Twenty thousand people stood a week and a half ago in the Belgrade Arena in Serbia and Montenegro, and cheered as Greece won the European basketball title after beating Germany 78-62. The heads of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) looked pleased, especially George Vassilakopoulos, the Greek vice president of the federation.
The first impression was that team basketball has won again, defeating Dirk Nowitzki and eleven other guys randomly picked up from the streets of Berlin to play some hoops. Too bad nobody ever bothered to teach them how to play the game. The Greeks had no NBA players on their squad, which makes some people claim that European basketball reached the level of the best basketball league in the world.
The fact is that this tournament killed fair play, which never was the strongest quality of basketball in Europe. On Sept. 25 the European basketball returned to the dark times of referee bribes, anti-basketball tactics and scores lower than some NFL games.
It was the first game in the tournament that Greece scored more than 67 points. So how did they win the tournament? The Greeks played the best defense in the tournament and they were the only team that succeeded in stopping the MVP of the championship, Nowitzki (23 points in the final, but 6 for 17 from the field).
Of course, it is easy to play such defense when the refs give you the permission to push, hit and do whatever you want to prevent the other team from playing basketball. It is interesting how this permission was given only to a few teams (Greece, Spain and Russia). It is even more interesting that these are the countries that have a very strong lobby in the federation.
FIBA did a very bad job in advertising the tournament and after the host, Serbia and Montenegro, was eliminated they had to do something to make sure that the final would have more spectators than just the journalists covering the game.
The most interesting incident happened before the eighth round. Russia, which had already advanced to the quarterfinals, waited to see who was going to be their next opponent, which was to be decided in the game between Greece and Israel. Before the game, Russian Basketball Federation President Sergei Chernov was asked about his team’s preparation for the quarterfinals. He said that they were looking forward to playing Greece. After being asked if he thought Greece would defeat Israel he smiled and answered, “I don’t think, I know they will.”
Needless to say, Greece won 67-61. The refereeing in that game was far from fair, with a few controversial calls for Greece in the last three minutes of the game. The same thing happened in the quarterfinals between Spain and Croatia. Spain won the game 101-85 after overtime.
The Croatian players cried and complained about the one-sided decisions made by the refs. Later on in the tournament Nicola Vujcic, the Croatian star, declared his retirement from the national team with tears in his eyes, blaming the suspiciously poor refereeing in the tournament.
The tournament had very little quality basketball. Serbia and Montenegro, the favorite to win the championship, played horribly throughout the tournament and lost to Tony Parker and France in the eighth round. Turkish players engaged in fistfight after one of their games and, in general, Nowitzki was the only European player who showed why he is playing in the NBA.
After the last Olympic Games many journalists wrote about how American basketball is not significant anymore. Maybe it’s true, but I don’t see how European basketball will ever get close to the real thing. At least not until FIBA decides to change the way things work in Europe. Meanwhile, we can all sit and wait for the next NBA season.