Blogging Through Five Overtimes (Part Five: Germany)

Blogging Through Five Overtimes (Part Five: Germany)
Dec 05, 2007, 12:35 pm
After nearly a week in Italy, it was time to pack up shop and head West, first for a quick stop in Germany to visit Alba Berlin and watch a ULEB Cup game between them and KK Bosna (from Sarajevo, Bosnia). Berlin is a wonderful city and it’s always nice to come back here, especially for basketball purposes. They definitely know how to treat their visitors well, and former German basketball great and current Alba team manager Henning Harnisch did a great job making me feel welcome. And how many times can you say you’ve seen a professional basketball game go to five overtimes? I was fortunate enough to be sitting court-side for what will go down as one of the craziest games in European basketball history.

Before the madness started, I got to see the way the team works at their office in Berlin as well as watch them practice. They are coached by a young 39-year old Serbian by the name of Luka Pavicevic, in his first year here after an outstanding season last year with Panionios in Greece.

Alba is considered one of the top basketball clubs in Europe as far as organization is concerned. They play in a terrific arena called the Max-Schmeling-Halle, sitting 8,000 people but housing around 6,000 for this match with Bosna. They have an opportunity to move to a brand new arena next season if they please—the 02 World Arena, which seats up to 16,000 fans and will be an NBA-caliber state of the art facility. Berlin will indeed be one of the NBA’s top choices if they do decide to expand one day over the ocean, and Alba will certainly be one of the most ready when (or more like if) that day does come.

Alba is not in the best shape in the world at the moment, suffering through a serious rash of bad luck and injuries. Their projected starting point guard Goran Jeretin tore his ACL to start off the season, and their top center and then-most expensive player Michael Bradley was sent home after arriving here out of shape. Then their very useful German swingman, former West Virginia Mountaineer Johannes Herber tore his ACL, shelving him for most if not all of the season as well. If that wasn’t enough, the team had to play without their starting small forward—Dijon Thompson, as well as their starting power forward, Dragan Dojcin (except for a surprising 7 minute cameo in quadruple and quintuple overtime when the rest of his team was fouled out), and backup power forward Philipp Heyden (out with a stomach virus until Alba again ran out of players in the last overtime period) leaving them with virtually no depth off the bench for this very important ULEB Cup game.

There was some hope that former UCLA product and Phoenix Suns draftee Dijon Thompson would be able to play, as he was only suffering from a mild ankle sprain, but in the end he decided not to “risk” it. There’s a more than decent chance that that didn’t sit too well with Alba’s coaching staff.

Alba Defeats Bosna in Five Overtimes! 141-127

This was a slow-starting game that ended up developing into an absolute thriller of a contest. I’ve been to a lot of games in my life, but I can’t remember more than one (Wake Forest-Georgia Tech's quadruple overtime in the ACC Tournament last March was the longest) that went to five overtimes…

Whereas things looked really sloppy in the first half, the players (particularly the shot-creating guards for both teams—Bobby Brown and Kyle Hill) really hit their stride starting in the second, making this an incredibly entertaining (but also exhausting!) game to watch. Some poor German guy sitting next to me was trying to keep stats by hand the entire game…and by the end of the matchup, he basically just had a piece of paper with one big black mark. I have to admit…even though I was sitting on press row and cheering is definitely taboo (not really here, but definitely in the States), I was right there with the fans at the end of five overtimes as Alba finally put away the Bosnians. I’m not sure if it was because Alba hosted me here and treated me incredibly well (and also warned me about bringing them bad luck like I seemingly did in Belgium), or maybe just because I was happy to see this game end!

This was an interesting matchup to begin with because of the backgrounds of the teams. KK Bosna is a Bosnian team made up of Muslim players and 4 Americans. Alba Berlin is a German team made up predominantly by Serbians, and a few scattered Germans and Americans. I’m sure this isn’t something that will be lost on the fans in Sarajevo when Berlin makes the trip out there in January.

The strong, but perennially out of shape Lance Williams did a great job banging in the post with his back to the basket and hitting huge free throws for Bosna (they kept milking him again and again down the stretch), scoring 34 points in the process (11/18 FG, 12/17 FT), but ended up being the dog for his team after clotheslining Bobby Brown [more on him later] with a minute to go in the game and his team up by four for a well deserved intentional foul.

For Alba, severely undersized 2-guard Julius Jenkins looked smart, skilled and under control, scoring 33 points on slashes to the rim and smooth 3-pointers before he fouled out. The physically underwhelming, but extremely savvy Goran Nikolic scored 31 points in a multitude of ways (posting up methodically, hitting 3-pointers) to go with 14 rebounds and 4 assists in 63 minutes, and Patrick Femerling did his thing in the paint and on the glass with 18 points and 16 rebounds.

