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A foreign concept to US

NBA Europeans can't resist the national call

Americans in general and American NBA fans in particular will never, ever understand the frenzy that drives the league's international players to play for their national teams in the offseason. As one NBA official put it last week, the ongoing European Championships in Spain are a bigger deal to many of the players in the tournament than the Olympics. And the World Championships are what it's really all about.

But . . . even understanding all of the above, why are Pau Gasol and Jorge Garbajosa playing for Spain in the tournament when (a) both have had recent injuries and (b) Spain already has qualified for the Olympics? The short answer: Because they want to, and their NBA teams can't really stop them.

You think new Memphis general manager Chris Wallace is happy that Gasol is playing? Last year in the World Championships, Gasol broke his foot, and Memphis's season essentially ended before it ever began. Spain won the Worlds, earning a berth in Beijing. But with the European Championships being held in the Motherland, the usual suspects are all back. (Can you imagine Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony playing in an Olympic qualifier had the US already qualified? I can't either.)

In addition to Gasol and Garbajosa, the Spanish roster includes Jose Calderon from the Raptors, Juan Carlos Navarro from the Grizzlies, and Sergio Rodriguez from the Trail Blazers. It's a formidable group. In its last four major international tournaments - the 2004 Olympics, the 2005 European Championships, the 2006 World Championships, and the 2007 European Championships - Spain has lost only two meaningful games: an 8-point loss to the US in Athens in 2004 and a 1-point loss in the 2005 European semifinals to Germany. It went unbeaten in the Worlds and has lost once this summer, an inconsequential 1-pointer to Croatia after already qualifying for the second round.

Wallace said there was nothing he could do to stop Gasol from playing.

"It's the European Championships. It's in your own country. You've got no chance," Wallace said. "It's hard for a lot of us in America to understand. It's bigger than a big deal."

While Gasol is clearly the key guy, the Garbajosa situation is more mind-numbing. A week before the tournament, the Raptors refused him permission to play. The general rule of thumb is that if a player's contract is insured, or if his national team is able to obtain exclusion-free insurance, then he is able to play. Garbajosa's deal with Toronto is not insured and his national team did not come up with the necessary coverage until just before the tournament started on Labor Day.

You may recall Garbajosa's injury because it happened on March 26 in a game in Boston. It was not a pretty sight. Among the problems was a fractured left fibula, which to this day has not healed (in the eyes of the Raptors' doctors). The Raptors want Garbajosa to have surgery. He wants nothing of the kind. (The fibula is the less-critical of the two lower-leg bones.)

The insurance policy provided by the Spanish national team is for three months coverage, so the Raptors are protected basically through the end of this calendar year. Other NBA players in the tournament, notably Boris Diaw of France, also are being covered by national team insurance.

"It's an indication of the seriousness in which these guys take the competition," said Toronto basketball boss Bryan Colangelo. "It's where their heart is."

Still unknown is what happens to Garbajosa's left leg. He is determined to play through the fracture and not have surgery. The Raptors would prefer he be surgically fixed, but, as the weeks and months roll on, an operation would mean he'd miss a couple months of the regular season. Said Colangelo, "He's tough as nails and he feels he can do it. He plays a cerebral, on-the-floor kind of game. He's not a big, explosive leaper. And all of these guys are playing basketball somewhere. At least he's doing it in a controlled environment."

Another Raptor, last year's No. 1 overall pick, Andrea Bargnani, is playing for the Italian team. When Colangelo was told that the Italian team was going to start training July 18, he decided against sending a team to Summer League (which would have benefited Bargnani). And when the Raptors return from Europe (Italy and Spain) this fall, their remaining exhibition games will all be in the Air Canada Centre.

As for Garbajosa, he made it through the first four games of the European Championships, averaging almost 20 minutes a game. Not bad for a guy on a broken leg.

A time to heal and deal

Phil Jackson plans to sit down with Kobe Bryant in the not-too-distant future to discuss some of Bryant's anti-teammate comments made last spring. (Andrew Bynum, for one, was in the Kobester's crosshairs.)

"There's some recoup that needs to be done between Kobe and perhaps his teammates," Jackson said.

But the Lakers coach also says he's "in collusion" with Bryant's wishes for the roster to be sufficiently upgraded as to give the team a chance in the brutal Western Conference.

"One of Kobe's [wishes] is to improve the talent and get the kind of teammates he can compete with," Jackson said. "We've made some changes over the summer, but I still think we have to make another change to help us out."

He didn't elaborate. But he did admit to losing out in the Garnett Sweepstakes.

"Red Auerbach came out of the grave and told Kevin [ McHale] to give him to the Celtics so the Celtics could get back in the run," said Jackson. "That was a blessing for them. We just didn't have that connection to make it happen for us."

The Lakers also didn't have the kind of young talent that McHale wanted, either, but why let facts get in the way of a good story?

Jackson has one year left on his contract and said he has an "outstanding offer" to continue with the Lakers beyond the 2007-08 season. But he said what will determine his coaching future is his health. He was using a cane this weekend after having left hip surgery at the end of last season. (The other hip was done at the beginning of last season.) He said he anticipates being at 100 percent at the start of the season but wants to make sure he can be active and aggressive physically before he decides whether to continue.

