US opens basketball worlds vs Finns and their fans
Bilbao, Spain • They are the biggest thing in Bilbao, backed by 8,000 fans not to mention some Angry Birds whose free-spending boosters are such believers they've already started lining up transportation to the second round.
And if looking good in the stands meant as much as on the court when Finland received a debated wild card to the FIBA Basketball World Cup, that's not the players' problem. Their goal is to make the fans' trip worthwhile.
A strong performance against the U.S. would be a good start.
The Finns make their World Cup debut Saturday against the top-ranked Americans, who will feel like they're playing a road game inside the Bilbao Exhibition Center.
"We're here to fight and obviously it's a pretty big mountain to climb Saturday, but we just try to face one situation at a time and hope after 40 minutes that we get a good game out of it," Finland veteran and former NBA player Hanno Mottola said.
For the Americans, it's step one of an expected lengthy march to Madrid for the gold-medal game, a chance for a team not yet in top form to keep getting better.
For Finland, it's something closer to the Super Bowl.
Finnish officials expect their fans to fill perhaps half of the 16,261-seat arena, with thousands more possibly coming to this Basque city. Supporters chartered more than 40 planes from Finland and aren't stopping there, looking into renting a train to take them to Barcelona if Finland advances to the knockout round.
Finland finished ninth in last summer's European championship, failing to qualify automatically for the World Cup. But basketball's governing body made the 39th-ranked Finnish the lowest-ranked team ever to receive a wild card to its world championship, taking note not only of the team's improving performance but also the "Wolfpack's" fan and financial backing.
Before the wild cards were awarded in February, Finnish company Rovio, maker of the popular Angry Birds games, had agreed to provide advertising for FIBA if Finland was selected. Finland also has support of Microsoft, whose name is on their practice jerseys, but Mottola disputes that his team is here simply for economic reasons.
"If people use that lame excuse of Angry Birds, Rovio, I don't see Rovio here anywhere," he said. "Obviously, if we've got some big, big companies in Finland like Nokia and Microsoft and Rovio, if they're willing to help Finnish athletes and teams, who wouldn't take that help? But I don't think it's a corporate decision. And also, I mean, who else brings in 8,000 fans?"
The top seven finishers in the European championship qualified automatically, leaving Finland next in line among last year's finishers from Europe once Italy withdrew from the wild card bidding. The other wild cards went to Greece, Turkey and Brazil, all ranked in the world's top 10.
"I think we fulfilled every category that FIBA wanted. So I mean, if you show me a better team in the last three years, then fine, but obviously FIBA felt that we bring a lot of excitement here," Mottola added. "If I would choose a way how to get qualifications, I wouldn't have wild cards, but that's not our problem. I know there's been a lot of talk, we were right there from the beginning. I don't think there's a question that we definitely belong here because of our basketball success."
Besides Mottola, who helped Utah reach the 1998 NCAA championship game, Finland's roster is filled with players who have played in the U.S., including Erik Murphy, who spent last season with the Chicago Bulls. They play an American style, looking to push the pace and shoot 3-pointers.
"They appear to me to have great camaraderie and an amazing work ethic. They have good guards and any team can cause you problems when they have good guards and they play hard and they're motivated. And they shoot a lot of 3s," U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "If all of a sudden they see three or four go in in a row, you get even more confidence."
Krzyzewski's team was visited at practice Friday by Bilbao's mayor, with fans waiting outside the gym for pictures and autographs.
"It's pretty humbling to see how many NBA fans there are around the world," U.S. guard Klay Thompson said.
This time, most of them will be there to see the other team.
Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney
U.S. vs. Finland
O FIBA, World Cup
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN