World Championship History

 

Introduction || Buenos Aires 1950 || Rio de Janeiro 1954 || Santiago 1959 || Rio de Janeiro 1963 || Montevideo 1967 || Ljubljana 1970 || San Juan 1974 || Manila 1978 || Cali 1982 || Madrid 1986 || Buenos Aires 1990 || Toronto 1994 || Athens 1998 || Indianapolis 2002 || Saitama 2006 || İstanbul 2010 || Madrid 2014

 

 

INTRODUCTION

 

The history of Basketball World Championship is one of many vicissitudes and problems, from the lack of intrastructures during the early editions to the political boycotts in the Cold War period, with even one edition being cancelled (Manila 1962). Certainly, the competition would have failed to survive had it not being for the firm wager of FIBA’s founder and Secretary General, William Jones. During the postwar years, Mr. Jones led the world basketball from his UNESCO office in Munich, and made efforts for this sport to recover from the horrible sequels of World War II. The London Olympic Games in 1948 meant the first step towards the slow recovery of international basketball, and the competition proved itself a big success: not only was the number of participants very high, but also the teams’ level was better than expected after a long time of inactivity.

 

After the success of the Olympic tournament in London, William Jones decided to regain the international competition dynamics for basketball, and got involved in the task of organizing a World Championship, with Argentina being designated as the host country. His support led to the desired results, and in October 22, 1950, the newly created World Championship saw its first game at the Luna Park of Buenos Aires. Peru and Yugoslavia had the honor to play the first game in the history of the competition. Ten countries joined this first edition in Argentina, and the host team became the first champion.

 

The early editions of the World Cup were handicapped by poor organization and political interference. In 1950, Yugoslavia refused to play with Spain as a protest against the Franco Regime. In the second edition, in 1954, the venue was moved from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro simply because the basketball court was not finished yet, a similar reason to delay one year the next edition (Santiago de Chile, 1959), when games were even played outdoors, in football stadiums.

 

The Cold War tension between the Soviet Union and the United States decreased in the early 70s, ridding away most of the political problems between the West and the communist East. At the same time, the World Cup came of age and also solved the problems regarding infrastructure. From the Yugoslavia 1970 edition, the competition returned to the normality of being held over a four year span period, and was taken most seriously by all the participants (except the USA, interested in the Olympic Games more than in the World Championship). The 70s were mostly dominated by Yugoslavia and the USSR.

 

By the 80s, the competition was firmly established in the international scene, and even the political boycotts of the Olympic Games in Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984) didn’t seem to affect the World Cup. Besides, the United States decided to take this tournament more seriously than before, and sent their best teams to the editions of Cali 1982 (where they narrowly fell to the USSR) and Madrid 1986 (where they became champions thanks to some promising young players who later became NBA stars, like David Robinson, Tyrone Bogues and Charles Smith). Actually, the edition held in Spain in 1986 was a turning point in the competition, with excellent courts, a massive audience and worldwide broadcasting of the games.

 

The early 90s saw new changes in the World Championship. On the one hand, FIBA authorized the participation of NBA players in its competitions. On the other hand, the USSR (first) and Yugoslavia (later) split into different independent states. This two circumstances led to the US regaining world hegemony thanks to their “Dream Teams,” which was most notorious in the Toronto 1994 edition, where the American team crushed Russia in the final (137-91). It would seem that the future of the competition was in jeopardy under the US domination. But Yugoslavia proved that basketball was still a world matter by winning the next two editions: Athens 1998 and Indianapolis 2002.

 

 

1950 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: BUENOS AIRES (ARGENTINA)

 

At the FIBA Congress held in London in 1948 during the Olympic Games, Secretary General William Jones put forward the idea of a Basketball World Championship, and proposed Argentina as the host country for the first edition. There were three reasons why Mr. Jones showed his preferences for this South American country: First, none of the European nations, still convalescent from World War II, could meet the economic and human efforts required to successfully host this event, whereas the United States was more interested in the Olympic Games and their future NBA League than in the World Cup. Secondly, Argentina was one of the few founders of FIBA, had a good basketball team and gained economic strength after its neutrality in World War II. Thirdly, the Argentinean president, Juan Domingo Perón, was eager to organized a worldwide event that served to call attention on his country, and at the same time overshadow the Football World Cup held in Brazil also in 1950. Obviously, the request of General Perón to organize the basketball World Championship was based on political grounds, but it was formulated under the disguise of a commemoration act to honor General José de San Martín, one of the greatest Latin American revolutionaries, in the centenary of his death. For this reason, the tournament was known as “Primer Campeonato Mundial de Basquetbol Libertador General San Martín”.

 

The candidature of Argentina was accepted at the London Congress, and it was decided that ten countries would join the first edition. They would be the host team (Argentina), the best three teams in the current Olympic Games (USA, France, Brazil), the first three countries in the 1949 South American Championship (Uruguay, Chile, Peru), the 1949 European Championship winner (Egypt) and the first two countries after a European Qualifying Tournament to be held in France in January 1950 (Italy, Spain). However, the original list was later modified: Italy dropped out due to financial reasons and was replaced by the third team in the European Qualifying Tournament (Yugoslavia), whereas Uruguay withdrew just before the beginning of the competition because the Argentinean government refused entry visas to their radio reporters (under the pretence that some Argentinean exiles attacked Perón’s regime from Montevideo), and was replaced by a late invited team: Ecuador (whose players arrived to Argentina just hours before the opening ceremony and their first game against Egypt).

