Archive | November 2011

Scandinavian Hoop Dreams

Two thousand and eleven was the first year in NBA history that a European-born player garnered the NBA Finals MVP award. It’s no secret that over the past decade, stars from Europe have had an increasing impact on American basketball. As NBA champions, Dirk, Pau Gasol, and Tony Parker lead the pack. Beyond the strong talent pools of Spain and France, ballplayers from Croatia and Serbia have entertained American fans for decades. Players from the emerging powerhouses Russia, Turkey, and Italy have paved inroads into NBA arenas over the last ten years as well. Israel and Greece maintain fantastic pro leagues primed with hoopers ready for export. With the odd exception of the UK, every European territory exudes NBA players. Everywhere, that is, except Scandinavia.

Perhaps NBA expectations are too grandiose for a group of countries whose combined population amounts to twenty five million – equal to that of Texas. How many NBA players could they reasonably produce? But dismissal on account of such demographics does not satisfy. Slovenia, comprised of only two million folks, gave us Sasha Vujacic (perhaps not the greatest example) and Goran Dragic (a better example). Latvia and Lithuania, each with fewer than four million inhabitants, gave us Sarunas Jasikevicius, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Andris Biedrins.

To be fair, Scandinavia does have one player on an NBA roster, Sweden’s Jonas Jerebko, an All-Rookie Second Team selection in 2010 who missed all of last season with an injury. This coming season will determine whether or not Jonas was a one-hit wonder, and prove an accurate barometer of how far Swedish hoops have yet to progress. Regardless, considering how many professional athletes hail from Scandinavia as a whole, those pursuing basketball are few and far between.

Scandinavian nations undoubtedly possess NBA-caliber athletes. From the soccer pitch to the ice rink, from track and field to the ski slopes, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Finnish competitors have historically excelled on the world stage. Especially in today’s NBA, where size and athleticism are privileged above skill, Scandinavians should fit right in. So where are they? I caught up with Swedish National Team coach and fellow American Brad Dean to hear his thoughts on the development of Scandinavian hoops.

“It’s coming,” Dean assures me, as he explains the gradual but unmistakable growth in the crop of Swedish players over the last decade. Dean is well aware of the challenges that persist throughout this process. “Hockey and football (soccer) draw a lot of athletes,” he concedes, and always will in this part of the world. Nevertheless, Dean remains optimistic that “if our national team continues to have success and our players perform well abroad,” the quality of the Swedish game will keep rising.

My three-month excursion in Sweden taught me that access to facilities remains a crucial barrier for increasing basketball’s popularity in the region. There are virtually no public outdoor courts, and the baskets already erected are barely in working order. Lund’s indoor court comprises about half the size of a normal basketball court, which significantly inhibits game play. Still, as my friend and former semi-pro player Ali Shirazi concurs, basketball has come a long way in this country during our lifetimes. “When I was coming up as a kid, not many kids played, says Ali. “The sport has definitely become more popular.” Don’t be surprised if the next generation of NBA first round picks call Scandinavia home.

Pensive Prince

I’m in pretty good spirits today despite a sprained ankle, but this song is so good. What an incredible musician.

Sistaminuten

About a month ago, my gracious host Erik told me a story of how his friend snagged a last minute flight and hotel package to one of the Greek islands for dirt cheap through this website sistaminuten.se. Ever since I’ve had my eye on the nifty site in case a real steal popped up. (It’s like Groupon Now for travel. Do we have this in the U.S.? We should.) Then the Istanbul venture materialized, and I figured that would be my last shindig before heading home. But as soon as it became clear the show possibility was nixed, I hopped online to see if I might be able to visit some lucrative locale during my last week abroad, somewhere I might not otherwise go.

After perusing all the options for at least an hour and a half, I narrowed it down to three potentials: Greece, Egypt, or the Canary Islands. I think Greece would have been more appealing had its price tag been significantly lower. Plus, everybody goes to Greece, so the cool factor sagged a bit. Egypt was tantalizing, except for the fact that right now is not such a good time to be in Cairo. I’m bold but not that bold. So I go for the Canary Islands. To be fair to the Canaries, I didn’t choose them solely by process of elimination; I took a liking to the idea immediately. The Islands are exotic, cheap, and, as an “autonomous community” of the Spanish empire, boast a native language I actually understand. It was a done deal.

Like Kayak, Sistaminuten only aggregates content, it does not sell vacation packages itself. The next thing I know, I’m redirected to a Danish travel agency’s website, Apollo, booking a ticket to Las Palmas. That’s the easy part. The package also includes accommodations, offering several arrangements from which to select. I pick the cheapest one, naturally, labeled “unspecified.” In other words, I’ll have a hotel room, I just won’t yet know at what hotel. Pausing for a minute as I stare at the screen, I hope that “unspecified” becomes specified in a relatively reasonable manner and click purchase. It’s Thursday night. The flight leaves Saturday morning. I thought it was leaving tomorrow morning. Shoot, that’s my version of “last minute.” My cool factor drops 6%.

