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Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Slow boat (plane) to Spain for Team USA

By Chris Sheridan
ESPN.com

MADRID, Spain -- A long rain delay in Newark, refueling stops in Newfoundland and Iceland, followed by the always painstaking process of clearing customs at the airport before boarding two buses for the drive to the center of this city.

Elapsed time, from the jetway in New Jersey to the front door of the place they'll call home for six days: 15½ hours.

Can you say groggy?

Team USA made it to Spain the hard way Tuesday before finally disembarking to the muted delight of a few dozen curious onlookers who staked out the entrance to their hotel.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski was looking particularly sleep-deprived while sporting a 5 o'clock shadow, which was fitting because it was 5 p.m. somewhere -- probably somewhere the team had stopped along its journey.

"We had a charter, and in order to keep the plane with us the whole time it necessitated a couple stops. So it was a scenic trip," Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo told ESPN.com.

Kevin Durant was the only player to stop between the bus and the front door of the hotel to pose for a photograph, much to the delight of 18-year-old Jose Araujo, who waited outside for four hours wearing a brand new Chicago Bulls jersey affixed with Derrick Rose's No. 1.

The team was scheduled to hold a brief closed practice Tuesday evening, in large part to get them acclimated to the six-hour time difference between Madrid and New York, where the team finished training camp Sunday with a 31-point exhibition victory over France.

Team USA's next games are Saturday against Lithuania and Sunday against Spain before they travel directly to Athens (fuel capacity permitting) for a game against the Greek national team next Wednesday.

Perhaps, by then, the memories of their loooooong sojourn across the Atlantic will have faded.

"This has been a long trip. A lot of sleep, a lot of cards -- bourre and poker," Danny Granger said. "But I already love Madrid. I grew up in New Mexico, so I've always been around Spanish culture a lot and I've always liked it, and I understand the language, and the city is pretty nice and pretty clean. So my first impression is pretty good." What kind of impression this team makes on the rest of the world during this first leg of the trip to the World Championship in Turkey remains to be seen, but the caliber of competition they'll face is much, much tougher than what recent versions of Team USA have experienced.

The 2008 Olympic team played in front of friendly, star-struck crowds in Macau and Shanghai on their way to Beijing, with Australia being the toughest team they faced.

The 2006 World Championship team also played in front of adoring crowds in South Korea and Taiwan as they made their way to Japan, with Brazil the most polished opponent they faced.

So when the USA Basketball hierarchy was planning for this trip, thinking they'd have a majority -- if not all -- of the 2008 Redeem Team back together again, they decided to toughen up the pre-tournament schedule to give those players their first taste of playing in front of a hostile crowd.

Instead, this newer, younger version of Team USA will be experiencing it.

Another thing they'll encounter is a more physical brand of basketball than they're used to in the NBA, a dynamic that was particularly frustrating to Tyson Chandler after he was tripped up -- intentionally, he felt -- while running downcourt during the first half of the game against France on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

After righting himself somewhat, Chandler shot a "What the heck?" glance at the referees as play continued.

"We're all not used to that, the grabbing and pulling down and stuff like that. A lot of times it catches you off-guard and you're expecting the call, but in this game you've got to be prepared for it," Chandler said. "And the longer the tournament goes on, it's going to be worse than what we've seen in the last couple games."

That'll be particularly true for Chandler, the only true center remaining on the roster after JaVale McGee was cut last weekend.

And the violence against Chandler will not be limited to what happens when he is running downcourt, since it is a well-known fact worldwide that Chandler is prone to having his difficulties at the foul line (career free throw percentage: .609). So on those occasions when he gets an offensive rebound for the undersized Americans, he can expect to be hacked across the arms or wrapped up by a defender to prevent him from going back up with the ball.

Durant (who has already played both forward positions and center for Team USA in exhibitions against China and France) will also have a target on him, the competition testing how much stomach he has for putting up with the rough stuff that nobody in the NBA can get away with but which FIBA referees turn a blind eye to.

U.S. assistant coach Jay Triano told me a couple years ago that when he used to coach the Canadian national team, he would always instruct his players to deliver a lowered shoulder to any American player who cut through the line, the reason being that U.S. players were prone to being rattled by such physicality, and the referees would never blow their whistles.

By the end of the upcoming weekend, we'll have a better idea of how these Americans are able to cope.

But one thing is certain: No matter how much it bothers them, it'll be tough to top the ups and down they went through, literally, on their way from the United States to Europe.