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BEIJING 2008 : MARK HEISLER ON OLYMPIC BASKETBALL

Team photo tests Spain's defense

August 14, 2008|MARK HEISLER

BEIJING -- Love them or hate them, nothing can stop the Foreign Devils in the basketball competition, at least not to this point, going into Saturday's big game with the U.S.

Yes, in a refreshing change for the Americans -- not to mention Chris Kaman, their expatriate playing for Germany -- they aren't the Foreign Devils here.

That's Spain, courtesy of its now famous team photo with players pulling back the corners of their eyes to look Asian, in a joke that didn't go over so well in Asia.

Bad taste notwithstanding, it didn't make the Spaniards racists, but this is where the Olympics' worldwide media corps meets the Internet Age with a result that can be summed up in two words: feeding frenzy.

By Tuesday's dramatic game against China, when Spain came from 14 points behind in the fourth quarter to win in overtime, a full house in Wukesong Arena booed every Spanish possession.

Worse, the photo was added to a list of more serious incidents involving Spain: Soccer coach Luis Aragones' racial remark at France's Thierry Henry; crowds taunting English players in Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton in a race in Barcelona.Meanwhile, the Spanish basketball players were apologizing for all they were worth. Pau Gasol said it was a joke and was "sorry if anybody thought or took it the wrong way."

That was "not good enough" for The Times' Bill Plaschke, from "someone who makes millions of dollars in Los Angeles, in a country and city with a strong Asian-American influence."

Personally, I thought it was fine since, however ham-handed the photo was, it was actually intended as a salute.

The Spanish team is sponsored by the Chinese sportswear company Li-Ning. The idea for the photo with the players gathered around a drawing of a Chinese dragon came from Seur, the Spanish courier company, which shot the photo for newspaper ads.

"As for the reaction here, it's always pretty much the same in these cases," says Jorge Sierra, the Spanish editor of the international website Hoopshype.com.

"People get defensive and don't understand what the big fuss is all about, which I can understand in this case because there was no ill will intended.

"That wasn't the case with the incidents at the Bernabeu game and the F1 circuit, which were flat-out embarrassing. . . .

"People here don't appreciate being singled out as especially racist. I don't have any numbers to support it, but I would bet the farm that proportionally there are more interracial marriages and couples with men and women from different countries here than in most nations around Spain. Yes, we do have a problem with racism -- but just like everybody else."

There is also a question of style here as opposed to substance.

The "politically correct" standard our papers use (and are often criticized for) started in the U.S., and is working its way, however unevenly, through the rest of the world, like blue jeans and rock 'n' roll.

My first experience with a Spanish team came at a qualifying tournament in France in 1984 where Coach Antonio Diaz-Miguel congratulated the English team -- largely made up of African American U.S. college players -- on their "beautiful suntans."

Not that we should get too carried away with our own exquisite "sensitivity."

There is a tendency to regard one's own problems as something we're working on and those of others as problems, enabling us to chastise the Chinese on human rights while Guantanamo Bay remains an issue.

For Western visitors, it's a trip to read the state-owned China Daily, which maintains the official line but is so hip, down to the front-page Hooters ad with the color photo of four Hooters girls (same uniform as in the U.S.).

In any case, the Spaniards weren't booed in Thursday's 72-59 win over Germany that made them 3-0, going into the U.S. game. It's just basketball again, all Spain hopes.

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mark.heisler@latimes.com

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