And yet, 2,000 of them fill the NMKY (that's Finnish for YMCA) the next night to watch Mississippi State face the Lahti club team. Bulldog guard T.J. Honore played in Spain a year ago with a group of junior college all-stars, so he knows what to expect of this European competition. "There's a lot of old men," he notes of the bald, chain-smoking basketball mercenaries of the Old World. "To look at 'em, you wouldn't pick 'em in a pickup game. But they can play."
They had better be able to. Mississippi State beat the eventual national champion Arkansas Razorbacks 72-71 last January but saw the NCAA tournament bubble burst beneath them when they lost three of their last four games to finish 18-10. Virtually all of the Bulldogs return, however, including 6'11" sophomore center Erick Dampier, who averaged 11.9 points and 8.7 rebounds a game as a freshman and is already spoken of as a likely Lotto prize in the 1997 NBA draft—or even sooner.
"I see guys like Erick in the NBA every day," concurs Williams. "But he's not a guy who loves basketball, and I'm not sure he's figured out yet how good he can be. I mean I really don't know: He doesn't talk enough for me to find out."
Says Bulldog captain Marcus Grant: "Erick probably said 10 words last year."
Dampier's twin-tower backup is Bubba Wilson, whose first name is stitched to the back of his warmup and now draws giggles from every young Jari and Janne in the crowd. When the LaNMKY lineup is announced, we learn that Dampier will be matched against "number 4, Dylan Thomas." Talk about old men: Their starting center is a dead Welsh poet.
As it turns out, Thomas is one of the two Americans allowed on each Finnish club team, and his game is poetry in the low post. The bleachers are blotted with Tar Heel caps and Fighting Irish sweatshirts worn by children trading NBA player cards. Public Enemy pulsates during timeouts. The movie posters in town read JABBA DABBA DUU, in reference to the Flintstones, whose souvenir cups are available at the local McDonald's. So Finland has many of the trappings of an American hoopoe-racy, with the happy exception of all-sports radio.
But even that can't be far behind. At a game two nights later the fortyish Finn seated in front of me is wearing this rabid doggerel on the back of his T-shirt: WHEN MY TIME ON EARTH IS GONE/ AND MY ACTIVITIES HERE ARE PASSED/ I WANT THEY BURY ME UPSIDE DOWN/ SO MY CRITICS CAN KISS MY ASS.—THE GENERAL.
Finland gave America architect Eero Saarinen, who designed St. Louis's Gateway Arch and the landmark TWA terminal at Kennedy airport and who codesigned the Eames chair. America gave Finland the perverse verse of Robert Montgomery Knight, who wouldn't know an Eames chair if he threw it across a basketball court. Can you say "trade deficit"?
Anyway, after the Bulldogs beat LaNMKY 95-86—making a would-be school-record 15 three-pointers in the process—several Bulldogs repair to a faint-pulsed downtown disco called Cumulus. Junior forward Jay Walton brings along a language cheat sheet, a list of indispensable Finnish phrases so wooden that they just might work as ironic pickup lines:
"Hei! Kutsu läädkäri. Olen allerginen silakka." ("Hello! Call a doctor. I'm allergic to Baltic herring.")