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Original Issue

Innocents Abroad


Dull? Finland? Finland is Norway on NyQuil. The nation is shaped like Florida but is in fact an Arctic, alien-free anti-Florida. More than 97% of Finland's population is native-born, and its shores are breached only by the odd cultural export. Finland gave the world the sauna, the music of Jean Sibelius and the Helsinki Formula—a back-of-the-comics cure for baldness. Now, if science only had a cure for blandness.

Bland? Finland? Finland is whiter than the Beatles' double album cover, so a 6'10" black man with the word BUBBA on the back of his jacket is bound to turn towheads here. I am riding a bus through Finland in the rain with the Mississippi State Bulldogs, who are as far from Starkville as one can be on this, an 11-day, nine-game, summertime exhibition tour that promises a cockamamie clash of cultures. More than a top-25 college basketball team, the group resembles a heroic team of visiting doctors with an antidote for ennui tucked in their little black bags: Basketball.

Forty miles from the Russian border, the bus passes by shop-front signs scripted with Cyrillic curlicues. Most Finns, like many Mississippians, speak English, but what coach Richard Williams wants to know is, "Do they speak any Gulf-Coast-Mississippi English?"

It was Francis Bacon who wrote, in his Essays: "Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education.... He that traveleth into a country before he hath some entrance into the language, goeth to school." It was Kevin Bacon who said, in the movie The Air Up There, "I knew the sport traveled, but...."

But this is ridiculous. College basketball has become a game in which every team is the Globetrotters. About 30 schools play abroad each summer and, rule book be damned, traveling is no longer a violation. The NCAA allows a team to play overseas once every four years and gives those teams 10 days of summertime practice to prepare for a maximum two-week schedule of exhibition games. A team can bond like Polident during that fortnight: Both Florida and Arizona played in Australia in the summer of '93, and both later made the Final Four. Suddenly, you need a Baedeker just to follow the bouncing ball.

Florida State toured the champagne caves of Ch‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢lons-sur-Marne while playing in France this summer, narrowly missing the Maryland Terrapins, who were also there, just begging to be Eurotrashed by Parisian waiters. When Terp center Joe Smith was asked before embarking on the trip if he spoke any French, he confidently replied, "French toast."

In fact, it's more like French fries. "Even in Paris, most of these kids want their meals served in a cardboard box," says Lee Frederick, whose Milwaukee-based Sport Tours International will arrange trips and set up games anywhere in the world. "But we're looking for travelers, not tourists. Tourists want everything to be the same as it is back home. Travelers want something strange."

No stranger to strange, Frederick is an ex-college coach with an adventurer's spirit—think of John Paul Jones with a basketball jones. "I went to Surinam with National College of South Dakota," he told me before I left for Finland, a trip that he did not arrange, "and we wound up an hour into the bush on June 30th—the first day of the new moon—when the Indian shamans drink a little hooch and go crazy, dancing on glass and hot coals. I like Nassau, where we used to have to trap the rats to get them out of the gym before we played. I take the kids to snake farms in Brazil. I took Marquette to Fiji, and we wound up in the basement of a men's club where the locals were drinking kava, which is made from crushed pepper root. Looks like muddy water. We stayed and sang songs for five hours. I like to go to the island of Dominica, where they eat these great big frogs they call mountain chicken, sweetest meat you've ever tasted. I always tell kids: Eat the country."

Do we have to eat Finland? Can't we send out for China? These are the questions that come up on the bus as we lumber behind a lumber truck on our way out of Kotka, the rain still relentless, the paper-mill town smelling of wet sawdust, which is what many suspect we had for breakfast this morning. I crack my guidebook, riffling to the indispensable phrases listed therein. "En syo silakka" I begin, committing the mantra to memory. "I don't eat Baltic herring."

"When you play overseas, the sun doesn't rise and set on the NCAA," Frederick had said of the more relaxed atmosphere that prevails abroad, and on our first night in Finland, the sun barely seems to set at all. The street-lamps finally blink to life in the town of Lahti around 10 p.m., which is more than the Lahtians do. The place goes by the button-down nickname of Business City, apparently to distinguish the locals from their more devil-may-care compatriots.