Alba’s fans deserve a huge pat on the back. It was amazing to see how into the game they were even after over three hours of basketball. The gym was absolutely electric when the team started putting away the Bosnians in the exhausting fifth overtime. They called and screamed and beat their drums in such perfect unison, almost perfectly in rhythm with Bobby Brown’s dribbles. You can never underestimate the impact that rowdy fans provide exhausted athletes in key moments like that. Alba went ahead and beat Bosna to a pulp in that final overtime period, which is huge considering that it could be the point differential that ends up deciding which teams goes on to the next round of the ULEB Cup and from what place, so now Bosna needs to win by 15 points at home if a tie-situation like that occurs.

The Bosnian fans also deserve mention. This was actually my second experience with them, after catching an odd European Championship qualifier match between the Netherlands and Bosnia a few years back in Den Bosch, Holland (I wanted to check out Mirza Teletovic). It seems like a lot of Bosnians were displaced by the Balkan war in the 90’s, and a fair amount of them emigrated over to Northern Europe. They absolutely packed the Dutch gym back then, creating an incredible atmosphere (complete with some pretty scary fireworks), and even if they showed up in smaller numbers here in Berlin, they still cheered on their team vocally the entire way through. The Germans in turn got a little bit rowdier themselves, turning this into a much more interesting contest.

Some interesting stats and notes from the game:

-Alba outscored KK Bosna 70-56 in the 25 minutes of overtime. That’s a very typical score from a regular 40 minute NCAA or college game.
-Both teams combined to shoot 166 free throws.
-Alba brought two players off the bench that were not supposed to play at all. Dragan Dojcin has had a bum ankle for a month now and did not practice the day before. Philipp Heyden had a stomach virus and was said to be on the verge of throwing up at any given moment. Alba would not have even registered them to sit on the bench had a rule not existed in the ULEB Cup that any team with less than 10 players on the stat sheet will suffer a fine. Lucky for them, since they probably would have been forced to play with less than 5 players on the floor otherwise.
-Patrick Femerling had probably the best game of his life, even though he fouled out in double overtime.
-In the press conference following the game, Alba’s head coach Luka Pavicevic talked about the fact that he once played in a game that went to quadruple overtime in Serbia…the only difference here is that he did not go to the bench for even a single minute!
-The referees had a pretty strange night I must say (calling 79 fouls). They made some very questionable calls for both sides, but the highlight of the night had to be an incredible call with 2 minutes left in the fourth quarter. Bosna had just scored a basket, and Alba power forward Goran Nikolic was stepping onto the baseline from inside the paint to inbound the ball. Out of nowhere, the ref blows his whistle and says that he inbounded the ball himself and was now out of bounds—a violation that would have given the ball to Bosna for a crucial possession (they were up by 5 points already). Nikolic very calmly demonstrates what he did again, and as Alba’s bench erupts and the boos start raining down from the crowd, the ref whistles, points at himself, and then signals in the other direction to reverse the call…Alba ball! It’s great to see a ref correcting a bad call, but wow, that was a strange play.

Bobby Brown—ULEB Cup Rookie of the Year

Bobby Brown was the unquestioned hero of this game, scoring 44 points on 12-29 shooting from the field and 16-19 from the free throw line, to go along with 7 assists, 7 rebounds, and 6 turnovers in 60 minutes.

What’s ironic here is that Brown was pretty bad to start off this game—scoring only 4 points in the first half on 1-7 shooting. That means he proceeded to score 40 points in the next 45 minutes. You can imagine the way it looked.

Having scouted and written about Brown extensively throughout the years, at three private workouts, two NBA pre-draft camps, numerous college games, summer league, and now a ULEB Cup game, we’ve pretty got a pretty good perspective on what kind of player he is by now. He’s always been an outstanding offensive player, combining a fantastic stroke from behind the arc with a deadly pull-up jumper from mid-range, but Brown is now starting to become a lot more aggressive attacking the rim as well—something his coaches are stressing from him every single day in practice from what they told me.

He’s such an athletic player that no one was able to stay in front of him in this game, hence the 19 free throw attempts. He actually would have scored over 50 points had he been able to convert a couple of fairly easy layups that he missed right at the rim. Brown is getting stronger in the upper body (not a surprise since conditioning and weightlifting is a huge deal to his coach Luka Pavicevic—he even brought over the legendary physical trainer from FMP Zeleznik to work here), but he could still stand to put on even more weight, especially in the lower body.

