During my time overseas, I’ve found most European basketball players/clubs/coaches/fans don’t know a lot about NCAA basketball. Sure they’ve heard of North Carolina, Duke and perhaps the Texas Longhorns. Whether you played at the University of Washington or Wartburg College - both are NCAA schools, so what’s the difference? Well, anyone who has lived in North America and followed NCAA sports knows that difference is huge. From rooting for your favorite school, to arguing which team plays in the superior athletic conference - NCAA Division I basketball is a relative unknown in Europe. Over here people don’t understand the high level of play, especially teams that are ranked in the Top 25. This is not to knock the smaller schools, but for the most part, big schools produce big results - or else someone loses their job.
Conversely, sports fans in Europe could tell you anything and everything about their beloved futebol team or Euroleague favorite. Trying to explain the difference between NCAA divisions, the conference you played in or school you played at rarely does it justice, and is pretty much lost in translation. Unless you have a WNBA tag attached to your name (which comes from being drafted, being invited to training camp or actually making a team) you’re lumped together with everyone else. The perspective is that everyone competed at the same level.
Because of this, I often find myself smirking when I see a European wearing NCAA college gear. I know it’s a stereotype, but I always assume the t-shirt was bought based on its colors or style. I mean, who’s this person trying to fool?
While eating lunch at the café last week, our men’s head coach João Freitas, walked by wearing an Arizona Wildcats Basketball t-shirt. Figuring he had bought it at the local sporting goods store because of its Nike brand, I yelled “BOW DOWN” and flashed the ‘W’ sign, thinking he would have no idea what I was doing. To my surprise, he laughed and replied with a “Fight! Wildcats! Fight!” Shocked he knew the words to the Arizona fight song, I quickly returned to my book, trying to hide my flushing cheeks. Sure enough, the next day a men’s player informed me that Coach Freitas was a member of the University of Arizona coaching staff that won a National Championship in 1997. Whoops…feeling like an idiot, I decided I needed to go to the source and hear the real story. The following week I learned how stubborn persistence and a bit of luck led him to Tuscon - where he ended up coaching the likes of Miles Simon, Mike Bibby, Jason Terry and Michael Dickerson.
After coaching women’s basketball for 6 years in Madeira, Coach Freitas was ready for a change. During this time he had met and coached a fair share of Americans. However, coaching American import Bonnie Dove, a University of Arizona graduate, turned out to be his big break. One day while discussing NCAA basketball, Bonnie mentioned she could contact Joan Bonvicini, the women’s coach at the University of Arizona. Intrigued, Coach Frietas took her up on the offer and started corresponding with Bonvicini. He must have done something right because she offered him an interim position in Tuscon. Weighing the pros and cons of a big move, Coach decided if he was going to pack up and leave for the U.S., it had to be for the right reasons. After thinking over the invitation, he realized he enjoyed coaching women’s basketball but wanted a new challenge – coaching men. Declining Bonvicini’s offer, on a whim, Coach Freitas sent an email to Jim Rosborough, Lute Olson’s assistant coach. To his surprise, Rosborough replied and the two traded emails for over a month. Learning more about the program while continually expressing his interest, Coach Freitas was offered an interim position on Lute Olson’s bench for the 1997 season.
Throwing everything he owned into a couple of bags, Coach Freitas moved to Tuscon – knowing nothing about the city or people. That was short lived, as the university community and staff welcomed him with open arms - making him feel at home. Coach Freitas talked of how working under Lute developed his coaching skills, game tactics and player interaction immensely. Not only was 1997 a memorable year of learning for Coach Freitas, but it was the same year the #4 seeded University of Arizona would defeat three #1 seeds in the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats upset the defending champions Kentucky in overtime to with the National Championship and he’s got the ring to prove it. After a magical season in Arizona, Coach Freitas returned to Portugal and has been coaching in the men’s 1st Division ever since.
Basketball Update: I sat out last weekend’s game to rest my aching achilles and haven’t practiced for a week. The left one is still quite sore, but the swelling has gone down and my motion has improved. Tonight I took to the court for the first time since last Wednesday. I’m definitely not pain free, but it’s do-able for this weekend. We have 2 HUGE games that could put us at the top of the standings. Saturday we play Vagos, a team we shouldn’t have lost to in December. It was our worse performance of the season. We shot terribly and turned the ball over way too many times. It’s time for redemption! It doesn’t get any easier Sunday, as we face Olivais - the most talented team in the league. We beat them in Coimbra and another win would solidify our position. I’m hoping I’ll be able to contribute enough to help pull out two ‘W’s.’ In other news, Danielle's replacement arrived yesterday. I think she’s going to be great for us. I may be a bit biased since she’s a familiar face, but the newest member of CAB Madeira is…former rival and Oregon State star - Casey Nash! I’m continually amazed by how small the world is sometimes. My coach called me Monday saying “I’m watching you play right now!” Not understanding what he meant, he explained that he was evaluating a player and noticed I was on the opposing team! Crazy! I think Casey will be a positive addition – we already work well together on the court. Must be that Pac-10 connection!