Emmet Ryan reflects on the week in Bilbao for Group C of the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup and the challenge of telling the combined story of the city and the games.
Depression is a bastard but not always in the way you would think. The prospect of 17 days in the company of complete strangers doesn’t and didn’t daunt me, I learned five years ago that I am ok with my own company. For 28 days I walked the length of Ireland, only getting the chance for conversation in the evenings and most of those evenings were short. No, it wasn’t the time alone that presented a question in Bilbao. Instead it was the challenge of understanding what exactly I was supposed to do here.
For those 28 days, when I walked 500 miles, it was a simple task. Just put one foot in front of another. Monotonous but I had an iPod and great scenery. I knew the job, I did it, I lost a lot of weight, went home, put it all back on again. Here in Bilbao I knew a big story would be the Susijengi but I wasn’t prepared for how they would take over more than the arena but the city itself. They were great and I will write at length about them when the Naismith trophy has been raised but now, as we enter a brief lull in play, it’s important to recognise the smaller factors that make this tournament tick and allow people who aren’t entirely together like me to appreciate it.
For the most part, I really am the non-stop talking happy Irish man BiE readers know me to be but I also have an illness, anxiety based depression. One year ago, I took over this site. Three years ago, you wouldn’t have wanted to know me. I was a mess, at my lowest ebb and, frankly speaking, a paranoid asshole. It’s important to stress the I there, when you meet someone with mental health issues don’t judge them. I thought I was an asshole, my friends and acquaintances (even the ones I barely knew) mostly thought I needed help. I got it, I have a therapist and I take regular meds. I’m back to being the man who thought walking 500 miles while weighing 280lbs/127kg was a good idea.
Tonight I skipped out of Turkey’s blowout of Dominican Republic because I wanted to see the scene in town but first I went for dinner. I sat alone but to my right was a woman in a similar situation. Whereas I bore the presence of someone seeking a solid feed before one made of beer, she was more focused on enjoying her time alone. The waiters got chatting to her and I learnt she was American and I frankly felt rude asking her if she was working at the tournament. As she gripped her book in her left hand she explained she was with the NBA, we exchanged pleasantries but it was obvious she needed solitude. I let her be until the end of my meal when I bade farewell. For some the prospect of only their own company is a curse but when you have been on the go talking non stop to people for a week, as I assure you any media or communications person with a team here in Bilbao has been, the chance to just breathe is welcomed with open arms.
My plan for the evening was to watch from the fan zone but, with Finland having been eliminated, it’s verve was lost. The crowds that filled it with colour on Monday were gone. One beer, one quarter of Turkey’s blow out of Dominicana was enough. The dozen or so who sat in to the stand, the few tables filled with remaining Finns were silent, and a few local children played on the temporary court were not the right way to finish here. Instead I moved to the bar that was drained of energy on that rest day but restored my faith in this tournament. A couple of beers there and, sure enough, a Finnish couple strolled in. Whereas Veli had led me to the party on Monday, Kari spoke of the hope for Helsinki where they are looking to copy Alba Berlin’s efficient model at uniting a city behind one team.
Covering this competition has been a challenge. Like that great walk, I sought to take care of business with brutal efficiency to an easily replicable rhythm. The writing on this site suffered, at least in my eyes. Through Monday all was going smoothly as the games presented natural narratives while the players gave good quotes in the mixed zone. It’s always dangerous to get cosy as a journalist and it took a downbeat Henrick Dettmann to wake me from my slumber. Finland lost to Dominican Republic on Tuesday, I hit publish as the game ended and ran to the mixed zone. The Finns had reeked from the field and that was the tone of my story. It took Henrik Dettmann’s press conference for me to realise that the rebounding game played a far greater role. An obvious stat, the type of thing that shouldn’t be missed, but in seeing one narrative I missed the bigger picture. It was a wake up call which alerted me to the smaller factors. Thinking back to Ergin Ataman’s press conference earlier in that day I had missed a key detail, one that took away from telling the story of the group in this arena.
Ataman has a meticulous approach to press conferences. Every game goes the same way. He knows the player with him will be asked to speak first and while that player, which changed each day, speaks fairly bland quotes the Turkey coach’s brow furrows as he scans the final stat sheet. There is little discussion of the officiating, the passion, or the breaks. Instead Ataman dispassionately describes where his team won and lost a game based on the facts before him and gives his views on what that meant for their play as a whole. It’s hardly ground-breaking but it is a pattern, one he has stuck too all tournament. After the victory over Finland he looked at the story of the game from the numbers in front of him and described Turkey’s victory as a miracle. It’s easy to say that to complement an opponent but Ataman was keeping his eye on one key stat, the Finns extraordinary success on threes. He saw that, looked at the hole his team got into, and in spite of their massive free throw advantage felt they caught a break.
After seven nights I sit here in the comfort of a rooftop terrace but a quarter mile from the Guggenheim. It’s a a dream of a location but without the support on site for all of the media it could have been just another city. The volunteers on site here, many of whom I will see again in Barcelona, made this event work. The fraternity of media always helps, be they Spanish, Finnish, Urkarainian, or New Zealand…umm er/ish, I don’t know, but that navy and purple army of young people made the world of difference. I can’t speak for the fans and the teams but looking around me in press row all week, the only glum faces were when the team a journalist was following was behind. In over a decade in this game, from business to beer to basketball, I’ve seen my fair share of events but few that compare to this week for making this life easy. Confidence comes naturally to me but I did not fear the demons within because of all that support on the ground. They made us feel welcome, they made it easy to work, and they ensured we enjoyed Bilbao. Next stop, the Palau Sant Jordi.
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