Maccabi USA Pan American Games

By Don Kelbick


Coaching jobs are hard to come by, at any level, anywhere. I feel so fortunate and honored to be selected to the staff of the Maccabi USA Open Pan American team, along with Stu Wittner, former Head Coach at Pace University and Steve Rosner, who made his name as the agent for some of the biggest names in sports. We will be competing in the Maccabi Pan American Games in Sao Paulo, Brazil from Dec. 24 to Jan 2. This is my second experience coaching internationally having coached the Miami Tropics in the first FIBA Americas League in 2006-2007.

This experience will be drastically different, though. This is a national team. We will be representing the United States.

For those that are not familiar, the Maccabi is a charitable organization and has a presence world wide. They sponsor sport competitions very similar to the Olympics. Every 4 years (the next one is in 2013) they sponsor the world wide Maccabiah Games in Israel. In the years in between, there are regional competitions, leading up to those games. This year we are competing in the Pan American Games, which includes North, South and Central America. Already completed is the Pan European Games. There are similar competitions on the other continents as qualifying for the world wide games. There are several levels ranging from kids to over 35. My efforts are with the Open team, which has no age limits and is the centerpiece of the games.

This is a unique challenge. Because of the dates of the Games, late December – early January, we are not able to use professional players since most of them are playing in their seasons. Even those pros who are between jobs are not candidates because of the possibility that they could sign contracts with pro teams between now and the competition and won’t be available to us. The challenge is to find players that are good enough to compete for the Gold, yet will be available for the Games.

The challenge in not just to find the players, but to mold them into a cohesive unit, offensively and defensively, and be competitive enough to challenge for a Gold Medal. We will have 3 mini-camps and a 4 day training camp before we leave for Brazil.

July Mini-Camp

This is our first mini-camp. We have brought in 25 players with the object of picking 12 for the team and probably 3 alternates. Most of these players have been out of school for a couple of years. Some passed up the prospect of professional play to start their careers. Some have gone on to professional or graduate school.

It is quite an array of players, ranging from Div. I players from schools like Cal, Nevada, Syracuse and Binghamton to players from the Div III NCAA Champion Washington University. Just as impressive is the success that they are attaining off the court at such young ages. There are business consultants, law school students, marketing directors and even a post player that works for the U. S. Department of Justice.

The camp consists of opportunities for us to get to know one another, some skill development, and quite a bit of scrimmaging to evaluate the players. They are 2 long days. On Saturday, we are in the gym at 8:30 AM. We work until 12:30 and then a break for lunch. We have drilled and played, got up a lot of shots and seen a little competition. Back on the court at 2, the afternoon is reserved mostly for play. We go multiple 10 minute scrimmages. At the end, we start to impart some offensive philosophy under the guise of 3-man shooting drills. We are out of the gym at 6.

Starting at 9 AM, Sunday is more of the same, except we warm up with different 3-man shooting drills. We are trying to get a feel for what players are comfortable with. Then, we run a few 20 minute scrimmages using the movements we installed during the shooting drills. We break for lunch at noon. At 1:30 we are back on the floor for a full 40 minute game. We finish at about 4 pm, tired but also satisfied.

The thing that struck me the most was how appreciative the players were for this opportunity to compete at a high level again. Most of these guys were prepared to move on in their lives and did not anticipate that an opportunity like this would come along. It is a refreshing change from the pampered, demanding and entitled players I usually work with.

Over the next couple of weeks, the staff will talk to try to determine the most likely players for the team and to prepare for the next mini-camp in September.

Once the team is chosen, I think the playing system will be the personification of simplicity. I am a very simple coach anyway. I believe in teaching concepts and allowing the players to figure it out.

I rode with a workout with one of the coaches of one of the younger teams. He was telling me all the things that he was prepared to install, zone offenses, man offenses, man defenses, zone defenses, pressures, etc. I asked him how long he had to practice with his kids. He told me probably a week to 10 days. I can’t believe he expects to do all that in a short period of time. I know I can’t, but we will see how it works.

September Mini-Camp

These were 2 grueling days. It is hard to believe it has been 2 months since we saw them in the last mini-camp.

We had cut down the team from the previous 25 down to 15, of which 14 were present. One player has signed a professional contract with the provision he be granted leave to participate in the Games. We had 2 new players to look at. One was a member of 2 national championship teams who could not make it to the first camp, due to his responsibilities in the White House (yes, THAT White House). The other just finished his college career and was unavailable in the first camp due to his recovery from knee surgery.

If the first camp was for evaluation and getting to know one another, than this camp was for real basketball issues. We had to provide a framework for offense and defense that was simple enough to implement in a weekend and be able to be retained, but have to be effective enough to allow us to challenge for the Gold Medal in Brazil.

Because of my coaching style, I did not believe that was a tough task. My coaching is conceptual and I allow the players to interpret the game for themselves and because I am working with 2 of the most generous people I have ever been involved with, they indulged me. In coaching discussions with the other coaches, we agreed that trying to implement a system that revolved around a series of cuts with precise timing was not going to be an option. First, I think that is always going to be too complex. In our situation of extremely limited practice time and long periods where we won’t practice would make that not only too difficult to play with, but would be counter-productive.

To that end, offensively we are really simple (is there any other way?). We have 2 basic frameworks, pass and screen away and a UCLA entry. We have 3 basic rules: create space, recognize your teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, share the ball. That is all we do.

