The first half was bad basketball. The third quarter was mostly good basketball. The fourth was good bad basketball. Emmet Ryan almost fell asleep in Palau Blaugrana but eventually got a hot mess to enjoy as the BiE tour
saw Barcelona fall to Valencia. The bad basketball was however a fine excuse to go off on some memories about the challenges of travelling for hoops on a budget
You can judge the importance of a game in Palau Blaugrana by how much the fans without their own semi-formal sections get into it. The Dracs and Sang Cule will always make a predictable amount of noise. It takes something important however for the rest of those sitting in this arena, in the shadow of Camp Nou, to get worked up. Save for CSKA Moscow, there may be no less intimidating home court in Europe. That’s a touch harsher than it should sound, Barca fans just have a better sense of priorities in life than most of us and tend to get that not every game is a battle for their immortal souls. That being said, a banner with Llibertat Presos Politicos hung obviously in the upper deck, a reminder that the chilled out nature of everything on the street in this part of the world isn’t the whole story right now.
Technically, this one was important. Top seed in the ACB playoffs was at stake and Barca had a chance to retake it from Real Madrid who had briefly snuck ahead of them the prior night. A couple of groups of kids had filed in to raise the atmosphere a touch but with a few minutes to go until tip, it was obvious that the crowd that was here wasn’t raising this to one they needed to get worked up about. That said, after the football side went out in the Champions League midweek, the home fans really needed something to raise their spirits.
A possession where Pau Ribas and Kevin Pangos did everything to find people and nobody did anything to create a shot summed up the early few minutes of the game for Barcelona. Valencia had a couple of scores from deep but the hangover of missing out on the Euroleague Final Four seemed to still be lingering for the Blaugrana as they looked incoherent.
Ribas finally opened their account with a deep ball midway through the first. His back court buddy Pangos looked well out of sorts. He sat after 5 minutes of him either running into traffic or getting lost. It’s not been a bad season for him but, yeesh, Thomas Heurtel has all but made this his team since the American arrived from Zalgiris to give him something to think about in the back court. The Frenchman still has his obvious flaws but he’s never lacked confidence. Pangos started this one like he needed the point guard whisperer Sarunas Jasikevicius back in his ear.
See, the biggest difference between travel for hoops and for my day jobs isn’t the flights, the catering, or even the nightlife. It’s the adventure of finding the bed. Being a technology journalist by day has its advantages, when I travel it’s usually in nice hotel rooms, we’re fed well, don’t put our hands into our pockets much if at all, and everything is organised with fine detail. It’s grand for what it is but utterly useless for a sports hack.
If you’re going to get on the ground, get to know a city, get to see what makes things tick, then you’ve got to take charge. If you’re smart, well the food and drink still works out pretty good without breaking the bank. Accommodation is another matter. Occasionally, when it’s a really short stay like a single night, you might be able to take a punt with Hotel Tonight but, mostly it’s AirBnB and hope. The priorities are simple, you want to get a place with Wifi, a washing machine if it’s a long trip, good access to public transport, and, mostly, in a location that makes it convenient to get where you need to go to work. I found that in Barcelona. I just happened to be reminded of another regular challenge.
Whereas Barca opened the game asleep, Valencia decided to take their turn to deliver a horribly predictable offensive approach. The 8-8 score after as many minutes was exactly as yawn-inducing as you’re thinking. The highlight was discovering that Catalan Dragons, a rugby league team ostensibly for the region but normally based in Perpignan, France, were going to play against reigning Super League champions Wigan in Camp Nou on 18 May. Golly, that’d be a sesh and a half for the folks travelling over.
Ah, yes, the game. Well the first quarter ended with a soft Barca turnover allowing Joan Sastre to restore Valencia’s lead before Victor Claver made a three just before the buzzer to put the hosts up 14-12 at the end of the first. This was not fun basketball and it really needed a spark.
The start of the second finally started to give us some of what we’d come here to see, actually competent basketball with teams showing ample creativity in making scoring opportunities. When you’ve got the team that won EuroCup taking on the side that’s led the ACB most of the year, it’s meant to be a given. It just took a bit of time for both to get going. First timeout in the second saw the sides level at 21-21 and it finally felt like a game of basketball.
You’d be genuinely surprised by how many multi-storey buildings there are that haven’t got elevators or, well, the number that have extremely quaint ones. Madrid for example, lovely host although asking me at 1am to be gone at 10am instead of 11am wasn’t ideal, had one of those. The door was about the width of an average person. A more than average person like me, eugh, it got way too cosy especially with my luggage.
There was no such problem with Barcelona. I turned past Arco del Triunfo, down a side street where I spotted a few nice tapas bars for later, and onto where I was staying. In the door, third floor, and I’ve gone and done it again. With 6 apartments per floor, and said apartments being somewhat spacious, the stairs were wide. Three storeys on a really old school staircase with all kinds of luggage and kit weighing me down felt like six. Monica, the host, couldn’t have been nicer. She’s a lecturer in a local university and saw I was about ready to collapse. As she showed me around the place, she stopped for a moment and just went “Breathe”. That’s not even close to the wildest of the climbs I’ve had to do on my travels.
A loooong three from Heurtel out of the timeout and we were away to the races again. He nailed another and the crowd was starting to liven up a bit, It wasn’t just the bombs, both teams were just plain more competent. Smart put-backs were swiftly made, a stumble led to a turnover, Louis Labeyrie looking at where a board was going to be was left standing because in zipped Adam Hanga to snag the defensive board. You know, stuff you expect from a well-played game of hoops.
