USA Basketball says Bye Bye Barcelona


Sep 12

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BARCELONA — The USA Basketball team packed up Friday morning and left this shimmering coastal city in northeast Spain for Madrid, the last stop on this seven-city international seven-week tour that Team USA hopes and believes will conclude in a gold medal and championship Sunday (2:00 p.m. CT | ESPN2).

Derrick Rose said earlier this week, appropriately, it is a business trip and he mostly stayed in the team hotel with family and worked to retain his conditioning.

Too bad because he and his fellow players mostly missed an incredible place.

It was business for me as well, however the methods were a bit different. I accepted my personal message while riding the metro (subway or El, as I’ll translate for everyone) when a not-that-young woman got up to offer me her seat.

This immediately assured me I was not in New York, where I was tripped to slow me down while heading for an open seat the last time I was there. Good sense transcending vanity, I quickly accepted.

More so, it was yet another sign of the civility of this city that seems to offer the best of New York and Los Angeles without so many of the horrors. It’s metropolitan with maybe the greatest variety of eclectic restaurants combined with the most accommodating late hours of anywhere I’ve even been, certainly in the U.S., and that includes New York. There may be more taco stands and hamburger places open late in L.A., but the atmosphere isn’t quite the same. Yet, this city also maintains at its heart a Los Angeles-like beach culture where you go there pretty much any day and it’s lively with runners, bicyclists, skaters and café after café along and literally on the sand.

It’s like when you go to Los Angeles in January and it’s a Wednesday and it’s packed with people playing volleyball and basketball and lifting weights and posing and you wonder where all these people come from and doesn’t anyone work?

Likewise, I know there’s a severe unemployment issue in Spain, especially among young people, though it was not apparent even in the working class neighborhoods around the city where I often traveled.

I’m not much for big, old churches, of which they have many here. And not because I’m Jewish. I’m not much for big, old synagogues, either. I know they’re popular, consequential sites that distinguish a city and offer and reveal a sense of the history of the community. Though I did examine several from the outside. When you go somewhere exotic you have to say you saw the famous stuff or friends who have been there will bore you with stories of how much you missed and show you their pictures. I did ride the metro to the famous Sagrada Familia church, which is on the cover of basically every guidebook and map of Barcelona. It’s the premier work of the famous architect, Antoni Gaudi, who must have needed glasses as so many of his buildings look wavy and out of focus. I’m fairly sure that’s not the classic architectural description. There appeared to be architectural ambiguities that sped past me. It’s like when I was in Paris—with the Bulls in 1997, yes, it’s a heck of a gig—and figured I better see this Mona Lisa in the Louvre museum. So it’s some painting barely bigger than a post card and 80 people are crowding around staring at it while half the museum is empty around it.

Yes, so I guess I was destined to go into sports writing. Bourgeois slob!

But it is vital to have them there. The U.S. is fairly famous for its historical sites lining up with the sale of the first Big Mac. Still, those ancient palaces and fortresses, though you figure constructed very much with slave labor, do provide a striking panorama.

I’ve always felt the best way to see a city or new place is to skip the artistic displays and get out where people live, experience it like they do daily with the cacophony of their experience and environment, travel around as they do, eat where they eat and then you can start whining like they do about life.

Spending a week somewhere isn’t like life, though I rode subways and buses, shopped at the little groceries, ate at the corner places and kept trying to avoid talking louder in English as a way of navigating languages.

People know how to eat here, or certainly appreciate the experience of a meal.

Anyone who has been to Europe knows the difficulty, at times, in not only getting someone to wait on you but then return to give you the bill. No, they don’t move tables here. As tipping is rare and seems to involve merely leaving the extra change, no one seems to much care who sits there and for how long.

Now, perhaps this is a function of the lack of a bustling economy, though the business and commercial areas and metro and buses at rush hours in the morning and evening were not unlike New York and Chicago. People seemed to be going somewhere to do something. And not just those wearing shorts and shower sandals.

I know subways having grown up in New York City and lived in Chicago for more than 30 years. This is a terrific subway system, and there was an Elvis impersonator singing blue suede shoes with a Catalonian accent in the passageway to change lines. Nothing screams Times Square more, unfortunately. Still, the system was simple and efficient, so much so Americans could use it. There are electric signs on every platform with the time to the next train. Rarely is it more than three minutes. Similarly, I saw electronic time-to-next-bus signs at bus stops. Yes, bus stops!

They have added some of these signs in New York, I noticed the last time I was there. But it usually has to take into account how long the train will arrive following the time to extinguish the next subway fire.

The system also is democratic, the ticket for the subway also serving as a bus ticket, enabling you to travel throughout the city on the same fare.

Though what stands out more to someone having lived in Chicago and New York is the feeling of safety. It’s obviously a further impact of not having a gun culture. You feel empowered walking around late at night, as I did often leaving games after 1:00 a.m. and seeing steady streams of taxis rolling around, cafes and markets still open and people in the street. I heard of one mugging from a friend, of a beautiful woman coming up to hug him and stealing his phone. They do warn you about pick pocketing. It certainly could be worse.

How’s this for civility? There’s laws against men removing their shirts in public. And they are enforced as a policeman demanded a man put back on his shirt. And it was in a park.

No wonder they kicked our ancestors out of Europe.

The historic streets in the ancient part of the city are narrow and winding, and it always makes you wonder with all the land they had back then why did they put everyone next to each other. Though, like in England, you figure the church owned all the land and wouldn’t share. You drive in the English country and there about 100,000 acres of farmland and then houses so close neighbors answer the wrong door bell.

It’s not unlike that here by the famous old cathedrals near the Mediterranean, like the tourist site Barcelona Cathedral. There was another one nearby I stumbled upon walking around that area and stopping every few blocks to drink something and sit around some more. It was the Santa Maria Basilica with all the towers and spires. Sorry for the technical language. Across from the entrance was a café as people sat around watching other people sitting around. It does seem to be one of the prime activities.

Even Starbucks chases you out before these guys.

They also put restaurants in the most amazing places as I went to an old bull fighting stadium that looked like the L.A. coliseum that they turned into a mall with restaurants encircling the top about six stories high.

Now this tops it for relaxed, outdoor eating. It is a summer climate place like California. But just about every McDonald’s I saw didn’t have a play area, but an outside terrace. I didn’t stop; I just looked.

You have those narrow streets and hidden courtyards for the good tourist pictures, and their famous La Rambla, the tree lined strip that dissects the heart of the old city and which Charles Barkley made famous cruising in the 1992 Olympics. There is a huge statue of Christopher Columbus at the base of the street by the sea, though they left out the images of him slaughtering natives. Probably like Sagrada Familia, it’s still not finished. Those byzantine streets, meanwhile, are not unlike what you see in Boston, Philadelphia and at the tip of lower Manhattan, where it mostly didn’t occur to them to create wide byways for vehicles, which obviously didn’t exist, and pedestrians, who didn’t seem that big.

It’s why Washington, D.C. was such a revelation even though it took decades to make it livable after presidents were living there. As you move out from the historic areas that are close to the sea, there are expanses of tree lined, broad walkways where I even found a trolley running. All it needed was Ebbets Field.

It really is one of the world’s great cities. Next time I’ll suggest Derrick take a walk around. Thibs? Too much film to watch. I wouldn’t have interfered.

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