Defensively, we similarly put in a few simple rules: everybody ball side, shrink the court by not allowing ball reversal, if the ball goes in the lane do what is necessary to get it out. We have 3 defenses: straight man-to-man, switch like players, switch everything. There are some things inside of that such as how we play screens, etc. but those are things we can even adjust in a game.

These were long days. We practiced from 9 to noon and then again from 1:00 to 4:00. In practice, we did a little breakdown, but it was mostly whole work. We didn’t have time for much of anything else. That suited me just fine. I started out my career as a big-time breakdown coach but I now find that working 4-on-4 and 5-on-5 to be much more effective. The morning was reserved for our plan. A lot of 5-on-5 and what I term “time and score” scrimmages. In the afternoon we played an 8 period game against a local player agency team of aspiring pro players.

The scrimmage was played in multiple 12 minute periods. Offensively, I though we played surprisingly well. The players followed the 3 simple rules and looked like they had played together for years. However, because in reality they had not nor had they had competitive play for a while, shots did not fall. In addition, we had not addressed defense, and it showed. As the periods went on, shots started to fall and we actually played pretty well, considering the competition and the situation.

Sunday morning, we addressed the defense. Simple rules, no layups; shrink the court; get the ball out of the post. Not real difficult or confusing. We also tried to address some offensive deficiencies from the day before. I am not sure that was wise.

In the afternoon, we took on the Beltway Bombers. They are a team in the Premier Basketball League (PBL), a minor league located primarily in the northeastern U. S. In addition, they are trying to position themselves to where, if the NBA decides to expand the NBADL, they would be considered as a franchise. While they didn’t bring everyone on their roster, they still had very good, athletic professional players.

Again, we played multiple 12 minute periods. In the first period they really blitzed us. Again we played no defense and the smoothness of the offense from the day before was missing. I suspect that we were over coaching on offense. At the end of the first period, we reminded both our staff and players that we would leave them alone on offense, but the difference in every game would be on defense. And what a difference. We stopped worrying about right and wrong on offense, followed the 3 simple rules on defense. Confidence rose and every period was a war. They won a few periods, we won a few. At the end of the day, we had a glimpse of how good we can be.

In the end, I am more convinced than ever that the simpler the better. It is better to under-coach than over-coach. If you have players and create a team atmosphere, they will figure it out.

I cannot believe what these players have accomplished in such a short period of time. I can’t believe it is going to be 2 months before we see them again. Our next mini-camp is Nov. 11. Then a month before we have a training camp and then go to Brazil.

It should be interesting.

November Mini-Camp

This was our last mini-camp before the Pan-American Games in Brazil.

We were lucky that Nov. 11 was a holiday and we were able to get most of the players in on Friday in enough time to practice. My trip was certainly eventful. I was at the airport at 7:30 am, to go from Miami to Atlanta and then to New Jersey. Once in Atlanta, we had a delay of 2 hours for a maintenance issue. They put us on the plane, closed the door, and then let us know we were going to sit there for an indeterminate period of time. It was an inconvenience but I was happy to have made the trip, no matter what the issues.

This is a really unique situation and I can’t believe it had been 2 months since we’ve been in a practice. We used Friday night to review and to add some zone offense structure. The players have done a great job of retaining what we have previously worked on and staying in shape. The simplicity of the system we are running and the unselfishness of the players made it easy to recapture what we had left behind and move ahead.

We made a decision to play games the rest of the weekend. We needed to find out the competitive nature of the players and how they react in actual competition. On Saturday, we played at Columbia University and took on their developmental team. The team is made up of varsity players that are not seeing much game time and underclassmen that they can project as a contributor in a Div. I game at some time in the future. On the whole, they were pretty good players. We started the game down 16-3. It was not unexpected. They are playing at home, practicing every day and had opened up their season the previous week. We have guys who flew in from all over the country, spend their lives going to law schools, financial firms and marketing companies. After refocusing, guys really started to play. We let the players put emphasis on offense, as coaches, we focused on defense. Once we started to play defense, the game came back to us. We went in the locker room down 4.

The second half was a knock down drag out affair. Mostly, the teams were 4-6 points apart. At one point, Columbia went up 13 but a quick spurt got it back down to 4. In a nutshell, the game was decided this way: score was 68-67 in favor of Columbia; Columbia ball; shot clock at 3; and a 3-point shot from the top that banked off the backboard and went in. After all the basketball plays we were able to overcome, we were not able to overcome a shot that has a limited chance to win a game of H-O-R-S-E. What can you do? We wanted a test to see how our guys would do. We got tested and they did pretty well.

After the game, we evaluated our performance and most of the discussion centered around getting off to a better start. In the tournament, if you start the first game down 16-3, the whole tournament could be over. We felt that the bad start was situational. Travel, lack of practice time, uncertainty all figured in to a lack of assertiveness on the court. The feeling was, because we played on Saturday, we should play better on Sunday.

On Sunday morning we played a team from the Atlantic Basketball League. It is a semi-pro team made up of players hoping to get noticed and go on to a pro basketball career. They weren’t especially big but they were very talented and very athletic. Any questions we had leaving Saturday’s game, were answered early on Sunday. We made shots, defended the basket and the ball, made game adjustments quickly. We played 5 periods, won 4 of them and lost the 5th by 1 point.

All in all, it was another productive weekend. We all felt we left in a pretty good place. I continue to admire the commitment, professionalism and character of the people in this program. So far it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my coaching life.

