KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They don’t hate us for our freedom. They hate us for our free throws.
“I wouldn’t rule out a certain chip on the shoulder for European players who get tired of Americans in general,” Paul Shirley says. “Because the only Americans they see are American basketball players (overseas) who are (like) mercenaries. So there could be some resentment there.”
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This month, three Big 12 men’s basketball teams — Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri — spent a little time abroad. Instead of souvenirs, some players brought back a few bruises to show the home folks. In the Netherlands, a Missouri player took an elbow to the head. In Switzerland, a Kansas opponent was ejected for spitting on a referee. In Brazil, Kansas State’s coach was escorted off the court after arguing with officials.
Yeah, yeah, incidents happen. One’s isolated. Two’s a coincidence. But three? With three different programs? In three different countries?
Three, amigo, is a trend.
“We forget, because we think, ‘Well, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, these are big deals,'” explains Shirley, the Meriden, Kan., native-turned-author/blogger, who played with six overseas basketball clubs following his Big 12 days at Iowa State. “They’re saying to themselves, ‘We’re a professional team in this country. There’s no reason for us to kowtow. Who the hell is Frank Haith?'”
He’s the one in a huff, pulling his team off the court. Last Saturday, Mizzou was playing against the Dutch U-24 national team an exhibition, which grew nasty in a hurry. Words nearly escalated to fisticuffs after Stefon Jankovic, a freshman forward with the Tigers, took an elbow across the head. Haith, who’d been riding the officiating — or lack thereof — wound up getting ejected. Midway through the third quarter, the Mizzou coach, perhaps fearing a repeat of the brawl between Georgetown and a Chinese pro team last August, gathered up his squad and marched them off the floor.
Things weren’t much better for K-State in Rio. During a 74-72 loss to Tijuca Club on Monday, the rough stuff got Bruce Weber’s blood pressure up, too. There were 78 free throws taken in the game, and five Wildcats eventually fouled out. Of the four technicals issued during the tilt, two were on Weber, who was reportedly escorted away after arguing a call with six minutes still on the clock.
“Never been in a game,” K-State assistant Chris Lowery tweeted, “where I was fearful that my players would get hurt.”
The Jayhawks’ recent European sojourn took some wacky turns as well. Not only did the defending national runners-up actually lose two contests overseas, but on August 8, while Kansas was playing in Fribourg, Switzerland, Ramseier, a forward for the Swiss national team, went a little cuckoo. After being issued a technical foul, Ramseier reportedly spit in the face of an official. Then, as if to get his point across, he spit in another official’s face, too. Ramseier had to be restrained, was whistled for a second technical during the outburst and was told to hit the showers — or as they say in Fribourg, aller au vestiaire.
“Well, everybody gives it to the American teams; it just seems like it’s everywhere,” offers Terry Moore, a veteran Big 12 official who’s been an instructor with FIBA — the international basketball federation — for the past decade. “It’s not like they’re trying to hurt them. Supposedly Americans are the best basketball (squads), but the international team wants to show that ‘Hey, we can play basketball, too, talent-wise.’
“American players have a lot of talent, but FIBA clubs, they’re catching up. They can play fundamental basketball.”
They also carry a teensy bit of a grudge, backlash from a generation of Dream Teams and Redeem Teams taking the international stage and turning the rest of the world into personal doormats. But some of the tension on the part of Haith and Weber, Moore notes, really stems from the fact that games abroad are called differently, too. A foul in Austin, Texas, may not be a foul in, say, Athens, Greece.
“The United States teams aren’t used to the physicality of play, and sometimes they get frustrated,” says Moore, who’s called games in nine different countries over the past five years. “When they don’t call contact, it seems to disrupt some of the US players. And sometimes when they retaliate, they retaliate with fists. The coaches are like, ‘You called this foul, why didn’t you call this foul?'”
That’s where foreign travel for major-college programs becomes something of a double-edged sword. Overseas trips look good in the media guide and are a selling point to recruits. Coaches like testing their players, especially the freshmen and sophomores, against older, more seasoned competition.
Of course, that older, more seasoned competition also has no desire to lay down and play the role of the Washington Generals. They know the boundaries, and don’t mind testing them against what they see as a bunch of upstart American brats.
“I know in the international game, we’re leaning toward letting the physicality thing go, rather than calling it,” Moore said. “Sometimes, the players, they have limits, like any other person. Once you reach that threshold, that’s all they’re going to take of it.”
Same sport. Different culture. Different agenda.
“Those international referees do not care if that’s some superstar, which I used to love,” Shirley says. “But it might drive a coach crazy if they’re used to getting it called a certain way.”
Maybe it’s them. Maybe it’s us. Regardless, the kids up in Amsterdam surely know who the heck Frank Haith is now.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him