Greeks, Afros, Olympics—and What the Heck is a FIBA?

Jared StearneCorrespondent IJuly 25, 2008

The Dream Team is often hailed as saving USA Basketball, as if it was in some sort of funk, but nothing could be further from the truth—before 1988, USA Basketball had finished as low as second once in all of its history.

Back in the summer of 1988, the American team flew into Seoul with a staggering 86-1 record in the Olympiad—its lone loss being the controversial 1972 Munich Gold Medal Game (using controversial here may be the understatement of the century).

A team of plucky collegiate superstars, led by David Robinson, not only failed to bring home the Gold, but failed to make it to the Gold Medal game, 'only' earning Bronze. (Speaking of which, how the heck did 1988 Yugoslavia—with Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, and Dino Radja—not win the Gold Medal game?)

Back in America, it was time for change, and not of the political variety. With FIBA—the International Basketball Federation, but the acronym is French, because the French love running sports leagues for everything for some reason—allowing American professionals to participate for the first time in 1989 (non-American pros were already allowed), and American resentment sky-high following the perceived embarrassment of a loss in 1988 to Cold War-foe Soviet Union, the path to Gold was clear like never before.

What followed in 1992 was the ruthless slaughter that Americans had been hoping for, like how you feel when your team just bludgeons a hated rival into submission—it never gets old. The Americans, leaving nothing to chance, enlisted the aid of the NBA’s most dominant figures—Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, and Magic Johnson, just to name a few.

When the dust settled, the world collectively shuddered.

But what might be expected to stunt the growth of non-American basketball may have actually had the opposite effect. Following the 1992 Barcelona games, the NBA has received not only a growing number of international-born players, but these players have made increasingly significant impacts—and this trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

You know the culprits, as do I—they’re literally household names, now. Manu Ginobili placed fifth in the MVP voting this year, a year after Dirk Nowitzki won the award. And he only wrested the trophy away from Steve Nash, who held the league’s highest honor for two years straight.

Yao Ming is a potential Hall of Famer in Houston, and AK47 is already popular enough to have a nickname. Don’t forget about Finals MVP Tony Parker, who has transcended basketball to become a legitimate American celebrity—although there’s a very attractive reason for that one.

Just as the wave of foreign prospects and All-Stars shows no sign of cresting, we’re hit with the latest bombshell—Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Childress has accepted an offer from Greek powerhouse Olympiakos (3 years, $20 million). The best part? As soon as the story (rumor) breaks, pundits nationwide estimated that the wave has already crested, flattened, rolled back out like the tide, and is now headed back the other way.

I can’t help but think that some of our best and brightest talking heads are jumping the gun here. Josh Childress, a sixth man from designated league laughingstock Atlanta, is proof that international basketball is taking the torch from the USA? The same USA that has run its Olympic record up to a Texas High School Football-like 114-5?

Excuse me for being less than impressed.

Nevertheless, deft agents have found one more suitor in their constant struggle to wrest dollars from the fists of league executives. For you see, even those players who no one else wants are surely wanted in Euro-ball. Two early examples—Andris Biedrins and Sasha Vujacic, two well-known and well-received imports, are both holding their clubs up for more lucrative deals, citing slouching exchange rates, superior benefits, and more playing time.

Let me be the first to assuage your fears: Don’t worry. *pat pat*

As stated, agents are notorious for using whatever they can to negotiate better contracts. Also, players, agents and front-office big wigs know too well what a year or more of competition against a lower level of competition will do for an athlete.

It would be like demoting oneself to high school when you struggle in college. It may work in baseball, where demotions are largely opportunities to fix mechanics like pitch grips and batting eye without damaging the major league club (or to give a player playing time to develop when its not available at the major league affiliate), but it won’t work in the NBA. Players going overseas will face increasing pressure to stay overseas, because once their game changes to the FIBA mold, their NBA game, if anything, gets worse.

More importantly, few if any legitimate athletes would be willing to tarnish their image and legacy by electing to play against lesser competition—unless an obnoxious sum of money is involved (see: David Beckham).

Kobe has already grown tiresome of the unfavorable Jordan comparisons. Think he’d like being known as the guy who fled to Italy when he wasn’t able to win a ring without Shaq? Think LeBron James wants to be the best player in all of Croatia?

Additionally, unless the USA’s economy and market for sports just bombs out completely, no Euro league will have the financial advantage to simply force American-born stars to leave the NBA.

Some point to Tiago Splitter, one of the best European prospects today, and his choice to remain abroad, as evidence that the tide is changing. But take heed: Tiago understands that rookie contracts are a joke next to the King’s ransom he currently receives. He may never come across the pond for the biggest bucks, but then again, he also realizes that he may never be good enough in the NBA to warrant the biggest bucks. So why bother if he’s not already established stateside?

Long story short—don’t count on it. Like in 1992, when USA basketball had to reassert itself as the big fish, the 2008 team has the players and the historical backdrop to do the same. If the USA team can get through to the finals and claim the Gold Medal, look for a big change in people’s perception, worldwide.

It won’t be anything about USA losing its international footing. It will remind the world (ourselves included) of how far the world may have to go in order to catch up.

If that doesn’t happen, then forget it—I’ll buy an Olympiakos jersey.