Weekly Countdown (cont.)
Childress has also adapted to the lifestyle realities of European basketball. When we spoke by phone last month, he had checked into the team hotel following a five-hour bus ride for a domestic-league game against Greek rival Trikala. He now takes it for granted that police in riot gear will surround the edges of the court during each game.
"Last year, I saw police getting beat up by fans and it was crazy, it was really like a riot in the middle of a game," he said. "In the NBA, you get booed a few times, but it's nothing compared to getting cell phones and cameras and lighters and coffees thrown at you. The only thing that has come close to hitting me was a roll of receipt paper. You know, the kind you see from a cash register. They'd thrown that and it came close to hitting me, and that would have hurt.
"They've shot flares on the court a few times, and you get the firecrackers still, the M-80s. All my teammates said you always run away from [a lit firecracker on the court] or kick it, because I think some [player's] finger got blown off one time.
"During the games they throw stuff at you, they're trying to spit at you, they're doing everything to try to get to you. But off the court, I haven't had too many issues. Maybe some opposing fans have keyed my car a few times; I was at the grocery store and I came back out and someone had keyed a big, long stripe down the side and the hood. If it was my car, I would have been a little angrier, but it's a team-issued car, and I'm sure the team is used to that happening."
As part of his contract, the club has provided him with a Volvo SUV and a townhouse. "It's something I would purchase in the States," he said. "Nice size, nice pool. They really took care of me."
He also likes playing for the Angelopoulos brothers, who control Olympiakos basketball. "They're true basketball fans," he said. "One of the brothers is in the gym all the time working out. He plays in a men's league. They truly enjoy the game and being around us and supporting the team. You see them during the games cheering or shouting at the referees just like Mark Cuban."
American fans may have trouble believing this, but players in Europe feel more pressure to win each night than stars of the NBA do. "They treat every game like a playoff game [here]," Childress said. "We stay in a hotel on game days because they don't want anything to interfere with the mind or the performance.
"Last year, we lost a game and I tried to go eat afterward, and it was like I was walking around like a crazy man -- like, what is he doing out when he should be home sulking? The type of fan support obviously is great, but it can have its drawbacks, too. We went back to our training facility one time after we lost a game and [discovered] some things had been broken and the fans had kind of rioted. On the court, you try to focus on the game, but if you're not playing well, they'll let you know. I've gotten used to it, but last year it was a tough adjustment."
Consider how much one year in Europe did to elevate and harden Bucks rookie point guard Brandon Jennings. Childress, 26, has undergone similar improvements. Not only is he tougher, but NBA scouts say he has become a better shooter and a more versatile decision-maker. As one NBA team executive put it, "He's making more money over there than he could have made in the NBA, and he's going to come back with a better understanding of how to play different positions. At the end of the day, he made a good decision to go over there."
But he insists he hasn't decided whether to stay with Olympiakos for a third year, or to try to return to the NBA before the anticipated lockout of 2011.
To bet or not to bet? The Euroleague broke ground this season by negotiating a provocative endorsement. Go to the league's official site and you'll see that a main sponsor is Sporting Bet, an online sports gambling service that enables fans to bet on Euroleague games.
"We feel comfortable with Sporting Bet and our relationship with them," Euroleague communications director Kirsten Haack said. "Everything indicates that our players, our referees and our coaches aren't influenced by the betting results."
Sporting Bet trades on the London Stock Exchange. "They have alarm systems installed in their betting systems, so that when they notice sudden peaks or algorithms that don't make sense, they freeze the betting," Haack said. "Betting on the games is an accepted part of European culture. In Spanish football [soccer], there has always been some kind of lottery or betting system -- that has always existed in Spain and a lot of countries in Europe."
European soccer has been dealing with a gambling scandal based in Germany and other countries, but basketball has yet to generate similar big-money interests.
When NBA referee Tim Donaghy was betting on the games he was officiating, he was doing so to win money on his bets. But European basketball operates on a different dynamic. When European referees have been accused of fixing a game, the riggers haven't been interested in gambling on the outcome -- they've simply wanted their team to win the game.
The Euroleague hopes its partnership with Sporting Bet will enhance interest in basketball by encouraging fans to literally invest in the games and therefore care more about the outcome. The bottom line -- despite the official denials -- is that all leagues probably want fans to bet on the games. The NFL is so popular in part because of betting; the hysteria over the NCAA tournament has everything to do with the entire nation gambling on the 64-team pool. If your games aren't attracting wagers, it means your league is irrelevant and in trouble. The example of the Euroleague's breakthrough partnership with an online gambling partner was one reason NBA commissioner David Stern told me in December that someday his league may view nationally legalized gambling as not only a "possibility" but also a "huge opportunity."
Shorter summers? League sources said the NBA is negotiating with FIBA for new guidelines that will limit the time players spend with national teams over the summer. While no firm agreement has been established, the NBA and FIBA have discussed limiting NBA players to a maximum of four weeks with national teams -- to be spent training and playing exhibition friendlies -- in addition to time spent at the summer tournament. The sources said a limit of some kind will be enforced at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey, which runs Aug. 28-Sept. 12.
The Final Four. As much as NBA fans are looking ahead to a potential Finals showdown between the Lakers and the Cavaliers, so are fans abroad anticipating an Olympiakos-Barcelona final. The big difference is that the Final Four is a one-and-done event, which provides semifinal underdogs CSKA Moscow and Partizan Belgrade a strong opportunity to knock off Barcelona and Olympiakos, respectively.
I've said this before: The Euroleague Final Four is the world's best basketball event. It combines the best of March Madness with a more fanatical fan base and a higher level of talent than the NCAA can imagine. The NBA Finals surely operate at a higher level of talent, but they fall short of the passion and unpredictability created by Europe's Final Four.
While Barcelona has been the top team in Europe and will be an overwhelming favorite, my hunch (with thanks to an educated adviser) is that Olympiakos will prevail based on the athleticism of Childress.
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