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No language barrier: At FIBA World Cup, speaking basketball leaves nothing lost in translation

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BILBAO, Spain - The guy who tells Ukraine what plays to run speaks English. So does the guy who tells the Dominican Republic what their opponents will do.

Yet, not much is getting lost in translation at this international tournament — everyone at the Basketball World Cup speaks hoops.

"We know basketball terms," Ukraine point guard Pooh Jeter said.

And if that fails, there are other tried-and-true methods.

"I'm Italian. I use hand signals," Ukraine coach Mike Fratello said.

The Ukraine squad is symbolic of why nearly everyone in the sport is fluent in basketball.

Jeter is a California kid who briefly played in the NBA. Fratello is a New Jersey native hired by Ukrainian federation president Alexander "Sasha" Volkov, who played for him with the Atlanta Hawks.

Fratello got the language concern out of the way at his first meeting with players after taking over Ukraine's national team in 2011. If you didn't get what I just said, he told them, don't nod your head like you did.

"You can't be afraid to say, 'I don't understand,'" Fratello said.

Now it's left up to the two assistant coaches on the bench who speak both languages to make certain players can't mess up because of a mix-up.

"Their assignment is, if you don't think our guys understand what I'm saying, it's your job to tell them what I just said, and if we walk out and they don't do it and they don't understand, it's your fault," Fratello said.

Whether encouraging a teammate or trash talking an opponent, no one seems to have a problem — not even players who don't speak the language of the country on their jersey.

This should be advantage: U.S.

Besides superior talent, the Americans are one of the few teams that only have to worry about what to say, not how to say it, since everyone on their roster was raised in the United States.

Teams are allowed one naturalized player, many times ending up an American-born, raised or educated one who has gone overseas to play professionally. That's the case with Jeter, who formerly played for BC Kyiv in Ukraine and was later asked to join the national team.

Though not mandatory, a working knowledge of English is helpful at the tournament, where the public address announcer and entertainment acts speak it, as does the official conducting the postgame news conference for a coach and player from each team.

For a team such as Finland, whose players are taught English starting in the third grade, it's an easy adjustment.

But some creativity is needed when not everyone can understand it, such as the case with the Dominican Republic.

South Florida coach Orlando Antigua and two members of his staff are bilingual, as is most of the team. However, staff members Bill Bayno and Pat Zipfel only speak English, and players Juan Coronado and Victor Liz just Spanish.

So when Zipfel, a longtime NBA advance scout, goes over the opposition during meetings at the hotel, other team officials translate what he's writing on the board for Coronado and Liz.

"So if Zippy's talking, they're just whispering in their ear, 'this is what he's saying,' so it works pretty smoothly," said Bayno, an assistant with the Toronto Raptors.

They can do the same in the heat of a game, though things are more rushed.

"For those two, like if I have a teaching point, I'll tell one of the Spanish-speaking coaches, and I speak broken Spanish, so through the course of the three or four weeks we've been together I'll have the key words in Spanish that they understand," Bayno added. "But anything that's complex, I'll tell one of the Spanish-speaking coaches, or they'll just tell them themselves."

Spanish, Ukrainian, Portuguese, French, whatever the language, Fratello understands that it still all comes down to putting the ball in the basket, no matter where you're playing.

He travelled with the Hawks to the Soviet Union in the late 1980s and has been around international players for decades, so it's safe to assume TV's "Czar of the Telestrator" can handle a conversation. And even though Fratello and his point guard might learn some new lingo while they're in Spain, everything seems to come back to English.

"They try to teach me some Ukrainian words," Jeter said of his teammates, "but on the court we just speak English and understand."


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