 

The competition system for these ten teams was also very complicated. There were two preliminary rounds, two more repass rounds, a classification round for the last four countries, and a final round to decide the first six positions of the tournament. The scores in this first edition of the World Championship were very low: Argentina, who finished the competition unbeaten, was the only team to score more than sixty points per game.

 

 

1954 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: RIO DE JANEIRO (BRAZIL)

 

When FIBA designated in Buenos Aires, during the celebration of the first edition of the World Championship, the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo as the venue of the second edition in 1954, few could imagine how many troubles this decision would bring forth. Actually, most of the complications arose from the ban of the Brazilian government to the European Communist Block countries, and also from the fact that the new basketball court to be built in Sao Paulo was not finished on time, so the competition had to be moved to Rio de Janeiro.

 

Brazil, still in shock in the summer of 1950 after losing the football World Cup against Uruguay in their own country, saw in the organization of the basketball counterpart the opportunity to redeem themselves. But in 1954 Brazil faced a climate of popular agitation and political tension that in no way helped the celebration of the World Championship. The city of Sao Paulo, commemorating the fourth century of its foundation, could not carry on their commitment to FIBA on time. The construction of a new basketball court, a priority for the celebration of the tournament, meant an unsurmountable obstacle in a country with a constant social uproar. When the time came, the arena where games should be held had no ceiling yet, and the government presided by João Café Filho decided in a hurry to move the basketball event to Rio de Janeiro, to a large pavilion close to Maracana’s stadium. This court, known in Brazil as “Maracanazinho” (little Maracana), had capacity for 35,000 people, and it was one of the best basketball courts of the moment.

 

As for the competition format, the organizers of Rio de Janeiro 1954 edition decided to increase the number of participants from ten (in 1950) to twelve, so that the system would be more reasonable and equal. In a preliminary round, these twelve teams were divided into four groups of three teams each, with wnners and runners-up advancing to the final round, played as a league stage. But the rationality of the competition format was not applied likewise to the selection of participants. The Brazilian government had no diplomatic relations with the countries of the Communist Block, and denied entry visas to the Soviet Union (current European champion), Hungary and Czechoslovakia (second and fourth qualified teams, respectively, in the European Championship). So emergency entrants had to be called to participate in the World Cup, such as France, Israel and even Yugoslavia (communist country that, however, was not banned by Brazil, and still escaped FIBA sanctions after their withdrawal against Spain in the first edition of the tournament). On the other hand, seven more berths were reserved to American teams (a measure based mostly on geographical rather than in sport criteria): Canada, USA, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Peru and, of course, Brazil as host. Although the absence of the title holder, Argentina, would seem strange, this team was broken down due to the accusations of professionalism of their players (basketball was still an amateur sport in the world). Two more berths were assigned to Asia: Philippines and Formosa (present Taiwan).

 

As in the previous edition, USA (who proved to be light-years ahead of the rest in the Olympic Basketball Tournament in 1952) sent an inexperienced team to Brazil, made up of young white players who competed in state championships and never would reach the NBA. However, this time the American team was competitive enough to win the World Cup, finishing undefeated ahead of the Brazilian hosts. During the final stage, both teams made it clear that the title would be decided in the game between them. So when Brazil and USA finally met in the last day, 17,000 Brazilian fans overcrowded the Maracanazinho celebrating in advance what they thought would be a victory of their team. However, as in the football World Cup of 1950, their hopes were finally dampened by the superior play of the Americans, who based their success on a very strong defense. The final score (62-41) speaks clearly of the difference between USA and Brazil. This time, the Brazilian fans faced the outcome with sportsmanship and acceptance, rather than falling into the desperation they had lived four years ago, when they lost the football World Cup at home.

 

 

1959 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: SANTIAGO (CHILE)

 

Just like the precedent two editions, the third World Championship faced organization problems from the beginning. Once more, FIBA decided that the tournament would be celebrated in South America, in this case in Chile, based on the promise of the local authorities to construct a magnificent sport pavilion in Santiago on occasion of this event. But in 1958, as the scheduled date for the World Championship approached (in Autumn), it was clear that the new court would not be finished on time, so FIBA decided to give the organizers additional time to complete the construction. Therefore, the tournament was moved to January 1959. In the meantime, the Chilean authorities decided that other cities besides Santiago would also welcome this basketball event, and proposed the additional venues of Antofagasta, Concepción and Temuco (for the preliminary round) and Valparaíso (for the classification round). However, this quickly improvised solution proved unsatisfactory, since just as the new sport pavilion in the capital of Chile was not completed as planned, the rest of cities didn’t have an appropriate basketball court either. Just when the celebration of the World Cup in Chile was in serious danger of suspension, the organizers offered an alternative solution to FIBA: the games would be celebrated in the football stadiums of the host cities. William Jones was forced to accept this emergency solution, even under the risk of rain or bad weather, because under any circumstance would he allow the cancellation of a tournament that he so eagerly endorsed in its previous editions.

