The Basketball World Cup

Benjamin Markovits

The basketball World Cup ended on Sunday. The world won – they beat the Americans four games to one. The world’s team is represented by Argentina, Australia (twice), Brazil, Canada, France (also twice), Italy, the US Virgin Islands, and a handful of other Americans. They are based in San Antonio, Texas. The club they play for is owned by the great-grandson of the inventor of the caterpillar-tread tractor. Their coach comes from Indiana, the son of a Serb father and Croat mother; he graduated from the Air Force with a degree in Soviet Studies. I mention all this because people get funny ideas about Texas. They think it's parochial.

Last year I wrote about how LeBron James and the Miami Heat broke my heart by stealing victory from the San Antonio Spurs, the team of my childhood, and by threatening the legacy of Michael Jordan by raising James a little closer to His Airness. There were various things at stake that matter a lot to basketball junkies and not much to anyone else. One of the comments on the piece was: ‘I will never understand the attraction of American sports.’ Perhaps it would help to describe what happened on Sunday in terms of football.

The Spurs not only got their revenge on the Heat this year, but set new records for revenge – including the widest aggregate margin of victory in an NBA Finals – even though their greatest player, Tim Duncan, turned 38 in April, their point guard Tony Parker is 32, and their ‘swing’ man Manu Ginobili will be 37 next month. These three players have made up the core of the Spurs team for the last dozen years. This is their fourth championship together; the last time they won was in 2007. It’s a little as if the 2004 Arsenal champions had decided to stick with Patrick Vieira (now 37), Ashley Cole (33) and Thierry Henry (36) year after declining year, until suddenly and surprisingly they pushed Man City to the final game of the 2012-13 season, only to give away the title on a last-minute defensive howler. That was it, everyone thought. You don’t get second chances in sport. Next year they’ll be even older, slower... But they followed up their near miss by running away with the 2013-14 League and destroying Man City in the FA Cup.

That’s part of the story. Having imagined all that, let’s also imagine that the 2004 Arsenal champions had won using the long-ball tactics that had ruled the Premiership for years; that they reinvented themselves, as their stars’ skills declined, into an equal-opportunity total-football attacking machine, which made their ageing side even better than it had been when they won seven years earlier; and that the new team would be the envy of other clubs and a model for everyone to follow. Because that’s probably what will happen. The standard formula for basketball success since Michael Jordan’s Bulls dominated the 1990s was superstar + star + supporting cast. The Spurs more or less followed that model (some of the players switched roles) until a few years ago, when they embraced a style of basketball that mashed old-school American virtues with football-inflected European basketball.

But none of this really explains why I’m happy, or why I spent Monday afternoon reading old box scores online. I’m happy because the team I used to fall asleep listening to on the radio has won again. You can’t repeat the past, Nick Carraway tells Gatsby; and Gatsby looks at him incredulously: ‘Why, of course you can.’ Of course you can. And this time they got it right.


  • 18 June 2014 at 1:39pm
    Chris Larkin says:
    It's amazing to think that Tim Duncan was just young player when he first lined up with David Robinson as the "Twin Towers". There was always something exotic about watching American sport on TV in the UK when I was younger and those two seemed on another planet to everyone else - glad to see that Duncan still is. Also that final paragraph about falling asleep listening to the radio brought back memories of when I was younger listening to the NFL via the American Forces Network, on a small hand-held radio that had to be pointed at exactly the right angle towards my bedroom window to have any reception at all. Listening through the static to the 1991 Redskins (I wish Snyder would change the name) got me hooked. Sadly for me they have yet to repeat that particular past.

  • 18 June 2014 at 2:31pm
    Harry Stopes says:
    I would love to watch such a football season, (except the City losing out part) - but I think this is not the effect you desire.

  • 18 June 2014 at 9:51pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Well, here’s an American take on the Spurs' victory and why it was so satisfying to many American basketball fans. It has to do with the two teams’ differing styles of play, and how the Spurs' style reflects an older approach that puts a premium on speed, agility, and constant movement of the ball in order to find “the open man” who can take an undefended or weakly defended shot, which has a better chance of going into the basket than a strongly defended one – obviously this idea has its counterpart in both ice-hockey and football (soccer, as we say over here), when the breakaway player, shaking all other defenders, is matched against the goalie who now has no defensive help. The contrasting style of play (which dominated for years) is the “big-man power game”, where the offense depends upon a collection of behemoths who, by virtue of being able to muscle defenders out of the way, get a lot of close-in shots. Such baskets are usually the opposite of “graceful” or cleverly set up. It’s the “slam-dunk” versus “the chess match”. The more fluid style of play, which is used by many US college teams, is why the NCAA college tournament (“March Madness”) is so popular on TV with US basketball fans – it allows for many a David to slay many a Goliath. For non-Americans I note that the NCAA is the co-ordinating and regulatory body of competitive college sports and the equivalent of “minor” or secondary leagues in professional sports, since it feeds its stars and best players into the professional leagues. The other aspect of the piece worth noting is the international cast of players on San Antonio’s team – US citizens have gotten used to this in many sports, including the “national pastime” (baseball), which is replete with Central and South American players, players from half-a-dozen Caribbean islands, Japanese (and a few Taiwanese) stars, and some Canadians and Australians. Most professional sports in the US have become international in the origins of their players, and it seems that the trend will continue to grow.