"You have to put a 'State' on that thing," Coach Williams tries to explain to our bewildered Finnish guide, an employee of the team in Kouvola, this weekend's opponent. "Or people will think it's Ole Miss. They're our biggest rival. They're the enemy."
"Uh...yes, we know," replies the guide, recovering nicely. "We use all the weapons we can find."
Time passes. If this were a movie, pages would peel rapid-fire from a calendar. We join the older, wiser Bulldogs near the end of the trip, the players thinking of home. Guard Darryl Wilson telephones his old high school coach in Birmingham, Ala., and talks at length. "He must not have heard the 'Collect call from Finland' part," Wilson explains.
Walters has all but exhausted his supply of Ol' Boy stories. So we know that Ol' Boy has "been dippin' Skoal since he was two, got a big Ol' cancer on his tongue." We've heard that when Ol' Boy was introduced to a Chi-O at a sorority party, he suavely replied, "Oh, we got coyotes back home, too." And now Walters is telling us about the time Ol' Boy got his vee-hickle (a Pin-toe) stuck in a bawg (pronounced to rhyme with hawg and dawg); he asked Walters's brother to tow him out by tying a pair of jeans to the Pin-toe's front bumper and fitting the open fly over a trailer hitch, with a resulting scene that would make Hee Haw look like Masterpiece Theatre.
On their lone off day, players pick through life's flotsam at a Finnish-Russo flea market, while Williams and his wife, Diann, are guests of the coach of the Kouvola team on that coach's private island. After a glorious day and a sumptuous dinner, the Finnish coach gets down to business: He fires up basketball videos and asks Williams to dissect the Bulldog offense. Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly....
We do not visit any Finnish museums, due largely to the unyielding game schedule, as well as the unyielding monotony of Finnish museums. In Turku the fellas take a pass on the famous Pharmacy Museum there, missing out on...what exactly? The diorama of decongestants? But again, Finland proves to be much more than it first appears to be: Little more than a month after visiting Turku, when we're back in the U.S., an Estonian ferry sinks in the Baltic, killing more than 900 people. The rescue effort is headquartered in Turku, where the survivors are hospitalized and the locals do heroic work. It is precisely this kind of time-release education-in-life that the trip to Finland was all about.
"Sure, we wanted the 10 extra practices and two weeks of games," says Williams, whose charges won all nine contests, by an average margin of 20 points. "But we also thought it would be good for the team to experience a different culture and lifestyle. We encourage them to be more than just basketball players. We tell them to use basketball, don't let basketball use you. And we hoped that traveling together in buses and staying in hotels for two weeks, not understanding the language, would bring the team closer together."
In fact, the Bulldog basketball program has been fostering peace, togetherness and understanding through bus travel since 1963. That year, the team defied the orders of school administrators who forbade the Bulldogs to compete in the NCAA tournament as long as the tournament was open to black players. So coach Babe McCarthy bused his team out of Starkville under cover of darkness, and State got its only NCAA tournament win in school history. I was thinking about all of this on another bus ride, through Finland, with the predominantly black Bulldogs of 1994. How far we have come, both literally and figuratively—as well as in our knowledge of Finnish dance-floor etiquette.
It is Saturday night. At a throbbing Kouvola disco, imaginatively called The Arizona, we stand packed inside like crayons in a box, in blithe disregard of the Finnish fire code. Jay Walton, without his cheat sheet, breaks the ice with a group of young ladies. "Hi," he says earnestly. "I'm Thunder Dan Majerle." Shyly toeing the floor with his right shoe, Russell Walters admits that, why yes, he is Larry Bird. They point out their friend Shaquille O'Neal, and there stands Erick Dampier, stone-silent and inscrutable, like an Easter Island sculpture. Taking a quick personal inventory (tall, balding, begoggled, surly, older), I introduce myself as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, though the skeptical young Finns don't recognize the name, and are now calling me...Jabba Dabba-Duü.
It is a nice Näkemiin, a fond "farewell" to Finland. The team will soon return to the U.S., clearing customs at Chicago-O'Hare, where Dampier will be greeted by his grandmother, who will get an astonishing earful about Finland from him for the entire length of the layover. The Bulldogs will then board another plane for home, flying over the St. Louis Arch. We will think of Eero Saarinen, and Camembert pizza and the pro bono laundry lady, and a funny thing will happen. We will miss Finland.