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The Finnish phenomenon
VALENCIA (Jeff Taylor's Eurovision) - It’s Sunday, the 7th of September.
The FIBA Basketball World Cup is now in its second week.
I'm thinking about the Quarter-Finals, Semi-Finals and Finals, but I'm also thinking about Finland.
Whether you like wild cards or not, the FIBA Central Board got it right when they presented one to Finland.
There has never been a phenomenon in international basketball like the Finnish Susijengi. Everywhere in Bilbao, a wonderful city in Spain's Basque country, there were Finnish fans.
Families travelled to support the national team. Groups of friends, couples. Old fans and young fans. Retirees.
There were wolf costumes, basketball hats and plenty of fans wearing Finnish jerseys.
After Finland's only win, against Ukraine, on Day 2, several thousand spectators poured into the fan zone outside of the Bilbao Exhibition Center and had a huge party.
The players and coaches went to greet them.
One fan told me he couldn't miss the opportunity to be a part of something so big, something that would never happen again.
In the city during the day, the Finns shopped, ate and visited museums. They soaked up Bilbao, which was bathed in sunshine instead of the usual rain.
On the night when there were no games in Group C, I went into the old town with friends to eat at the Sidreria Arriaga, where customers can fill up the glasses with cider that spouts from the wall.
Other than myself and my two Australian colleagues, there were only Finns inside.
Remember what happened last year?
Finns timed their holiday in Koper, Slovenia, with Finland's visit to the coastal city for EuroBasket 2013 Group D games.
The fans then had no real expectations of huge wins yet watched as the Wolfpack upset Turkey, Russia and Greece, and beat Sweden.
Those same fans, and a lot more who watched the EuroBasket 2013 wins on television, travelled to Bilbao, hoping to again see something special but not really knowing what would happen.
Here's what happened.
A fun Finnish fan-base made the journey to a different country in good spirits.
After crashing to a heavy defeat to the USA, the national team provided great theater on the court.
They thumped Ukraine, got thumped by the Dominican Republic and then suffered the sort of heartbreak that no nation should ever have to endure.
Turkey fought back from a 17-point deficit and forced overtime with a Cenk Akyol three-pointer at the buzzer before prevailing, 77-73.
Petteri Koponen scored 17 points against Turkey but had two free-throws rim out with 15 second left in regulation that would have iced the win.
Finland carried a hangover into their next and last Group C game against New Zealand, a do-or-die showdown, and fell behind by 20 points.
It looked like their Basketball World Cup exit was going to be a humiliating one, but Finland fought back and very nearly claimed a famous victory.
Koponen, Finland's best player, missed a closely guarded jump shot at the death and the Tall Blacks held on for a 67-65 win.
While working for LiveBasketball.TV in Bilbao, my colleague George Zidek of UCLA, NBA and European basketball fame, kept referring to the tiredness that all the players were feeling with five games in six days.
Koponen and the Finns looked exhausted but gave everything.
They came up short and predictably, there were plenty of tears that followed.
What's that saying, that you have to learn how to lose before you can win?
Maybe that's true for Finland. The effort was there, and the determination. But the players lacked experience.
At Bilbao airport before my trip to Barcelona for the Final Phase, I saw plenty of Finnish fans. I thanked them for coming to Spain and told them it was great to have them in the international basketball family.
This isn't the end of the Finnish basketball phenomenon.
It's only the beginning.
FIBA's columnists write on a wide range of topics relating to basketball that are of interest to them. The opinions they express are their own and in no way reflect those of FIBA.
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