 

The political problems that handicapped the list of participants in the former editions of the World Championship were marginal on this occasion. Chile was a country with a long democratic tradition in Latin America, and the government of Jorge Alessandri did not ban any country for political reasons. So when the ball was thrown to the air on January 16, 1959, everything was ready for the competition. As in previous editions, the United States did not send their best players to Chile (who were reserved for the Olympic Games of 1960 in Rome), even though they were the title holders. The second consecutive presence of Formosa (the nationalist China of Chiang Kai Shek, not recognized by the Communist Block) would create this time a new political conflict outside of basketball, since their qualification for the Final Round, together with the Soviet Union and Bulgaria, would cause the withdrawal of these two communist countries in their respective games against Formosa (which even showed the name “China” on their shirts, although it was never referred as such by FIBA). William Jones was aware of this fact, and scheduled these two games in the last competition days of the tournament, trying to earn time to think up a solution to this political problem. However, once the Final Round started, the Soviet Union and Bulgaria officially announced that they wouldn’t play against Formosa, and FIBA, as a punishment to all the Communist Block for this unjustified withdrawal, moved the venue for the 1963 World Championship from the already selected Prague to Manila.

 

But things didn’t go as desired by Mr. Jones, and the competition had a very unexpected and polemic outcome. And this is because the Soviet Union rolled over the rest of teams in the Final Round, with convincing victories over Puerto Rico, Brazil, Chile, Bulgaria and even the United States (the first time a Soviet team defeated the USA). The USSR seemed to be the clear winners of the World Cup, but once more politics change the natural course of this basketball event. The scheduled game between the Soviet Union and Formosa, which would only be symbolic to crown the new champion, was never celebrated due to the withdrawal of the Soviet delegation as a way to protest against the nationalist Taiwan of exiled general Chiang Kai Shek and support the communist China of Mao Ze Dong. No matter what was at stake, the Soviet team fulfilled their threat, and on January 30th, at 9 p.m., Formosa (with China’s logo shirts) waited in vain for their rivals. An afflicted William Jones had to address the 30,000 fans in the stadium to apologize for the non assistance of the USSR, as Formosa received a 2-0 forfeit victory in this game. However, even after this “political” defeat, the Soviet Union was still champion, because of all their previous victories.

 

But the sanctions to the Soviet team were not only the 2-0 forfeit in the last game. After all, for the sake of sportsmanship, it didn’t seem very logical that the championship went to a squad that deliberately refused to play one match, causing economic damage to the organizers and a bad image to FIBA. During the morning of the closing competition day, the majority of FIBA’s board members proposed an exemplary sanction for the USSR and also Bulgaria (who had already announced that they wouldn’t play with Formosa on the afternoon). William Jones tried his best to stop the very heavy sanctions that would befall the Soviet Union after this withdrawal, but couldn’t ignore the seriousness of this incident, so in the end he came up with a proposal that could “please” all the parties: USSR and Bulgaria would be deprived of all their points and relegated to the last position of the group, and at the same time all their games would be scratched from the table, which meant that Chile had still a chance to become champion if they beat Brazil by twelve points, and the last competition day would regain all its interest for the local fans. But this didn’t happen, since the Brazilian team led by Wlamir Marques and Amaury Pasos proved themselves very superior to Chile. Meanwhile, the Soviet team went back to their country with the heavy conviction that they were the moral champions of the World Cup, and were received by thousands of fans in Moscow as the legitimate winners (the players were even immortalized on a special stamp series with the logo “Victory of the USSR basketball team in Chile”).

 

 

1963 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: RIO DE JANEIRO (BRAZIL)

 

In the short but troublesome history of the World Championship, the fourth edition was no exception to the rule, and also had to face many problems before its celebration. Originally, the Philippines was chosen as the host country to hold this event in December 1962 (thus restoring the four year period between two consecutive World Cups, after the “delayed” edition of 1959). The Philippine authorities offered all kind of guarantees that this time politics would not interfere with this event. But the same problem arose again with the same protagonists: Three months before the beginning of the tournament, the Soviet Union and Bulgaria (qualified for the World Championship) stood firm not to recognize Formosa (the nationalist China); given that this independent Chinese province was also qualified, the former communist countries announced that they would not travel to Manila.

 

This attempted boycott was considered as an offense by the government of Diosdado Macapagal, President of the Philippines, who denied entry visas to all the countries of the Communist Block. But this time William Jones was ready to react, and called an urgent meeting of the Central Committee of FIBA to discuss this problem. It was decided in this assembly to disposess Philippines of the organization of the World Cup, also banning their national team in the next two editions, and sanction the organizers with a $2,000 compensation fee. The Central Committee also decided to assign the organization of the World Cup to Brazil, given the successful experience of Rio de Janeiro in 1954 and the high potential of the Brazilian team. Besides, to avoid problems with the Soviet Union (an emerging power in the world), Formosa was not invited as a participant.

 

Although FIBA gave less than six months to Brazil to organize the tournament, everything was ready on May 12, 1963 for the competition to begin. This short time had also prevented the organizers from making changes in the competition format, which remained basically the same as in the previous edition in Chile. All the favorites cruised easily to the Final Round, where the local team showed the world that their World Cup title in 1959 was well deserved (beyond the disqualification of the Soviet Union in the last game). After consecutive victories over Puerto Rico, Italy, Yugoslavia and France, Brazil faced the USSR in a game that would give them the championship in case of victory. It finally happened (90-79), and the title holders conquered the World Cup in their own country.

