Wednesday , Sep , 27 , 2006 C.Y. Ellis

Bring on the World?: Thoughts on the NBA’s ”World Champions”

How you doing? I’m Lemon and I’ll be ranting and opining occasionally over this coming NBA season about NBA hoops and basketball in general. I thought I’d start by giving you an article I wrote in 2004 before the NBA Finals and then-upcoming 2004 Olympics. Remember this article is now two and a half years old but I feel it still rings true and may have been a little before its time. Enjoy, and let me know your thoughts on this whole issue – Lem.

Bring on the World?

This is a tough one. Broaching this subject always ends up in some sort of international incident, or, at least, a back and forth "arrogant yank!", "snooty foreigner!" exchange. But, fuck that. At The Brick (for the record, a defunct hoops website – CYE) we tackle the tough issues, so here it is:

Why the fuck are the NBA champions called the “World Champions”? Am I missing something here?

While watching the first game of the Spurs-Grizzlies round one match-up I noticed a close-up on the banners: “WORLD CHAMPIONS: 1999, 2003”. That got me to thinking. There is actually only one player in that Spurs team that participated in the last World Championship finals: Manu Ginobili, for his native Argentina.

What about The World Series? In baseball it’s a similar story but with one significant difference: The U.S. is basically the only country in the world that has a huge pro and under-pro baseball set-up, a nationwide love of the game, and a deep history in the sport. Only Japan considers baseball a national sport to the same level as the U.S., and let’s face it, Japan is Asia’s USA wannabe anyway.

Basketball is different. Although ostensibly invented by the USA (albeit by a Canadian-born teacher), basketball has now evolved into a truly global sport, second only to football (soccer) in popularity around the world. It transcends socio-economics. It transcends race.

The NBA needs to be given a huge amount of credit for furthering basketball in the world. When Michael Jordan hit the NBA his popularity became a global phenomenon. The word "branding" was only just beginning to be used less in the "burning-your-initials-into-a-cow’s-arse" sense, and more in the business sense, and the NBA now had the perfect face to represent the sport across the world. But something Americans seem to sometimes forget (I’m looking at you, Mark Cuban) is that there is a difference between the NBA and the game of basketball. You see, while the NBA brand was growing internationally, so was the game.

Fast-forward to the Barcelona Olympics. The Dream Team steamrolled all comers on their way to the gold medal with a team of eleven Hall-of-Famers, er, and Christian Laettner. At this time, USA basketball was dominant compared to the rest of the world, and they stepped out and proved it. Team USA winning average: Forty-four points.

Fast-forward again, this time to the Sydney Olympics. While people’s most lingering memory of the USA’s performance during that competition was Vince Carter’s nuts connecting with Freddy Weis’ face at seven feet, the USA were actually pressed extremely hard in two or three matches, with one game against Lithuania coming down to the last two possessions (the USA won by two points, after previously struggling with Lithuania in a pool match). Team USA winning average: Twenty-two points

(Before we fast forward again I need to add this parenthesis. Most people seem to have forgotten the games from this Sydney tournament where Team USA was strongly challenged by a couple of nations. In most games the "lesser" team was still keeping the game close at half time. Remember this team consisted of 100% All-Stars, and three or four future Hall-of-Famers.)

This time we’ll fast forward to the months leading up to the 2002 Basketball World Championships, held on US soil. USA Basketball had selected a team of "lesser" NBA players, as several of the top players made themselves unavailable. Most commentators and basketball fans (myself included) made the following observation: "The rest of the world is definitely catching up, but even though we haven’t sent our best players this team will have no trouble going through the competition unbeaten."

Argentina, Yugoslavia and Spain proved us all wrong. Not only did the USA lose their first game ever since professionals were introduced to international competition, they lost three games out of four, finishing the tournament sixth behind Yugoslavia, Argentina, Germany, New Zealand and Spain. No USA player was named to the Tournament starting five. Team USA winning average: Twenty-one points.

As a side note this was around about the time that a great deal of non-American players were being, or had just been drafted, into the NBA (Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, Yao Ming etc). Media in the USA began to ask, "What’s happening to the game in the US? All these foreign players have great fundamentals and our guys just want to dunk." (This reaction has subsided thanks to a combination of Mark Stein and his endless hyping of Darko Milicic, and an amazing crop of American rookies).

Now I know you’re asking: Why the fuck is he bringing all this shit up? Two reasons:

One: Not only has the rest of the world been catching up, but the talent level of non-NBA players in international professional leagues is increasing exponentially. In English, not only are "overseas" players getting better overall, there are more players getting better, faster.

Two: (and here’s the important one), no NBA team is the world champion. At one time it could be argued convincingly that no other team in the world could beat whoever was the NBA champs in a seven-game series. In 2004 that is simply not the case. The World Champions are Yugoslavia. Not the Lakers. Not the Spurs. Not whoever this year’s winning team may be.

Sitting on your couch expounding the reasons why this year’s crop of USA basketball Olympians will win it all easily means absolutely nothing. Yelling to me that you have the best players in the world is pointless. It is hot air. It is bravado. It is inbred patriotism.

Team USA, the future is now. You are not the best team in the world until you take the court and prove it…every two years at the WBC and the Olympics.

NBA, your champions are not champions of the world, and never will be. It’s time for a change. Become part of the global community by accepting your place in it.

The San Antonio Spurs: NBA Champions 1999, 2003.

A recent promotional image from the Spurs website showed the words "Go Spurs! Bring on the World!" wrapped around a globe. “Bring on the world”? I just don’t get it.