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Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Sports

Basketball’s New World Order


The 14th World Basketball Championship convened in Indianapolis last August. Although James Naismith invented the game in Massachusetts, the state of Indiana is considered the heartland of American basketball. By the time the championship’s final game ended a few weeks later, a global audience had witnessed the unthinkable: marauding foreigners had stormed this inner fortress of basketball and rightfully took the crown of world champion from its previous owner, the United States.

How do you spell “Hoosiers” in Serbo-Croatian?
As the tournament opened in late August, it looked like another tailor-made opportunity for the United States to confirm its dominance on the basketball court. The Americans had been unbeaten ever since the International Olympic Committee allowed professional players to compete in the Barcelona Olympics of 1992. Appropriately named the dream team, the National Basketball Association (NBA) stars cruised to an easily gained gold medal, annihilating everyone who stood in their way. They repeated their exploits again at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996 and at Sydney in 2000.

The United States has paid less attention to the largest, most prestigious international basketball event, the world championship, held every four years since 1952. The United States won the championship for a third time in 1994 but fielded a team of college players in 1998, when the event took place in Athens. Yugoslavia was the eventual winner that year. But with the championship being held in its own backyard in a state that epitomizes the passionate culture of high-school basketball, how could the United States not compete with an NBA cast of stars?

Though not adorned with the brightest megastars, the United States arrived in Indianapolis loaded with an impressive array from the NBA. So did Yugoslavia. As a result of the recent influx of European players into the United States, the Yugoslav side included Vlade Divac and Pedrag (Peja) Stojakovic of the Sacramento Kings, and Marco Jaric, recently acquired by the Los Angeles Clippers. Other teams also boasted at least one notable NBA player. Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks had led Germany to victory over Greece in the final rounds of the European championship last year. Germany’s surprise win had ensured a finish high enough in that tournament to qualify for the world championship, while Greece stayed home.

While the United States no longer held a monopoly on fielding NBA players, however, of the 16 teams in the tournament, only Yugoslavia was thought to be a threat. Still, it looked sluggish in the early, preliminary rounds, losing to Spain and Puerto Rico in the second round, although those losses did not prevent the underachieving Yugoslavs from entering the quarterfinals thanks to victories over Brazil and Turkey.

Slowly, the Balkan giants roused themselves. Complacent as much as talented, the Yugoslavs vowed that they would not lose focus as the tournament entered the sudden-death stage. To show that he was serious about winning, their big center, Divac, announced that he would stop smoking through the end of the tournament! His Sacramento Kings playmate, Stojakovic, explained that this actually meant that Divac would limit himself to smoking only after meals, reporting that the air was much cleaner now in the locker rooms.

Just before the second round ended, lightning struck. Argentina, which had won all its games to that point, emerged as the real threat to US hegemony. The two teams confronted each other on September 4, and Argentina pulled off a stunning 87-80 upset. They outplayed their opponents by shooting 50 percent, with 23 assists, and committing just 12 turnovers to defeat a US defensive strategy built on wearing down opponents with relentless ball pressure. Emanuel Ginobili, bound for the San Antonio Spurs in the 2002-03 season, scored 15 points to lead a balanced offense. It was the first loss for the US after 58 consecutive victories in international competition with a NBA-stocked roster.

It was a shot heard round the world. American pundits took to the airwaves and newspaper columns to agree that the rest of the world was catching up, and to speculate on whether a US dream team could be fielded again in the future. Meanwhile, the international press gleefully announced the end of the American basketball empire. Meanwhile, back in Indianapolis, US coach George Karl had no time to reflect on the broader meaning of Argentina’s victory, as he had to prepare his surprised players for a must-win clash with the Yugoslavs in the quarterfinals.

What coach Karl needed was a comeback victory against adversity similar to the one inspired by the Indiana high-school coach played by Gene Hackman in the 1986 movie Hoosiers. The script was based on the true story of Milan High, a small-town school in rural Indiana that defeated Muncie Central in 1954 to become the smallest school ever to win the Indiana state championship. Needless to say, the reel plot was much more climactic than what happened in real life because the makers of the film decided that the lives of the coach and players at Milan High were simply not dramatic enough.

