Canadian Lacrosse Meets World Basketball

I had just finished watching the game when I received Karl’s message. The United States, led not by one-name celebrities like Kobe and LeBron but by the gifted young star, Kevin Durant, defeat Turkey to win the quadrennial FIBA championship. Order has been restored (again), and the Americans re-asserted their claim to the summit of the world’s basketball heap. This was not the “Redeem Team”, the collection of NBA royalty that brought the Olympic Gold back to the United States from Beijing after the humiliation of a bronze medal in 2004. (After a long tradition of Olympic gold, the Americans silvered in a controversial final-game loss to the Soviets in 1972, and bronzed in 1988, the last time they sent a group of college kids into the five rings. The famous “Dream Team” of 1992 – Larry, Magic, Michael, et al. – was supposed to signal the return of never-ending American mastery as the United States could thenceforth send its top professionals.) This FIBA championship was won by a group of mainly second-tier players (Durant being the exception); it was widely called an American “B Team”. This was a reminder that when the Americans prepare, defend and play together, even their subsidiary stars are dominant, except when it comes to shooting, which is a rant for another day.

Anyway, my friend Karl is a basketball guy, but he hasn’t been watching the FIBA Worlds. It was hard to watch in North America without a satellite dish. (And if you’re not yet sure that the earth is one country, he was writing from southern Ontario to me in northeastern China to find out about a hoops tourney in Turkey.) True to his ever-growing exploration of his Aboriginal heritage, Karl was more dialled in to Canada’s Mann Cup of “the Creator’s game” : lacrosse. (Sports Illustrated had a great feature this summer on the Iroquois Nationals field lacrosse team, a timely antidote to some of the recent scandals and tragedies branding lacrosse as a game for preppy, bratty white kids.)

Karl wrote: “My thoughts are mainly focused on the 101st annual Mann Cup series which began last night between New Westminster (British Columbia) Salmonbellies  and the host Peterborough (Ontario) Lakers….These 2 teams are stacked with professional players (NLL) and what’s bizarre about box lacrosse is that the Mann is more prestigious than the NLL championship, and after finishing the winter pro league these guys play all summer for an amateur team. Think Michael Jordan…playing for the Bulls and then playing streetball all summer for his local North Carolina men’s league…” Interesting analogy!

It occurred to me, though, that the American attitude toward FIBA 2010 is rather similar. The majority of sports fans in the U.S. paid little attention to this “weird foreign thingy” that the rest of the basketball world sees as the ultimate team contest, rivalling and, for some, even surpassing the Olympics, where hoops is just one small sideshow. What really matters to the Yanks is not the World Championships of the sport, but to get players and fans back to their country’s club league. I imagine the amateur club execs in New Westminster or bucolic Peterborough viewing the professional exertions of the Toronto Rock or the Washington Stealth (last winter’s National Lacrosse League finalists, for your information) mainly to gauge the development of players for the “real deal”: the pride of being a Salmonbelly or a Laker and winning the immortal Mann. American teams and their obsessed followers have the same view of the world tournament. Philadelphia 76ers forward Andre Iguodala’s FIBA experience is primarily viewed through this lens: “Hey, Iggy was a defensive stopper for the American team. Wonder if he can adopt that mentality with the Sixers? And, so, hey, did we win that feeble thing or what?” (That’s FIBA, friend. FIBA. It’s the international governing body of your favourite sport.)

Of course, the analogy breaks down, in that the Americans get paid bazillions to be on their club teams, and nothing to play for their country. But still, the lacrosse comparison is apt. In both cases, a localized sporting venue with a deeper tradition trumps a more universal competition that has shallower roots among fans and players. At least, at the Federation Internationale de Basketball  World Championships, U.S. fans have a successful team that they can largely ignore until breaking out the stars ‘n’ bars for the medal round. We Canuck hoops fans had to be glad that we qualified this time, and find some way to understand (or forget) that Canada lost to Lebanon and New Zealand on the way to an 0-5 record. But hey! How ’bout those Salmonbellies? 

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