FIBA World Championship has long, colorful history

by Ed Odeven

World Cup soccer’s exploits have been well chronicled. Basketball’s international competitions, excluding Olympic gold-medal games, have received much-less attention from the sporting press.

News photo Manu Ginobili, star of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, will lead reigning
Olympic champion Argentina in the FIBA World Championship in Japan.
AP PHOTO

Perhaps you know that Dr. James Naismith invented the game in 1891 in Springfield, Mass. It was first played with a soccer ball, peach baskets and — get this — nine players on each team. But it’s safe to say that the majority of sports fans couldn’t rattle off a plethora of facts about basketball’s world championship.

Or even know that a basketball world championship was first held several years before the Beatles topped the pop charts.

So here is a rundown on what’s happened since FIBA, basketball’s governing body, established the parameters for the first world championship in London in 1948.

In 1950, in Buenos Aires, the United States, France, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Spain, Yugoslavia and Egypt participated in the inaugural tournament.

Argentina, which placed 15th at the 1948 Summer Olympics, captured the championship trophy, topping the U.S. squad 64-50 before more than 25,000 fans at Luna Park Arena. But this much is certain: The U.S. didn’t field its best team; it sent a team of factory workers from a Chevrolet plant in Denver, instead of holding tryouts for top collegiate and pro players.

Chile was the third-place finisher.

The tourney returned to South America in 1954, this time shifting to Rio de Janeiro. Twelve nations, excluding the Soviet Union, Eastern bloc countries — remember this was during the Cold War — competed for the top prize.

Team USA won the championship for the first time, beating Brazil 62-41. Another corporate squad, Caterpillar, an industrial manufacturing company, brought its best players to Rio.

The Philippines took the bronze medal.

Five years later, the world tournament was held again. Santiago de Chile, Chile, was the host city.

Interestingly enough, games were contested on a soccer field that was converted for hoops.

This tourney marked the Soviet Union’s first appearance at worlds, and it displayed its basketball prowess, posting victories in all of its final-round games. But again, politics reared its ugly head at a sporting venue. The Soviets declined to face Chinese Formosa (now known as Taiwan). This forced tournament officials to change things on the fly. Thus, the Soviets were dropped to next-to-last, while the Brazilians, Americans and Chileans were awarded the first-, second, and third-place spots.

In 1963, Rio was the host again, even though FIBA had planned to designate Manila as the host city.

What caused the change?

The Filipino government wouldn’t issue visas to socialist countries.

This time, Brazil won the title outright, besting Yugoslavia by a 90-71 score. The Soviets placed third.

The U.S. squad, meanwhile, suffered defeats to Brazil, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.

In an all-European final in 1967, in Montevideo, the Soviets defeated Yugoslavia, winning the title for the first time. Brazil dropped to third, while the U.S. was fourth.

The tournament was held in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia, in 1970. The hosts grabbed the title, the Brazilians were the runnersup and the Soviets placed third.

FIBA.com has now dubbed that American squad a second-fiddle university team and it showed. It placed fifth.

In Puerto Rico, the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Team USA finished 1-2-3 in 1974. Yugoslavia returned to the top in the 1978 World Championship in Manila. It topped the century mark in points in five games, but beat the Soviets 82-81 in the final. Brazil was third.

An American squad — known as Athletes In Action — lost four games, while winning three.

In 1982, the Americans and Soviets met in the final, which was held in Colombia. Future NBA standout point guard Glenn “Doc” Rivers and Co. came up short, 95-94, after having beaten their Cold War rival just days before. Credit went to Russian center Vladimir Tkatchenko for being a force in the middle.

Yugoslavia earned the bronze.

Four years later, in six Spanish cities, 24 nations competed in the biggest World Championship ever. Greece, Angola and Malaysia were among the countries making their debut at worlds.

This time, the U.S. squad, led by dominating center David Robinson, diminutive guard Tyrone “Muggsy” Bogues and versatile Derrick McKey, grabbed the title, but not without a dramatic title game against its archrival. Team USA edged the Soviet Union 87-85 in that contest. Perennial contender Yugoslavia was No. 3.

In 1990, the 11th World Championship was held in Argentina. An American team featuring Kenny Anderson, Billy Owens and Alonzo Mourning slipped to third.

Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and Vlade Divac, all of whom became household names in the NBA, carried Yugoslavia to the championship, including a convincing 92-75 victory over the Soviets in the title game.

Dream Team II, which followed in the footsteps of the ultra-popular Michael Jordan-, Magic Johnson- and Larry Bird-led Dream Team from the 1992 Barcelona Summer Games, was a resounding success in 1994 in Toronto.

U.S. stars Shaquille O’Neal, Dominique Wilkins and Reggie Miller were part of a 137-91 dismantling of Russia in the final. Croatia, now an independent country, finished third. Shaq was the tourney MVP.

Yugoslavia earned its fourth title in 1998 in Athens with a 64-62 decision over Russia. The U.S., which didn’t field a so-called Dream Team for this extravaganza because of the NBA lockout, dropped to third.

And, finally, in 2002, the U.S. was the host nation. The games were held in basketball-crazed Indiana’s biggest city, Indianapolis.

This was a wide-open tournament. The U.S. squad’s 58-game winning streak ended with a seven-point loss to Argentina and a three-point defeat to the eventual champ, Serbia and Montenegro, a federation which once comprised part of the former Yugoslavia, secured the championship with an 84-77 overtime triumph over Manu Ginobili and Argentina.

Germany, sparked by tourney MVP Dirk Nowitzki, rolled past New Zealand in the third-place game.

The 2010 World Championship will be held in Turkey.