Dull? Finland? Finland is Norway on NyQuil. The nation is shaped like Florida but is in fact an Arctic, alien-free anti-Florida. More than 97% of Finland's population is native-born, and its shores are breached only by the odd cultural export. Finland gave the world the sauna, the music of Jean Sibelius and the Helsinki Formula—a back-of-the-comics cure for baldness. Now, if science only had a cure for blandness.
Bland? Finland? Finland is whiter than the Beatles' double album cover, so a 6'10" black man with the word BUBBA on the back of his jacket is bound to turn towheads here. I am riding a bus through Finland in the rain with the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who are as far from Starkville as one can be on this, an 11-day, nine-game, summertime exhibition tour that promises a cockamamie clash of cultures. More than a top-25 college basketball team, the group resembles a heroic team of visiting doctors with an antidote for ennui tucked in their little black bags: Basketball.
Forty miles from the Russian border, the bus passes by shop-front signs scripted with Cyrillic curlicues. Most Finns, like many Mississippians, speak English, but what coach Richard Williams wants to know is, "Do they speak any Gulf-Coast-Mississippi English?"
It was Francis Bacon who wrote, in his Essays: "Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education.... He that traveleth into a country before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school." It was Kevin Bacon who said, in the movie The Air Up There, "I knew the sport traveled, but...."
But this is ridiculous. College basketball has become a game in which every team is the Globetrotters. About 30 schools play abroad each summer and, rule book be damned, traveling is no longer a violation. The NCAA allows a team to play overseas once every four years and gives those teams 10 days of summertime practice to prepare for a maximum two-week schedule of exhibition games. A team can bond like Polident during that fortnight: Both Florida and Arizona played in Australia in the summer of '93, and both later made the Final Four. Suddenly, you need a Baedeker just to follow the bouncing ball.
Florida State toured the champagne caves of Châlons-sur-Marne while playing in France this summer, narrowly missing the Maryland Terrapins, who were also there, just begging to be Eurotrashed by Parisian waiters. When Terp center Joe Smith was asked before embarking on the trip if he spoke any French, he confidently replied, "French toast."
In fact, it's more like French fries. "Even in Paris, most of these kids want their meals served in a cardboard box," says Lee Frederick, whose Milwaukee-based Sport Tours International will arrange trips and set up games anywhere in the world. "But we're looking for travelers, not tourists. Tourists want everything to be the same as it is back home. Travelers want something strange."
No stranger to strange, Frederick is an ex-college coach with an adventurer's spirit—think of John Paul Jones with a basketball jones. "I went to Surinam with National College of South Dakota," he told me before I left for Finland, a trip that he did not arrange, "and we wound up an hour into the bush on June 30th—the first day of the new moon—when the Indian shamans drink a little hooch and go crazy, dancing on glass and hot coals. I like Nassau, where we used to have to trap the rats to get them out of the gym before we played. I take the kids to snake farms in Brazil. I took Marquette to Fiji, and we wound up in the basement of a men's club where the locals were drinking kava, which is made from crushed pepper root. Looks like muddy water. We stayed and sang songs for five hours. I like to go to the island of Dominica, where they eat these great big frogs they call mountain chicken, sweetest meat you've ever tasted. I always tell kids: Eat the country."
Do we have to eat Finland? Can't we send out for China? These are the questions that come up on the bus as we lumber behind a lumber truck on our way out of Kotka, the rain still relentless, the paper-mill town smelling of wet sawdust, which is what many suspect we had for breakfast this morning. I crack my guidebook, riffling to the indispensable phrases listed therein. "En syo silakka" I begin, committing the mantra to memory. "I don't eat Baltic herring."
"When you play overseas, the sun doesn't rise and set on the NCAA," Frederick had said of the more relaxed atmosphere that prevails abroad, and on our first night in Finland, the sun barely seems to set at all. The street-lamps finally blink to life in the town of Lahti around 10 p.m., which is more than the Lahtians do. The place goes by the button-down nickname of Business City, apparently to distinguish the locals from their more devil-may-care compatriots.