The next time we see each other will be a couple of days before we leave for Brazil. Then we have nothing else to do except represent the good old US of A.

December Mini-Camp

After 3 mini-camps in 5 months, training camp in finally here.  It is a short camp with 3 workouts, mostly to review and fine tune what we had previously done. We knew when we started, we would have limited time before we left. That fact was a major contributor in our decision to keep everything that we do simple and emphasize defense. In doing that, we felt that there would be a greater carry over from our other mini-camps into the tournament.

We met on Thursday night and used the opportunity to remind everyone why we were there. It really wasn’t necessary as the group we have is very focused and goal oriented. They were all anxious to get on the court and get going. In addition, we had 2 players get hurt at our previous mini-camp and we needed to test the state of their recovery.

Friday morning was spent sharpening what we had. Any scrimmaging that we did was done as a time and score scrimmage. We felt, more than plays or anything else, managing the game is more of a determinant in deciding games than any other factor. A “Time and Score” scrimmage helps teach game management.

Friday afternoon’s session was devoted to defensive adjustments and more “Time and Score” scrimmages. We left at the end of the day feeling pretty good about the things that we needed for the tournament. The players stayed in good condition, they retained all the things we had worked on and we felt we were in pretty good shape.

On Saturday morning, we had a walk-through practice. Dry runs, at high intensity, of everything that we had. And a mountain of shots. We didn’t want to leave the gym without feeling that we had taken enough shots.

After the workout, we left for the airport for our 10 hour trip to Sao Paulo Brazil.

The Maccabi Games

First of all don’t let anyone tell you that sitting on an airplane for 10 hours is not uncomfortable. On Saturday, we loaded the airplane in New York at about 7:30 PM EST. We arrived at our hotel  at about 11:30 AM, Sao Paulo time, which is 3 hours ahead of EST (8:30 AM EST).


We checked into our rooms, tried to grab a bite to eat before we had to go to organizational meeting and get a tour of the facilities.

We were smart enough to bring balls, because when we got to the basketball venue, there was no one there. So we stepped out on the court and had an hour shooting practice. After the workout, we boarded the bus to go back to the hotel for some much needed rest.


On this day, we had practice at 9:30 AM in New Jersey, took a 10 hour flight to Brazil, attended meeting and practiced before we finally hit were able to get some rest at 10:30 PM. That is a pretty full day — or two. Our first game was Monday at 10:30 AM.

Team USA vs Canada

Our first contest was against Canada. Canada was a tough, physical team. We were just as concerned about our guys being awake, no less in a mind to play. As expected, we came out really slow and sluggish. We missed our first 7 shots while Canada ran up and down the floor and burst quickly to a 9 point lead.


We made several subs early in the 1st half. We wanted as many players to feel the court early in the game as we could. We thought that each time a player touched the floor and came out of the game, the better mentally he would be when he returned into the game.


Our feeling was correct. Once we got guys back into the game, their play improved by the minute. We came back to tie at the half.

We took control of the game at the start of the second half. We started to make shots and get the ball inside. More importantly, we turned it up on defense.


We went up 10 and maintained the lead for most of the 2nd half. We had a short period when based on poor offensive decision making on our part that allowed the Canadians back in the game. But once we took a deep breath, we took control again and played well down the stretch.


Final score: TEAM USA 72, CANADA 62.

Tomorrow, we have Israel at 5 PM

Team USA vs Israel

We took control of the Israeli game right from the outset. We were bigger and stronger which allowed us to get into a transition game. Once in the transition game, our superior depth takes a major toll on the Israelis.


There were a couple of things that we felt we needed to improve on from our previous performance. We felt that it was a necessity to improve defending ball screens. We felt that we allowed ball handlers to access the screen too easily which not only allowed the ball handler too much freedom, but also allowed the screener to roll too easily to the basket. The second thing we had to defend better was penetration. A big part of international play is to penetrate the ball, wait for the defense to converge and then kick it out to a shooter. We had to do a better job of not allowing the ball to get into really dangerous places. Against Israel, we did both.


We got great performance from everyone. Our two leading scorers came off the bench. Two out of the three top rebounders came off the bench. This was a great team performance. We will need more if we hope to win the Gold Medal.


Final score: TEAM USA 82, ISRAEL 44

Next game is against the host team, Brazil.

Team USA vs Brazil

Two words can be used in describing our contest against Brazil: GREAT GAME


The Brazilians are big, strong and very well coached with two great shooters running the team. They have good depth and their players are well-skilled. The game started a little unevenly as both teams were missing shots, but the character of the game was revealed. It was going to be a very physical, guard controlled game. We had trouble early with the physical nature of the game as it forced us to miss a number of easy shots and layups due to contact or the expectation of contact. It was extremely frustrating as Brazil ran out to an 8 point lead. It would have been easy for us to fold our tents.


But, we didn’t. Our answer came on the defensive end. Our good defense provided us with a spark that gave us easy baskets. We turned a 24 – 16 deficit into a 31-27 lead at the half.

We came out well in the second half. We spurted to an 8 point lead. Then their physical play started to take its toll. Our shots started to fall short, we could not get any inside points and started to turn the ball over. Next thing we knew we were down 6 and heading into the 4th quarter. Once again, defense was the answer. Forcing turnovers and getting break out layups, we came back to go up 2. They answered by making 3s from long range. We were down 2 with 2:20 to go when we hit a 3 to take the lead by 1. They answer with a 3 to go up 2 with under a minute to go.

