The official motto of Fédération Internationale de Basketball, widely known as FIBA, is “We are basketball”, and it wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that the executives of the international basketball governing body may have taken its meaning a little tad literally recently. With a series of actions, varying from introducing a new european competition with the aim to rival EuroCup and threatening to ban clubs and federations that participate there to changing the international calendar and enforcing more international games at will (with aims that are not officially expressed but can be believed to be market-share and authority-showing related), the international federation has managed to solve less problems than the troubles it created for european basketball.
Of course, there is an argument for everything and FIBA has offered arguments with great generosity. That “Domestic leagues are the cornerstone of the development of players, teams and the sport as a whole”, “Clubs need to know which criteria they must fulfil to participate in international competitions and these criteria must be fair and related to the sport itself” and “The EuroBasket can reach a much bigger audience and in order for that to happen more games need to be played in places where fans can go and watch their teams” are only some of them and the only way to understand if they are valid, hold at least some truth or are plain excuses for the people that run FIBA to do what they want in the name of the sport, is to go back and look at how and why FIBA was formed, how it ran its competitions back then and how it is running them now, and, last but not least, who are the people behind the acronym.
And this look must be a judicial one.
Tales from the beginning of times
Not more than two years after basketball was recognised by the International Olympic Committee, in 1930, Fédération Internationale de Basketball Amateur was founded, as a non-profit organisation, by eight countries in two continents (Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Portugal, Romania and Switzerland), and has been the only authority in basketball recognised by the IOC since the International Handball Federation disowned its responsibility for the sport in 1934. FIBA’s first major success came two years later with the inclusion of basketball in the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin – an achievement that is widely attributed to one of the federation’s founding fathers, William Jones, a gentleman born in Rome of Italy in 1906.
Renato William Jones, as is his full name, is very accurately described as a “popularizer of basketball” in wikipedia and his CV includes the positions of Secretary-General of FIBA for 44 years (from 1932 to 1976), the position of the International Council of Sport and Physical Education (from 1958) an inclusion to both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (in 1964) and FIBA Hall of Fame (in 2007) as well as the title of “patron” in the Amateur Basketball Association of basketball (in 1973). His offer to the sport transcended continental borders, pushing and striving for more and more countries to join FIBA, and as a result his name has been given to the FIBA Intercontinental Cup and the Renato William Jones Cup that takes place in Taipei, Taiwan.
But, as much as Mr William Jones has helped the sport to grow, there is one major incident that he starred at, which is not only interesting as one of basketball’s most bizarre stories but also demonstrates the attitude that FIBA executives seemed to have, at least from a certain point onwards: It was at the very early hours of September 10th, 1972 at the Summer Olympics in Munich and, with the score at 49-50 after two free throws made by the US and just three seconds on the clock, the United States team was about to take their 64th win in 64 olympic games and earn their 8th consecutive gold medal. Their opponents, the Soviet Union, where inbounding the ball but as soon as Sergey Belov approached the middle of the court the game was stopped by Renato Righetto, one of the game’s referees, with less than two seconds remaining, as chaos had erupted in the officials table: The Soviets were complaining that they had called for a timeout in between the free throws (as per the rules at the time) and that they should be given one and then start their last play with three seconds on the clock. In an action over his authorities, Jones rushed from his seat down to the officials table to make sure that the Soviets will be given those two “extra” seconds for their last play of the game. A lot has been written about these three seconds by publications such as ESPN, Los Angeles Times and The Guardian (my fellow greeks reading this should definitely pay The Ball Hog a visit and read about the story in all of its glory), 30 for 30 has an episode about it, and as the Soviets won the gold medal after a total of three attempts for the inbounding play to be made and the Americans refused to receive their silver medals we had our first case of FIBA not just governing and supervising the game but putting itself in the court, between players, staff, teams, referees and officials.
Before that, FIBA had organised and ran 6 World Cups (hugely influenced by the success of the olympic tournaments – and ran in between the Olympiads) as well as 17 EuroBasket tournaments with the totals today summing to 17 and 39 respectively. 70 and 62 different national teams have participated in those tournaments (taking into consideration all the countries that consisted, for example, Yugoslavia). Not that some of those did not feature interesting incidents too: The refereeing at the 1995 EuroBasket final that was held in Athens between Yugoslavia and Lithuania made the Lietuvans leave the court only to return after their opponents persuaded them to and then the greek fans boo the Yugoslav team· that at the 2010 World Championship semi-final between Turkey, that was hosting it, and Serbia gave the home team the ticket to the final· and that at the 2015 FIBA Asia Championship was the icing to the “China has to win it” cake that a lot of competing teams were offered during the tournament that was hosted in, rightly-guessed, China.