The Yugoslavs were in no mood to let life imitate Hollywood, however, and it was they who made the heroic comeback after falling behind by 10 points with about six minutes to go. The final score was 81-78 for Yugoslavia. Incredibly, the US, its 58-game winning streak replaced by a two-game losing streak – the first in international competition since the 1990 Basketball World Championship – was thus knocked out of medal contention. Yugoslavia would go on and defeat Argentina in the final game to win the championship.

Dignified in defeat, the US coach reflected on the broader international implications of the American debacle. “I’m not sure if it’s the end of an era as much as it’s a tremendous celebration of basketball,” Karl said. “You’re seeing the rest of the world playing better basketball and more competitive basketball. In a strange way, that’s something the US can be proud of.”

Another sign of the internationalization of basketball came with the comments of the player who led the Yugoslavs to victory in the final over Argentina, Dejan Bodiroga. He is one of several top European players who are resisting the siren calls of the NBA. Bodiroga has just moved to Barcelona from Athens, where he played several seasons for Panathinaikos and led the “greens” to a European championship last season. In the summer, as soon as it became known he would be moving to Spain, Panathinaikos fans, clad in the team’s colors and carrying flags, held an impromptu demonstration outside his villa in the northern Athens suburb of Kifisia. It was a demonstration of affection and admiration as much as a last-ditch attempt to convince the Yugoslav to stay with Panathinaikos.

As he celebrated the world championship in Indianapolis, Greek reporters asked Bodiroga why he was not eager to move to the NBA. His answer showed that it is possible for a world-class player to fulfill himself in Europe. Bodiroga talked about the high salaries and competitive level of the European basketball leagues. Then, he added slyly that he also preferred the lifestyle in Europe, recalling fondly the nightlife of Athens and the joy of going for a “volta” along the coast down to Vouliagmeni. The Yugoslav star also compared the Mediterranean lifestyle more favorably to that of the United States, saying he enjoyed going to the bouzoukia, dining on paella, and wearing Italian fashions. Unaware of the sumptuous lifestyle of the NBA’s rich and famous, Bodiroga recoiled at the idea of eating at Burger King and wearing blue jeans and sneakers if he moved to the United States.

The Aegean League
The internationalization of basketball has brought much more than just dolce vita on the Mediterranean for its stars. Many of them have given up their time to participate in a project called Basketball Without Borders, run by the United Nations and the NBA. It is a summer camp for 12-14-year-olds designed to promote friendship and understanding through sport. This past July, Basketball without Borders brought together 50 young Greeks and Turks who were selected on the basis of their basketball skills and leadership potential. The inaugural Basketball without Borders camp took place in July 2001 in Treviso, Italy, with Divac of the Sacramento Kings, Toni Kukoc of the Atlanta Hawks, and five other NBA players from the former Yugoslavia uniting to work with 50 children from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Yugoslavia.

In July 2002, the camp’s participants in Istanbul were divided into four teams without regard to nationality. In addition to basketball instruction and competition, the young players shared living quarters with their new teammates, ate three meals a day together, and took part in UN-organized seminars on leadership, conflict resolution, and a healthy, drug-free lifestyle.

The camp’s coaches included some of the NBA’s emerging stars. Peja Stojakovic played professional basketball in Greece and is fluent in Greek. Hedo Turkoglu, who plays alongside Stojakovic with the Sacramento Kings, is a native of Turkey and a key member of the Turkish national basketball team. Jake Tsakalidis of the Phoenix Suns is of Greek descent and Antonis Fotsis, then of the Memphis Grizzlies (and currently with Panathinaikos), is a native of Greece. Turkish international players Mirsad Turkcan (CSKA Moscow), Ibrahim Kutluay (Panathinaikos), and Mehmet Okur (Efes Pilsen Istanbul and a draftee of the Detroit Pistons) were also at the camp. Each professional was assigned to a camp team and worked with the children individually. The corporate co-sponsors of this event included the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Olympic Airways.

Basketball is becoming both a global sport and a sport that can bring the world together. If this is basketball’s new world order, who needs the ancien regime hegemony of the United States’s dream team?

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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