Disclosure: I wrote this piece for SB Nation and pitched the piece to publish Sunday afternoon before Team USA presumably played Spain in the final. However, the Americans lost to France on Saturday and will now play for bronze. I decided to publish the piece here instead because content doesn’t write itself.
Debrecen, Hungary is the host of the FIBA U19 World Cup, a tournament that will pit Team USA against Türkiye that in a bronze medal match that will tip off Saturday afternoon and can be streamed for free on the FIBA website.
The city of 200,000 lies in the eastern lowlands of the Carpathian Basin and that reflects its rich history in its architecture, mixing Ottoman-style domes, Austro-Hungarian Baroque and Soviet-era brutalism. It’s the introduction to Europe for many of the American players here, and for some it’s their first time outside of the US.
Team USA is dripping in talent as usual. They’re led by collegiate sophomores like Arizona’s Kylan Boswell of Arizona, five-star freshmen like Colorado’s Cody Williams, and the top recruits of the 2024 high school class, such as Dylan Harper (#1 in 247 Sports’ recruiting rankings), Tre Johnson (#3) and Ian Jackson (#5).
They were here to win the gold, just as they did when Chet Holmgren (and Kenneth Lofton Jr.) defeated Victor Wembanyama’s France two years ago in Riga, Latvia. It’s not going to happen now, not after losing to France in the semifinals. But, if they’re going to win bronze — and it will be obvious that I thought they were going beat France — they need regimented schedule to keep them on track, a steady diet of Hungarian food, and the power of Call of Duty to build comradery along the way.
9:00-10:00: Film Session
Team USA starts every day the same as any basketball fan living in Europe. They wake up at 8:00, eat their breakfast at the hotel and catch up on the basketball they missed the night before. The only thing missing is a cigarette, but these guys are still new to the lifestyle.
10:00-12:00: Down Time
After film, the players are free to do whatever they want. The team hotel is close to the tree-covered Nagyerdei Park and some players go for a walk to calm their nerves before the day ahead. A few of them take naps. Others are in the player’s lounge playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II. Some of the coaches are already at the arena watching the other games going on — not necessarily to scout, Boise State head coach and Team USA assistant Leon Rice told me — but because they like watching basketball.
On the days they don’t have games, Team USA has to fight for gym time. There are sixteen national teams at this competition and the only place they can practice are the main courts at the Főnix Aréna and the Oláh Gábor Stadion utility gym. There are no shootarounds because there are no time slots or practice courts available to them.
FIBA has everyone on a tight schedule and only allots each team 90 minutes to practice. That’s hardly enough time to work up a sweat. The coaches only have time to go over the essentials while skimming past any complicated offensive sets or press breaks. For a team that has only been together for two weeks, they don’t have the luxury of installing a system and fine-tuning their strategy. The coaches emphasize defense and rebounding and hope that the team can push the ball to get easy points in transition.
“There’s not a lot of practice time, not a lot of time to put in a system,” said Tad Boyle, the head coach of Team USA and the Colorado Buffaloes. “You have to rely on your effort, your length, your athleticism and your skill.”
That tight schedule has been a nuisance for Team USA. FIBA has arranged accommodation, meals, practice time and transportation, but there’s little wiggle room. One American assistant had to plead with FIBA staff to delay their bus ride back — a three-minute drive from the arena to the hotel — and allow them to quickly shower, change and scarf down lunch.
3:00 — 6:00: Down Time
That tight schedule becomes even more frustrating when the team has nothing to do between gym time and dinner. This is the time most of the players retreat to their rooms to nap, get their ankle worked on by the team trainers, or hang out together in the player’s lounge. It would be a great time to shoot around at the gym, but there aren’t any available to them; if there was, they would have to compete with the other hundred something players staying at the same hotel.
There’s not much else to do here. It seems like a great place to raise a family — the city boasts adventure and water parks, a science center and a zoo, and is surrounded by national parks — but Debrecen itself does not have much in terms of entertainment. I tried my best to see the sights and enjoy a coffee in the city center, but that lasted about two hours before I was back in the arena watching Türkiye and Hungary, a centuries-old rivalry that went about as well for the hosts as the Battle of Mohács did in 1526.
Like Coach Rice, I found myself watching basketball simply because it was the most exciting thing to do in the city.
The players don’t seem to mind, but the staffers have grown tired of the food after two weeks and counting in Debrecen. It’s not that the food is bad, it’s that the options are limited outside of traditional Hungarian food. Even in Budapest — the bustling capital two hours west — it’s difficult to find a menu that doesn’t feature goulash, burgers or kebab. (If you find a Jamaican restaurant in the Jewish Quarter, stay far away, lest you want food poisoning from their cursed aioli sauce.) If the Americans were going to defeat Izan Almansa and the Spanish full-court press, they would have to do it with beef stew in their bellies.
7:00-11:00: Down Time
Once again, Team USA finds themselves with nothing to do between dinner and bed time. And once again, the players are off to the player’s lounge to hang out and play video games together.
Most of these players didn’t know each other until training camp started on June 11. They come across as shy and seem to spend as much time on their phones as any other 18- or 19-year-old. But that appears to be shifting during these days, as the time together is crafting nicknames, handshakes and maybe even friendships. They were all here to win a gold model and part of that mission is forming relationships where they can hold each other accountable while still being positive.
“It’s probably a good thing we’re in Debrecen,” one staffer told me. There’s nothing to do except play basketball and hang out. There are no distractions and no stress about players going out to the clubs — not that they would, but they don’t really have the option. Maybe in Barcelona or Madrid, or even Budapest, but not in Debrecen, where the only place open after 10:00 p.m. is the Pizza Hut Express where I ate a sad pizza at the table across from Madagascan power forward Landric Donovan Rakotonanahary.
Here at the FIBA U19 World Cup, Team USA has no choice but to remain focused not just on the competition but on each other as a team, even if they’re just playing Call of Duty and eating another round of goulash.