As the clock ran down, we get fouled on penetration, two shots. Calmly making the 2 foul shots, we dug in on defense. Forcing a turnover, we bring the ball up the court and in a scramble after a shot, the ball goes out of bounds under the basket.


1.6 seconds to go. Our ball, under the basket. Score tied, 69-69. Click here to see what happened.

Next game vs. Mexico


There really is not much to report here. We played an undermanned team from Mexico, whose 2 best players were hurt and, through a scheduling quirk, was playing their 2nd game of the day.

We were superior in all aspects of the game and had much more size and strength than the Mexicans and we played like it. In the first 5 minutes of the game, we jumped to a 22 point lead and coasted. We got excellent performances out of everyone as the lead swelled to 35 points where it remained for most of the game.

We now get a couple of days off before moving on as the top seed in the medal round.

Team USA vs Israel


The semi-final game vs Israel was a tough, tense fast paced, physical game. We had beaten them in round-robin play pretty badly. But, they were coming off a 27 hour trip to Brazil and were very fatigued. We expected and got a very different game this time.

The Israelis came out shooting. From long range. Penetrate and kick, which is typically European, is a big part of their game. We were pretty well prepared for it, however they kept moving further and further back for their shots and they fell like rain drops. They took a 6 point lead in the first quarter, but we hung in there. We stiffened on defense which produced some easy breakout points and we went to the quarter with a 1 point lead. However, as an omen of things to come, we had given up almost as many points in the first quarter as we had in the first game.

The game became a game of runs. In the second quarter, we ran out to a 9 point lead, they would run back and knock it back to 1. We would extend back to 8, then commit some foolish turnovers and they would come back to tie. We made a couple of baskets at the end of the half, including a full court pass for a layup to take a 6 point lead at the half.

Again at the start of the 3rd quarter, we extended the lead and again they came back to within 1. Their shooting was phenomenal. We did not take good care of the ball. As a combination of the two, we just couldn’t take them out.

As we went into the 4th quarter, nothing would change. We would extend, they would come back. We never let them take the lead but we were never able to take them out, either. With the game at 3 points and about 3 minutes left in the game, we made a critical change. We decided to keep the ball away from their point guard. We waited until then so they would not be able to an adjustment. Their scoring stopped. We made a couple of baskets and 4 foul shots coming down the stretch and finally came away with a 10 point win.

Final Score Team USA 96, Israel 86

The big game is tomorrow when we take on Canada for the Gold Medal.

Team USA vs Canada

Gold Medal Game

To win the Gold Medal we were going to have to go through Canada. The Canadians are a team that rose from the dead. We played them in a tough, physical game in the opener of the tournament where they had the lead for much of the game before we extended to a win in the 4th quarter. They lost their next game to Israel. Then, they blew through the rest of their schedule, including beating Brazil, who we thought was the best team in the tournament, twice. They won a tough fought game against Brazil in the semi-finals.

We prepared to play a physical game against a team that was well coach and executed their offense flawlessly. During this entire process, we felt that it was going to be defense that was going to make the difference in the tournament and we knew we were going to need it now.

The game started with a little give and take. We hit a two, they hit a three, we made some foul shots, they made a couple of shots. With the score 9-6, our way, we hit a three and then the defense dug in. We had 8 straight possessions where we either forced a turnover or a miss that we converted to points on the other end. We strung 4 straight shot together, made foul shots, dominated the offensive glass. The next time I looked at the score we were up 19. The lead blew up to 25 and we went into halftime up 19.

In coaching, there is an axiom that games are won and lost in 15 minutes, the last 5 minutes of the first half, the first 5 minutes of the second half and the last 5 minutes of the game. We controlled the last 5 of the first half. We wanted to make the last 5 minutes irrelevant. So, we were focused on the first 5 minutes of the second half to decide the game.

Canada made the first shot and then we went on our best run of the tournament. Forcing turnovers that ignited our running game, we took greater control of the game and saw the lead explode to a high of 33 points. Everyone in uniform contributed to building the lead.

The rest of the game was academic. The Canadians continued to play hard and the final score of 87-70 was not indicative of how much we really controlled the game.

In the end, Team USA had the Gold Medal hanging around our necks. There is no way that I can describe that can relay the feel of pride that we had, standing on the podium with U-S-A on our chest and listening to the National Anthem with Gold Medals hanging around our necks. It has been an experience like no other.

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Basketball In Anguilla

By Don Kelbick


I have a great interest in helping basketball grow, wherever the seeds are sewn. I made a trip to Anguilla to help some very dedicated people try to realize their goal of making basketball matter here.

Anguilla is a very small island, located about 200 miles east of Puerto Rico, in the Leeward Islands. It has really friendly people, great food and beautiful beaches. Travel was a flight from Miami to St. Martin and then a 20 minute ferry to Anguilla.

The first thing I noticed was, as a British territory, that people drive on the wrong side of the road. I always thought that would be no big deal, but I was wrong. I have no doubt that if I drove here many people would wind up dead. Just crossing the street is a problem.

On this island of 13,000 people, there is really no basketball culture to speak of, except for a small group of dedicated residents who believe they can enrich the lives of the people of Anguilla, especially the kids, by exposing them to the game. The trip was postponed once to allow  Hurricane Irene to pass over the Island. In fact, the coaches almost got caught in the weather as they were painting the court. That’s right, the coaches were painting the court!