And yet, 2,000 of them fill the NMKY (that's Finnish for YMCA) the next night to watch Mississippi State face the Lahti club team. Bulldog guard T.J. Honore played in Spain a year ago with a group of junior college all-stars, so he knows what to expect of this European competition. "There's a lot of old men," he notes of the bald, chain-smoking basketball mercenaries of the Old World. "To look at 'em, you wouldn't pick 'em in a pickup game. But they can play."

They had better be able to. Mississippi State beat the eventual national champion Arkansas Razorbacks 72-71 last January but saw the NCAA tournament bubble burst beneath them when they lost three of their last four games to finish 18-10. Virtually all of the Bulldogs return, however, including 6'11" sophomore center Erick Dampier, who averaged 11.9 points and 8.7 rebounds a game as a freshman and is already spoken of as a likely Lotto prize in the 1997 NBA draft—or even sooner.

"I see guys like Erick in the NBA every day," concurs Williams. "But he's not a guy who loves basketball, and I'm not sure he's figured out yet how good he can be. I mean I really don't know: He doesn't talk enough for me to find out."

Says Bulldog captain Marcus Grant: "Erick probably said 10 words last year."

Dampier's twin-tower backup is Bubba Wilson, whose first name is stitched to the back of his warmup and now draws giggles from every young Jari and Janne in the crowd. When the LaNMKY lineup is announced, we learn that Dampier will be matched against "number 4, Dylan Thomas." Talk about old men: Their starting center is a dead Welsh poet.

As it turns out, Thomas is one of the two Americans allowed on each Finnish club team, and his game is poetry in the low post. The bleachers are blotted with Tar Heel caps and Fighting Irish sweatshirts worn by children trading NBA player cards. Public Enemy pulsates during timeouts. The movie posters in town read JABBA DABBA DUU, in reference to the Flintstones, whose souvenir cups are available at the local McDonald's. So Finland has many of the trappings of an American hoopoe-racy, with the happy exception of all-sports radio.

But even that can't be far behind. At a game two nights later the fortyish Finn seated in front of me is wearing this rabid doggerel on the back of his T-shirt: WHEN MY TIME ON EARTH IS GONE/ AND MY ACTIVITIES HERE ARE PASSED/ I WANT THEY BURY ME UPSIDE DOWN/ SO MY CRITICS CAN KISS MY ASS.—THE GENERAL.

Finland gave America architect Eero Saarinen, who designed St. Louis's Gateway Arch and the landmark TWA terminal at Kennedy airport and who codesigned the Eames chair. America gave Finland the perverse verse of Robert Montgomery Knight, who wouldn't know an Eames chair if he threw it across a basketball court. Can you say "trade deficit"?

Anyway, after the Bulldogs beat LaNMKY 95-86—making a would-be school-record 15 three-pointers in the process—several Bulldogs repair to a faint-pulsed downtown disco called Cumulus. Junior forward Jay Walton brings along a language cheat sheet, a list of indispensable Finnish phrases so wooden that they just might work as ironic pickup lines:

"Hei! Kutsu läädkäri. Olen allerginen silakka." ("Hello! Call a doctor. I'm allergic to Baltic herring.")

When the bartender sees Walton's phrase list, he laughs gigantically, then xeroxes the sheet in a back room, distributing it to friends. When Walton finally does ask a girl to dance, she immediately leaves the disco with her girlfriend, apparently finding the forward too...forward. "I guess I have to learn proper Finnish dance-floor etiquette," a crestfallen Walton says the next morning before we bus the 130 kilometers to Kotka and that evening's game against KTP-Basket Oy.

KTP-Basket Oy? Is that a team or Yiddish play-by-play? The question is definitively answered in the first 2:36 of the game, when—Oy!—Mississippi State falls behind, 9-1, before awakening for a 93-84 win. By a grand cosmic coincidence, the coach of KTP, Larry Pounds, was born in infinitesimal Tylertown, Miss. Pounds, 41, was raised in Los Angeles and was a 6'8" forward who played his college ball at Washington before coming to Finland 12 years ago to play for a club team. He never left, marrying a Finn, raising a son and two daughters, and becoming a dual citizen.

