Basketball: World championships reflect a new parity
SAITAMA, Japan — For the first time in its 115-year history, basketball has an exciting parity similar to international soccer and ice hockey, say the world’s top players and officials.
Americans, who first played the game at a Massachusetts YMCA in 1891, had lost only two games at the Olympic level in 68 years until the 2004 Games. In the past decade, by contrast, the United States, Serbia and Montenegro, Argentina and now Spain have all won world events. “The difference between countries used to be really, really big,” said Jorge Garbajosa, who led Spain to the title over Greece in the recent world championships here. “Every day the distance is getting smaller.”
Like soccer stars sprinkled around various national professional leagues, the best of the estimated 300 million basketball players worldwide now play not only in the National Basketball Association, but for teams like Unicaja Málaga of Spain, where Garbajosa played, and Panathinaikos Athens. Nine players in the world final have played for those clubs.
Even without the hype of the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano and the 2002 World Cup staged in Japan and South Korea, the game of basketball created its own buzz in Japan, drawing 17,000-plus to the final four games. That was better than FIBA events in Toronto and in Indiana, a U.S. hoop heaven. “It’s an exciting time for basketball,” said Bob Elphinston, an Australian who is the new president of FIBA, the governing body for world basketball. “We now know that the domination of the sport is in Europe.”
Theo Papaloukas, who led Greece over the United States in the semifinals and was most valuable player of both major European events last season, chose CSKA Moscow over playing in the NBA. “The distance has closed; European basketball is stronger now,” he said. “In Europe, we are thinking more with a team mentality. It’s not the guy who jumps the highest or runs the fastest wins. It’s not tennis. It’s basketball. It’s a team sport.”
Chris Bosh, an American who plays for the Toronto Raptors of the NBA, will have five Europeans on the squad with him this season, including Garbajosa. “Now the battleground is even,” he said. “World basketball is at its best now.” Speaking of the United States, he added: “We play the best NBA basketball. The world plays the best FIBA basketball. It’s become apparent. We have to try to come back to dominance now.”
When Garbajosa, Papaloukas and Manu Ginóbili of Argentina were born in 1977, the NBA had few non-American players and the Soviet Union challenged U.S. supremacy internationally. Then came the stars from the Yugoslavia – Divac, Stojakovic, and Kukoc. Few predicted the new kings would be Latins taught to handle balls with feet, not hands. Ginóbili, idolized in Argentina more than any athlete since Maradona played soccer, credits Magic Johnson with bringing the game to the Latin world.
Garbajosa says Spain’s rise began in 1992, when the current generation of players watched Johnson, Michael Jordan and the Dream Team at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. “It wasn’t good for the Spanish team at that time, but that Olympics meant something,” he said. “Everybody made an effort to push sports in Spain.”
Shane Battier of the United States, who will join Yao Ming of China and Vasilis Spanoulis of Greece on the Houston Rockets of the NBA this season, said no team will ever dominate like the 1992 Dream Team. “All those players who watched the 1992 Olympics, they’ve grown up now,” Battier said. “Twenty years down the road, China could have a powerhouse. It’s a global game now.”
While the world watches the NBA on television or over the Internet, Americans don’t watch European leagues. The top scorer on the U.S. team, Carmelo Anthony, said jokingly before the semifinal that he did not know the Greek players because “their names are too long.” Even after the game, the Americans referred to the Greeks by number, not name.
European teams are quicker, smarter and better shooters and defenders than the Americans. Greece and Spain had the advantage of playing together for years, compared to a month for the Americans. “They don’t go out there as individuals, but as a team,” Anthony said of Greece and Spain. “They have a great flow, because they have been together for a long time.” Papaloukas sympathized. “It’s hard when you have stars who are used to doing one thing, and then they come together one month and have to do another thing,” he said. “They never played against such a clever defense. Our team, we know our roles. We knew before the game what they were going to do. They used three or four different plays, that’s all.”