We are running the camp in 2 sections, 8-12 in the morning and 13 and up in the afternoon. It is a long day in the sun. Never did I ever think you could burn through SPF 50. The kids are great. Very positive, very respectful and very friendly. As players, they are all novices, even the older ones. They have never been through anything like this camp before. They are learning how to work hard, how to respect others on their team and how to play basketball.

The players are very willing learners. They are eager to soak up knowledge, no matter where it comes from. The coaches, all Island residents, are eager to learn as well. I have worked a lot of camps for a lot of years and rarely have I found a group that I enjoy being with as much as this group of coaches. Their connection through the kids to the game is something to be admired.

This has not been an easy week. Temperatures in the mid 90′s, no cover, blazing sun, and other obstacles (I lathered on the SPF 50 but it had no effect). In the U. S. we get spoiled with facilities, equipment, etc. This camp, however, is the reason why we all should coach. An unique opportunity to reach people of all ages who are not jaded by false hopes of NBA paydays, no helicopter parents and no desires other than looking for a positive influence in their lives. The opportunity to touch so many people and have an effect on their lives is what coaching is all about.

Maribelle West and Paul Bell, the driving forces behind the effort, have created a true grass roots program. Hopefully they will get the support they so richly deserve.

You can see their goals and aspirations at

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By Don Kelbick

I have just returned from my 5th trip to Colombia in the last 4 years. This trip was to Manizales, where along with former National Team Coach, Guillermo Moreno, we conducted a 3 day clinic for 25 players and over 40 coaches.

I always enjoy my trips to Colombia and the trip to Manizales was no different. It is a large city, nestled in the mountains, about a 30-minute flight northwest of Bogota. It is in the heart of coffee country and is the legendary home of coffee producer, Juan Valdez.

Colombia has a small but very passionate basketball culture. Feeling they are always fighting against the soccer (football) culture, they are willing to buck the tide and gobble up all the basketball they are able to.

The clinic schedule was an intense one, running from 8 am to 6 pm Saturday and Sunday and thru to 1 pm on Monday. I worked with offensive fundamentals while Guillermo handled the defensive side.

The players were very eager and worked very hard for the weekend. I speak very little Spanish and the Spanish that I do speak is spoken badly and I am sure some things come out that are inappropriate, but once again, basketball proved to be a universal language. On the court, we had no trouble communicating. I am quite sure that was not the case once we left the court.

I am especially impressed by the stamina of the players. I travel quite a bit and I encounter all types of facilities. Usually I am happy when the gym has a roof. If it has walls, that is a plus. In Manizales, we had a very nice facility but, as standard, the floor was concrete. Regardless of what you are used to, 10 hours of running up and down a cement floor has to take its toll on the legs. The players did not let that get in the way. They worked hard, worked well and I think we all thoroughly enjoyed the weekend.

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Pro Basketball in Puerto Rico

By Don Kelbick

I had the pleasure this week of spending time with the Arecibo Capitanes of the Baloncestro Superior National League (BSN) in Puerto Rico.

The BSN has long been known as a high caliber league that has been fertile ground for players and coaches trying to make a name for themselves. Before the advent of the NBA Summer League, this was the place to be if you wanted to get noticed. Because it is a spring/summer league, it has provided opportunity for college players to be seen before NBA training camps, free agent players trying to catch on and coaches to gain experience. It also gives players a chance to play a season, be seen and then go to a country that plays a traditional winter season.

The number of players that have come through this league is too long to list. In the league now are NBA vets, among others, Jelani McCoy (Sonics, Lakers Cavs, etc), Lee Nailon (Knicks, Cavs, Hawks, etc. and the only player to lead NCAA Div I in scoring and rebounding two years in a row), Shavlik Randolph (Heat, 6ers), Kevin Hamilton (Nets), Michael Sweetney (Knicks, Bulls) and, until his sudden and tragic death, Robert (Tractor) Tailor (Cavs).

Coaches who have been through the BSN include Hubie Brown, Phil Jackson (who was fired twice), Rollie Massimino and P. J. Carlesimo. At the present time, there are at least 4 coaches in the league who are also nation coaches in other countries.

Arecibo is a city about 1 1/2 hours SW of San Juan, on the north shore of the island. They are the defending BSN Champions. They have a strong roster with ex-NBA players and Puerto Rican players that have big reputations playing in the top leagues all around the world. Larry Ayuso, who led USC to their last Sweet Sixteen NCAA Tournament appearance, is their leading scorer and was one of the high scorers on the National Team that beat the USA in the 2004 Olympics.

I have said many times that pro players have something different inside of them that separate them from players that don’t make it. That was very evident here the first time I walked into the arena. They were playing a game scheduled for 8 pm. Practice was at 11 am. We arrived a little before 10 and already there was more than half of the roster was already on the floor working out. That is more common early in the season, but here they only have 4 games left before the playoffs.

The first player I ran into was Donald Copeland, whom I was familiar with from trying to recruit him when he played for the legendary coach Bob Hurley at St. Anthony’s HS in Jersey City and his college career at Seton Hall. I asked how he was doing and how he liked it. He said he thought it was great. “There is an expectation of championship here… and you can’t beat that.” That is why so many players were out working long before practice. The coaches don’t say anything but the feeling is if you are not committed to winning a championship, you won’t be here. Since this is one of the best paying teams in the league, everyone wants to be here.