"Before I came over here, life didn't exist outside the U.S.A.," says the personable Pounds, chatting in the parking lot after the game. "I was USA! USA! But I moved and got a different perspective. Like how Europeans are very proud of their countries. I think America could use more of that. It's embarrassing, really, watching the O.J. Simpson news over here: how they've turned it into a TV show in the States, into entertainment. Life is a lot more peaceful here, and that suits me."

What at first blush appears to be Finnish dullness turns out to be an almost absurd modesty, a self-effacing kindness. Hotel laundry services charge eight bucks a pop to wash a shirt here, so back at the Leikari Hotelli in Kotka, after the victory over KTP, a sympathetic lady at the front desk quietly takes the reeking State uniforms home and washes them herself, gratis. "Try that in the U.S.," says Bulldog manager Alex Sheffield, whose unis are folded and April-fresh as the bus leaves Kotka for Kouvola the next morning.

Coach Williams is in the front seat, reading his official biography for the forthcoming media guide, a bio that becomes more impressive each season, new accomplishments crowding out less vital information. "Rosinski," the coach now calls to sports-information director David Rosinski, "I'm glad to see you've removed the line, 'He likes to do yard work.' "

I settle into a scat next to 6'10" forward Russell Walters, who is from Laurel, Miss, (or, more precisely, "from outside of Laurel"); who annually wears full camouflage to class on the first day of turkey-hunting season; and who tells wildly entertaining stories about his friend Ol' Boy, a hometown neighbor so rustic he makes Walters look like Winston Churchill. Soon, the powerful aroma of the wet Finnish paper mills triggers a kind of nasal dèjà vu in my seatmate.

"Daddy and I went to Peoria, Illinois, once," recalls Walters, whose father raises "hawgs 'n' dawgs" and drives a long-haul tractor trailer. "Man, that place smelt like...burnt beans. Smelt like burnt baked beans." He crinkles his nose at the memory.

Two rows back, Grant, the team captain, is still recovering from his last trip to a strange land. "My uncle Alan Evans is an opera singer," he says. "Bass baritone. He lives in Mannheim, Germany. I went to visit him three-and-a-half years ago. My cousin and I went to the opera to see him perform. It lasted six hours, and we didn't understand a word." Grant crinkles his nose at the memory.

He is 6'6", lean and virtually clean-beaned: Grant has the silhouette of a roll-on deodorant, and he has grown leaner still by rigorously avoiding all meals on this trip. Few teammates can blame him. I personally ate an unspeakable Camembert pizza in Lahti; it tasted like the result of a traffic mishap involving a Domino's delivery van and a waste-disposal truck. "I've actually enjoyed the food," says Walters, a lone dissenter. "With the exception of some beef-stew-lookin' stuff that I didn't much care for. We had some veal last night, and Coach says, 'This sure is some good pork, huh?' "

Finland gave America the St. Louis Arch. America gave Finland the Golden Arches. When the bus stops at a McDonald's outside of Kouvola, we lay waste to the restaurant at 11 o'clock in the morning, stuffing cheeseburgers into our mouths like Cookie Monster on an Oreo jag. We then pile back on the bus and pull into Kouvola proper, where a large sign, punctuated by a basketball, welcomes MISSISIPPI [sic].

"You have to put a 'State' on that thing," Coach Williams tries to explain to our bewildered Finnish guide, an employee of the team in Kouvola, this weekend's opponent. "Or people will think it's Ole Miss. They're our biggest rival. They're the enemy."

"Uh...yes, we know," replies the guide, recovering nicely. "We use all the weapons we can find."

Time passes. If this were a movie, pages would peel rapid-fire from a calendar. We join the older, wiser Bulldogs near the end of the trip, the players thinking of home. Guard Darryl Wilson telephones his old high school coach in Birmingham, Ala., and talks at length. "He must not have heard the 'Collect call from Finland' part," Wilson explains.

