FIBA is playing hardball with the Russian Basketball Federation, and Russian officials are now crying foul.
In late July, FIBA barred all Russian national teams from partaking in the upcoming 2015 EuroBasket Tournament, which begins Sept. 5. In a statement, FIBA officials voiced damning concerns about the Russian Basketball Federation:
The FIBA Executive Committee decided on Wednesday to suspend with immediate effect the Russian Basketball Federation (RBF) in view of the fact that the RBF has been unable to resolve longstanding institutional and legal issues preventing the Federation to work under proper conditions and maintain full control and governance in the country.
The RBF will seek to revoke its death sentence at FIBA's executive committee board meeting at the world congress held in Tokyo from August 8-9.
“It is FIBA's hope that the situation be resolved so that the suspension may be lifted to allow the participation of Russian national teams in FIBA events,” the governing body posted on its website.
FIBA has also banned Russia’s under-16 national team at EuroBasket in Lithuania, further enraging Russian officials.
Russia is hardly guiltless, but there is serious doubt among Russian power brokers and insiders that FIBA has been fully transparent about its motives.
FIBA officials spent this past season recruiting Euroleague and EuroCup teams, including top-and mid-level Russian clubs, to join an upstart European league called the FIBA Europe Cup. So far, all Russian power clubs and multiple Euro giants declined. But a handful of clubs still left the EuroCup for FIBA's competition.
FIBA targeted Euroleague’s CSKA Moscow and Khimki Moscow, though both declined, as did Barcelona, Anadolu Efes, Fenerbahce, Panathinaikos, Olympiacos, Armani Milano, ALBA Berlin, Maccabi Tel Aviv and Hapoel Jerusalem. Euroleague officials were not happy and collectively opposed all individual meetings with clubs.
The Russian market has become exceedingly lucrative for talent. Sonny Weems—who recently signed with the Phoenix Suns—was the highest-paid forward outside the NBA while with CSKA Moscow. And Alexey Shved's three-year €9 million deal with Khimki this offseason makes him the highest-paid overseas player.
But FIBA still hopes to lure at least three of the top Russian clubs away from the non-FIBA affiliated competitions. EuroCup and VTB United playoff clubs UNICS Kazan, Nizhny Novgorod, Zenit Saint Petersburg and Avtodor Saratov remain on FIBA’s list, per sources.
“We met with FIBA officials in Moscow on July 4, but it was too late. We turned down their proposal and they didn't like it,” said a team source who attended the recruiting meeting but spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Former Euroleague champion and Russian club general manager Sergey Panov isn’t 100 percent sure what's behind the Russian suspension, but he suspects—like other Russian-based GMs—that FIBA is blackmailing the Russian Federation.
“I don’t know the reason why Russian basketball is being punished,” Panov said. “But I can't think of a logical reason. Russian teams decided against joining the FIBA cup, and we didn't receive an explanation for why Russia has been suspended by FIBA.”
One Russian official said FIBA hopes the suspension will convince Russian clubs to join its league, which might then help persuade Turkish, Spanish, French and German clubs to follow suit.
FIBA sports development director Zoran Radovic and secretary general Patrick Baumann were unavailable for comment, but a FIBA source denied the accusation.
“The suspension isn't about Russian clubs not joining the FIBA cup,” the source said. “We hope Russia will be back in all official competitions within a week. I believe there is a 99.9 percent chance that Russia will be inserted back into the 2015 EuroBasket.”
Russia, regular exporters of high-level NBA talent and bronze medalists at both 2011 EuroBasket and the 2012 London Olympics (all under Cavaliers coach David Blatt), continues to prepare for the upcoming tournament.
“We are not on strike. Our focus is on the upcoming EuroBasket and representing Russia as best as we can,” Russian team executive director Dmitry Domani told Bleacher Report.
Anton Ponkrashov, captain of the Russian national team and a 14-year veteran point-forward, was shocked to hear his team might miss the European Championship.
“Before the preparation games, we had a meeting and decided to focus on the championship and ignore the political situation around the decision to suspend Russia,” Ponkrashov said.
Russia cannot fully refute FIBA’s aforementioned claim of being “unable to resolve longstanding institutional and legal issues preventing the Federation to work under proper conditions.”
Problems began under the jurisdiction of Alexander Krasnenkov, who served as president from 2011 to 2013.
Repeated disputes between Krasnenkov and domestic clubs drew ire from team presidents. Krasnenkov refused to recognize the winners of the VTB United League—one of the top European leagues, with teams from Eastern and Northern Europe and Russia—as Russian champions, and also enforced controversial fines on clubs.
Krasnenkov’s successor, Yulia Anikeeva, managed a similarly rocky tenure.
Anikeeva pursued a decidedly illegal campaign to guarantee herself a permanent presidential position. Anikeeva sought to redistribute Russian federation board members, decreasing membership in smaller regions and increasing membership in larger regions, where she has more clout.
A Moscow civil court ruled that Anikeeva’s actions were illegal, but she is appealing the decision and summoning FIBA to claim jurisdiction of the case. This argument is ongoing.
On August 25, the Russian Basketball Federation will finalize a decision to appoint a new president. Sources told Bleacher Report that NBA veteran Andrei Kirilenko, who recently indicated last year was his final NBA season, is the front-runner to assume the throne.
The appointment would be a smart move by Russia and an incredibly tall task for Kirilenko, widely known as the top Russian ambassador on and off the court. If victorious, Kirilenko will inherit a tainted throne and an increasingly tempestuous relationship with FIBA.
Kirilenko declined comment on the state of the Russian Federation he may inherit, but whoever takes the reins will be left to navigate murky waters internally and externally.