The game against Isabela was a little uneven. Isabela was at the bottom of the league and Arecibo was on top, but in the 3rd quarter Isabela was up 13. Arecibo played with great trust in each other. They defended through the end of the 3rd quarter, really ratcheted up in the 4th. Their offense kicked in, out scored Isabela 18-4 down the stretch and won by 6. I was impressed by the business-like fashion they went about their jobs. Never getting down on each other or upset. Everyone contributed and shared the load.

I was a little torn because playing for Isabela was one of my workout clients, Jesus Verdejo. Jesus played college ball at Arizona and University of South Florida. I researched him before he came to me and I notice he was a 53% foul shooter for his career. We worked on his whole game but I spent special attention to the mental side of his free throw shooting. Against Arecibo, he shot 8-10 from the floor and 3-3 from the foul line. His FT % is now over 73%. I was happy for what he has accomplished.

The “expectation of championship” was on display again the next day. Practice was called for 3 pm. We arrived shortly before 1 and there they were again. Players, on the floor, working on their games – 2 hours before practice the day after a game. After practice, I stayed on the court to work with some players. Copeland, Danilo Pinnock, who spent some time with the Lakers, and Guillermo Diaz, who played for the Clippers. I had known Guillermo since he was in high school, then University of Miami. We have been working together for a long time. The 4 of us stayed on the court for just over an hour. Given the situation (game the night before, full practice plus the extra work) I was really impressed by how hard they worked. Guillermo made it easier for me. He had told them how we worked out and, given that he is one of the best players in the league; it was easy for them to buy in.

The next day was a road game in Mayaguez, about 1 1/2 hours southwest of Arecibo. Because of the travel, there was no pre-game practice (even “expectation of championship” has its limits). But again, for an 8 pm game, we walked in the gym at 5 and most of the players were there working out. We got on the court and shot and dribbled until about 6:30 when they went in, and dressed for the game. I thought it was odd that the visiting team was on the floor at 5:00 but the first player for the home team didn’t appear on the floor until 6:45.

Once again “expectation of championship” was evident. The coaches did not tell the players to be early and work hard. The players decided that on their own. But the atmosphere that was created around the team made it easy for them to make that commitment.

If you are ever in Puerto Rico during the summer months and enjoy basketball, I highly recommend attending a game. There are 4 teams near San Juan so if you are vacationing in that area, there will always be a game. The atmosphere at the games is great, the style of play is exciting and the players are very good. The league usually runs from April thru June, with the playoffs stretching into August. Most of the games are on TV, so if you can’t make it, you can still enjoy it.

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International Basketball Trip – Last Day

By Don Kelbick

July 6

Today is the last day at the camp for me. We worked out in the morning, ate lunch, said goodbye and then it’s off on the 5-hour ride to Athens. My flight leaves at 7 AM so I have to leave the hotel at about 4:30 am.

Had a great workout with the kids. I found out a couple of interesting things about the “closed gym,” as they call it in the camp. It is a small gym with only 1 court. It has a couple of small locker rooms and not much parking outside. It is poorly lit though better than some of the other places I have traveled to. It had about 500 theater-type seats on one side of the gym in the stands. There was a school across the street so my American orientation told me the gym belonged to the school. It had 2 large emblems on the floor proclaiming “2006 ‘The Year of FIBA Women’s Basketball.’” I thought that was kind of odd.

It turns out, the gym was built for the Athens Olympics in 2004. It housed the women’s basketball competition, all the way up to the semi-finals. Once they reached the semis, the competition moved to Athens. As much as we would like to believe how far women’s basketball has progressed, the fact is that the games played on the world’s biggest stage only 2 Olympiads ago were played in a dingy little gym, 5 hours from the main event with little expectation of spectatorship.

My Greek basketball experience was priceless. Basketball is truly a universal language. I do not speak a word of Greek yet I was effectively able to teach 180 kids about the game. From my experience, I don’t think that these kids, though, are taught to have fun. The coaches I worked with are all great coaches and teachers. They love the sport and love the kids. But, their experience as players and coaches are with people who believe that they should be yelling and screaming all the time. They had a little trouble adapting to my approach, having patience, allowing time for kids to correct themselves and motivating them to keep trying. They could not argue with the results once the kids started to understand the concepts they were presented with.

We are all aware there are cultural differences between societies but we have to be aware that when we teach or coach basketball to international players, there are cultural differences as well. One of the coaches told me that the first Greek word every American learns is “Malakas”. When I asked what that means he said “Asshole.” I spoke a lot of basketball with the coaches. They have great knowledge and passion for the game.

For 5 hours I spoke basketball on the ride back to Athens. The coach that drove me back was an assistant on one of the 1st division pro teams and he gave me some insight as to how much pressure Greek coaches are under constantly, at all levels. For all their innovative methods of training, and many are truly way ahead of their time, they are very traditional once they get between the lines. For that reason they approach their teaching the same way they learned and played. One coach said that in Greece, if you don’t play professionally, no one plays after they are 21 years old. So there are no pickup games at the park, no old guys playing at the beach, not fathers playing their sons in the driveways. That is unfortunate because they really love the game.

I loved the trip. I am very tired. There was little time to relax. Even when there was time it was difficult. There are many things we take for granted in the U. S. that are not present elsewhere. The most difficult part of the trip was going into someone else’s home with different values and methods and asking them to assume yours. I hope they had as much fun as I did. Being exposed to my kind of craziness can drive anyone nuts, even if they understand me. Imagine what it is like for someone who doesn’t understand me. I learned a lot. I hope someone came away with something new from me. I hope I get to do it again.

