For the second straight year, a group from Jordan Brand will travel to Europe -- this time to Vilnius, Lithuania -- for a two-day training camp with 40 of the top prospects in the world from March 4-9. Ten players will be selected as the Most Valuable Players from the camp and they will travel to the United States in April, along with six players from other regions of the world to compete in the second annual International Game as part of the Jordan Brand Classic on Saturday, April 18th at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The following is a blog and daily photo gallery from Kevin Foley, who will be along for the trip.
Vilnius, Lithuania (March 8): The second and final day of the camp was one of the best that I have seen on the tour through out the last two years. At stake was a trip for 10 players to attend the International Game of the Jordan Brand Classic in New York City this April. When we arrived at the gymnasium in the morning, all of the kids looked ready to play. They were there early warming up and maybe it was the music pounding through the sound system, but the intensity was at a high level.
Chris Thomas kicked off the session once again by warming up all of the players. His first question to the kids was how many of them were in pain from the day before -- over half of the hands were raised. Note to campers in future years -- never admit your weaknesses. The kids hit the court for an hour-long segment which featured more conditioning drills. Then the group went to our conference room where they watched a video of last year's trip to New York City. The video had interviews with each of the 2008 participants in their own languages and you could see each section of the room light up when their countryman came up on the screen. I knew right then that the players were going to work even harder now.
One thing that I realized on this trip is that I am loving the style of International basketball. I could probably count the number of dunks on one hand from the weekend (not because of the lack of athleticism of the players as many were 6'8+) but I really enjoyed seeing such strong fundamentals. Players seemed to dribble less, send crisper passes and grab rebounds. That is one of my pet peeves about the U.S. game -- players always just try to tip-in rebounds instead of boxing out or getting two hands on the ball.
While the NBA game is followed in Europe, it is the popular EuroLeague Top 16 that seemed to be the biggest talk among the players. Here is the schedule -- with some pretty amazing teams -- if you were interested.
Panathinaikos (Greece) vs. Unicaja (Spain) - March 11
Lottomatica Roma (Italy) vs. Partizan (Serbia) - March 11
Cibona (Croatia) vs. CSKA Moscow (Russia) - March 11
Fenerbahce Ulker (Turkey) vs. Montepaschi (Italy) - March 11
Tau Ceramica (Spain) vs. Olympiacos (Greece) - March 12
AJ Milano (Italy) vs. Asseco Prokom (Poland) - March 12
Maccabi Electra (Israel) vs. Regal FCB (Spain) - March 12
Real Madrid (Spain) vs. Alba Berlin (Germany) - March 12
For more information, visit www.euroleague.net.
Going back to the camp, we finished up the day with our 3-on-3 tournament, 5-on-5 championship and the All-Star Game to complete the night. In the final 5-on-5 game, the lead changed four times in the last few seconds as one of the players hit a free-throw after sinking his Michael Jordan-esque shot to win the game. The gymnasium went crazy. At 4:00 pm we announced the 20 all-stars -- which was great for many of the kids, but it also meant the other half were "eliminated" from their chance to make the Jordan Brand Classic.
The All-Star Game was very entertaining. We opened it up to the public and every seat in the gym was filled before tip-off. The Lithuanian players received a big round of applause when they were announced. At the conclusion, Susan Mulders of Nike Europe, Gentry Humphrey of Jordan and the great Lithuanian player Sarunas Marciulionis (of the NBA's Golden State Warriors) announced the 10 MVPs going on to New York. The ceremony really gave me goose bumps because you could see such tremendous joy in the player's faces when their names were announced. What an incredible opportunity for a 15-16 year old kid. Afterwards, we were working to have the kids take a few photos, but they were running to their cell phones to call their families -- and their country managers were just as excited. It was a pretty cool moment.
The final night included our annual pilgrimage to the house of Sarunas Marciulionis, which was about 50 miles outside of Vilnius. Last year -- for those of you who followed along -- we had a very memorable night. He was once again an incredible host with an impressive layout of food and beverages. We also brought along our 12 country managers so the night included a few competitions between everyone - USA vs. Lithuania vs. Eastern Europe vs. Western Europe. It was a great night. We left at 12:30 am and made it back to the hotel an hour later.
I am off to bed -- our ride to the airport leaves at 4:45 am!