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Barca were having the better of the exchanges marginally but Valencia were switching around well. As matters got choppy down the tail end of the half, Kevin Seraphin was drawn more out of his comfort zone. He’s at his best when things look effortless but getting into bustle was fiddling with his impact. A couple of lost moments of focusopened the door for the men in orange. Not enough to cause concern yet all the same. At the half, we finally had a game worth keeping an eye on as Barca took a 31-30 lead in with them.
Bilbao, September 2014. Six long ass staircases to the very top floor. Dude hosting me was cool and nearly in tears laughing at the state of me having gone all the way up with my stuff. Sound lad all the same. It was the Basketball World Cup, I was there to see the Splash Bros, Boogie, Harden, Kyrie, and Derrick Rose. There was also the promise of the Susijengi, the horde of Finnish fans in town for the event.
Two of them were staying with me. I’ve forgotten the long haired chap’s name but that’s because his bald buddy was far more memorable. Mikko came in after a wild sesh around 2.30am, for all parties including myself, on the rest day and as I sat on the balcony smoking I figured it best to wish him a good evening. I will never forget the next sentence for the rest of my days because I don’t know how I didn’t fall apart laughing:
Fucking hooker stole my fucking phone fucking fuck.”
Sorry to sex workers for the term, reporting verbatim was necessary for the context. And that was the last I saw of him that night. His buddy woke me about 2 hours later asking if I’d seen him. I told him no, he told me in more normal language that Mikko’s phone was stolen, and I was out to another spot the next morning. I know they found each other, I spotted them at the metro out of the arena a few days later. Not confident Mikko ever saw his phone again.
Oh Kevin. His attempt at an outlet pass in the low post went all the way down the court, Valencia didn’t quite recover, Heurtel did, only to promptly hear the shot clock go. No doubt who looked smoother starting the third, Fernando San Emeterio drained a sweet elbow three as Valencia got the lead back for the first time since the first quarter. Ribas made a deep one of his own and we had basketball again. Huzzah.
The visitors looked smarter here and midway through the third, following another San Emeterio three, Svetislav Pesic called in the troops for what was undoubtedly a calm and reasoned discussion. Kev, meanwhile, yet another sloppy turnover as his mojo seemed to have departed entirely.
The visitors kept on just getting work done, getting their biggest lead of the night, at 9, with a couple of minutes left in the third. A beautifully executed one-handed no look from Mike Tobey led to nothing but there was no panic. Valencia were setting the tone here. Next possession mentality all the way. Tobey got to the line on it and made them both count.
Fernando went deep again to make it a double digit advantage. Whip it, run it, dunk it, the men in orange could pick whatever they wanted. Roland Smits got it back to single digits for Barca on the buzzer but Valencia led 56-48 with 10 minutes to play.
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This job is fun but you’ve got to be cool with your own company to keep at it. There’s lots of time where you are with a bunch of people, talking loads, more than you normally would outside of a purely social environment, but the downtime is different. You’re travelling alone, you spend hours, occasionally days, without a real conversation, and the mind can wander.
You have to like it because it’s the only way you’re going to rest. If you can’t enjoy, indeed seek out, the solo time the exhaustion will just break you. This is a go-go-go type of gig but one where you’ve got to know the importance of stopping. To enjoy the company of those in the trenches with you and keep enjoying it, you’ve got to remember to spend some time away from them or anyone. Walking through a city, getting snacks, taking in the sights. That’s how your brain eases down. It gets real rest, it’s also a good way to actually take in where you are and not just the game. If you’re only watching the bounce of the ball on the floor, you’re missing a huge chunk of the story.
People play basketball, not numbers, people write and broadcast about it, not just the tools they use to deliver those pieces. People are more than just a sport but that sport’s story comes from the whole of those people, why they are there and why they care or don’t about a bunch of dudes shooting a ball.
The Jaka Blazic emergency glass was broken to open the fourth. Barcelona needed energy on the floor and he certainly isn’t lacking for that. Pierre Oriola joined him to bring some zest to the Barca side but for a while it was just a faster version of the flat outfit that had been outplayed in the prior quarter. Valencia just picked their spots, moved through the gaps, and finished. That only served to make Jaka angry.
Blazic with a step inside, finish, rumble step, rumble step, oh look a turnover, Oriola with the score. Now the whistles were coming down hard from the stands. Fortunately the announcer did not ask people to stop as the PA had in Antwerp. A roar for a stop, a bigger one for Hanga’s dunk. The gap was back down to 5 and Valencia needed a moment.
Blazic would have brought the house down if that three had dropped. He drew the fouls all the same, a four point play would have made these folks lose it but instead he only managed to make one from the line. The frustration in the stands was soon put to rest as he powered inside from the left corner to cut the deficit to 2. That 6 minute stint saw him finally sit, with Ribas being put back in to try and close out the comeback. Ooooh baby Thomas Heurtel. Inside, feels the contact coming, puts one up, it drops, to the line, and the lead is back for Barcelona.
Now the people got a four point play but it was from Thomas Will as Valencia got back on top. A fairly tired old game was giving us a fun finish. The dedcisive swing came as Chris Singleton’s dunk attempt rimmed out and Sastre was able to finish on the breakaway. Valencia had done enough, 78-72, despite the finest efforts of Blazic.
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