Back to Basics

The player in the photo is the legendary Nikos Galis who won the 1987 Eurobasket with Greece. The reason he is a legend is the same reason most people have never heard of him, but we’ll get back to that later.

Over the years we’ve all grown accustomed to professional sports being another form of show business. If reading the preceding line makes you wonder what the heck else professional sport should be, that goes to show how ingrained the commercial aspect of it has become.

Throughout history and until not too long ago, the only thing to be gained or lost by victory and defeat was an athlete’s pride and dignity (and sometimes life, in the most extreme cases). Moreover the entire family, town, region or country’s pride was on the line as well, which is how the concept of ‘fans’ came to be in the first place.

Nowadays athletes no longer seem to be motivated by dignity alone. In many cases they no longer seem to care whom or what they represent as long as they’re getting paid (especially in team sports). Fortunately, there are still some sporting events where pride and dignity still rule the day. Where competitions that demand everything from an athlete and provide (almost) nothing materialistic in return are still the norm. I am referring to international cups and championships, where countries are represented by the best of their best in a sportsmanlike setting that holds some resemblance to the way sports were back in the day.

Let us not be naïve: there are huge amounts of cash involved in international competitions nowadays, way more than ever before. But so far, by some miracle this money hasn’t found its way down to the athletes on the field just yet. And so, as of now, these rare competitions remain largely commercially untainted from a purely athletic point of view.

One of these ‘pure motives’ sporting events is the Eurobasket, formerly known as the European Basketball Championship. It is the longest running international basketball competition in the world and has been around since 1935. Every two years the best European players gather for a sacred showing of skill and ambition to determine which country may claim being the continent’s best in the world’s second most popular sport.

“Why should anyone give a hoot” might be the uninformed opinion shared by some people presented with this information. A quick glance at the European game reveals a very disturbing detail to the average replay-fed NBA fanatic: there is a lack of ‘in-your-face dunks’.

Sure, the NBA is the golden standard by which all modern basketball should be regarded, but what about the old game we left behind? What about the beauty of teamwork and sharing the ball, which eliminates the need for the ‘in-your-face dunk’? What about real zone defense, where all 5 players are sacrificing their bodies for the sake of the team? What about true devotion that can only be shown when playing for country and flag?

It is almost as if the average NBA fan has been programmed to respond only to a certain kind of basketball- where good offense always beats a terrible defense and individual stars are valued more than the collective effort. Of course if that sounds familiar than it is only because today’s NBA is a far cry from Magic’s and Bird’s. Most fans today either lack the years and culture to realize what good basketball is, or have been brainwashed by too many alley-hoop/slam dunk replays.

Whatever the case may be there seems to be a huge undeserved disrespect for the European level of play. And by that I mean that the lack of “alley-hoops” and “slam dunks” have come to be interpreted as an indication of a substandard game. Sure, the occasional overpowering or juking by one player going alone to the basket is a lovely sight. But when those become the main events and overshadow the basic essence of our beloved game, than we’ve lost sight of its most beautiful quality: teamwork.

When athletes are only playing for an extension on their max contract or when they start to get the feeling that they have no fans they have to answer to (e.g. LeBron zigzagging between Cleveland and Miami), they become “super-ego’ed”. Which is a state of mind in which the player comes first and the team second. This phenomenon results in great individual performances that the ‘average Joe’ has come to worship.

But given that basketball is meant to be a team sport, it isn’t hard for an educated fan to pick up on the many downsides this phenomenon might have. Constant one on one defense has made the game predictable and stencil-like, while giving one more pass for the sake of an easy shot is unheard of unless you’re the San Antonio spurs.

These are exactly the reasons why the Eurobasket is not to be overlooked. The European Basketball Championship is always there to remind us how basketball used to be played in the time before big stars and big money. The teamwork oriented fundamentals of the European game combined with national pride and the star quality of an occasional NBA player is a winning recipe.

The score might be on the low side in some games, but let that not deter you, as it is only proof of the commitment to defense. The offensive possession might seem somewhat slower, but don’t lose patience – collaboration game takes more time. And the fans will definitely be louder, meaning that ‘taking sides’ has never been so much fun.

So with all due respect, the NBA and its diehard fans could stand to learn a few things from the Europeans, for what they might lack in skill they make up for with passion and devotion. Just like Nikos Galis, who turned down numerous NBA contract offers back in the 80’s because they would not have allowed him to represent his country in the Eurobasket.