Column by Mike Monroe
MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — It’s nearly impossible to miss Del Harris when he is in a basketball arena. At age 74, the former coach of the Rockets, Bucks and Lakers still has a full head of thick, white hair that almost glows.
Harris was on the bench as an assistant to Dominican Republic coach John Calipari at the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament that concluded its two-week run on Sunday night. Knowing fluent Spanish from his seven seasons coaching in the Puerto Rican professional league from 1969-75 was an asset.
On Sunday night, I spotted his gleaming head of hair some 20 feet away in a section near press seating at Polideportivo Islas Malvinas, the arena packed to the rafters with flag-waving, singing, chanting and dancing Argentines.
Slowly panning the crowd, with his iPhone on movie mode, Harris stopped when a familiar face entered his viewfinder.
“Mike,” he yelled so he could be heard above the crowd as it sang another chorus of “Vamos, vamos, Argentina!”
He explained his amateur filmmaking.
“I want to be able to show this to my friends when I get back home,” he said. “Isn’t this great? You just don’t get this in the NBA, this enthusiasm and passion from the fans. Have you ever seen anything as joyous as this?”
If you were at the river parade that followed the Spurs’ first NBA title in 1999, you have an idea of what went on every night at Polideportivo Islas Malvinas when Argentina was on the floor.
The FIBA Americas was about passion for the game and national pride, and it was a joy to see. When Argentina emerged from the title game with the gold medal, the players danced and sang and celebrated right along with the crowd.
The purity of the play and the passion for the game was an ironic counterpoint to the icy process playing out now as NBA owners and the players’ union struggle to find common ? ground, threatening the start of training camp and the season.
Last week’s optimism that grew from lengthy meetings and promises to keep working turned to pessimism on Tuesday, when another meeting produced neither progress nor plans to sit down again soon.
Let the games begin.
The FIBA Americas was not without faults. Tim Duncan famously decried FIBA officiating with two words after experiencing its referees at the 2004 Olympics.
Watching basketball morph into a rugby scrum in some games in Mar del Plata, it was easy to understand the frustration felt by the Spurs’ captain back then.
Then there is the scheduling.
One look at Spurs guard Manu Ginobili after Argentina’s gold medal victory over Brazil on Sunday made it simple to understand why NBA owners such as Dallas’ Mark Cuban have expressed grave concern about franchise players playing with their national teams every couple of years.
Even in the elation of victory, Ginobili could not hide his fatigue, nor did he try. He admitted to utter exhaustion after playing 10 games in 12 nights.
Of course, Ginobili plays every game as if it was his last. If he played more than one FIBA tournament each year, he would not last long.
Later, his coach, Julio Lamas, candidly told me he understood why NBA teams are reluctant to see their players competing in such a grueling schedule.
“We must change this,” Lamas said. “Better to play one day, then free, then play, then free, and so on. Now it is too much games and not enough time.”
Ginobili survived without injury, save for a gash on his nose.
Spurs fans can be happy for that.
In another two weeks, he will be ready for the start of training camp if the owners will show even a hint of willingness for compromise.