Dominican team begins practice at UK
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Al Horford never thought he'd spend a month training with the Dominican Republic national team in the middle of Kentucky.
But because Kentucky's John Calipari is coaching the Dominican Republic's national team in the upcoming 2011 FIBA Americas Tournament, the squad is training at the Wildcats' practice facility in Lexington.
"I never expected this, I got to tell you," said Horford, who played his college ball at Florida. "I tweeted the other day that I was going to be here and I didn't get very warm comments on it. (Gators fans) didn't like that too much. It has nothing to do with that, though. I'm happy to be here and happy to train here."
The team began training in Lexington on Sunday for the 10-team tournament that runs from Aug. 30 to Sept. 11 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The winner earns an automatic bid to play in the 2012 Olympics.
The Dominican Republic national team has never played in the Olympics.
"I think they've been to one qualifying tournament one time, in 1977, and they call those guys The Immortals," Calipari said. "We're underdogs, but that's what makes it unique and fun. This is a group that's hungry to win."
Calipari's roster includes three NBA players: Horford of the Atlanta Hawks, Charlie Villanueva of the Detroit Pistons and Francisco Garcia of the Sacramento Kings. The team also includes former Louisville guard Edgar Sosa, who hit a 25-footer to beat rival Kentucky in 2010.
"I've been trying my best to stay at the hotel. I haven't left the hotel too much," Sosa quipped.
Calipari said he was initially approached to serve as a consultant to young coaches in the Dominican Republic, similar to a program in which he participated in with Chinese basketball coaches. But then he was told that part of the commitment would include coaching the national team.
Calipari agreed on the condition that the team could prepare for the FIBA Americas Tournament in Lexington. Part of the appeal to coaching the team, he said, is the educational benefit.
"Baseball is Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A. Basketball is you either go to a club team or you're going to college," Calipari said. "The players on this team that have done well, all went to college. Maybe we can encourage sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders that your avenue to play basketball is education."
Playing for the national team doesn't just give the players a chance to represent their country. Villanueva said he was just glad to have a place to work out since NBA team facilities are closed to players during the lockout.
It also offers a chance to focus on the national team's tournament without the NBA preseason immediately looming, Villanueva said. He said he was prepared for no NBA preseason at all.
"It's going to be a battle. It's going to be a war, but we're not going to give in," he said. "Whatever happens, happens. I'm just taking it a day at a time. We'll have a better idea come September or when the end of August comes around.
"I'm prepared for it," he said. "I think the union did a great job of educating us on the potential lockout. I think it helped a lot of players, if not all of them. I was prepared for it two years ago. Nothing different for me."
Before the FIBA Americas Tournament, the Dominican Republic national team is scheduled to play an exhibition in Lexington's Rupp Arena on Aug. 15 against a group of Kentucky alumni currently playing in the NBA. The Kentucky alumni scheduled to play include Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics, John Wall of the Washington Wizards and Tayshaun Prince of the Pistons.
Horford said the team is looking forward to the exhibition not as a showcase but as a chance to improve before the tournament.
The team will stay in Lexington until it heads to Argentina for the tournament.
"I don't know if Joakim (Noah) knows that the practices are being held out here," Horford said of his college teammate who enjoyed prodding the rival Wildcats. "I don't know how he'd feel about that."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press
MORE OLYMPIC BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Durant, USA pull away from Spain to win gold
- Clippers' Paul has successful surgery on thumb
- Schmitt back to school after Olympic stardom
- Olympian Raisman, Poland Spring sign deal