The second part of my trip, to Colombia, has been postponed until August. Just as well. I have some guys I need to start preparing at home.

International Basketball Trip – Day 6 & 7

By Don Kelbick

July 4

If there is one thing that makes me appreciate the country in which I live, it is being elsewhere on the most important day in American history. Other places are great. Filled with great people and interesting culture, but I am glad I live in the U. S. Happy birthday America.

Today was a great day of basketball. We had 4 hours of workouts, 2 hours in the morning, 2 hours in the evening. The kids were great; the coaches were fun to work with. I think they both appreciate seeing something different. I think that there is no better reward in coaching than seeing a kid smile (of course winning and getting paid are pretty rewarding, too).

I had another discussion with one of the coaches whom I have developed a lot of respect for. He played professionally in several different countries for 11 or 12 years. It is interesting how image and reality might be the same. He was telling me how there is no emphasis on teaching fundamentals in Europe and all their time on tactics. He admired the way we concentrate on fundamentals. Our image in the U. S. is exactly the opposite.

We also look at European training as being innovative. In truth, their off court training truly is. But he said that once they get between the lines, any departure from traditional basketball might be grounds for dismissal. Coaches here are constantly afraid of getting fired. Sure, it is part of coaching life, but I don’t think that it is part of everyday life in the U. S.

July 5

Today, we are off in the morning. These kids come for 16 days at a time so they get some time off on Sunday. The groups also change. There are 120 kids in the camp, 60 left yesterday and a new 60 came in. So, this morning, we visited the place where sport was invented, ancient Olympia.

Visiting a place that is so significant in human history and a place that is so old can be overwhelming and difficult to comprehend. Seeing the Temple of Zeus, walking out into the original Sports Stadium and walking where people walked 2500 years ago is not an opportunity that comes around that often for me. Seeing the actual sculpture of Hermes and Nike (now I know where the company name comes from) is difficult to put in perspective. I stood in the place where they now light the Olympic Torch for each Olympiad. I thought that was pretty neat. It is definitely worth the trip.

After coming back from Olympia, we stopped for lunch with some of the coaches. People eat more here than anyplace I have ever seen. A cardiologist would have a heart attack here. Huge amounts of food, everything fried, lots of fatty meats and cheese everywhere. It sure tastes good, though.

I worked out with the new group this evening. Since I had 1 group and had 2 ½ hours we were able to get through quite a bit. We went through the entire footwork series that took a couple of days with the other groups. They pick it up really quickly and they are really hungry to learn. Had some more great discussions with the coaches about traveling and how hard it is to coach teams that have players from different countries. Player come from the U. S. for big dollars and it creates jealousies amongst the national players. Differing styles of play generate some issues as does differences in language.

Who said coaching basketball was easy?

International Basketball Trip – Day 4 & 5

By Don Kelbick

July 2

Today was the first full day of working with the players. I found them very adaptable and very eager to learn. It is amazing how universal the language of basketball is. Some of the players spoke a little English but most didn’t understand me. But we we spoke about basketball, everyone understood.

The camp is built on top of a mountain. The courts, of which there are 3, are tiered so going from court to court requires going up and down significantly. Just going to the courts is a workout. There is a 4th court, which is located in the town at the bottom of the mountain, and they transport the players by bus. To me, it is a gym, to them it is a “closed court” because it is inside.

I had an interesting discussion with the coaches. I am amazed that how much they are held by tradition. I have always thought that European basketball was much more scientific and progressive than American basketball but, at the same time, more programmed. We got into a discussion of coaching styles and stretching. As I mentioned earlier, they spend a ridiculous amount of time stretching where I like to do multi-purpose drills, such as ball handling drills, to get loose. They thought that was a pretty good idea, however, if they held a practice and did not stretch they all said they would get fired immediately.

They watched my teaching technique and thought is was very effective. However, I do not yell and scream at players nor do I stop an entire group when a mistake is made and get after everyone. Their feeling was they are expected to yell and scream at their teams. They felt that if in a game, they were not up and yelling at their team all the time, they would get fired immediately.

I find that a very interesting perspective.

July 3

Good day of basketball workouts. Players really picked thing up quickly. If you have read any of my work before, you know how important footwork is to me. Here, everything stems from shooting the basketball. By working with the player’s footwork, they quickly started to shoot better. Watching them shoot, they often are not facing the basket because they never get their feet around. I believe by getting them to understand their feet, they were able to self correct their shots and be more effective.

The most important basketball here is NBA basketball. I am amazed that they think that, because I have worked with a few NBA players and have scouted for a couple of NBA teams, I am an expert. I have reporters everywhere I go. I have given 5 interviews and had a full-page story printed in a major Athens newspaper. Everywhere, they want to know about the NBA. They want to know if there are any Greek players that might be stars in the NBA (I don’t know), and the biggest question is do I think that a Greek professional team can compete for a championship in the NBA. There seems to be a lot of talk about the Greek League champion, Panathaniokus, joining the NBA. I asked who is doing that talking and they said it was mostly Greek basketball experts. I really don’t think the NBA is talking about that.

The camp is in a town called Krestena, in the city-state of Peloponsis, and is the closest town to Olympia, the ancient city where the first Olympics over 3000 years ago. A reporter asked my yesterday what my opinion was about teaching basketball in the city were sports was invented.