 

 

1967 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: MONTEVIDEO (URUGUAY)

 

For the third consecutive edition, the original plans of FIBA to celebrate the World Cup every four years, with a two years difference with respect to the Olympic Games, failed. After Buenos Aires (1950) and Rio de Janeiro (1954), the third edition, Santiago (1958), was delayed one year due to infrastructure problems, and the fourth edition, Manila (1962), was moved both in space (Rio de Janeiro) and time (1963). It was the intention of FIBA to go back to normality in Montevideo (originally scheduled in December 1966), but once again politics interfered with the celebration of this tournament. In this case, the Uruguayan organizers asked for a delay to avoid the coincidence of the World Cup with the general elections in the country, because they feared the socio-political turbulence in Uruguay during that period could affect the normal progress of the competition.

 

Although FIBA agreed to a delay in the competition to May 1967, Uruguay was by no means ready to organize a sport tournament of such magnitude as the World Cup. The cities of Montevideo, Mercedes and Salto were selected as venues for the preliminary round, the Argentinean city of Córdoba would welcome the classification round, and the final round would be celebrated in Montevideo (in a bigger court than in the preliminary stage). The same competition format as in previous editions was used in Uruguay, and all the favorites qualified to the final stage. However, in this round, the games were conditioned by an external factor that the organizers didn’t seem to consider when they asked for a delay: the chilly temperatures that Uruguay suffered during the Austral winter. The sport pavilion of Montevideo was an old refurbished store covered by an artistic but ineffective dome, with no heating system or any kind of isolation. Because the temperature inside the stadium was close to 0º C during the games, the organizers had to provide the players and technical staff on the bench with blankets and electric heaters.

 

The local team had no option to medal during the final round, but their last and unexpected victory over Yugoslavia reduced the options of the Balkans to win the gold medal. As in previous editions, the favorites (Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, USA, Brazil) fought very intense and thrilling matches, and the championship was decided in the last game, when the USSR defeated Yugoslavia and secured the gold.

 

 

1970 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: LJUBLJANA (YUGOSLAVIA)

 

For the first time in the history of the tournament, the World Cup would leave America and come to Europe for the sixth edition in 1970. At the FIBA Central Committee’s meeting held in Montevideo on June 3, 1967, the Yugoslavian city of Ljubljana was designated as the host for the next World Championship, which could finally be celebrated on the appointed year, 1970 (and from that moment on, all the editions of the World Cup would take place in a two-year alternate period between the Olympic Games, as it was originally intended by FIBA).

 

During the recent years, Yugoslavia had become a basketball world power, and this was taken into consideration by FIBA in time to decide the next venue for the World Cup. Led by Borislav Stanković, a very influential member within FIBA, the Yugoslavian Basketball Federation claimed the organization of the tournament in order to commemorate their 25th Anniversary. Although the same competition format as in previous editions was kept, the main novelty was the presence of participants representing all five continents: Oceania (Australia), Asia (South Korea), Africa (United Arab Republic), America (Brazil, Uruguay, Cuba, Panama, Canada, USA) and Europe (Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, Italy, Czechoslovakia).

 

As in previous editions, all the big teams qualified as expected for the final round of the competition. Yugoslavia, with an Ivo Daneu near to retirement, was unanimously considered as the favorites to win the World Cup, because of their great potential and also because they were the hosts. The traditional world powers (Soviet Union, USA, Brazil) would also fight for the title, together with a newcomer as Italy, led by Dino Meneghin. The US team, traditionally not very interested in the World Cup, sent a competitive group of players to Yugoslavia, but took the risk of resorting to Tal Brody (born in the USA but with Israeli citizenship, which meant that their matches could be impugned by other teams). In the end, the title was decided in the second to last competition day, when Yugoslavia beat USA and secured the first place in the group. The main intererest of the last day, with the Yugoslavian players still celebrating their first World Championship, was to decide the teams that would get the silver and gold medals: they were Brazil (after beating a US team that ended up in fifth position) and the Soviet Union (who easily won a Yugoslavian squad lacking motivation).

 

A tragic closing act was the death, only four days after finishing the World Cup, of the Yugoslavian center Trajko Rajković, who suffered a heart attack.

 

 

1974 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: SAN JUAN (PUERTO RICO)

 

Puerto Rico’s candidature to celebrate the 7th World Championship in 1974 was accepted by FIBA, in spite of all the infrastructure and organization problems that this Caribbean country would have to face. Although the tournament finally was celebrated without major incidents, two important drawbacks were mass media logistics and the suffocating heat during the games.

 

The competition format remained basically the same as in past editions, but one important change was introduced: the particular score between two teams during the preliminary round is kept in the next stage, so that they don’t have to play again. The thrill of the competition remained until the last day, although Yugoslavia had the chance to become champions in the penultimate day, but they lost to the USA and opened the possibility for three teams (USA, Yugoslavia, Soviet Union) to get the gold medal. The final game between the Americans and the Russians, archenemies in international competitions (with the recent precedent of the historical USSR’s victory in the Olympic Games of Munich in 1972, with the famous repetition of the final three seconds and the basket by Aleksandr Belov), was crucial to decide the final top three positions of the tournament. The Soviet Union, with an unstoppable Aleksandr Sal’nikov (38 points), showed their greater experience in this kind of games and triumphed over an American team as talented as unbalanced.