Wildcards were (and maybe still are) one of FIBA’s favourite ways to be involved in the game: Greece, Turkey and Finland received two in the past two tournaments (EuroBasket 2013 and World Cup 2014 – with Turkey getting one for the World Cup of 2006 too) while Serbia and Montenegro, Lithuania, Russia, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Lebanon are the other eight (totalling to 10) teams lucky (or rich) enough to have gotten one since 2006.
FIBA in Europe, as is the official name of the european “branch” of FIBA – more about the structure here, has also had its moments with the late 90s-early 00s being a very eventful period in regards to the club-level competitions scenery: The 1996 Euroleague (as the FIBA European Champions Cup was unofficially known) Final in Paris, featuring Panathinaikos and Barcelona, has its special place in every european basketball fan’s memory and heart with a series awful calls in the last minutes and a series of unfortunate events taking place in the last seconds. Then, at the beginning of the Millennium, FIBA decided to completely ignore the leagues and clubs that got together and created ULEB and, later, Euroleague (yes, FIBA hadn’t put a copyright on the name that was used for its competition for years) as well as the dissatisfactions that resulted in those and we had a season that ended with two continental champions and during which fans had to make up their minds and decide between Euroleague and SuproLeague.
Basketball and FIBA Hall of Famer Borislav “Bora” Stankovic, born in Bihać of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is the-man-to-blame for numerous of FIBA’s wrongdoings in Europe during the period he was at the helm. As you can read on Evagelos Karagiannakidis’ piece about the events that led in the ‘00-’01 split, his “bureaucratic face” was the obstacle that many other people and the sport as a whole faced when it was calling for actions that would take it some steps forward. There is a story going around about the owners of the top clubs flying to Yugoslavia to meet him only to have none of their thoughts even considered by the Secretary General. However, credit should be given where credit is due and this text would be of major unfairness if his role in the elimination of the rule that only allowed amateur players to participate in FIBA tournaments was not not only mentioned but strongly emphasised. Although late (decided in 1989), this elimination allowed for NBA professionals to join the national team of the United States of America and gave the basketball world the chance to witness probably the best combination of basketball talent there ever was: The 1992 Olympic Games “Dream Team”. Expanding on the subject of “everyone playing everywhere”, Borislav Stankovic also had a key role in many european (and mostly Yugoslav) players making the reverse trip, encouraging a lot of them to try their talents in the NBA.
A whole lof of european competitions
With a good idea of how things were set up and ran universally by FIBA one can now start focusing in Europe in specific. And the result is not to disappoint:
Looking to follow football’s success, FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball) discussed the idea of a European Champions Cup during the 1957 FIBA European Championship in Bulgaria. Renato William Jones, set up a commission consisting of Miloslav Kriz (from Czechoslovakia), Nikolai Shemasko (from the Soviet Union), Raimundo Saporta (from Spain) and Borislav Stankovic (from Yugoslavia) and asked for ideas and proposals.
National basketball federations were invited to send their domestic league champions and one year later, in 1958, clubs from 23 countries (including, among others, Finland, Turkey, Israel, Syria and Lebanon) participated in the first FIBA European Cup for Men’s Champion Clubs (or Champions Cup) with ASK Riga winning the trophy.
The competition saw quite some changes in the number of teams that were participating, its format and the countries that were sending clubs but a very significant one took place in its 35th season (1991-1992) when teams that were not domestic league winners were also invited and the competition was renamed as FIBA European League and FIBA EuroLeague in 1996-1997.
FIBA managed to run the only european competition until the 99-00 season when the events analysed here took place.
The state of play today
Any discussion regarding the current situation with FIBA in Europe needs to include the Zanolin-Rafnsson episode: On May 7th, 2012 FIBA Europe Secretary General Nar Zanolin was sacked after the meeting of the executive committee called by FIBA Europe President Olafur Rafnsson. As reported by TalkBasket, FIBA Europe was opposing to FIBA’s proposal for a revised calendar and there were even thoughts of (and probably actions for) a separation from it (in a manner similar to the FIFA-UEFA situation). Zanolin was sacked and that’s how the story ended (although, as Mindaugas Balciunas, former Secretary General of the Lithuanian Federation, later said, Zanolin managed to win a court case against the sacking and was compensated).
