When I was a kid, I always enjoyed big sporting tournaments more than the sport itself. As a matter of fact, that ‘kid’ still plays a prominent part in my personality that I’m an alleged adult. Big sporting tournaments are just the best thing. I get excited about the different countries, their colours, their flags, their best players, their national anthems, their rivalries, their histories in the tournament, and how these tournaments shaped their legacy.
Like every other Indian kid, I liked Cricket. I especially liked Sachin Tendulkar, and I watched Cricket because the Indian team excited me, and not the sport of Cricket in particular. But you know when this sport became a mini-obsession? During the 1992 ‘Benson & Hedges Cricket World Cup’. I was seven years old – wasn’t born when India won the World Cup in 1983 and was too young to pay attention when Australia won it in 1987. But 1992 was the year: as the tournament approached, I bought books about the tournament, I read about the players, I remembered all the countries taking part and I remembered the names of all the previous winners. This above all else was one of the greatest matters of pride in the life of a 7-year-old.
I loved the World Cup so much that I created my own scrap book about it, pretending to be a writer. I cut out photos of the teams and their star players from copies of ‘SportStar’ magazine. I copied my favourite facts and made a section for all the participating teams. The tournament became bigger than the sport. The obsession peaked with the 1996 World Cup (especially, that moment between Venkatesh Prasad and Aamir Sohail).
As I became a basketball fan from the late 90s, my interest in Cricket faded, but I still continued to lose myself in every big tournament, including India’s run to the Final in 2003 and of course, India’s incredible victory last year. You don’t have to like Cricket to love that.
In the late 90s, my sporting obsession was diverted towards one other sport: football, or as the Americans call it, that dirty ‘s’ word. I had limited knowledge about the big international players and past FIFA World Cups until 1998, the Football World Cup in France. This is the tournament that taught me about (Fat) Ronaldo. It’s the tournament that taught me about Raul, who became my favourite player, and by association, made Spain and Real Madrid my favourite teams. It’s the tournament that introduced me to a footballing God called Zinedine Zidane, who won the cup for France in that memorable Final.
Safe to say, I was hooked. I started watching La Liga, EPL, and Serie A football because of my favourite players and favourite teams after seeing them at the World Cup: Raul, Michael Owen, Alessandro Del Piero, Ronaldo, Zidane, etc. And then, every big footballing tournament, whether it was the World Cup or the Euros, turned me into an obsessive geek who had to know everything about everyone taking part.
That is the power of big international tournaments: they make sport-haters curious about the sport, they make curious people into fans, and they make fans into obsessive geeks.
Recently, David Stern, the commissioner of the world’s most powerful basketball league (the NBA) announced that he has been discussing a prospect with the world’s governing body of basketball (FIBA) to launch a rebranded ‘World Cup of Basketball’. The rebranding would make the tournament look and feel very much like FIFA Football World Cup events. It would be the dream of every basketball player to play in this tournament. It would teach children about world geography.
Of course, international basketball competitions already exist and are fairly well known to religious basketball or NBA fans. The most important competition is the basketball tournament in the Summer Olympics – which we are about to experience in London in a month or so. Ever since Team USA sent the Dream Team to the 1992 Olympics, this has become the most prestigious international tournament for the world’s best basketball player. It is the biggest stage of world basketball.
Except that it’s not. The Olympics are so huge and varied that basketball events, no matter how exciting and flashy, still only garner a fraction of the attention they deserve. Think about it: basketball is one of the most famous sports in the world, but its biggest moment is having to share the spotlight with Track & Field, Amateur Boxing, Swimming, etc. The footballing world understands this and most countries that participate in Olympic Football send ‘B’ teams or younger (U23, U21, etc.) teams. Even the biggest football fans will have a hard time remembering who won the last five Olympic gold medals in the Football Men’s division off the top of their heads. Ask them about the World Cup and you’ll hear ‘Spain-Italy-Brazil-France-Brazil’ before you can finish your question.
Not to say that FIBA hasn’t attempted at a ‘World Cup’ of its own already. The best 16 teams of basketball play in the FIBA Basketball World Championship every four years. But until recently, this tournament received little or no attention. The last ‘FIBA Worlds’ in 2010 in Turkey was probably the most publicised competition in the tournament’s history, but even that was more because of Nike’s efforts to hype up their brand on the players than FIBA doing it itself.