 

 

1978 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: MANILA (PHILIPPINES)

 

FIBA had a moral debt with the Philippines, after the cancellation of the 1962 World Cup edition in this Pacific island due to the denial of entry visas to the communist countries. Borislav Stanković, the successor of William Jones as Secretary General of FIBA, was more lenient than his predecessor, and decided to grant the organization of the World Championship to the Philippines once the local basketball authorities gave him all kind of guarantees regarding government support and infrastructures.

 

The Philippinean president, Ferdinand Marcos, was eager to give the best image of his country to the rest of the world, and spared no effort or money to host the World Cup. All the delegations were accomodated in the most luxurious hotels of Manila and travelled in expensive cars provided by Toyota. However, the social reality of the country was quite different, and the sport infrastructures didn’t meet the expectations of this important event. So, instead of the usual three venues to hold the games of the preliminary round, all the tournament matches were played in Manila, in two basketball coliseums (an old one, with no air conditioning to fight the sticky heat during the games, and a modern one, in the satellite city of Quezón, which would hold the most important games).

 

The same competition format as in the previous edition was kept, but an important change was introduced: After the final round, the definitive classification of the teams would be decided in one-to-one matches, so the first will play with the second (for gold medal), the third with the fourth (for bronze medal), the fifth with the sixth, and the seventh with the eighth. This way, a real “final” single game is first introduced in the history of the World Cup, because so far the champion of the competition was decided after a league stage. All teams seemed to like this new system, because in recent years the medals had been decided on basket average. Another reason was the recent arrival of TV broadcasting to the World Championship, and these final games would ensure excitement til the end.

 

As usual, the United States sent a very young and inexperienced team to the Philippines, although the ABAUSA (Amateur Basketball Association of the USA) promised FIBA to select a very competitive team for the World Championship. The result was a very disappointing fifth place in the tournament (which didn’t seem to bother much the US Basketball Federation, still more interested in the Olympic Games than in the World Cup). Their archenemies, Soviet Union, had undergone some changes. After the fiasco at the Olympic Tournament in Canada 1976, Aleksandr Gomel’skij took over again as head coach. A tragic note was the death of center Aleksandr Belov, the Russian hero in Munich 1972, at the beginning of the World Cup. The only real enemy for the USSR in the Final Stage of the tournament was Yugoslavia, their black beast during recent years, and it was clear that the title would be decided in the final game between these two teams. In spite of a clear Balkanic victory during the league stage (105-92), the final was a very intense and tied game (even with an overtime), in which any team could win. In the end, Yugoslavia prevailed (82-81) and replaced the Soviet Union as world champions.

 

One important issue discussed by FIBA during the Manila World Cup was the professional/amateur distinction for basketball players. After the refusal to accept the registration in the tournament of the American point guard Larry Johnson (from University of Kentucky), on the grounds that he had played several exhibition games with NBA’s Buffalo Braves during the 1977-78 season, FIBA’s Executive Committee passed a new statute regulating the legal situation of basketball players. From that moment on, someone who plays the game because he likes it—but can still study or work in a different profession as a way of life—will be able to sign contracts and receive a salary without being considered a “full-time” professional, therefore opening the gates of FIBA international competitions to all kind of players (except those from NBA, who will remain the only truly “professionals”).

 

 

1982 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: CALI (COLOMBIA)

 

Politics, which seemed to be absent during the recent editions of the World Championship, threatened to show up again during the 1982 edition in Cali (Colombia). The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was used as an excuse for some countries, encouraged by the USA, to boycott the Olympic Games of Moscow in 1980. The feeling was that the Soviet Union and the rest of communist countries could “counter-boycott” the basketball World Cup in 1982 with their non-assistance, but they finally confirmed their participation in the tournament.

 

One additional problem for the participants in the Colombian tournament was the altitude of the host cities (especially Bogotá, 2,630 m over sea level), which made it difficult to play basketball in normal conditions.

 

The United States finally sent a very competitive team to the World Cup, with future NBA players such as Glenn “Doc” Rivers, Mark West, Jon Sundvold, Joe Kleine and Antoine Carr. The host team, Colombia, was very inferior to the rest of the participants in the final round, and it didn’t help them either the lack of support from their own federation (which made the Colombian players go on strike during the preliminary round, until the coach’s mediation got them back to training). The Soviet Union team in the World Cup was one of the most powerful in their history, with a first line of very tall centers (Aleksandr Belostennyj, Vladimir Tkachenko, Andrej Lopatov and a very young 2,18 m Lithuanian pivot with the skills and passing of a guard: Arvydas Sabonis). The Soviet Union and the USA qualified for the final, ahead of Yugoslavia (undergoing a generational change in players) and Spain (a very competitive team with players like Corbalán, Sibilio, Fernando Martín and Epi). The title was decided in the last seconds, when the Soviets were leading by one point (95-94) and Doc Rivers missed a corner shot over the horn.

 

 

1986 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: MADRID (SPAIN)

 

In the history of the World Championship, the edition held in Spain (Madrid and sub-venues) marks an inflection point in the development of the tournament. From this moment on, the political, economical and logistic troubles which handicapped the past editions will disappear. TV stations will broadcast the games worldwide and different sponsors will support the competition, thus ensuring the financial success of this event. Also, from the competitive point of view, the best players of the moment will meet in Spain, and even the United States, traditionally very reluctant about the World Cup, will send their most competitive team up to date.

