Frequent Flyer Miles and the U17

Too bad my frequent flyer miles don’t count towards trips to Venezuela. That’s because the major airlines in Brazil either don’t fly over there, or have abolished a system that in general benefited only ‘airport’ businessmen, people who wouldn’t care a bit about what will happen this week at Guanare Portuguesa, a city in central Venezuela.

There, under the blazing sun and scorching heat (not really because they’ll play indoors, and the weather forecast says thunderstorms are on the way), the most talented South American players under the age of 17 will square off in a very interesting tourney. Among all of them one stands out: Matias Nocedal, a frequent flyer to every youth league tournament there is in this continent (and Europe; he plays for Baskonia, aka TAU Ceramica).

I saw this kid for the first time at the U16 South American tourney last November in Montevideo. However, during a scrimmage against Uruguay, one day before the start of competition, he twisted his ankle during warm-up leaving the court in tears while Argentina’s assistant coach Marcelo Fernandez tried to calm him down. My hopes of seeing the greatest South American talent at that level were gone.

From that day on, the melancholy found in alley-streets of Palermo, the neighborhood that houses Club Atenas, where the tourney was held, fitted perfectly with Matias’ gloomy mood. The youngster sat quietly on the far side of the bench glancing, out of the tail of his eye, at the court where his talented teammates took care of business. His look carried something of an unprecedented mystery.

On court Cortez pushed the ball up court, dished to Manzanares, who would then find Orlietti down low. The big men would turn around and connect to Martin for an easy two.

Easy, right? Not for Matias. He wanted to be out there contributing, however, there was nothing else he could do but envision himself finishing the plays that his country ‘young’ men were creating. Would the coaches design the plays so he could finish them? Would he make it easier for everybody else? What would he do when the clock ticked down and the ball fell on his hands?

But that week, as I ferreted out the depths of his looks, I realized there was nothing sly about it. He was indeed picturing in his mind and studying every movement on the court. Each step his opponents were taking. Each simple and careless mistake his teammates were making. He was getting things ready.

And then it happened. As I arrived at Club Atenas one night a friend from the Chilean press told me, even before the traditional “Como estas”, “He will play”. I didn’t pay attention to what he said until I looked up and saw Matias warming up to the game with his light blue warm up jacket on his eyes fixed on the rim. There was nothing more mechanical. He would drive to the basket and walk back on to the line emotionless as if he was memorizing everything he had observed from the days on the bench until then.

And down went the Uruguayans on a tough semifinal match where the local crowd gave everything they could give to be the sixth player on the hardwood, but nothing as strong as Matias’ determination. He went off that evening scoring 24 points while Cortez added 19 to put the Argentineans in the final. Argentina 89, Uruguay 83

The final match against Brazil rewarded the spectators with the best action of the tourney as the great sports rivalry between both countries was incorporated by all the 24 kids that dressed for the game that evening.

After a poor first half (Brazil 38, Argentina 33) the Argentineans came back strong scoring 32 points on the third quarter getting to the lead by 11 with ten minutes to go. Matias was on fire, but something didn’t click. The Brazilians played with an unusual calmness and were able to stay within reach during the fourth quarter. Infantile mistakes cost the Argentineans the title in the final seconds when Rafael Luz caught an inbound pass from Cortes to Martin, went for the dunk, scored, and got a shot from the charity stripe.

Brazil 88, Argentina 85. Matias cried for the second time that week as the Brazilians cheered and played samba with the improvised tambourines.

And that’s why I miss my frequent flyer miles. Guanare will see all the main protagonists featured in Montevideo. Nocedal, his boys, and the Brazilians, only more mature, more professional, stronger, and cunning, as life requires everyone to be.

Video: Check out these links for more images on the U16 tourney in Uruguay (they’re in Spanish and Portuguese, but it’s worth trying); U16 Championships 1st Episode; U16 Championships 2nd Episode.

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