Saturday, August 23, 2008

Beijing Day 8 — Volleyball and Basketball

Today began with Bronze and ended with Gold, with a little cloak and dagger action in the middle.

Women's Indoor Volleyball — Cuba vs China, Bronze Medal match

The venue for the volleyball match was the Capital Gymnasium. It is actually fairly close to our hotel and is on a bus route that also stops right in front of our hotel. With our Olympic tickets in hand, we get to ride for free, so the trip over was no problem.

But before we hopped the bus, there was a little business preparation that needed to happen. We stopped at a local bank to make sure we had enough RMB on hand for the scalper negotiations we would be facing before the basketball matches later on. We've kind of lost track of what day it is — everything is defined by what events we have going on, not what day of the week it might be — so it didn't occur to us as we walked to the bank that it might not be open on Saturday. It was and we had no problems.

The crazy thing about this bank, and a lot of places around this city, is that it is located in a run-down neighborhood and is tucked into a strip mall-like string of store fronts crammed into the first floor of what looks like an old apartment building or office building. Sometimes it's hard to say what they are. The store fronts are really shabby and covered with huge signs. They really don't look very hospitable to business, but that's how just about everything looks around here except for the very new buildings. But walk inside and you're standing in a super clean, air conditioned, modern bank. The facade in no way conveys what is going on inside and to make a judgment about any business by how it looks gets you nowhere here. It is true that a lot of the little holes-in-the-wall businesses really are what they seem, but you can't always assume that. Plus, they had someone who spoke English.

Anyway, getting to the volleyball venue was a snap. We went right in and got ready for our first final match of the Olympics.

This venue was a pre-existing arena that was spruced up for the Olympics. It is interesting that the older venues always seem to have better seating than the new ones. The new arenas might have cushy seats (except the Watercube — pure, solid plastic), but the leg room sucks and they tend to be pretty narrow. We were up in the upper section, but our location was great — almost center court and high enough that nothing obstructed our view.

We ended up sitting next to a couple from LA and in front of a Cuban couple who currently live and work in Beijing (her) and Malaysia (him). I think that the fact we always end up sitting next to other Americans must be due to how the event tickets are allocated. Each country gets a certain number and the organizers must have given those out in chunks instead of random seats around the arena. At every event we've been too, we've sat next to Americans or other English-speaking foreigners like Aussies.

One conspicuous change from this event to all the others we've been to — no national anthems. There was a performance before the game by some dancers during which they used the two countries' flags, but no anthems.

As the game got underway, it was pretty clear that China was in control. The Cubans had their moments and were able to win the second set, but China was much more consistent and made almost no mistakes. The Cubans really shot themselves in the foot over and over by committing unforced errors like serving long or into the net or really misplaying their setting. They gave China upwards of 6 or 7 free points in a couple matches. With the power players China had, Cuba had to play a perfect game and they really didn’t come through.

Not having ever been to a high level volleyball match before, it was great to have the Cubans behind us commenting about the game. The Chinese also really seemed to know and understand the game. Things would happen and the Chinese would start cheering even before the refs would call the point.

The Chinese team won 3 sets to 1. It seemed to be over pretty quick. Unlike our tickets for any prelim games, this one was for only one match. So, we had to leave and were unable to stick around for the medal presentation.

We got some food and headed back to the hotel room for a nap so we’d be ready to go for the our last late night of basketball.

Interlude — the Scalpers

We made it to the basketball arena well ahead of the start time so we could cruise the sidewalks looking for some tickets. We discovered that it wasn’t going to be as easy as it was for the last games we tried this.

There was security everywhere. Police walking around in pairs, soldiers stationed every few yards apart, police vehicles parked every which way and what looked like plainclothes cops (even I could spot them, later confirmed by one of the scalpers) patrolling the area.

There were more people looking to buy than sell. It took us awhile to find someone selling and he was really hesitant to talk openly. He didn’t even have the tickets on him and had to call to another person once we had talked price. Once that guy got to where we were, he had us follow him to one of the corners of the venue grounds so we could cross the street and get away from some of the security. We had to wait a bit because a couple plainclothes cops followed us to the corner, but when we just stood there, they continue on. The scalper had us loiter for a bit before going across the street.

We were more than a little nervous. We certainly didn’t want to go anywhere with these guys and tried to make it clear that we were going across the street and nowhere else. We didn’t want to get arrested, but we didn’t want to get robbed either (more than we already were).

Once we crossed the street, he handed us the tickets and had me put them in my bag quickly. We then started walking down the street, away from the corner, slowly and he motioned for us to get out the money. He walked on one side, Angie was in the middle and I was on the outside as she got out the money and handed it to him — our backs to where the security was stationed. He took the money, counted it quickly and off he went, looking pretty happy.

