STAR ABSENCE CLOUDS WORLD CUP RELAUNCH

The NBA’s finest are sitting out the FIBA World Cup qualifiers – and they are not amused.

Friday for Ersan Ilyasova will be just another day for Atlanta Hawks forward. Practice, recovery, preparation for his next NBA game.

But in between, he expects, there will be regular checks online to see how his other team is faring, 4000 miles away in Bursa.

Frustration will likely be the main emotion, he says, when Turkey host Latvia in their opening qualifier for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.

The revamped international schedule starts here with competitive games held in-season and leading players held out with the NBA’s contingent, plus all but a handful of Euroleague representatives, now denied the latitude to pull on their country’s vest during windows inconveniently slated for November and February.

Unlike football, there is no mandatory release during term time. Countries have been asked to field who they can, not who they’d ideally want.

“It is really tough, especially for us NBA guys,” Ilyasova told MVP. “We have four guys who would be playing for (the) national team but now there’s no way for us to leave. The way they’ve made the schedule, it’s impossible for us to come.”

The logic, from when the radical alteration was first mooted in 2012, has been to boost the status of national teams, many of whom rarely have competitive games on home soil.

That, FIBA promised, would generate more sponsorship, greater broadcast revenues and fan interest – in addition to the side bet of lowering player workload.

Noble idea.

Yet harsh reality has not matched the fantasy. Several nations, including France, have claimed a drop in interest now that their headline acts have been stripped of its most notable performers. The global governing body has been forced to come up with an extra 30 million Euros from its reserves to meet TV production costs.

The product, critics say, has been devalued immeasurably. Which may pose long-term risks for the health of basketball when the consumers buy a ticket, only to find their favourite compatriot is Missing In Action (elsewhere).

“Because what I don’t want is the fan base to lose the momentum,” argues Memphis Grizzles and Spain centre Marc Gasol. “We don’t have that many basketball fans.

“We’ve grown, sure, but we don’t want to put a hit on it by confusing the fans with ‘who’s going to play when?’ That sends the wrong message to the kids. “And for me, that’s the most important part: motivating and inspiring the young ones.”

As so often, the crossfire in the endless shootout between FIBA and Euroleague has created victims in the middle. The players, especially in Europe, have been asked to choose between national duty – and genuine pleasure for representing their nation – and those who pay their wages.

The NBA has never bought into the concept from the outset. And even the previous calendar, which latterly crammed everything into late-summer, was far from ideal, Ilyasova says.

Ilyasova wants change Pic: FIBA

“They need to figure it out. Even during the summer, they need to find a way with the tournaments – and the exhibition games – to change it. The young guys who are based in Turkey, it’s ok for them to participate. But for us, there is a problem.”

The Euroleague’s compromise to corral most FIBA-run tournaments into late-June and July has already been dismissed but that would be an upgrade on the present position, the Turk adds.

“You have a good example with the Olympics, where you had a qualification tournament before the Games. That makes more sense because otherwise, they had qualification in the summer when you could play all year. But it is tough, having a full season and then participating for the national team.

“Look at the last European Championship. It was moved to September, finishing on the 20th and NBA training camps started on the 25th.

“So you have just five days off. The best thing is then to move it to August. But you have that battle between FIBA and Euroleague. All the discussion. It’s tough for the players in there.”

And hard for the fans who will gather over this long weekend in Europe – and on continents far from here.

 

The United States, playing a first competitive fixture on home terrain since 2007 when they meet Puerto Rico on Thursday, is opening its qualification run with 11 players from the G-League and one free agent.

Spain will visit Montenegro without a single member of the dozen which came third at EuroBasket 2017.

There, and in other spots, the flags may be waved as fervently as before while some ask of their players ‘who are you?’

Elder viewers may have some nostalgia reawakened. The football-type format worked in the past, of course. Twenty years ago, in-season windows were the norm.

“When I first started – my first national team game was in 1997 – that’s what we had,” Dallas Mavericks’ German totem Dirk Nowitzki recounts. “There was an international break in November and February, or whatever it was, and that’s what I grew up knowing.”

But the world was smaller then and the NBA was largely an all-American affair. Not any more. Hence the premise will second-stringers employed in the qualifying race to the World Cup and the first unit – providing their country survives – redeployed for the finals.

“How unfair is that?” asked Ettore Messina, the San Antonio Spurs assistant and now-former Italy coach who has traded barbs with FIBA over what he calls a “humiliation” for those affected.

Nowitzki has retired from Germany (Getty/NBAE)

“Obviously it does hurt for all the NBA guys, especially for countries like France who usually have six, seven, eight NBA players – that’s tough,” Nowitzki underlines.

“I’m sure they weren’t a big fan of that. But for me, that’s how I grew up learning it. So I guess it’s really going back to the old days.”

There are two further windows next summer, in June and September. FIBA have talked up the possible return of NBA goliaths for those games although most have hinted they will sit out. For some, a return might already be futile if fatal damage has already been done.

For all the proposed upsides, the negatives are confusion and pain. Dialogue for a review must be held, Gasol declares.

“By having different teams,” he asserts. “Why is this guy playing here but not there? Because of some conflict at the very top.

“I think we all need to sit down and make it work for everybody and have the best teams possible out there because it’s good for the sport.”

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