Kind of makes you think.

International Basketball Trip – Day 3 (Greece)

By Don Kelbick

July 1

Earlier I mentioned using basketball as a vehicle. Last night I had dinner at the foot of the Acropolis in Athens. For some reason I don’t think that accountants get to do that in their line of work.

Today I have a 4-hour drive to Olympia for the camp. The weather here is hot, not Miami hot, but hot just the same. For some reason I don’t think the air conditioning is Miami air conditioning either.

The trip from Athens to Olympia was about 41/2 hours. The temperature was in the 90s and the car we were driving had no air conditioning. About half the trip was on major highways and the other half on 2 lane roads. I use the term 2 lane roads rather loosely seeing that there were 4 lanes of traffic on those 2 lanes. Drivers here drive half in the breakdown lane and half in the travel lane. This is to allow for cars to pass on another. In the U. S. the lane markings on the road have some meaning, dashed line you can pass, double line you cannot, etc. It did not make a difference what type of line there was on the road, straight road or not. If you came up on a car in front of you, you passed him. There were times I thought we were trying to drive between the headlights of the on coming cars and they were trying to do the same to ours. The drive can only be described as long periods of boredom, punctuated by moments of stark terror.

European basketball is much different than U. S. basketball

We arrived at the camp, which is on the top of a mountain about 4000 feet up. I worked for about an hour with a group. European basketball is much different than U. S. basketball. It almost seems like ballet compared to the emphasis on power in the U. S. Their practice habits are also much more leisurely. Of course, the most difficult thing for me to adjust to is the 45 minutes they spend stretching inside an hour and a half basketball workout. That really doesn’t leave a lot of time for work. Players also seem to be much more programmed in the way they do things. Everyone does the same thing and they don’t like to experiment. It has its benefits but I think that experimentation is a key to learning. There are many things that I think the Europeans do better than we do but I think the resistance to other ideas stunts their growth. They also seem to have an emphasis on pleasing the coach. I believe their primary motivation should be to get better, not please me.

Now it is time to make the 3 mile, 20 minute drive down the mountain to relax.

International Basketball Trip – Day 1 & 2

By Don Kelbick

June 29

Basketball is a great thing. Especially when it is used as a vehicle as opposed to an end unto itself. Basketball has made me some great friends, given me a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree, provided for my family and has allowed me to go places that I know I never would have gotten a chance to go to if it were not for the game we all love.

I am at the start of a journey that will take me from Miami to Athens, Greece to Tunja, Colombia just to teach some basketball. I thought it might be fun to take you with me. It will be interesting to see if there are different attitudes and outlooks toward the game in the different countries. In Greece I am going to be giving a clinic at Camp Olympia, a camp for kids of all ages. My target group is players from 12-16. In Colombia, I will be at a camp for players aged 10 -18 in the morning and conducting a coaches clinic in the afternoons.

I left Miami for Athens, through Rome at 4:15 this afternoon. I knew it would be a long flight when I got my 2 boarding passes as was told, “This one is for today and this one is for tomorrow. As I boarded the Alitalia flight, I was not charged for checking luggage nor was I charged extra for my aisle seat. That seems to be an U. S. airline phenomenon where the more trouble the airline seems to be in, the less customer friendly they become. In addition, upon entering the aircraft they had a newspaper rack filled with newspapers filled with newspapers from all the countries they fly out of. I was able to pick up a Miami Herald I missed in the morning. I was also given 3 meals and could have had seconds, if I wished, at no extra charge.

June 30

It was a long flight to Rome, 9 hours. We landed at 8 am local, which is 2 AM Miami time. 9 hours is a long time to be in an airplane. I slept for a couple of hours. The flight seemed longer because my entertainment system was not working. It was a full flight so there was no chance to change. Just had to grit my teeth and fight the boredom.

My flight to Athens doesn’t board for about 2 hours. I had to go to another terminal spur for this leg. Through security again and I had to go through passport control. That is where I started to learn the difference between Europe and other places that I’ve been.

I have traveled many times to Latin America (all on basketball business). Living in Miami has made me pretty comfortable with the Latin culture. I have also become fluent in Spanglish. In Miami or other Latin area a simple, “No hablo Espanol,” or an “Hablas Englese?” will usually start a more productive conversation. Needless to say, in Rome it doesn’t have the same effect. Going through passport control is a great illustration. I got at the end of a long line with a sign that said, “E. U. Only.” Anyone in Miami will tell you that E. U. stands for Estados Unidos (United States). Upon reaching the front of the line, the gentleman informed me that in Europe it stand for European Union. It took a little while but I finally got through the other line and got to my terminal.

I am now learning that grilled ham and cheese is a breakfast food in other parts of the world. It is true in Colombia; it is true in Mexico and now I know it is true in Rome. I stopped to grab a quick bite and there were at least 10 people in front of me. Each ordered a grilled ham and cheese. Of course they ordered in Italian which made it sound a little more romantic.

I think they are calling my flight now. Of course it could also be a flight to Brussels or Vienna for all I know, I’ll just follow the signs and see what happens. Of course, in Greece they don’t even use the same letters so it will be interesting to see how that works out.

Well the day just got a little longer. While sitting on the plane they have just announced that we are delayed at least 1 ½ hours due to traffic. Sounds just like Miami. Just another opportunity to get some sleep.