London calling: Two styles, growing closer
Veteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. Now, he is in London covering his seventh Summer Olympics and blogging about the men's basketball tournament for Euroleague.net.
At the moment in this Olympic tournament, the United States is dominating, but the two types of basketball in the world these days - the NBA and the rest of the world - are getting closer, one to the other, every day. The days are over when pioneers like Aleksandr Volkov, Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis and others, at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, had to break an NBA barrier often put up by American coaches who didn't believe that Europeans could play. Nowadays, almost no NBA team gets by without any non-American players. Just look at the list of the top scorers and assist-makers so far in this Olympic tournament in London. There you find Manu Ginobili (23.7 points per game), Andrei Kirilenko (23.3) and Luis Scola (22.7) and Alexey Shved (8.3 assists per game), Marcelinho Huertas (7) and Pablo Prigioni (7). All played or learned during their formative years of basketball in the Euroleague. It's more and more clear with each Olympics: basketball is truly global, with progress in every part of the world.
For example, here in London, it will be difficult for Tunisia to win a game, but everyone now knows about the team's forward, Makram Ben Romdhane, a 23-year-old who is averaging 15.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, or about its center Salah Mejri, who at 2.16 meters is averaging 4 blocks, first in the competition, and ties Yi Jianlian of China for the most rebounds, 10.3 per game.
Speaking of China, journalists like me are now sharing the press section with the "world's tallest TV commentator", Yao Ming, who is working for a channel in his country. And he's not the only one: other ex-stars with the microphone include Oscar Schmidt of Brazil and Richard Dacouri of France.
After three games, only three teams are undefeated: United States, Spain and Russia. They happen to be my three favorites for medals, too, with respect to France, Brazil and Argentina. Personally, my sympathies lie with the Argentinian national team. In a way, I have been a witness in their growth, from the 1998 World Championships in Athens, when the young Ginobili first appeared, to the next one, in Indianapolis, when they lost the final in miraculous fashion to Yugoslavia, until they climbed the Olympic mountain in 2004, winning the gold in Athens. Theirs is a golden generation, but the problem in Argentinian basketball is that no one is waiting to replace them. This team averages almost 31 years old despite having one player, Facundo Campazzo, who is only 21. London is their last opportunity to win something important again and put the finishing touch on a mission that has lasted more than a decade.
Speaking of Argentina, I recall an anecdote that Luis Scola told me. Back when the World Championships were held in Buenos Aires, in 1990, when he was 13 years old, Scola was one of the kids behind the basket who dried the floor after stars fell on it during the games. As he was already tall, Scola kept a close eye on Vlade Divac. Just 12 years later, Scola and Divac played each other in the overtime final of the 2002 worlds in Indianapolis. Now, 10 years later, they meet again in London, where Scola is playing very well and Divac is head of the Serbian delegation as head of the country's Olympic committee.
Back to the competition... the favorites, for the moment, are holding up their end, although everyone but the U.S. is suffering in the process. Russia beat Brazil in a dramatic game, with Khimki Moscow Region shooter Vitaly Fridzon hitting the big shot to win. Less expected was how much Spain sweated to outlast Great Britain. Only the free throws hit by Jose Calderon near the end saved Spain and avoided the first big upset of the tournament. I must say, though, that the fighting spirit of the British team and the support of its public gives hope that one day, on this island, great basketball will be played. I have no doubt that the next two Final Fours of the Turkish Airlines Euroleague, set for London in 2013 and 2014, in the same O2 where the Olympics are being played, will push the potential of basketball in this country even more.
On Thursday night, I attended a historic game in terms of records broken. The U.S. beat Nigeria 156-73. At halftime, it was 78-45, already breaking the record of 72 points that Brazil scored against China in the 1972 Olympics in Munich. With 4:27 to play, a basket by Andre Igoudala broke the previous full-game record, also set by Brazil against Egypt in Seoul in 1988. The U.S. finished with a record that could last a long time: 156 points. The 83-point score difference also broke the previous Olympic record, which the U.S. had held since Bill Russell and his 1956 teammates in Melbourne, Australia beat Taiwan by 72 points. Right now, the U.S. team's scoring average is 121.3 points, more than the 117.2 scored by the Dream Team in Barcelona in 1992. But that they will have to confirm as the games get more difficult.
As the saying goes, only at the end of a good Western are the bodies counted.
Vladimir Stankovic, Euroleague.net
Friday, August 3, 2012