The FIFA World Cup is over, the FIBA World Cup is seven weeks away. Whereas the former near guaranteed shocks and surprises, Basketball fans can only hope we avoid a predictable tournament in Spain.
The FIBA World Cup of Basketball has tremendous potential but it’s hard not to be a little worried. Player drop outs keep leaking out as the off-season staggers along. Save for Spain and Lithuania, because it’s Lithuania, and a handful of others it’s hard to guarantee teams will bring their strongest possible rosters. International hoops, while adored by fans, simply doesn’t get the commitment of its soccer counterpart.
Team USA’s provisional roster is a good indicator of how much of an opt-in event this is for stars. Kevin Durant, the reigning NBA MVP, is there, so too are Derrick Rose and James Harden but after that the top names have opted out without much consternation. A NBA contract, the NBA season, is just that much further ahead in the order of priorities. Part of Rose’s motivation for playing indeed is to get some real game-time to get his career back on track next season. This is far from a NBA problem. It’s not the NBA’s fault that it is, by a considerable distance, the top priority for players. That’s on FIBA and the national federations.
When some of Europe’s top clubs say they won’t release their players because of disputes with national federations, and those same governing bodies can’t force their hands, what reason is there for US based European players to commit blindly to wearing their national jersey in Spain.
It should be hard for me to understand the player’s side. For five years, my nation hasn’t had a national team and every top Irish player is chomping at the bit to wear the green jersey when the senior squad returns next year. Ireland however is a pauper on the global basketball stage, Greece, France, Turkey, et al are wholly different environments. When Tony Parker decided against playing in Spain this year, he rightfully wasn’t criticised over the call. The man has given up every summer for nearly a decade without being required to and finally got his reward with a EuroBasket title in 2013. He’s earned a year off, especially after going all the way to winning the NBA title with the Spurs.
And that, oddly, gets to the root of the problem. For all of the internecine warfare over FIBA’s proposed redrafting of how international hoops happens, the practical side makes sense if we want the players to eventually put a priority on wearing their national shirt.
As it stands, international hoops is tacked on to the end of the season every year and there is next to no rest. The cycle of continental championship, World Cup, continental championship, Olympics is always going to be a turn-off for the game’s top players. For the Americans there is less of a strain as, under the current system, they usually get every second summer off and many opt out of the World Cup anyway. For the other top nations, it’s simply asking too much for players in a limited period.
The shift in cycle of the World Cup, with the next event not until 2019, allows in part for a reset. Likewise the decision to insert qualifying periods into the season rather than at the end of seasons will also make it less of a stress for players to wear the shirt. It will also keep national team storylines going throughout the season, and casual fans will always sit up and listen when it comes to their national side.
When put in that context, the massive war that FIBA is shaping up for with clubs over this restructuring seems worth it. The clubs certainly have a point as it’s their assets that are being risked and it the financial benefit isn’t that obvious to them. If we want the international game to break through and build up the core fan base, converting some of those casual viewers into real fans, it’s going to take more than a few teams catching up with Team USA to make it happen.
I’m going to the World Cup, I’m really excited to be covering an arena on opening night with 8,000 Finnish fans who will be rooting for their guys to pull off an upset for the ages against a somewhat understrength USA. I want nights like that to matter to more people and the way to do that involves getting them to matter to more players.