Sports » Sports Feature

West in Finland

A long way to go to see a guy who still has a long to way to go.



Editor's note: Sportswriter Harri Mannonen of the Flyer's Finnish bureau sent us this account of Jerry West's recent scouting trip to Mannonen's homeland.

The PA announcer did his best to make it sound like something big was happening as he announced in his best NBA style: "Ladies and gentlemen, Jerry West, Mr. Clutch!"

Three thousand people had come to see the Finnish Basketball League game between Torpan Pojat of Helsinki and Espoon Honka. The crowd did not go wild when West appeared in the spotlight, but they did clap. In previous days, the Finnish media had made sure fans knew at least two things about the team president of the Memphis Grizzlies: He is on the NBA's logo, and he was coming to town to scout Petteri Koponen.

They probably applauded him more for the latter. Koponen is the 18-year-old starting point guard for Espoon Honka.

It was 15 degrees Fahrenheit outside the Espoo Arena, and Honka started the game ice-cold. After three-and-a-half minutes they were down 0-13. At that point, Koponen had missed two shots and committed a foul.

Having an NBA celebrity on their side seems to have a negative effect on Finnish basketball teams. Last season, Torpan Pojat hired former NBA star Dennis Rodman for a game against Honka.

Off the court, Rodman lived up to his billing. The night before the game, he went clubbing and got himself a hangover. On the court, Rodman was a disappointment. Instead of rebounding fiercely, he spent most of the game launching three-pointers. Torpan Pojat lost the game by six.

As the Koponen game went on, it appeared that Honka might beat the American jinx. Late in the second quarter, they tied the game at 35, and Koponen started to show that he really does have skills. He finds the open guy, and he hits threes off the dribble. He is 6 feet 4 inches and quick -- maybe even quick enough to be an NBA point guard.

The Finnish league is dominated by American players, and Koponen is one of the few homegrown stars. He averages 11.8 points, 4.3 assists, 2.5 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game.

Last summer, Koponen made his national-team debut, and so began the speculation about whether he has the talent to become the second Finnish NBA player ever. (Hanno Mottola spent two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks from 2000 to 2002.) West's visit, as a part of his scouting trip to Europe, was the first public sign of any interest by an NBA team.

But how interested was West in Koponen?

The game was televised live by the national sports channel. Watching the pre-game interview, it seemed West did not know much about Koponen. At one point the broadcaster asked: "What are your plans about Petteri Koponen?"

"I'm sorry?" West replied.

"What are your plans about Petteri Koponen?"

"Well, I have no plans. I'm just here to watch."

The real expert on young European players was West's traveling companion, Rich Sheubrooks, who picks European players for the Nike Hoop Summit, the annual all-star game between Team USA and an international squad. That week, Sheubrooks had announced that Koponen was chosen to the Summit as the first Scandinavian player ever. This year's game will be played at FedExForum on Saturday, April 7th.

As the game progressed, the NBA celebrity curse began working again. Koponen made a couple horrendous mistakes, and Honka lost 63-72.

Koponen played a full 40 minutes and finished with 18 points and four assists. His weaknesses showed, too. He committed five turnovers and had problems with shot selection.

In the post-game press conference, everyone was polite to West and vice versa. But there was an awkward moment: A Finnish reporter asked if Koponen could be called Mr. Clutch, too.

The original looked annoyed. "He still has a long way to go," he said.

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