Casey Gets Even

Fortunately for Mighty Casey, he doesn’t have to go home and face the Mudville faithful just yet. Instead, he can go to the Canary Islands and sit on the beach for a week, previewing on Youtube the best album of 2011, which he ordered on Amazon.com

Last Chances, Pt. 2

A friend of a friend works at a popular bar in Malmö called Klaffbron. Tingsek has performed there. In other words, the place puts Spisen to shame. It would be the most “legit” place I’ve ever played. This friend, Jonatan, is one of those guys who just makes things happen. It’s an unspoken, ineffable quality; you know it when you feel it. After only meeting me once and needing no reminders, Jon put a good word in with his boss Martin, sent him the web link to my music, and gave me Martin’s phone number to get the wheels turning.

Typically it takes several tries to reach people like Martin, but almost as soon as I dialed the digits and pressed call his voice came on the line. “Hi Martin, I’m a singer from San Francisco and Jonatan gave me your number.” “Of course, good to hear from you.” “Definitely. I was just calling to get in touch and see if we could put together a show.” “Sure. I have listen to your music first, but if I like than afterwards we can think about what kind of performance we want to have.” “That sounds great, I’m flexible, however you want to set it up will be great.” Oh crap, it finally registers. He hasn’t listened to the music yet! What is with these people? “My only concern is that I leave Sweden in two weeks. How soon can you have an answer for me?” “Well, my partner is out of town until Monday, and I can’t make the decision without him, so probably Monday at the earliest. I will give you a call next week.” “Ok, thanks.”

His partner? There’s always some excuse. But as bleak as it looks, hope remains. Martin did imply the possibility of organizing a show, and that will have to suffice for now. I can only push the issue so much without being detrimentally obnoxious. With the show hanging on by a thread, I decide to give my accompanist Gian a call and get him up to date. It was nearly a month ago that his efforts to arrange a Stockholm show appeared in vain, thus prompting me to take up the cause. I took him through the course of events and suggested that, regardless of whether or not the show worked out, it would be great to jam together during my last week here. I was pretty upbeat, until he finally responded with the straw that broke the camel’s back. “Dude, honestly, my schedule filled up. I thought I would have more time but now, I hate to say this, I don’t think I can do a show with you. I’m sorry man, I really wanted to but I’m just too busy.”

I can’t blame him. The man makes his living as a musician. He had to do what he had to do. But what could I do? Less than two weeks to go, no definitive venue, and now no accompanist. I was crushed and frustrated at the same time. How could you, Sweden? Torture without rapture, not cool. Last week, I got food poisoning, a nasty cough, and what I’m now diagnosing as a ruptured left eardrum. There is no joy in Mudville today. Mighty Casey has struck out.

Last Chances

With two weeks left on my journey, this past week was make or break for holding a show in Sweden. All that effort trying to contact venues over the course of several weeks amounted to two solid leads. The first was a cozy restaurant in Lund named Spisen, run by a Danish businessman, that holds the occasional Saturday night jazz jam. Twice I visited the owner, from whom I felt friendly vibes, but each time he regretfully informed me that he had not yet listened to my CD. Undeterred, I stepped inside the joint on Thursday crossing my fingers for good news.

Sauntering up to the bar with my most charming persona, I smiled at the waiter and asked to see the boss. “So, did he like the CD?” “One moment.” I stood waiting as he walked into the back room, only to return moments later. “The boss says he is very sorry but he is busy right now. Can you come back tomorrow?” No, I thought. You can’t get rid of me that easily. “But did he listen to the CD yet? Please ask him,” I insisted. Once again waiting, I started to get the feeling that this was not headed in the right direction. Returning slowly, the waiter came over to me with unfortunate news: he still had not listened to the CD! Now, in my opinion, three follow-up reminders are sufficient impetus to compel a given action. In other words, it became clear that he had little intention of entertaining the possibility of me giving a performance.

“Will you please ask him to talk for a minute? I leave in ten days!” If this fellow planned to blow me off, he was going to have to do the deed himself. He came forward, wearing a puzzlingly calm look, as if he had no understanding of the gravity of the subject at hand. Greeting me warmly, he apologized for not listening to the CD. He had been busy, yada yada yada. I tried to convey urgency but it was lost on his indifferent demeanor. “Ten days? Oh, I can’t do anything that soon. It would have to be next month.” I froze in disappointment. The painful irony  of this statement – I first came to him three weeks ago, when “next month” would have been *now.*

“Are you coming back next month?” he asks. I shake my head. I’m here now. Perhaps I need to be less polite about such matters in the future, because clearly I did not convey to him the urgency of my project. After this exchange I’m not sure what to feel. I was not rejected, I was just never accepted. I was wait-listed. The only difference being that a wait list eventually delivers a solid answer, and here I am holding a big question mark. Out of all the emails I sent and places I visited about having a show, I never received a single no. I was simply ignored. Well, I just have to brush it off. There’s one more possible venue. Perhaps I’ll have more luck there.