When the bartender sees Walton's phrase list, he laughs gigantically, then xeroxes the sheet in a back room, distributing it to friends. When Walton finally does ask a girl to dance, she immediately leaves the disco with her girlfriend, apparently finding the forward too...forward. "I guess I have to learn proper Finnish dance-floor etiquette," a crestfallen Walton says the next morning before we bus the 130 kilometers to Kotka and that evening's game against KTP-Basket Oy.
KTP-Basket Oy? Is that a team or Yiddish play-by-play? The question is definitively answered in the first 2:36 of the game, when—Oy!—Mississippi State falls behind, 9-1, before awakening for a 93-84 win. By a grand cosmic coincidence, the coach of KTP, Larry Pounds, was born in infinitesimal Tylertown, Miss. Pounds, 41, was raised in Los Angeles and was a 6'8" forward who played his college ball at Washington before coming to Finland 12 years ago to play for a club team. He never left, marrying a Finn, raising a son and two daughters, and becoming a dual citizen.
"Before I came over here, life didn't exist outside the U.S.A.," says the personable Pounds, chatting in the parking lot after the game. "I was USA! USA! But I moved and got a different perspective. Like how Europeans are very proud of their countries. I think America could use more of that. It's embarrassing, really, watching the O.J. Simpson news over here: how they've turned it into a TV show in the States, into entertainment. Life is a lot more peaceful here, and that suits me."
What at first blush appears to be Finnish dullness turns out to be an almost absurd modesty, a self-effacing kindness. Hotel laundry services charge eight bucks a pop to wash a shirt here, so back at the Leikari Hotelli in Kotka, after the victory over KTP, a sympathetic lady at the front desk quietly takes the reeking State uniforms home and washes them herself, gratis. "Try that in the U.S.," says Bulldog manager Alex Sheffield, whose unis are folded and April-fresh as the bus leaves Kotka for Kouvola the next morning.
Coach Williams is in the front seat, reading his official biography for the forthcoming media guide, a bio that becomes more impressive each season, new accomplishments crowding out less vital information. "Rosinski," the coach now calls to sports-information director David Rosinski, "I'm glad to see you've removed the line, 'He likes to do yard work.' "
I settle into a scat next to 6'10" forward Russell Walters, who is from Laurel, Miss, (or, more precisely, "from outside of Laurel"); who annually wears full camouflage to class on the first day of turkey-hunting season; and who tells wildly entertaining stories about his friend Ol' Boy, a hometown neighbor so rustic he makes Walters look like Winston Churchill. Soon, the powerful aroma of the wet Finnish paper mills triggers a kind of nasal déjà vu in my seatmate.
"Daddy and I went to Peoria, Illinois, once," recalls Walters, whose father raises "hawgs 'n' dawgs" and drives a long-haul tractor trailer. "Man, that place smelt like...burnt beans. Smelt like burnt baked beans." He crinkles his nose at the memory.
Two rows back, Grant, the team captain, is still recovering from his last trip to a strange land. "My uncle Alan Evans is an opera singer," he says. "Bass baritone. He lives in Mannheim, Germany. I went to visit him three-and-a-half years ago. My cousin and I went to the opera to see him perform. It lasted six hours, and we didn't understand a word." Grant crinkles his nose at the memory.
He is 6'6", lean and virtually clean-beaned: Grant has the silhouette of a roll-on deodorant, and he has grown leaner still by rigorously avoiding all meals on this trip. Few teammates can blame him. I personally ate an unspeakable Camembert pizza in Lahti; it tasted like the result of a traffic mishap involving a Domino's delivery van and a waste-disposal truck. "I've actually enjoyed the food," says Walters, a lone dissenter. "With the exception of some beef-stew-lookin' stuff that I didn't much care for. We had some veal last night, and Coach says, 'This sure is some good pork, huh?' "
Finland gave America the St. Louis Arch. America gave Finland the Golden Arches. When the bus stops at a McDonald's outside of Kouvola, we lay waste to the restaurant at 11 o'clock in the morning, stuffing cheeseburgers into our mouths like Cookie Monster on an Oreo jag. We then pile back on the bus and pull into Kouvola proper, where a large sign, punctuated by a basketball, welcomes MISSISIPPI [sic].