We headed back to the venue, happy to have A level tickets. I won’t say how much we paid. It was a lot, compared to the other tickets we’ve had. But then almost all of our other tickets have been ridiculously cheap in US dollars. A couple of events cost us about $10 each. And really, we paid what you might pay for decent seats at an NBA playoff game. Spendy, yes, but this was the Bronze and Gold medal matches for women’s basketball at the Olympics. In context, we came out on top in this transaction.

The last hurdle was to get through the ticket scan and security. Again, no problems — they were real tickets — and we were in for the finals.

Game 1 — Russia vs China, Bronze Medal match

China had plenty of chances to make this a game and they just let them all slip away.

For the most part, the game was fairly even except for the second quarter. During that period, Russia jumped out to a big lead that the Chinese were never able to come back from. Every time the Chinese had an opportunity to make up some ground and cut into the 15 or so point lead, they botched it. I didn’t get any sense of urgency from them. They played like it was a fairly normal game, not the Bronze medal match in their home Olympics.

The Russians did seem to have that urgency behind them and were able to convert on fastbreaks and on Chinese turnovers again and again. The Russians really had complete control of the middle with their bigger post players. Stepanova looked like she was playing unguarded much of the time. She was getting deep into the paint and was able to either get her shot or get rebounds and put-backs. The only thing stopping her was foul trouble. But even then when she was sitting on the bench, the Chinese couldn’t take advantage.

The real reason the Russians won was Becky Hammon. Without her, they would have been totally beatable not just by the Chinese in this game but throughout the tournament. I’m not even sure they would have made it out of pool play without her. Not only was she one of the Russians’ primary scorers, she was also setting up her teammates with great passes and assists. That is, when she was in. The Russian coaches had a convoluted substitution scheme. She again did not start, but had plenty of playing time. Bringing her onto the team basically bought them a Bronze medal.
We were sitting in row 21, behind the Russian bench, so we were a little out of optimal “Brick” range. We gave it a try and got a few Chinese people in front of us to join in. It seemed to work on a couple players, but it’s hard to tell. There was a lot of additional noise going on and it really needs to be quiet for it to be effective. Angie did go a bit hoarse with all the yelling. I actually hurt my neck the other night during the US/Russia game with the yelling I did.

For the Chinese, I think that we could see more than a couple of them back in the WNBA. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Lejie Miao and Sui Feifei come back to the W (both already played for Sacramento) followed by Nan Chen and Lan Bian. Like so many teams in this tournament, they have a few good players but little depth and when they face teams with more experience they get blown out. The next step for the Chinese is to have their players go international on a more consistent basis. I think this Olympics might be a launching point for a handful of China’s national team stars into the WNBA or Euroleagues.

Game 2 — USA vs Australia, Gold Medal match

This one is why we were here, to see the best basketball players in the world play for the Gold Medal, and more specifically to see our players — Sue and Lauren — play for the Gold.

Even with LJ (who is arguably the best in the world), Penny Taylor, Belinda Snell (who was turning out to be the Aussies’ go to player game after game), Kristi Harrower and Tully Bevilaqua, the Aussies just didn’t have enough guns to keep up with the Americans.

The American team is all starters, except for maybe Delisha Milton-Jones who seemed to be there mostly to hold down the end of the bench and dance around a lot. Our second team is still better than most countries’ first teams. As soon as the Aussie bench players started to rotate in, the US started to pull away.

That was really what decided the game. The Aussies couldn’t match the US player to player, but neither could any of the other teams. The US was beaten in the last World Championships, but you could see that they learned from that loss and were playing with more determination and poise than anyone else.

This needs to be Lisa Leslie’s last Olympics. If the US has a weak link, she’s it. She was horrible out there. She’s no longer our best player, nor is she even our best center. Based on how she and the other post players were playing not only in this game but the other two three that we saw, she’s number three and not four because Milton-Jones has that spot. Leslie was a foul machine, was getting pushed around under the basket and looked relieved too many times when she got pulled and replaced by Sylvia Fowles.

Fowles is the real deal. If Leslie used to be the player that no other country could stop, Fowles is that player now. Nobody could do much against her, even with double or triple teams. She’s going to be a huge force in the WNBA and the anchor for Team USA for a long time to come. I don’t know if an MVP is awarded for the Olympics, but she gets my vote.

For Australia, we were surprised not only during this game but in the other games we’d seen that the Aussie coaches don’t seem to know how to use Lauren Jackson. The only time she was really being utilized correctly was in the third quarter of the Gold medal game. The Aussies finally started going to her first and letting her drive to the basket or getting her the ball in the post and letting her make her move or kick back out to the perimeter. It seemed like she was the second or even third option at times, while the focus of the offense was on the Aussie guards.

