American FIBA absence unacceptable

For those of you who were not aware, the Fédéracion Internationale de Basketball, otherwise known as FIBA, is currently running the seventeenth basketball World Cup in Spain. The tournament, which began on August 30 and will end on September 14, includes the 24 nations that made it through the qualification process. The FIBA Basketball World Cup operates in a similar fashion to the much more popular FIFA World Cup, in that countries qualify based on their performances in international competitions.

Much like the FIFA World Cup, teams begin playing in the group phase where there are four groups of six teams each. The top four teams from each group advance to the single-elimination phase, where teams are matched by seeding rank, and compete until a winner has been determined. The similarities between the basketball and soccer World Cups end when analyzing the public perception of these two events. When the FIFA World Cup is on, it becomes the center of attention for news outlets around the globe. Fans will spend absurd amounts of money to travel to the tournament in hopes of catching a match, even if it does not involve their nation’s team. The best soccer players around the world take a break from their professional teams for the honor of representing their country internationally.

This past July, Brazilian superstar forward Neymar suffered a back injury that ended his World Cup run. In response, he released a teary-eyed apology video to fans of Brazil. This kind of dedication is nowhere to be found for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, especially in the United States.

The FIBA World Cup has become a platform for exposure for rising NBA stars. For those watching this year, do not expect to see the likes of Lebron James, Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony in the games. Even younger superstars like Blake Griffin, Kevin Love and Kevin Durant either declined to play or withdrew from the team for various reasons. Kevin Durant, who was originally a part of the roster, withdrew in early August and released the following statement according to an ESPN article: “This was an extremely difficult decision as I take great pride in representing our country. I know that I owe it to my USA Basketball teammates to be totally invested in the experience. After going through training camp with USAB, I realized I could not fulfill my responsibilities to the team from both a time and energy standpoint. I need to take a step back and take some time away, both mentally and physically in order to prepare for the upcoming NBA season. I will be rooting for USAB and look forward to future opportunities with them.”

The response to Kevin Love’s refusal to play has been considerably more negative since he has never been in the playoffs, and thus cannot cite fatigue as an excuse like Kevin Durant did. However, if the FIBA World Cup were more like the FIFA one, none of these players would be making excuses to get out of helping their country win the gold medal. What makes the FIBA World Cup different from the FIFA World Cup is that, at least for the United States, it does not matter.

Huge victory margins over our sorry group-mates obscure serious vulnerabilities for team USA. Good news: Only Spain, the host team, appears anywhere near good enough to prick those soft spots enough times over 40 minutes to actually beat Team USA. And Spain has a much thornier path to the title game: Spain destroyed the closest thing this tournament has to a Group of Death by about 25 points per game—perhaps more impressive than the U.S.’s run, once you adjust for the level of competition. We go into these tournaments searching for a team that might challenge Team USA. This tournament hasn’t turned up a team that appears capable of challenging Spain. It just hasn’t been compelling (“Taking Team USA’s Temperature,” Grantland.com).

At the end of the day, the only team with any chance of toppling Team USA is host-nation Spain. Spain has always been strong on the international stage, but their aging core of the Gasols and José Calderón cannot last forever. Argentina and Greece have fielded strong international squads in the past decade or so, but at this point they have become to old to contend. So that leaves a U.S. B-team squad as the favorites to win the tournament.

NBA players do not want to risk getting injured playing in a tournament where they get no money, and where most basketball fans, at least in the United States, do not care. During the tryouts over the summer, Indiana Pacers star forward Paul George suffered a season-ending injury that required surgery. While this type of injury could have happened to any player in any practice, NBA players will now associate this horrific accident with international competition. The NBA season is long enough as it is, and players do not want to play during their short offseason. Few people even care to watch the games, evidenced by ESPN airing most of the games on ESPN3 or ESPN2 and not even bothering to send a team of announcers to Spain. The lack of good competition, and risk of injury outweigh the benefits of playing in the FIBA World Cup for many NBA superstars. I believe that the tournament should cap players’ ages at 23. By doing so, we would see more college-level and younger professional players who have greater energy and more to gain by performing well in the competition. Kevin Durant had a breakout performance in the 2010 tournament when he was 22 years old, and this past year he just won the NBA MVP award and signed a ten-year, $280 million endorsement deal with Nike. USA basketball should focus on younger players since the more established ones would rather rest their bodies in preparation for the grueling NBA season.

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