More importantly, the FIBA World Championship is just not considered to be as prestigious as the Olympics. For many teams, it is just used as a qualifier for the Olympic Games. The USA sent a completely different squad to the FIBA World Championships in 2010 to the ‘Redeem Team’ that played in Beijing in the Olympics in 2008. Names like Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Tyson Chandler, etc. are big stars today, but after the world had seen the star power of LeBron-Kobe-Wade-Carmelo-Chris Paul-Chris Bosh-Dwight Howard in 2008, the 2010 team – talented as it was – was considered a USA ‘B’ Team.
This is the tournament that the NBA and FIBA want to rebrand as a World Cup, and simply, just make the participants care more about. If the participants care about it and take it as seriously as a Football or a Cricket player takes their World Cup, then the fans will automatically care too. Winning a Basketball World Cup for your country should be the biggest dream of the world’s best basketball players, but I feel that at this point, that biggest dream – with good reason – is winning an NBA championship. Players talking about winning a ‘ring’ more than winning a ‘gold medal’. That ring is far more important to their legacy. No matter how much a footballer gets paid by his club, he wouldn’t cherish the EPL or Champions League trophy over the World Cup.
The NBA will be by far and large the biggest provider of the star players at the Basketball World Cup, and that is why Stern has smartly proposed FIBA should share the revenues of a tournament like this with them. If NBA owners were making money off an international event, they are unlikely to then discourage their best players from taking part in them.
Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, went one step further and radically suggested that NBA should exclude FIBA altogether, and make the tournament theirs entirely. I disagree with this line of thinking because it means that only NBA players will be taking part. What is the point then if Spain only has a five-member team and China has just 1 player? And even if the NBA wants to involve other non-NBA players, it would mean that they will be breaking the structure that already exists with FIBA and to which the rest of the basketball playing world happily adheres to.
A FIBA/NBA Basketball World Cup is the perfect idea and the perfect platform to take the popularity of basketball into the stratosphere. Yes, Team USA will dominate nearly every game they play (at least in the earlier years) but it will still be exciting. I say, follow the FIFA Football World Cup model exactly: get 32 of the world’s best teams into 8 groups of 4 each. The top four teams from each group move into the Final 16 knockout stage, and then the teams play in an exciting NCAA style tournament to the Final. The Euros are in progress and the excitement of an international big tournament is of course fresh in my head: for a hoop fan, a similar model and similar amount of excitement in a basketball world event would just blow our minds.
NBA’s involvement not only earns them more money but makes their brand bigger around the world. It makes basketball as a sport bigger and it makes every kid who throws a ball in a hoop anywhere in the world dream of winning a Basketball World Cup trophy. The NBA can even schedule their season around the summer event so that they can end early and their best players can be healthy and ready for the tournament.
The last part holds a lot of importance for me: their best players. In my idealistic, optimistic mind, this tournament becomes so important for NBA players that all of them schedule their entire careers around it. Nobody ever says no. It will be an honour to play for your country in the World Cup. They will put their hands on their heart during the opening ceremony and basketball fans around the world will watch it on the biggest sports channels instead of streaming it illegally on the internet. Team USA can then decide to send under-23 teams for the Olympics.
And you know what else? If we include the World’s 32 top teams, it gives a chance for the smaller/worse nations to shine against the World’s best. We not only get to see USA, Spain, and Argentina, we also get to see Japan, Papua New Guinea, and Egypt. We find out what teams have the best jersey colours. We discover their histories and the stories of their top players. We can obsess.
The best part for me? Ranked 58th in the FIBA World Rankings is a huge achievement, for the underachieving nation of India. Under the right leadership, with the right direction of development, and with the right crop of players, the ‘Young Cagers’ – India’s National Mens’ Basketball team – can find themselves in this stage, too. Yes, we would probably be awful when we go against the best, but at least, we’d be there. The entire world was awful when the USA Dream Team destroyed them in the Olympics in 1992, but they caught up. If India get a sniff in the Basketball World Cup, we’ll eventually catch up, too.
And that’ll be the day that some other 7-year-old boy will obsess about stats, names, and photographs. He’d probably make that scrap-book online. He would be crazy about the tournament. And he’d be happy.