This wasn’t a big issue early on since Harrower, Snell and Bevilaqua were easily outplaying their counterparts on other teams. Once it got to the Americans, however, the Aussie guards were held in check more of the time (they still were able to score, but not as easily or as often) and the Aussies didn’t go to Lauren or Penny fast enough.

The biggest criticism of Team USA from their World Championship loss was that the coaching staff didn’t adjust to the other teams quick enough or at all. I would say that the Aussies were guilty of that tonight. We all know that no one can really stop LJ. Yes, people can slow her down — especially Tina Thompson, who ended up playing LJ most of the time — but no one can hold her down the whole game. When LJ did finally get the ball in the third quarter is when the Aussies were able to play even with the US.

The US won the game, a little more easily than either of us had anticipated it would be, and we got to see our first and only medal ceremony.

The teams were led off the court — the US was in full celebration mode and the Aussies were consoling each other — and teams of workers brought out carpets to line the edges of the court and then the sets of yellow risers for the athletes to stand on. There was about a half hour or so wait before the teams were reintroduced and brought back out to the court. I’d say that about a third of the people in the stands stayed to watch.

The Russians, probably because they had more time to prepare, seemed to be a lot more okay with Bronze than the Aussies did with Silver. Their loss was still very fresh and you could really see the dejection in their faces and tears. Lauren looked like she just wanted to go hide someplace.

The Russians stepped up first and received their medals and flowers. They were all smiles, except for #15. She was not happy at all. She wasn’t crying or anything, but once I noticed how irritated she looked I kept an eye on her and didn’t see her smile at all. The others did and were pointing to their friends or family in the crowd, doing the bite-the-metal thing and generally looking happy to be there. Not her.

The Aussies were next and they really made it look like second is the worst place to be. Someone from the crowd threw in a stuffed kangaroo and Suzy Batkovic put it in front of her on the stand. With the army of Aussies behind the basket doing chants and cheers, the Opals received their Silver medals. They were crying or fighting it really hard. Tully looked sad and happy at the same time, this being her first Olympics and first medal. Penny was barely keeping it together. Right before LJ got her medal, she looked back to her parents who were sitting below us and to the right a bit and said, “I love you.”

The US team went last and stepped up onto the stand. They were waving their arms, gesturing to friends and family up in the stands or posing for photos. Kara Lawson looked a little dumbstruck at the whole thing. As soon as Leslie got her medal, she whipped out the three others she’s won. I’m sure she’ll hear some criticism for that, but she won them. Hopefully this will be the last one.

The flags went up and our national anthem was played.

Afterwards, as the players started to celebrate or commiserate, someone pulled Team USA together so someone in the stands could take a team shot. Luckily, that was right in front of us. Eventually, all the players, coaches and at least one of the players’ children got into the shot. The Russians did the same thing and I was able to get them too. The Aussies didn’t until much later and they were facing their fans in the stands, so I missed that group shot.

LJ left the floor right after the medal ceremony. The rest of the Aussies went over to their fans and met with their families. Penny full on broke down when she got to her husband. There were a lot of hugs, tears and pats on the back.

The US players continued to celebrate. Leslie, Milton-Jones and Parker were posing together Charlie’s Angels style. Ugh. Sue and Svetlana Abrosimova and one other Russian player met for congratulations and then were posing for photos. There were a lot of congratulations going on between the Russians and Americans, mostly because so many of the US players are on Russian teams in the WNBA off season. Lawson still looked dumbstruck.

They all started to filter off the court so we headed out. Thus concludes our scheduled Olympic experience.


norwester said...

I really appreciate the details of the medal ceremony. Not only did I have to watch stupid NBC hours after the game was actually played, but they cut right away from the game, promising to come back to the medal ceremony...which was a few tight shots of LLL making a gleeful ass of herself (in my opinion), then panning the whole team during the anthem, the end. No wide shots. No shots of any other teams. Disappointing.

Awesome blog! I loved living vicarously through you. Loved it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Scott. I loved following your blog the whole time and it's heartbreaking to hear how dejected LJ was. At least she had her parents there to comfort her.

estavares said...

I think it's becoming clear that LJ won't be coming back anytime soon. Check out this blog from the Seattle Times:

Great updates, guys! I look forward to talking about youre adventure first-hand!

Scott said...

I took almost as many shots of the ceremony and the players' celebrations/consolations as I did a couple of the earlier games. I'll get them up as soon as I can.

And yes, I'm very concerned that we'll never see LJ in Seattle again.