By Paul Nilsen
When I headed for Naples I never anticipated experiencing the kind of emotion I felt standing courtside last Friday.
The sensation of a slight lump in the throat and feeling more than a little choked after being completely immersed in the raw passion and almost unbearable tension of two extraordinary basketball games.
The fact that I was a neutral with no vested interested in the fate of any of the four teams involved in the last two quarter-finals of the day only managed to underline the magnitude of my feelings.
Hosts Italy had lost to Russia and both sets of players were in tears. The more cynical of you might be tempted to sneer and ask me what exactly I expected from teenage girls. Well don't.
Sat courtside, I watched transfixed for over two hours as both sets of players poured their heart and soul into this amazingly intense overtime game. When the buzzer sounded, some of the victorious Russian players were crying more than the defeated Italians. At the time I remember watching eventual All Tournament Team center Ksenia Tikhonenko intently. The emotion and relief was etched on her face as she wiped the tears away. It meant everything.
It was mesmerising stuff but who could ever have dreamed of what would happen next? Who could believe that after this high drama, the lump in my throat and slightly choked feeling would shortly be magnified even further?
|Turkey fought hard in evry game of the tournament and had to endure the most frustrating loss after four overtimes|
The subsequent quadruple overtime quarter-final between France and Turkey had me sat in awe. What a game, what tension and what intense feelings on and off court at the end. It was almost midnight when the devastated and defeated Turkey players slumped to the floor in anguish. You couldn't help wanting to go and put a consoling arm round their shoulders.
Why was I worrying? Perhaps best summing up the rather apt gladiatorial spirit of this superb tournament, Turkey didn't need a helping hand. They picked themselves up and proved everyone who thought they could never recover completely wrong as they bravely went on to book their place in the U17 World Championships next year.
Then of course there was the Final. Congratulations to gold medallists Spain and also to Belgium (such fun to watch) for ensuring that the climax of the tournament was as special as the tournament itself - more overtime and more enjoyable basketball.
From start to finish of the Championships, I was left really impressed with the standard of quality with one contest standing head and shoulders above any other. However it would be unfair on the U16 players to talk too much about the game involving the FIBA Europe and the local tournament staff!
In terms of players who impressed, in addition to those named in the All Tournament Team, I loved watching Delvaux (Belgium), Stievenard (France), Iiskola (Finland), Spanou (Greece), Diaz (Spain), De Alfredo (Spain), F.Dotto (Italy), Panella (Italy), Kavurmacioglu (Turkey), Cora (Turkey), Schyvens (Belgium).
|8. Brigitta Barta (Hungary) Brigitta Barta did everything she could but was not able to keep Hungary from relegation besides three wins in the championship|
Then of course those players who fell into the Classification games and so despite their stellar tournament, were never truly considered for the All Tournament team - congratulations to the likes of Barta (Hungary) and Ivashchanka (Belarus).
The only time the quality disappeared completely was at the closing party. For, the moves of those who took to the dance floor were every bit as terrible as the tournament had been enjoyable!
On Monday afternoon when I eventually found myself climbing steeply into the clear blue sky, I peered down from my plane seat at the sprawling city of Naples slowly disappearing below.
I smiled to myself and realised that I had been left well and truly smitten by the hospitality of the wonderful Neopolitan people, the hard work of everyone behind the scenes, the thrilling action on the court and above anything else, the friendship, fair play and the sense of warmth that radiated from all concerned both on and off the court.
Like most global sports at the top level, the game can seem dominated by commercialisation, awash with mind boggling player contracts, inevitably focused on the big fish and at times losing some perspective and the sense of fair play.
You can perhaps then understand why I felt almost librated and re-energised at having spent time with a special part of our basketball family and one that happily operates without too many of those as issues.
Within a couple of minutes Naples had finally disappeared from view but it will take considerably longer for the memories to disappear from my mind. I leaned back in my seat and came to the conclusion that I had never departed a previous basketball trip feeling quite so sorry at having to leave.
The simple truth is that I left Italian soil having fallen in love with basketball all over again.
Thanks to everyone involved for helping to play Cupid.