Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, August 14, 2006

All the World Is a Stage: The 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championships

To paraphrase the Bard from Stratford-upon-Avon, “all the world is a stage and we are merely players…”

And so the stage is set for basketball’s biggest event – the FIBA World Basketball Championships in Japan from August 19-September 3, 2006. 24 teams from every continent on the globe will be vying for basketball’s biggest prize. Teams will renew acquaintances or the hardcourt as there will be new rivalries. But perhaps the most perplexing question to this tournament concerns the US Men’s basketball team.

“The days of US dominance in basketball are past,” so declared Argentinean hoops star and San Antonio Spur Manu Ginobili as his Athens Olympic champs prepared for the FIBA World Basketball Champions in Japan slated to start in a week’s time.

It wasn’t too long ago when such a bold statement meant the person had a case of dementia or was in denial such as perhaps like 1992 Angolan Coach Victorino Cunha who said that the Americans played no defense (perhaps he was still in a daze after his team got shellacked 116-48).

Nowadays, you’ll perhaps get a sneer if you suggest that. In the former states that once comprised Yugoslavia, you’ll find arguably the best place for hoops outside continental USA.

The seeds of the evolution of the world game were sown in 1970 in the war room of the Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks were then in the Western Division (as were the Chicago Bulls). Atlanta behind Butch Beard, Walt Bellamy, and Jim Davis finished first in their division but lost the conference finals to the Lakers of Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, and Wilt Chamberlain. Seeking to address their scoring sock as they were rudely swept out of the play-offs by the Lakers, GM Marty Blake drafted the first foreigners ever in the NBA – Italy’s Dino Meneghin and Mexico’s Manuel Raga. Both players never suited up for the Hawks as the team couldn’t pay for the expensive transfer fees required to acquire them (it then cost $35 thousand dollars). It was an intriguing move, but it didn’t register in anyone’s radar screen until Munich.

While the Munich summer games will always be remembered for three things: 1) Nadia Comaneci, 2) the infamy of terrorist activity of Black September which forever changed the games and huge sporting competitions, and 3) the blatant rip-off job done on a US team. If any Russian tells you otherwise then chances are he hasn’t had a drop of vodka yet otherwise his loose tongue will admit to conspiracy theories and that Alexander Belov committed an offensive foul in those fateful final seconds. But the loss and Russia’s subsequent gold medal put things in motion.

Quinn Buckner was in high school when the USSR took that controversial gold medal. He vowed to himself that when he made the Olympic team, he’d take back what was rightfully America’s. And he did just that. In his last year with Indiana University, Buckner led the 32-0 Hoosiers not only to the NCAA title but also to the gold medal (against Canada) in the ’76 Montreal Olympics.

In 1984, Buckner’s IU mentor Robert Montgomery Knight coached arguably the finest amateur basketball team in history to the gold medal game. It wasn’t as sweet as he envisioned since the Russians boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics in return for America sitting out the Moscow Games but a gold medal was still a gold medal. As Michael Jordan and company began to lift Knight for the traditional coach’s victory ride, Knight insisted, “Coach (Hank) Iba first!” Iba was the coach on the star-crossed ’72 team.

The return to glory was short lived for the Russians once more took the gold as US team that was bereft of any zone breaking outside shooting (once Bradley University’s Hersey Hawkins went down with an injury) finished with a bronze. It was an embarrassing finish for the US and with it the call went out for an all-pro team was sounded. Eight months after the Olympic debacle, FIBA voted to allow NBA players a chance to play in the outside their professional league.

It took the Dream Team (which had three players from the ’84 squad in its line-up) to reclaim supremacy and to put those upstart Euros in their place. But that team’s success likewise set the stage for disaster. Following Barcelona, more and more players migrated to America to show that they belonged on basketball’s biggest and grandest stage among these were Croatia’s Toni Kukoc (Chicago Bulls), Drazen Petrovic (Portland Trailblazers), and Dino Radja (Boston Celtics).

It seemed that all it took was to put a USA basketball uniform on NBA players and they’d roll over the opposition. But as it is, exposure and experience playing against and with the best players in the world elevated the game of Europeans and the South Americans. More and more foreigners were making huge strides and an impact in the NBA.

USA Basketball continued to send patch-work squads who didn’t have the time to prepare more so take the opposition seriously. Teams thought that their mere star power and athleticism would be enough to win the day. But against a better prepared rest-of-the-world, it was a recipe for disaster. The came the debacle in Athens and Indianapolis. The cloak of invincibility that the NBA players wore was now stripped clean. Russia since weakened by the break up of the Soviet states wasn’t now their rival. Serbia & Montenegro and Argentina both playing fundamentally sound basketball was whipping the US soundly. And more and more they were remaking NBA rosters and the game itself.

When the 2005-06 season opened, there were 82 international players from 38 countries in an NBA uniform. The rights to another 43 players were likewise held by different teams.

When the 2006 FIBA tournament unfolds this August 19, all eyes will be on the US team. Bannered by its class of 2003 in Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dwayne Wade, they’re out not only for redemption, but also what US Coach Mike Krzyzewski says would be “changing the way America looks at the basketball.”

Whatever the outcome, it’s great for the game that it isn’t so one-sided anymore. The stage is set for a battle royale between 24 countries and some 300+ plus players. Now it’s really what you can call a world championship.

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