One last trip around the Worlds
One of the World Championships' buzz words was "absentee," as in Kobe Bryant's absence.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It began with a furor over insurance costs and one Cuban's crusade to bar several players from risking their expensive limbs for an international tournament that would be largely ignored in America's basketball heartland.
It ended with a heated debate about on-court liabilities.
With nationwide shame.
With not just a furor but a full-blown crisis and scramble to understand What Went Wrong for the formerly unsinkable beast of international hoops.
In perhaps a precursor of how weird things would get, two of the players most controversially missing from the event landed in the same building recently. While Team USA was commemorating the 10-year anniversary of the original Dream Team by going 6-3 for a sixth-place finish, Kobe Bryant and Wang Zhizhi both wound up balling at Loyola Marymount.
Not on the same day, but both were unexpected pop-ins at LMU workouts.
Bryant didn't want to commit a month of his summer to national-team duty, but he did swoop in for some 1-on-1, 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 drills, matched mostly against Cleveland's Ricky Davis.
Wang joined in, too, finally leaving his L.A. summer hideaway for some top-level workouts after his expected omission from China's roster for the Worlds.
Chinese intimates never expected the AWOL center to play in Indianapolis, especially after the government decreed that Wang would have to return home for the Asian Games after the Worlds. Hoping instead to participate in his first NBA training camp, Wang now awaits Dallas' expected sign-and-trade deal -- most likely in exchange for a first-round pick -- that would provide him a new NBA employer.
Emanuel Ginobili was indeed The Manu among foreigners at the Worlds, in terms of impressing folks who hadn't seen him play yet. People couldn't stop talking about the way Ginobili drove the ball, took mid-air hits and still finished so strongly at the rim.
It'll be interesting to track now whether Spurs coach Gregg Popovich opts to start Ginobili at shooting guard over Steve Smith when the season starts. Remember, last season Popovich actually wanted to start Tony Parker at point guard right out of training camp & only to opt for Antonio Daniels in a bow to seniority.
Daniels wound up lasting only four games as a starter, and Pop might be too excited to hold off that long after this.
From here, maybe the most amazing thing about the Manu hoopla is that Ginobili, unlike so many international stars, doesn't have the purest stroke. He had everyone drooling in this tournament despite 3-for-28 shooting on 3-pointers.
Even with reinforcements, the Yanks would still have been facing problems. Plural. They would still have had a B-list roster, a coach in a slump and insufficient practice time to develop the chemistry and team play needed in a game with different rules and ever-improving competition.
Yao Ming made an attempt to speak English at every opportunity and made a pretty fair first impression on the floor. China lost seven of its eight games, but it's not Yao's fault that -- for all those dozens of 7-foot prospects the Chinese have -- his coaches can't find two decent guards.
Pau Gasol, unlike the United States, didn't cower after getting tagged with one black eye. More than the ring around his right socket, you noticed that Gasol has bulked up a bit. His confidence in Memphis should likewise swell nicely after Gasol helped Spain beat the Yanks in the fifth-place game.
New Zealand's Pero Cameron landed on the all-tournament team and probably even deserved it. The Kiwis had to have somebody on there after qualifying at Australia's expense, losing Sean Marks to an eye injury and still giving Yugoslavia a scare in the semifinals. Cameron isn't 6-foot-8, as listed -- and no way he's as light as 265 pounds, as listed. But he's fun to watch and has a serious feel for the game and the Haka, the Maori tribal dance New Zealand's team does before every game.
Yugoslavia's silky Marko Jaric, meanwhile, is ready to help the Clippers right away, and Brazil's Tiago Splitter, a 17-year-old center, is already being monitored by NBA scouts.
Then there's Argentina's Fabricio Oberto, who hung a tidy 28 points on Vlade Divac in Sunday's final. Oberto, 26, shot a mere 72.2 percent from the field over nine games, scoring at will inside Sunday with a succession of crafty, Divac-style dekes and scoops. All of which makes it look as though Pamesa Valencia of the Spanish League got the bargain of the offseason by signing the 6-10 center to a three-year deal.
Not even Angola, the original recipients of Charles Barkley's Welcome To The Pro Paint elbow, feared this Team USA. Argentina's big men, in particular, looked totally fearless when matched against the hosts. Which is a big reason why we saw three U.S. defeats in a span of four games after Lithuania had to settle for coming close twice in Sydney.
"Even when they were doing it (in 2000), at some level the Lithuanian players didn't believe it was actually happening," said Donnie Nelson, Lithuania's longtime assistant coach. "The fear factor is totally gone now."
Can't have an international sporting event without incidents, and this one had plenty:
"Every team has good things and bad things," Yugoslavia's Peja Stojakovic said calmly, albeit after the Yugos had outlasted Argentina for the title. "But we're not mad at him."
You surely heard dozens of times over the past few weeks that only Americans rank the summer Olympics ahead of the World Championships in prestige. Not so. A couple of foreign-born Mavericks -- Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash -- see it the same way.
|Give Nash some honesty points for admitting that mental and physical fatigue are the reasons he backed out of the Worlds, when he could have used Mavs owner Mark Cuban's insurance protests as the excuse to withdraw.|
"Of course," Nowitzki said. "If you're a sportsman of any kind, that's the ultimate, going to the Olympics."
Nowitzki often refers to an Olympic berth as "my dream" and vowed Sunday to be back in German colors next summer at the European Championships in Sweden to make sure his country qualifies. Germany will need a top-four finish to secure a place in the 2004 Games, but that's a reasonable expectation after placing No. 4 at the Euros in 2001 and snagging its first World Championships medal ever in Indianapolis.
As for Nash, he also fully intends to return to the national team for Olympic qualifying next summer. Give Nash some honesty points for admitting that mental and physical fatigue are the reasons he backed out of the Worlds, when he could have used Mavs owner Mark Cuban's insurance protests as the excuse to withdraw. With Canada already hit by the injury pullouts of Todd MacCulloch and Jamaal Magloire, Nash couldn't hide the fact that he struggled to muster the requisite enthusiasm for carrying a short-handed team that would have no shot at a medal in Indy.
Because, to Nash, the Worlds ain't the Olympics.
That 2004 U.S. Olympic squad will be scrutinized at least as closely as inaugural rock stars from the Dream Team. No matter who's playing.
Just three months late, Stojakovic and Divac finally have their championship.
Not that it gets them any closer to that other championship &or past their Laker Hangover. They understand that FIBA ball doesn't translate to June glory.
"That's a different story," Stojakovic said with a laugh. "We just hope we have the same opportunity we had last year to get to the Finals."
Marc Stein is the NBA senior writer for ESPN.com.
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