SPORTS

Fast break!

Canada hosts the World Championship of Basketball

JAMES DEACON August 8 1994
SPORTS

Fast break!

Canada hosts the World Championship of Basketball

JAMES DEACON August 8 1994

Fast break!

SPORTS

Canada hosts the World Championship of Basketball

JAMES DEACON

Eleven days before the tip-off of the 1994 World Championship of Basketball in Toronto and Hamilton, the home team was scrimmaging in a concrete-walled gymnasium. The University of Toronto facility resounded with the squeaks of rubber shoes on gleaming hardwood and the grunts of exertion as the players strained not only against one another, but against the heat. Humid and airless, the sweltering gym was better suited to hydroponic gardening than it was to basketball, but the players soldiered on, girding themselves for the challenges ahead. They will not have to endure the same sweatbox atmosphere at Maple Leaf Gardens, where Canada will play its first two games in the 11-day tournament beginning on Aug. 4. Organizers will provide temporary air-conditioning in that otherwise stifling building. But at the university gym, the players would have to make do.

‘We’re here because there is no other decent downtown basketball facility anywhere in this city,” rued Dan Malamet, program manager for Basketball Canada.

“It’s ridiculous, but it’s true.”

Hockey-crazed Canadians traditionally have not paid much attention to basketball, despite its worldwide popularity and the fact that it was the brainchild of James Naismith, a native of Almonte, Ont., near Ottawa. But that is about to change—or so basketball’s backers hope. The National Basketball Association has awarded expansion franchises to Vancouver and Toronto, to start play in the 1995-1996 season. And, more immediately, the world championship will be the first to boast the presence of an NBA all-star team—dubbed Dream Team II after the U.S. squad that dribbled off with the gold medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The media attention paid to such superstars as Orlando Magic centre Shaquille O’Neal and Boston Celtics forward Dominique Wilkins means that the once obscure world championship—and Canada’s mostly unknown soldiers in the Maple Leaf singlets—are going prime time. And that, say organizers, is precisely the point. “I’ll bet that a lot of Canadians probably did not know that we have a national basketball team before this event,” said John Bitove Jr., who headed the bid to bring the event to Toronto—the same John Bitove Jr. who has since won the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise. “By the time the event is over, some of these kids may even be household names.”

Well, maybe: the food-service magnate acknowledges that the event has not been the easiest sell. NBA professionals were not allowed to participate in the previous 11 world championships, so the competition got little coverage in North America. Still, he and the organizing team bid for the tournament in 1992 after the original site, Belgrade, became unworkable amid Yugoslavia’s political strife. “For

someone like myself, who has always been a die-hard basketball fan, this event seemed like a great opportunity,” Bitove said. Fifteen corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Kellogg’s and Sears Canada, felt the same way. They collectively underwrote part of the tournament’s $11 million in costs in hopes of winning the attention of basketball’s youthful fans. Organizers say that income from sponsorships and ticket sales exceeded the break-even point two weeks before the championship began. The profit will be split 80-20 between Canadian amateur basketball organizations and FIBA, the sport’s world governing body.

For the Canadian team, the world championship presents an opportunity to regain its pride after a couple of down years internationally. In 1992, the Canadians lost their bid to compete in the Summer Olympics when what was touted as one of Canada’s greatest teams ever suffered a heartbreaking one-point loss to Venezuela in the final qualifying game. Last summer, missing many of its top players, the team finished seventh in a world championship qualifying tournament in Puerto Rico. But Canada could afford a low ranking—it was guaranteed entry as the host country. The team’s current members say they are ready to make good on that free pass. With financial help from some of the championship’s sponsors, coach Ken Shields was able to keep 14 players, including for-

ward Martin Keane of Toronto and guard J. D. Jackson of Vancouver, together throughout the year to form the nucleus of the team. Boston Celtics forward Rick Fox, a Toronto native, signed on after the NBA season ended, as did several professionals who play in Europe and South America, including seven-foot centre Greg Wiltjer from Sidney, B.C. “We have improved significantly over last year, which we had to do,” Shields says. “Last summer was a foundation thing, coming up with a core of guys who would commit to the program.” Shields offered no predictions about how Canada would finish, but added: “I think that we are going to surprise some people. We can compete.”

