It was always expected to be Italy’s night in Milan but the travelling Estonian players and support showed that they’re an emerging presence in European basketball
Three cheers for Estonia. Whatever else happens in this tournament, for a nation with such little recent pedigree at this stage of EuroBasket to come here and roar right with a vociferous home crowd was really something.
Slammed right in the mix of the Estonian press corps, I was told that 2,000 had travelled over from the Baltic state for this weekend’s games. It honestly looked like a lot more. They were, no doubt, outnumbered by the home fans but this was still a wondrous sight and the type of thing that can only be looked at enviously by the likes of my own home of Ireland.
Or, rather, the type of thing that should have Basketball Ireland booking flights to Tallinn for some chats to see how the traditionally lesser brother in basketball of the Baltic states managed to create a young and vibrant roster that looks built to last while also getting the type of supporter buy-in that most sports in Ireland would be envious of, not just basketball.
As the underdogs hung in well with Italy throughout the first quarter, Eesti, Eesti, rang around the Mediolanum Forum. We need not look past this group to see how different it could be.
Great Britain, has no journalists here outside of those working with FIBA for its own content. It was the exact same in 2017. Its not got a bunch of fans in the stands roaring the team on and there’s no broadcast coverage of the tournament in the UK. This, despite them having roughly the same expectation to make the knockout stages as Estonia.
That’s not a criticism of those that work hard for British basketball but it really has been night and day in Milan seeing the difference. On press row, I’m ensconsed with a substantial travelling Estonian media presence. This is a story in Estonia and the public has bought in. They are realists, they know making the knockouts is unlikely but they are proud of their history from the early days of EuroBasket and want to be more than just a lovely tale.
There have been many starting points, that’s the lesson. Estonia didn’t qualify for 2017 or 2013, while in 2011 they were in Division B. The less said about their 2015 cameo appearance the better. This is a different generation, one loaded with youth and confidence.
As for the actual game. It was really tight for 12 minutes but Italy showed why they were favourites by busting a big hole when the opportunity arose. This, of course, is a nation that expects deep runs at this level and is loaded with veteran talent. This is normal for Italy, Estonia was showing that it belonged.
The vigour of this side was something to behold. They fought and ran, in a way so different to the often hopeless look of the British earlier. That resilience meant they went on runs, the type that made the home fans nervous.
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Trailing by 20 in the third and still the cry of Eesti, Eesti rang loud. They have plenty of reason to. In Kerr Kriisa (Arizona Wildcats) and Henri Drell (Windy City Bulls) they have two serious young talents that could well redefine how we think about this nation’s place on the basketball map over the next three EuroBaskets to come never mind this year’s edition.
The human frustration of the journalist to my right was almost a cause for hope in its own right. Here he was, watching his side losing a game they expected to lose, and he still slapped the table in frustration at a simple mistake. It’s a reaction I’m all too familiar with, sitting on the sideline between broadcast slots at Ireland national team games. In a single slap, everything you need to know was said without a word. Yes, we’re on the way there but there’s still room for improvement. Yes, we’re going to make mistakes but they still irk. It’s a whole lot better than being moral victors, it’s the frustration that comes from knowing you can be better, that you are better.
Italy won, they face Greece on Saturday night in what promises to have main event box office appeal. Estonia will hope to rest well enough to be ready for Ukraine on the morrow, where an upset win would put them within striking distance of an unlikely trip to the knockout stages. As it happens, the Ukrainian journalists are right behind the Estonians in the media area. Whatever the result, it promises to be a fascinating afternoon.
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