On September 27 we watched the first round of qualifying games for FIBA’s Basketball Champions League. A competition that had started as a proposal to the continent’s top clubs, evolved into a competition with champions from various not-so-strong leagues and, when it looked like it would have been the third-tier competition in Europe, ended up being a pretty strong opponent to Euroleague’s EuroCup, even “stealing” some of its teams. You can read about the events that led to that in Vassilis Kagias’ piece about the current schism in european basketball but, for the sake of our judicial look at FIBA’s actions, it’s worth putting some more attention to two of them:
FIBA introduced mid-season qualification periods for the national teams that go hand in hand with its own Basketball Champions League but completely neglect any other kind of competition. EuroLeague and EuroCup might be of zero interest to FIBA but national leagues also suffer from this decision. As reported by SportsProMedia in May last year, after Fransisco Roca (Chief Executive of ACB) expressed his concerns about the new calendar saying, “eight top European leagues, including those in Spain, Germany, Italy, France and Greece, sent an official letter to FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann rejecting the federation’s proposal to schedule national team games during the club calendar from 2017 onwards – a move that would disrupt national league schedules and, to a lesser extent, the Euroleague. The letter, undersigned by Euroleague Commercial Assets (ECA), the Euroleague’s commercial arm, described FIBA’s calendar reforms as “unacceptable” and urged the federation “to sit down” with representatives of Europe’s national leagues and clubs “in order to find a suitable solution, maintaining the principles that are shared by all basketball stakeholders”.
These calendar changes created troubles not only in Europe but also in the US, with disagreements from the NBA boldly expressed already. And if Mark Cuban is famous for his crazy statements every now and then and his “So instead of giving our best players for free to their National Teams so the Olympic Committee and GE (General Electric which owns NBC, which owns Olympic Games TV rights) can make free money I would create an International NBA Basketball Tournament” can (and probably should) be taken with a pinch of salt, “our” own Goran Dragic’s shouldn’t. As ESPN reported three years ago, the Slovenian guard expressed his doubts at the possibility of joining his national team for those games: “It’s a tough season. You have 82 games. Even at All-Star break, we have only five days off. Especially for me, coming from Phoenix. I have to switch planes three times and it takes 22 hours to get back to my home country.”. The same article has a league official, asking to remain anonymous, saying “It will just become a glorified under-20 tournament. You will get even less guys wanting to come than now.” and while you are not going to see many of these anonymous sources used in articles on this website, the above statement is probably quite valid.
It’s quite possible that FIBA believes that it can make more out of its market. The threat of a downgrade of the qualification games and, consequently, of the main tournament itself is a real one. Consider, for example, Giannis Antetokounbo’s efforts to convince the Bucks management to allow him to participate in the qualification tournament for the 2016 Rio Olympics and imagine him having to do that every time.
Threats, threats and more threats
FIBA threatened national federations that if they allow their teams to participate in the EuroCup they would see their national teams banned from the upcoming EuroBasket, a threat that didn’t solidify. Then, it threatened clubs that were about to participate in the EuroCup that their transfered players wouldn’t get permits to play in games organised by the national leagues and they would be sanctioned from the them. AEK Athens, a club that would be majorly influenced by that, even stated that the refereeing in last year’s consolation finals for the 3rd and 4th places in the greek league were indirect threats from the international federation because the club was not expressing any wills to participate in the Basketball Champions League (in contrast to its opponents, Aris, whose new majority owner Nikos Laskaris has had a very strong presence in the first steps of the new competition). Inevitably, AEK joined the BCL. And while we are at referees and threats, only a couple of days ago FIBA threatened the referees that are about to officiate EuroLeague and EuroCup games to have them banned from games of their domestic leagues. As if the same threat did any good 16 years ago.
Basketball Champions League
After putting all this weight on external factors, one would believe that FIBA applied the same effort internally in order to create a league that can not only compete with Euroleague’s competitions but also actually give back to the clubs that are participating and to the sport in general. How true is that?
Patrick Baumann (Secretary General) started with bringing in two people with Champions League experience: Ex-UEFA Deputy Chief Executive Markus Studer was appointed Chairman of the Basketball Champions League and ex Head of Club and National Team Operations Patrick Comninos became CEO. Comninos, apart from his UEFA experience, also surely adds to an area that FIBA seems to lack powerforce big time: young(er) minds.