To some extent, the tournament needs Canada to do well to sustain interest around the country. “Because it is in Toronto, there will be a lot of pressure on us,” said Keane. “But we are used to that because we have goals of our own.” The team showed promise during a recent tour in Europe, where it recorded victories over Russia, Germany, Italy, Croatia and Spain—losing only once to the same Spanish team. Those performances, and perhaps the home-court advantage, have prompted analysts to predict that Canada will battle Croatia, Spain and Russia for the silver and bronze medals. But Canada must first finish in the top two of its four-team pool, which includes Russia, Argentina and the surprisingly strong Angolans. “The goal is to qualify for the the medal round, the final eight teams,” said Rick Traer, executive director of Basketball Canada. “In that round, anything can happen.” Anything except beat the Americans, the overwhelming favorites to capture the gold. The second coming of the Dream Team has done wonders for the event’s profile: all of its games are expected to sell out and will be shown on national U.S. television. But it has also deprived the event of much of its competitive allure. Not surprisingly, the Dreamers sound supremely confident. “I want to destroy the competition,” declared Indiana Pacers sharpshooter Reggie Miller. To motivate themselves, the Americans seem intent on topping the performance of even the original Dream Team, a historic collabora-

tion of mythic talents that included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. “My opinion is that the second Dream Team is younger and faster than the original,” said Seattle’s Shawn Kemp. Don Nelson, the team’s head coach, is more diplomatic but no less assured. “It’s going to feel very special when we win the gold medal,” Nelson said. When, not if.

Certainly, the U.S. team possesses extraordinary firepower. In two years in the NBA, O’Neal has established himself as one of the sport’s dominating players. Wilkins has been called “the human highlight film” for his spectacular scoring touch. Others—Alonzo Mourning, Mark Price, Steve Smith and on and on—are less recognizable but no less formidable on the court. Nelson’s main task will be to convince players who are the main men on their respective NBA teams to play smaller roles on the national squad. “I have 12 great players,” he said, “and there aren’t enough minutes of playing time for all of them.”

The NBA did the event a favor in freeing its players to compete for the United States, but the league gets its own reward. Rick Welts, president of NBA Properties, said involvement in international events has increased awareness of the league and its stars around the world. As a result, annual sales of NBA licensed products outside the United States have grown to $400 million from $14 million since the inception in 1987 of the McDonald’s Open—a biannual round-robin tournament featuring an NBA squad against European club teams. The biggest jump occurred following the original Dream Team’s Olympic success.

There is no doubting the game’s spread worldwide. Brazil, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Spain and Italy, among others, all support top-level pro leagues. Despite the troubles of newfound autonomy and neighboring civil strife, Croatia boasts a powerful basketball program that has yielded NBA stars Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls, Dino Radja of the Celtics and the late Drazen Petrovic, a pure scorer with the New Jersey Nets who was killed in a car crash in Europe last summer. Although South Korea and Egypt are not expected to challenge the favorites, their place in the world championship testifies to the sport’s global appeal.

The long-term hope of Canadian officials is that

basketball will enjoy the grassroots growth that baseball experienced after the Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays joined the major leagues. In the early 1970s, there were only a handful of Canadians playing at all levels of professional baseball, while now there are dozens in the minor leagues and nine in the majors. But basketball has already made an impression on young Canadians, for whom NBA licensed clothing—Chicago Bulls jackets, Charlotte Hornets hats—has become almost a uniform. “The growth of the sport’s popularity was

happening before the world championship and the NBA’s expansion into Canada were being discussed,” said Basketball Canada’s Traer.

Now, the country is in for some entertaining basketball. And—call it blind faith—the Canadian team has not conceded the gold medal to the Americans. “We know that it is a David-versus-Goliath situation, that the United States team is superior,” said Shields. “Nevertheless, there’s always a spark of hope. They may be the Dream Team, but for us, this is a dream opportunity. What have we got to lose?” If they cannot pull off a miracle on hardwood, the Canadians are willing to settle for a more modest goal. Someday, they say, they would like better training facilities than the sweaty gym in Toronto. □