 

For one reason, the Spanish candidature to hold the World Championship, presented to FIBA in 1982, was revolutionary in many respects: 24 participants in seven different venues. It was such a qualitative change with respect to previous editions that few people could predict a happy ending to this proposal. But the Spanish Basketball Federation was sure of their success, because there was a rising basketball fever in the country that started with the fourth place of Spain in Cali 1982 and reached its peak with the silver medal in the Olympic Games of Los Angeles 1984. Basketball became an important marketing product, the ACB League was created, basketball was present more and more on TV and publications… The conditions couldn’t be better for a great success of “Mundobasket 86” in Spain.

 

So FIBA had no difficulty in assigning the organization of the 10th World Championship to Spain, and the competition came back to Europe for the second time, after the edition of 1970 in Yugoslavia. During the preliminary round, both Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union seemed to meet the expectations that made them look like favorites to the title. On the other hand, the United States, although they won all their games, did it very unconvincingly and provided more reasons to doubt their potential. The host country, Spain, started the competition in a shaky way, gained more confidence as games progressed, and lost only their final match against Brazil (which would be crucial in the semifinal stage to prevent the Spanish squad from fighting for the medals). In the end, the best four teams of the competition reached the semifinals. In the first one, USA rolled over Brazil (in spite of Oscar Schmidt’s 43 points) to secure a place in the final. The second semifinal set a duel between the Soviet Union and their personal “black beast” during the last years, Yugoslavia. The Balkans, led by the Petrović brothers (Dražen, 27 points, Aleksandar, 15 points), dominated almost all the game, but their excesive pride prevented them from reaching the final. With 2’15’’ left, Yugoslavia had a nine point advantage (81-72). The Soviet players, who had missed a lot of shots during the game, desperately committed fouls to stop the clock while the Yugoslavs gave up their free throws and instead kept the ball in motion, with Dražen Petrović provoking and humiliating his rivals in his usual style. But the game was still alive. Two successive three-pointers by Sabonis and Tikhonenko brought the USSR back to only three points behind Yugoslavia. A final ball lost by an inexperienced Vlade Divac allowed Valters to tie the game over the buzzer and send it to an overtime, where the Soviet Union gained their pass to the final.

 

The final between the USA and the Soviet Union, their first clash after Cali 1982 (due to the Russian boycott in Los Angeles 1984), met all the expectations generated around it. The American defense didn’t allow the experienced Soviet shooters feel comfortable during the game, and thanks to the rebound domination by David Robinson, the athletic excellences of Kenny Smith and the rhythm imposed by Tyrone Bogues, the US team reached a peak difference of eigheen points in the middle of the second half (78-60). However, a zone defense brought the Soviet Union back into the game: the Americans got nervous and Sabonis started to dominate the rebounds. Despite two three-pointers of Chomičius in the last seconds, this time the miracle didn’t happen, and the USA narrowly won the final (87-85) and their second gold medal in the World Cup, 32 years later of their first success in the 1954 edition of Rio de Janeiro.

 

 

1990 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: BUENOS AIRES (ARGENTINA)

 

The XI edition of the World Cup in Argentina saw new changes in the competition system: the high number of participants in the previous edition (24) was reduced to 16, thus increasing the average quality of the games. Besides, in future editions of the World Championship FIBA will accept NBA players. From the political point of view, the problems brewing in the Soviet Union (further dismembership in different republics), the Balkans (war) and Germany (fall of the Berlin Wall) would reconfigure the map of participants in the World Championship. In Argentina, for example, the Soviet Union was very weakened with the absences of Lithuanian stars Sabonis, Kurtinaitis, Chomičius and Marčiulonis, who refused to play under the USSR flag.

 

Although the organization had some flaws and shortcomings, this didn’t tarnish the games. There were positive surprises, like Puerto Rico, and negative ones, like Spain and Italy. The US team, after their disappointing performance at the Olympic Games in Seoul, sent the best university players to Argentina, but in spite of their athletic excelences they lacked experience at the international level, and in the end they fell to the more experienced Yugoslavs in the semifinals. These two consecutive disappointments of the USA, in the Olympic Games and the World Cup, motivated their decision to send NBA stars to future events, with a first version of the “Dream Team” in the Olympic Games of Barcelona in 1992.

 

The final between Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union was very unbalanced: the Balkans, led by Zdovc, Petrović, Kukoč, Paspalj and Divac, were very superior and gave no real chance to their rivals. At the end of the game, a symbolic image: all the players and coaching staff embraced under a big Yugoslavian flag. The next year, the Balkan War would start and politics would divide the players of a magic team that won two European Championships and one World Cup between 1989 and 1991.

 

 

1994 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: TORONTO (CANADA)

 

The new FIBA regulation allowing NBA players to join their tournaments was a significant revolution in the XII World Cup held in Toronto (Canada). Never before this competition started with such a feeling that the champion was already predetermined: the US team, with a potential light years from the rest of participants. If this wasn’t enough to ensure the American success, their historical rivals (USSR and Yugoslavia) were also weakened and decimated after the political division in different territories and even the UN ban on the new Yugoslavia. However, the triumph of the USA in this tournament was tarnished by the bad manners and anarchy of a team composed of so many NBA stars.

