot and making his presence felt. Things were momentarily set straight when Judge boomed on him.

At halftime, I let Stover know that Llovet, who looks like a strange combination of Frankenstein and Frankberry, shouldn’t be allowed to mess with the bigger Americans. Stover responded by anchoring the American paint, goal-tending a few shots, and doing an excellent job of making his presence felt. Later at dinner, I would ask that Stover refrain from goal-tending the rice.

From the day:

Jim knocked on my door at 9:45AM, two minutes before my alarm was set to go off. I had planned on going to practice, which the bus left for at 10, but Jim saw me in my jet-lagged haze and gave me a long sermon about the importance of jet-lag recovery.

I realized we were talking about practice (we were talking about practice—man, we were talking about practice), so I nodded and went back to go to sleep. I don’t remember if I konked out for a few minutes or not, but a little while later I found myself fast working on the previous day’s diary (my own practice). I shot out a few emails and chilled, looking at the grey German sky. I shoved a mini-muffin in my face before sloppily pouring some Raisin Bran out of a mini-box into my mouth. Breakfast.

Then, I went for a walk and was briefly detained for not having proper ID on me. This was a stunning military-life lesson.

Sir, where is your passport?

My passport is in my room; if I lose my passport I can’t return home.

Sir, do you have any ID on you?

Why would I carry my wallet when I don’t have to buy anything and I’m in a contained space?

Sir, where is your escort?

I called him. His phone was busy, thus I went to go find him so I could get lunch.

Sir, this is absurd.

Yes, yes it is.

As both sides stood there, glaring at the ridiculousness of the other, I realized it was all about perspective. When you’re used to certain things in America, you take them for granted–and vice-versa when you’re used to rules in the military. While I don’t agree with decisions being made politically in this country, military life is military life regardless, and it reminded me of the speech by Colonel Jessup at the end of A Few Good Men:

I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the very blanket of the very freedom I provide, then question the manner in which I provide it. I prefer you said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand to post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

–Because they deserved it after such a stunning win, Jim took Team USA out to a classy Chinese restaurant at a nearby mall. We got there and took up residence in the back booths and some surrounding tables. Seated in the corner was a German man and his date. Dressed rather scandalously–she looked alright, if a bit “easy”–and surrounded by a group of famished 17-18 year-olds, she became the indirect–peek, look away, peek, look away–center of attention.

Finally, as the food was arriving and Jim started busting out a celebratory tune of sorts, the man got all up in Jim’s face, insinuating that he was mocking his date. Jim and a few of the guys on the team speculated that nobody would have to be so uptight if he wasn’t on a date with a prostitute. I thought the dude was just a drunk, quasi-racist, tight-@$$, but there may have been something to the who (ho!) theory. After all, it was noted on my ride from the airport that there was a Red Light district in Mannheim.

The US victory over Spain may have been the most thrilling basketball game I’ve ever seen. Considering all factors (the gym’s intimacy, the national support and the two comebacks), I’ll no doubt remember it for the rest of my life. I hope these kids never forget it, either.

(Picture of Erving Walker pointing the blood on his jersey appears courtesy of Five Magazine)