This afternoon the Trail Blazers formally introduced Terry Stotts as the organization’s 14th head coach. Following the obligatory laying out of Stotts’s “plan,” some roster and coaching personnel questions for the two-man panel of Stotts and GM Neil Olshey, and a pithy non sequitur about the coach’s educational past life as a zoology student, somebody asked if either the new head man or the new boss had any feelings about the “international incident” perpetrated by the new $46 million man.
“International incident,” Olshey responded with a chuckle. “Did he blow up a building?”
Let’s table for a minute whether or not in a post 9-11 world it’s ever appropriate to make terrorist-themed jokes (although I will say that Mr. Olshey managed to avoid a major faux pas cum PR nightmare by not making an off-handed allusion to a more recent tragedy) and spend a few minutes talking about Nicolas Batum’s lower-gut upper-crotch punch of Juan Carlos Navarro in today’s semi-final Olympic match-up between Spain and France.
To start, let’s contextualize the situation. The French have looked pretty good throughout this Olympic tournament. Medal contender good. Le Blue lost only once in the qualifying stage, in their first game against the U.S. of A., and finished second in Group A, giving them a path to the gold medal game that did not include a second date with the I Have A Dream Team.
On the other half of the bracket, the Spanish, already crowned as the second best team in the draw, lost twice in qualifying. Their second loss, to Brazil, has been speculated as a possible dive since a win for Spain would have matched them up with the United States in the semi-finals and not the finals. (Maybe you’ve picked up on the theme that Olympic basketball is about survival by avoidance of the Red, White, and Blue.)
Coming into Wednesday’s game, the French had already collected one high profile loss to the Spanish, the finals of last summer’s Eurobasket tournament. In that game, the French had been over-matched top to bottom, and never really competed.
This rematch was markedly different. France led most of the first half. The lead went back and forth in the third period. Then we reached the evening’s final 10 minutes. In the fourth quarter the French couldn’t score, like literally couldn’t score. As their lead disappeared and Spain established what would be an insurmountable advantage, things started to get a little chippy.
With under a minute to play, Rony Turiaf laid a cross-body block on Rudy Fernandez that got him ejected and led to Rudy crawling off the floor after a couple minutes of writing in pain. A few seconds later, Nic chased Juan Carlos Navarro into the backcourt, reared back with his right arm, and took a swing with a closed fist that clipped a tiny piece of the basketball and landed flush into Navarro’s lower mid-section. That was all she wrote. Very few things in recent memory have blown up Twitter in quite the same way.
So now we’ve got the context of the punch. Next is to figure out what it all means.
The reactions to Nic’s punch came both fast and furious, but with little to no variety. There were two camps represented. Most found the low blow reprehensible and dirty. Blazer fans, and even some members of the official payroll, were stoked to see the newest big-money player showing a little bit of fire and tenacity.
I essentially agree with both opinions. Nic needs to show some more aggression, but he needs to probably not punch too many more dudes in the crotch.
The question that remains is, will there be any overall takeaway from Wednesday’s incident. For the purpose of continuing to not take sides, I’ll say yes and no. Starting with yes.
Nicolas Batum needs to take a couple of steps in 2012-13. Those steps include getting better with the ball in his hands, adding a back to the basket game, and developing into an actual leader. The Olympics have given Nic a chance to establish himself as a leader for his country. He couldn’t always do it on the floor, but at the very least he could show that he wasn’t above getting in a cheap shot in an effort to save a little face.
In a perfect world, Nicolas would have recognized that his team was pissing away a chance to medal during what ended up being a six-point closing quarter, taken control of the game with his offense, and tried to right the ship. We aren’t living in a perfect world. I’ll take a little over-aggressive over-reaction over nothing.
But then again, the Olympics are not the NBA, and the takeaway might end up being minimal at best. Remember that for most people representing a country in the Olympics is the highest of high honors, remember that France fell to Spain in the finals of Eurobasket (as I’ve already mentioned) and that the French are somewhat of a perennial little brother to the Spanish in international basketball, remember also that this is Europe and the rivalries extend far far beyond the hardwood. Also try to remember that in the first stage of the knockout round it’s win or go home, see you in four years.
Add all those not exactly incidental details together, and you can understand how a young, budding superstar might lose his cool for a few seconds.
None of the above factors will ever occur in an NBA game. As a matter of fact, Nicolas won’t see Juan Carlos Navarro in a game until the next time France and Spain meet up in international play, so that angle won’t even have to be addressed stateside.
Because all of the various elements that led up to the ultimate drama will be left in London, there’s a good chance that when Nicolas comes to camp in Portland any positive headway made by a punch in the groin will have sadly dissipated.
So what are we to make of all of this? First, this is very much a social media Olympics (but anyone who watched the Opening Ceremonies knew that). Second, some national bloggers are faster with the quip and more adept with the pun than others. Third, GIF’s of slo-mo replays are fun. Fourth, what would warrant a five-game suspension won’t even get you kicked out of a FIBA game. And fifth, Nic doesn’t like to lose, doesn’t like to be shown up, doesn’t like floppers, and gives a hell of a quote.
If you think an angry outburst at the end of an un-winnable game is a precursor to Nic becoming a full-on NBA enforcer, team leader, and superstar, that’s fine. You might be right.
If you think what Nic did was cheap, uncalled for, and sullied his, his country’s, and his professional team’s reputations, that’s fine too. You may also be right.
The real tragedy at the end of all of this hoopla is that we won’t get a chance to see any more Nicolas Batum in these Olympic games.
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