 

From the financial point of view, the success of the Toronto World Championship depended heavily on television, and this also changed the rules of the game. The American TV stations in charge of broadcasting this event exerted such a pressure that FIBA accepted as many as four extra time-outs in each half (in addition to the two regular ones for every team) in order to comply with the numerous advertisement contracts.

 

The only two venues chosen to host the World Cup were Toronto and Hamilton, two nearby cities on the banks of Lake Ontario with all the infrastructure needed for this event. The games were played indistinctly in three magnificent pavilions located in these cities. The competition format remained unaltered with respect to the previous edition, with 16 teams playing a preliminary round and later a classification round and final round in order to decide the final positions.

 

Early in the championship, the Croatians were thought to be the team that would contend with the USA in the final (it was undisputable that the “Dream Team II” not only would reach the final, but also win the gold medal without many difficulties). But as the competition went on, a more solid and less anarchic Russian team proved themselves a better match for the North Americans. The two semifinals were like night and day: a very unbalanced duel between USA and Greece, on the one hand, and a hardly fought game between Russia and Croatia, on the other hand, finally won by the more disciplined Russians. The final was the most unbalanced one in the history of the championship: the abysmal difference between the US team and Russia (or any other team who would face them) was faithfully reflected in the final score (137-91). This time, the NBA players proved to be way too much for a FIBA team.

 

 

1998 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: ATHENS (GREECE)

 

Due to the NBA lock-out in the summer of 1998, the best players of the North American professional league refused to participate in the XIII World Championship in Athens. The absence of another “Dream Team” was a hard blow for the popular success of the tournament, and this was notorious as the first game of the USA team gathered only a few thousand spectators. With the NBA stars missing in the US squad, new candidates aimed at the gold medal, especially Yugoslavia (which returned to international competitions after the UN ban on the Balkan country, composed only by Serbian players).

 

The competition format was again modified to allow for an all-or-nothing round of quarterfinals, thus adding new excitement to the tournament. In the decisive games of semifinals, the USA was again stopped in their race to the gold medal by Russia, led by an excellent Sergej Babkov (30 points). In the other semifinal, Yugoslavia had to overcome a big scare by Greece (overtime included) to qualify for the final. In the decisive game, Yugoslavia confirmed their historical dominance in the competition thanks especially to Željko Rebrača and Dejan Bodiroga (who was voted MVP of the tournament), clinching their fourth world title.

 

Apart from basketball, the test control, which had already been used in past editions of the World Cup, took its first victim in the figure of Nigerian center Julius Nwosu, who was suspended following a doping control which proved positive for ephedrine. Furthermore, FIBA also took the decision to sanction the use of cannabis in all their competitions.

 

 

2002 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: INDIANAPOLIS (USA)

 

For the first time in history, the World Championship came to the United States, where basketball was born more than a hundred years ago. Ironically, the US team was not counted among the heavy favorites to win the gold medal. Indeed, their defeat against Yugoslavia in 1/4 Finals sent them out of the medals for the first time since using NBA players.

 

The greatest surprise of the championship was New Zealand, who finished fourth after beating Puerto Rico in the quarterfinals. Argentina, the first champion in the history of the World Cup, came back to the elite by reaching the final against Yugoslavia. The Argentinians were close to the glory when Sconochini (first) and Oberto (later) had in their hands the victory in the last seconds of the game, but they missed (Argentina claimed that they were clearly fouled) and the final went into an overtime, where Yugoslavia secured their fifth World Championship.

 

Although Indianapolis 2002 raised the game standards in relation to previous World Championships, with more closely-fought games and several technical improvements, the attendances were very disappointing (from a few hundreds to a few thousands, even when the local team played). The general feeling of “emptiness” during the games was emphasized by the large seating capacity of the two chosen arenas in Indianapolis: Conseco Fieldhouse (18,000) and RCA Dome (32,500). The expectations were so great that the daily games were scheduled in these two nearby stadiums at the same time, but that proved to be another miscalculation. To prevent similar scenarios in the future, FIBA decided to retake part of its control on the organization of the World Championship, which in recent editions had delegated entirely to the local federations.

 

 

2006 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: SAITAMA (JAPAN)

 

The 2002 edition of the World Cup had increased the level of basketball around the world and the number of competitive teams in relation to previous tournaments. As a result of it, FIBA decided to expand the 2006 World Championship to 24 teams (for the first time since 1986) and awarded the organization to Japan, as a representative of the growing Asian basketball market.

 

Many basketball stars joined the Japanese event (incluiding a record number of NBA players), but in the end Spain proved that team work is always better that individualities. Although the Spanish squad didn’t have the best players of the tournament, they proved that they were the best team by far. Even the majestic figure of Pau Gasol didn’t overshadow the performance of all the Spanish players as a group. If some doubts were created before the final against Greece, in which Gasol was missing due to injury, they vanished soon as the men coached by Pepu Hernández proved that they didn’t need the help of Gasol to defeat the Greeks, thanks to an outstanding defensive display (Greece was held to only 47 points) and an incredible team spirit.

 

As for the rest of favorites? The USA cruised through the tournament with easy victories, until the solid defense of Greece stopped then in the semifinal. Argentina was also defeated in the semifinal by Spain, in a game tremendously balanced that could go either way (Nocioni missed a last second three-pointer that could have meant the Argentinean victory). Germany, heavily dependant on an amazing Dirk Nowitzki, couldn’t overcome the United States. And Greece, who looked heavy favorites in the final against a Spanish team without Gasol, tasted their own medicine and succumbed to a defense even better than their own. Actually, Greece had never a chance in the final against a very motivated Spanish team. The “ÑBA” (Gasol and co.) won the first gold medal in the history of the Spanish team and were received like heroes back home.