Brown was not only his team’s leading scorer in this game, but also the engine that carried them to victory. When they were down by 5 points with 44 seconds to go in the fourth overtime, it was him that lead the charge back into the game by putting tremendous pressure on the defense with his slashes to the rim. In the 3rd overtime when his team was down by 3 points with just a few seconds left on the clock, it was Bobby the one who stepped up and knocked down the 3-pointer in miraculous fashion, after already having saved the game with a Jerry Rice style catch in the endzone (and eventual converted layup) with 37 seconds left. In the 5th overtime, it was his 3-pointer that opened up the floodgates for the eventual victory. He mixed that in with a steady dose of courageous finishes at the basket and pull-up jumpers from mid-range. And throughout the game when he stepped to the free throw line, he showed absolutely no fear or fatigue whatsoever, hitting clutch free throw after clutch free throw (especially in the last few seconds of the fourth quarter and fourth overtime).

Where did he find the energy? It’s one thing to play 63 minutes like Goran Nikolic wisely did, clearly saving his energy for when his team needed him most, but Brown was needed on every single possession, bringing the ball up the floor, creating offense for himself and his team off the dribble, and never really looking like he was anywhere near as tired as he should have been by the end. Talking to him in the VIP reception room after the game, you would have thought that he just got back from the movie theater instead of having finished one of the most grueling games in the history of professional basketball.

During the course of this game, I wondered to myself numerous times whether the fact that Brown went undrafted was actually a huge blessing for a player like him. Not having played at a very high level in college in the Big West conference, there were obviously many parts of his game that he needed to round out before he’d be able to fully capitalize on his terrific potential.

He didn’t always read defenses very well, particularly off screens, his shot-selection was poor at times, he had the tendency to settle too often for 3-pointers, he overdribbled at times, suffered from mental lapses with his decision making, and his defense was nothing short of awful, especially guarding the pick and roll.

These are all things he’s still suffering from occasionally, but has been working on every single day with an incredibly demanding coach who puts a huge emphasis on practice. He’s then allowed to go out and utilize what he’s learned playing two games a week at a very high level. And according to his coach Luka Pavicevic—he’s showing a lot of progress every single week, although he still demands a lot more out of him.

Brown wasn’t supposed to be Alba Berlin’s starting point guard (Goran Jeretin got injured as noted), but that’s what ended up happening, and Brown is now gaining an incredible amount of experience that some of his rookie counterparts in the NBA who are sitting on the bench and barely practicing will probably never be able to make up. And that my friends, is the value of playing in Europe. Some players look at it as a punishment, while others realize that the NBA draft is only one day and that making a career in basketball is a marathon and not a race. Bobby Brown has made up a lot of ground in that marathon this year, and will put some distance between himself and many members of this rookie class if he continues to work hard and improve.

Eurobasket to the Rescue?

Gameday morning brought some interesting news from the direction of European basketball portal According to the "journalist" Emil Suceska, Bosna’s star player, Kyle Hill, was cut from the team and won’t be playing?

For the record, Eurobasket is an incredible database of historical information, executing the near-impossible task of tracking tens of thousands of players from dozens of leagues around the world and serving as an invaluable tool for teams, agents, and basketball freaks like yours truly. It must be said that it hosts also a pretty shabby collection of writers from around the world, in charge of updating their own country’s section on a daily basis with news, transactions, results and anything else that might interest a casual reader. These writers can’t be described as anything less than some of the most amateur “journalists” found anywhere on the internet, not just because of their often elementary school level English, but also because of the incredibly unprofessional job they do gathering news. We're not just saying that because they were guilty of blatantly plagiarizing content from us on more than one occasion.

Besides the fact that the article written on Hill was virtually incomprehensible (as if someone wrote it using Google translator), it also turned out to be 100% false, and has since been removed. We found Kyle Hill shooting around at the gym when we arrived an hour before the game. He laughed when I approached him about the report, rolling his eyes while grinning and saying that it’s just another thing he’s had to deal with lately—even though he loves playing in Sarajevo. I also talked to Bosna’s General Manager Dino Konakovic to see what he had to say—he said that they’ve become accustomed to this type of reporting from the local Eurobasket writers, and that they’ve had a lot of problems with them in the past—for example when they request 11 media credentials for a game and then end up not covering it at all. It’s not like everything is rosy between the team and Hill (he’s not playing as well as they might hope after coming back from a very serious injury that shelved him for almost all of last season), but they haven’t made any decision to cut him at this point.

That’s not to say that all Eurobasket writers are that bad (the sections in Italy, Belgium and Spain--just to name a few-- are actually pretty good), but this seems to happen more often than not, leaving you wondering if ANY of their reports are actually accurate. That’s why the people at Alba didn’t put much stock into it (their preparations for the game were virtually already done), but it did provide a good laugh.

Next Game: Armani Jeans Milano at Le Mans Sarthe (Euroleague)

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