Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Indianapolis and the Death of the American Game

As the Indiana Pacers heroically staved off a late Miami Heat run to tie the Eastern Conference Finals series at two games a piece, I couldn't help but reflect on what had taken place in that same building eleven years ago. Then known as Conseco ( now Bankers Life) Fieldhouse hosted the 2002 FIBA world championships, a tournament that will forever be etched in the memories of American basketball fans. For the last ten years, dating back to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, America had dominated a sport that it had practically created, though Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the sport, was born and raised in Ontario. The United States was hosting a major international basketball event for the first time since the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta. Again, the Americans were highly favored to breeze through this tournament, as they had done in every major event for the last ten years, with the exception of the 1998 world championships in Athens, in which they had finished third, due to the absence of locked out NBA players. That was during the league's first major labor dispute that delayed the start of the 1999 season until February. Aside from that, the U.S. was dominant as long as it sent its NBA players to compete. In fact, they hadn't lost a game in which NBA stars were playing.

Former Indiana Pacer Reggie Miller was on the U.S. team that finished 6th at the FIBA world championships in 2002
The Americans breezed through group C, defeating Algeria, Germany, and China respectively. In the second preliminary round, the United States won its first two matches against Russia and New Zealand. It appeared as though the Americans were on pace to do what they had done in previous years, win with ease. But on September 4th 2002, the U.S. squared off with Argentina in a match that changed the sport forever. Led by Manu Ginobili, Argentina stunned the U.S. on its home floor in America's heartland of Indianapolis by the final score of 87-80. Reeling, the Americans headed into the knockout stage to face a very tough and experienced Yugoslavia team that featured Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, two players who had literally been robbed of a Western Conference title with the Sacramento Kings a couple months earlier by crappy officiating. In a closely contested game, the Yugoslavs came out victorious by a score of 81-78. The disappointing finish sent American basketball to the drawing board to conjure up a plan to bring the glory days of the Dream Team back to life. The American team wound up finishing 6th in that dreadful tournament, losing to Spain in the consolation round. The Americans would not win another major tournament until the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, but it took all the effort they could possibly give to sneak by Spain in the championship game.

Fortunately, the United States has won the last two major international events, the 2010 world championships, and the 2012 Olympic tournament, thanks to the guidance of Mike Krzyzewski. With the help of Kobe, LeBron, Carmelo, and Kevin Durant, it appears that American dominance in their sport has returned, but the loss in Indianapolis was truly the death of the American game, and the reincarnation of basketball as a legitimately international sport that any country can now have a chance at becoming a powerhouse in. With the FIBA world cup coming up in 2014, we may be entering the most globally competitive era of basketball yet.