This club is almost too exclusive

In two of the last three years, no NBA players have been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. (Chris Mullin was probably the signature player eligible for 2007 who didn't make it.)

While NBA commissioner David Stern says, "We don't have enough [representatives from the NBA]," he also says he's quite content with the league's affiliation with the Hall. "I like it in terms of the international aspect of the Hall," Stern said. "When we joined it, we said the best thing was that it's high school, college, men's, women's, international.

"We haven't started our own Hall of Fame, unlike the college coaches, unlike FIBA, unlike the women. We're going to support something we joined. We like it when there's a broad array. We particularly like it when our players get in and our coaches get in and maybe someday we'll get one of our owners in."

You can never tell with the clandestine and sometimes head-scratching way the Hall nominates players for induction, but you can pretty much book Patrick Ewing for the Class of 2008. It will be the Class of 2009 that will really sizzle, however, as those eligible will include Michael Jordan, David Robinson, and John Stockton.

As for coaches, Don Nelson is pathetically overdue for enshrinement, and one should not forget Bill Fitch, also eligible. Both are on the list of the 10 winningest coaches in NBA history, and, along with the soon-to-be-eligible Pat Riley, they are the only ones on the list not in Springfield.

Riley finished his 25th year of coaching (23d as a head coach) last season, and under Hall guidelines, he would be eligible for nomination this season, his 26th.

Etc.

A legend was launched

Phil Jackson got to regale us with a few Michael Jordan stories before his induction ceremony at the Hall of Fame Friday. He recalled the first time he saw Jordan in 1984. The Bulls were playing an exhibition in Glens Falls, N.Y., and Jackson, coaching in Albany, went to the game. "I was sitting in the [hockey] press box so it was pretty tough to see from that high," Jackson said. "But I couldn't help noticing that he went up and didn't come down when everyone else came down. He stayed in the air. I talked to [Bulls coach] Kevin Loughery afterwards and he told me that while Jordan needed work, Loughery felt the kid had a chance to be one of the best the NBA had ever seen."

Next stop, Iceland?

It wasn't that long ago - five years, to be precise - that Serbia ruled the basketball world, winning the World Championships in Indianapolis. Little has gone right for the Serbs since then. Serbia bombed out miserably in the 2004 Olympics and did similarly poorly (tied for ninth) at the Worlds this year. But what happened last week at the European Championships in Spain bottoms them all. Serbia didn't even make it out of the first round, losing a pivotal game to Israel, and as such will not be among the teams competing next summer in Beijing. The Serbs are retooling their roster, and this year's national team featured only two NBA players, Darko Milicic and Marko Jaric. Still, the 0-3 exit was stunning, with the other two losses coming to Russia and Greece. "I said before the championship that if we finish ninth or lower, I'll go live in Iceland," said Serbia coach Zoran Slavnic, who took all the blame. "I just might have to do that now."

Please release me

We often hear about NBA teams ponying up cash to help a European player extricate himself from his club contract. Many of the top Europeans have buyout clauses, some of them onerous. But here's one in reverse: Numerous league sources insist that Panathinaikos, the reigning European Cup champ, paid some serious euros to the San Antonio Spurs to allow Vassilis Spanoulis out of his NBA contract. One NBA insider ventured that Panathinaikos paid more than $1 million, noting that there is an agreement in place for both teams to keep their lips zipped about the deal. Panathinaikos's rival, Olympiakos, flew in NBA free agent guard Charlie Bell last week amid reports that it was willing to pay the former Milwaukee Bucks point guard $5 million for two seasons.

Historic figure

Larry Bird has a statue. Red Auerbach has one. Wasn't it about time that the Houdini of the Hardwood got one? How fitting that Bob Cousy will finally be bronzed in the very same locale where he first caught the attention of Celtics fans as the famed "local yokel": Holy Cross. There was a ceremony at the school Friday, where plans for a life-size statue of the Cooz were unveiled. Cousy, who was Class of 1950 and helped the Crusaders to the 1947 NCAA title as a freshman, was recognized not only for his illustrious basketball career, but also for his "long-term commitment to the citizenry of Worcester and for his efforts to integrate the NBA racially during its early years." Amazingly, Cousy turns 80 next year.

Hall on wheels

Dominique Wilkins's schedule from November 2007 to December 2008 makes it look as though he's going on tour. Well, he is, sort of. Wilkins is the point man for what in essence is a traveling Hall of Fame, which is scheduled to visit 30 cities, starting Nov. 2 in Knoxville, Tenn., and concluding Dec. 28, 2008, in Long Beach, Calif. Basically, the traveling show, dubbed the HHX (for Hoop Hall Experience), is designed to give basketball fans an idea of what the Hall of Fame is like without having to travel to Springfield. "It will have something for everyone," Wilkins said. But whatever will the Atlanta Hawks do with their vice president for basketball on the road so often? "We'll be fine," Wilkins said. "Actually, I think we might be better than a lot of people think. We've got some nice young talent and we drafted a couple of NBA-ready guys [Al Horford and Acie Law]. No one is paying attention to us and that's good. We're going to sneak up on people because we've gotten no respect. But the only way you get respect is to earn it, and that's by winning."

Peter May can be reached at p_may@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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