 

 

2010 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: İSTANBUL (TURKEY)

 

Sixteen years later, USA regained gold in the World Championship with a new basketball conception, in which team spirit had replaced individual talent and “one-on-ones”. The exponential progression of international basketball in recent years had increased the competition, and now names like Spain, Argentina, Greece or Serbia were called as favorites to win the 2010 tournament. In fact, the US team was not even counted among this group, as it was thought that their lack of international experience and the absence of the best NBA players (such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett or Deron Williams) was a serious handicap in their possibilities.

 

The same competition system with 24 teams used in 2006 was kept for the 2010 edition of the World Championship. After an uneventful preliminary round, in which all the top guns qualified for the next stage (with the only exceptions of Germany and Puerto Rico, who fell behind Angola and China, respectively), the real competition started in the 1/8 final round. Europe proved again its dominance in international basketball by sending six representatives into the quarterfinals (the other two were Argentina and the USA). Defending world champion and Olympic silver Spain—who had struggled during the tournament without star power forward Pau Gasol (rested for the NBA season) and a poor performance by other key players like Rudy Fernández, Ricky Rubio, Jorge Garbajosa and Marc Gasol—was defeated by Serbia thanks to a distant buzzer beater by Miloš Teodosić. Argentina, number one in the FIBA international ranking, was also eliminated with relative ease by Lithuania, whereas USA and hosts Turkey completed the semifinals chart. The American team, who was by now on a peak of confidence after a perfect 7-0 record in the competition, made short work of Lithuania and qualified for the final, where it was joined by Turkey, who earned their ticket after an epic semifinal with Serbia, with a last-second layup by point guard Kerem Tunçeri following a terrible defensive mismatch in the Balkan team.

 

The final was a rather unbalanced issue between the USA and hosts Turkey. The Americans were always in control and profited from the sharpshooting of forward Kevin Durant (chosen as tournament MVP). Although the local team—constantly supported by a partisan crowd in Sinan Erdem Dome—held on during the first quarter and even took a 14-17 advantage thanks to a zone defense, that was as far as they went: the US team increased their defensive intensity and went into halftime with the game under control, both physically (42-32) and emotionally (with the feeling that a depleted Turkish team wouldn’t have the strength to recover in the second half.

 

 

2014 WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP: MADRID (SPAIN)

 

A very young and talented US team retained their 2010 title after a spectacular display of total basketball in Spain. Coach K’s men rolled over their opponents before making it to the final, where everyone thought they would meet arch-rivals Spain, but it was Serbia instead who contested them, after the hosts (unanimously considered as top favorites to win the title) were shockingly eliminated by France in the last-eight round. The United States, who had lost star guard Paul George due to a gruesome leg injury during a summer scrimmage, made short work of all their rivals thanks not only to their superior physicality (which showed especially during the third quarters) but an excellent defensive-offensive balance, for which Coach K is to be commended. The final against Serbia was a rather unbalanced issue, as the US team gave no option to the Balkans with another superior display.

 

Never before was a host nation of the World Championship as frustrated and disappointed as Spain at the end of the 2014 edition. The “ÑBA” had all the ingredients for success: a very talented team who had played together for many years and were at the peak of their careers, superior performance in recent international competitions, a general label as top favorites, a whole country backing and supporting them… With its strongest roster ever, as well as home-court advantage and the prospect of squaring off in the final with the youngest team of American pros since 1992, Spain had an undeniably healthy opportunity to finally avenge its narrow losses to Team USA in the Olympic finals of 2008 and 2012. But then the unthinkable happened: After an impeccable tournament, the hosts were suprisingly eliminated in the 1/4 finals by France (whom they had beaten by 24 points in the group stage), following a strange and completely unexpected subpar performance which belied all their previous work. Naturally, the worst scoring of Spain in 44 years (only 52 points!!!) raised many questions: why the team looked like they didn’t prepare well enough this game, why coach Juan Antonio Orenga didn’t find any tactical response to the French defense, why key players like the Gasol brothers had such a low performance in this game (Pau sustained an injury and Marc had lost sleep and training hours over the birth of his son in Barcelona), why the horrible three-point percentage in this game (only 9%!!!) and the rebounding difference (28-50), why the Spanish players had so little reaction capacity…? So, the much anticipated final between Spain and the United States, the two teams who had provided the best basketball moments in recent years, became a one-sided issue.

 

In addition to the American success and the Spanish failure, the 2014 World Championship was remarkable in other aspects: the points of José Juan Barea for Puerto Rico, the performance of the newly naturalized Andray Blatche for the Philippines, the rebounds of Hamed Haddadi for Iran, the assists of Petteri Koponen for Finland, the coming of age of European champions France without star guard Tony Parker and the revival of a young Serbian team led by the able hand of coach Saša Ðorđević. On the disappointing side, besides Spain, were the Brazilian center Nenê Hilário (the experienced NBA player was unrecognizable in Spain), the American guard Derrick Rose (light-years from his usual shape before the injuries that plagued him) and Argentina (the end of a glorious generation of players).

 

 

 

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