ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — This was the last act of the World Cup preseason for Team USA.
A few hours before flying to the Philippines on Monday for its World Cup stay, a good portion of the USA Basketball travel party — some players and family members, along with coaches and staff — visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, a magnificent center of worship that has seen the likes of Pope Francis, President Joe Biden, King Charles III and Rihanna shed their shoes to step on its gleaming white marble floor in recent years.
Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson posed for photos with tour guides. Erik Spoelstra marveled at what he saw. Steve Kerr got a bunch of pictures with his wife. And when the tours were done, nobody was in a hurry to leave.
“I had to see the mosque,” Kerr, the U.S. coach for the World Cup, said earlier in the week. “It looks amazing.”
It is, after all, vacation time in the NBA. And USA Basketball went to great lengths to ensure that there would be a work-life balance for those who committed six weeks of their time with hopes of getting the Americans back atop the international stage.
Some who made the trip halfway around the world to be part of the experience have ridden camels. Others went to the Ferrari World amusement park, some played golf, some shopped or visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi. There was plenty of time to chill at the pool or walk along the sand as the 102-degree bath water of the Persian Gulf gently lapped the shore.
But now, Manila awaits. The World Cup is finally here.
“I know everyone’s going to be focused on who wins, and obviously we are — we desperately want to win,” Kerr said. “But this is an incredible experience, too, for our players, our coaches, our families to see the world, to really experience competition at the highest form all over the globe. What an experience. I think our guys are loving it.”
Winning helps. The Americans played five exhibition games this summer and won them all, rallying from a 16-point deficit in the second half to cap that stretch Sunday with a 99-91 comeback victory over Germany. The team was confident in its chances before Sunday, and that win only heightened those feelings.
They’ve enjoyed every second of the trip so far.
“I was with my family and I was walking through the hotel and someone’s screaming ‘Austin, can I take a picture?’” said U.S. guard Austin Reaves of the Los Angeles Lakers. “For that to happen over here, it’s special to me. I never take any of that for granted. Anytime I can try to sign anything for anybody, I try to sign everything. For me, it’s special. It’s something one day I will look back at and smile about.”
U.S. forward Bobby Portis was in Abu Dhabi last year as well; he and the Milwaukee Bucks flew over to play in the preseason against the Atlanta Hawks. He got a kandura — the traditional white long-sleeved robe — and matching headdress on that trip and wore them to the arena Sunday for the Americans’ finale in the desert.
“I had to bring them on this journey,” Portis said. “They keep me going.”
It’s a new experience for almost everyone on the trip. Some players hadn’t been to Abu Dhabi, some haven’t been to Manila and some hadn’t been to Spain — which was the first of three international stops for the Americans this summer.
U.S. center Walker Kessler of the Utah Jazz hadn’t been anywhere overseas. Same goes for U.S. guard Tyrese Haliburton of the Indiana Pacers.
“I get paid a lot of money to play a child’s game and I get a lot of opportunities that people would kill for just because I’m good at a sport,” Haliburton said. “Sometimes perspective matters. I brought my mom and dad and my girlfriend. My mom and dad have never been to any of these places. Probably dreamed of traveling like this. Now they get to do that and watch their son play basketball? It’s such a blessing that a ball can take you to these places.”
When the mosque trip was over Monday, the travel party headed back to the hotel to get ready for the nine-hour overnight flight to Manila. The World Cup favorites were scheduled to arrive in the basketball-crazed Philippines on Tuesday morning, and then a few days of practice will await before the Americans play their tournament opener on Saturday against New Zealand.
Vacation is over. It’ll be time to lock in on winning a World Cup.