But that seems to be pretty much it, for a number of reasons:
First of all, the league is a 50-50 joint partnership between FIBA and european leagues but, financially speaking for example, that doesn’t mean much. Although there were reports of a sum of €30 million per season to be distributed to competing clubs, this number has now changed to a minimum of €100.000 for each club with the rewards increasing based on performance and the champions getting €500.000.
Last March, Markus Studer told sportcal that “Commercial is an important part of it for sure. [But] there’s [also] organisation, credibility, transparency. You have heard today from the clubs. They would like to know where they stand. In the long-term, it is not fit and it is not healthy if you are only for a selective few [clubs]. This will become a dead-end and at the end of the day having the same exclusive clubs together does not work. We are convinced of that. Our competition has openness and transparency and creates a win-win situation based on sporting results and based on motivating clubs to increase their performances day by day.”. So, a look at where FIBA put its clubs to stand, what kind of openness and transparency was implemented and which results and day by day performances were looked at should be due:
Going in reverse chronological order, FIBA decided to change the format of its competition upon the news that AEK Athens, Partizan KK Belgrade and Stelmet Zielona Gora would be entering the league in 19/08, almost one month after the draw (and that was the second change since the initial proposal, in case you are not keeping count). The federation went ahead to create an extra group with those three teams and five others it selected from the qualification rounds based on the strength of their leagues and their results in european club competitions during recent seasons, expanding the number of the participating teams to 40.
And while one can argue that there were not many different options on how the inclusion of the newcoming teams could be achieved (although one can also argue that there shouldn’t be any newcoming teams if FIBA wanted to respect its own actions, rules and competitions), the same can surely not be argued about the initial choice of teams to be included in the league. Looking at the results of the past five years in the 10 strongest leagues represented in BCL one can tell how FIBA tried to make its choices: based in the last season. In these tables you can have a look at the standings of teams in these leagues in the last 5 seasons along with their average finish for those seasons, their average finish in the last 3 seasons and their average finish in the seasons from ‘11-’12 to ‘14-’15 (last season excluded, that is) along with labels showing in which european competitions they are going to be playing. A number of conclusions can be extracted by those tables and questions like “Why are there 4 Turkish, 3 German and just 1 Spanish teams playing in BCL?” or “Shouldn’t previous years’ performances of teams be taken into consideration as well?” arise.
The curious case of BLB
The last thing to be discussed in regards to how FIBA operates and what it’s trying to promote through marketing but maybe not actions is the case of Belgium, how the top-level league operates and by who it is ran. Teams that participate in Division I have to have a license. Licenses can be of three types:
- A-license, for teams that have a budget of more than €1 million
- B-license, for teams with a budget of at least €750.000
- C-license, for teams on the rise with a budget of at least €400.000
A-licensed teams can qualify to european competitions, b and c-licensed teams can not and c-licensed teams have to obtain a b-license after 2 years. There is no relegation to or promotion from any second divisions and no team can earn its participating there elsewise. The governing body is called Basketball League Belgium. Any of these remind you of a particular european league or body that FIBA seems to be at war with? Yet, the federation is awarding this league (and by “this league” I mean “this form of league organisation and governing and the concept of licensing”) with two spots in the regular phase of its inaugural Basketball Champions League season. Not that Oostende or Spirou do not deserve to play in european competitions.
Before concluding this long piece I think some words from two of the game’s greatest playing minds would be beneficial to everybody. In a matter of total coincidence one used the term “back” and the other the term “future”, both to express the exact same argument about the current situation. Lithuanian legend Sarunas Jasikevicius said “[…] playing in a tournament organized like FIBA, would be the same as returning to 20 years back.” with French superstar Tony Parker saying “[…] The French basketball must necessarily participate in major European competitions and therefore its future is a priority for me.”.
In an interview with SportsProMedia, Patrick Baumann said the following: “We are steering the boat, we are an almost 90-year old baby and we are steering in a different direction because you can fine-tune a few things but if you really want to make the next steps you have to start shaking the tree, in an aggressive way but in a reasonable way.”. And aggressive is exactly the way in which FIBA is shaking the tree. But if it believes it’s also reasonable, fans and players all around the world, european basketball clubs, Euroleague and even FIBA itself are all in for some major disappointments in the years to come.