Walters has all but exhausted his supply of Ol' Boy stories. So we know that Ol' Boy has "been dippin' Skoal since he was two, got a big Ol' cancer on his tongue." We've heard that when Ol' Boy was introduced to a Chi-O at a sorority party, he suavely replied, "Oh, we got coyotes back home, too." And now Walters is telling us about the time Ol' Boy got his vee-hickle (a Pin-toe) stuck in a bawg (pronounced to rhyme with hawg and dawg); he asked Walters's brother to tow him out by tying a pair of jeans to the Pin-toe's front bumper and fitting the open fly over a trailer hitch, with a resulting scene that would make Hee Haw look like Masterpiece Theatre.

On their lone off day, players pick through life's flotsam at a Finnish-Russo flea market, while Williams and his wife, Diann, are guests of the coach of the Kouvola team on that coach's private island. After a glorious day and a sumptuous dinner, the Finnish coach gets down to business: He fires up basketball videos and asks Williams to dissect the Bulldog offense. Come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly....

We do not visit any Finnish museums, due largely to the unyielding game schedule, as well as the unyielding monotony of Finnish museums. In Turku the fellas take a pass on the famous Pharmacy Museum there, missing out on...what exactly? The diorama of decongestants? But again, Finland proves to be much more than it first appears to be: Little more than a month after visiting Turku, when we're back in the U.S., an Estonian ferry sinks in the Baltic, killing more than 900 people. The rescue effort is headquartered in Turku, where the survivors are hospitalized and the locals do heroic work. It is precisely this kind of time-release education-in-life that the trip to Finland was all about.

"Sure, we wanted the 10 extra practices and two weeks of games," says Williams, whose charges won all nine contests, by an average margin of 20 points. "But we also thought it would be good for the team to experience a different culture and lifestyle. We encourage them to be more than just basketball players. We tell them to use basketball, don't let basketball use you. And we hoped that traveling together in buses and staying in hotels for two weeks, not understanding the language, would bring the team closer together."

In fact, the Bulldog basketball program has been fostering peace, togetherness and understanding through bus travel since 1963. That year, the team defied the orders of school administrators who forbade the Bulldogs to compete in the NCAA tournament as long as the tournament was open to black players. So coach Babe McCarthy bused his team out of Starkville under cover of darkness, and State got its only NCAA tournament win in school history. I was thinking about all of this on another bus ride, through Finland, with the predominantly black Bulldogs of 1994. How far we have come, both literally and figuratively—as well as in our knowledge of Finnish dance-floor etiquette.

It is Saturday night. At a throbbing Kouvola disco, imaginatively called The Arizona, we stand packed inside like crayons in a box, in blithe disregard of the Finnish fire code. Jay Walton, without his cheat sheet, breaks the ice with a group of young ladies. "Hi," he says earnestly. "I'm Thunder Dan Majerle." Shyly toeing the floor with his right shoe, Russell Walters admits that, why yes, he is Larry Bird. They point out their friend Shaquille O'Neal, and there stands Erick Dampier, stone-silent and inscrutable, like an Easter Island sculpture. Taking a quick personal inventory (tall, balding, begoggled, surly, older), I introduce myself as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, though the skeptical young Finns don't recognize the name, and are now calling me...Jabba Dabba-Duü.

It is a nice Näkemiin, a fond "farewell" to Finland. The team will soon return to the U.S., clearing customs at Chicago-O'Hare, where Dampier will be greeted by his grandmother, who will get an astonishing earful about Finland from him for the entire length of the layover. The Bulldogs will then board another plane for home, flying over the St. Louis Arch. We will think of Eero Saarinen, and Camembert pizza and the pro bono laundry lady, and a funny thing will happen. We will miss Finland.

Which is why we are so reluctant to leave in the first place. Standing outside a central Finland disco, breathing the crisp crystal air at 2 a.m., the starlit dome of the sky like a disco mirror ball itself, one thinks of the post-up poetry of Dylan Thomas.

We do not go gentle into that good night, but rage, rage against the transatlantic flight.