By Aris Barkas/ email@example.com
BEIJING – In his first press conference in front of media from all over the world, new FIBA secretary general Andreas Zagklis was prepared to answer anything and did it with a personal flavor, unlike the one typically used by federation officials and more like the modus operandi of NBA commissioners.
The press conference on the last day of the FIBA World Cup lasted 38 minutes and started with Zagklis personally shaking hands with every media member on the room. And one of the first questions was addressing the elephant in the room, the absence of many major NBA stars.
According to Zagklis and despite the recent criticism by former NBA commissioner David Stern on the matter, this is an issue that individual federation must solve, especially those of the USA and Canada, while in total 54 NBA players competed in the World Cup: “Our role is quite delicate because our job is not to put together the roster of any of the competing teams. We need to set the stage, put equal conditions for all the teams and then each national federation has its own way to approach the players. There has been of course a lot of discussion in the media about the roster of the US national team. I think that USA basketball should analyze this situation and also we will have a debriefing with them, whether there are some conditions that we set for this tournament. But I have to say this. When those players initially committed to play, everything was already known. We believe that’s something which doesn’t have to do with the tournament itself. Of course, every player has its own reasons, but as I said before for us, it’s very important, and we have put a lot of emphases in this tournament, more than any other time, to improve the players’ experience. And yes, traveling between the cities was a bit of a challenge, but I visited myself the team hotels and the players’ lounges. So why one federation or another had some players or not in their roster, it’s an individual question. And let’s not forget that other national teams besides USA and Canada virtually had every NBA player they have summoned for the World Cup”.
The new system and the adjustments
The FIBA World Cup 2019 was a commercial success, according to the first indications that FIBA has, and Zagklis believes that in general the system of the “windows” and the four-year circle of competition works.
However, adjustments can and will be made after the end of this Olympic circle. “We have designed a new system in four-year circles, we have just tested the first half of it, and overall we are satisfied as of now,” Zagklis said. “We are satisfied with the delivery of the qualifiers by the national federations and with this event which is actually the biggest ever that FIBA has ever organized. The impact of the qualifiers in the countries where they played, has been very positive. The main message is we need regular home games for the national teams. Adjustments, of course, can happen after we evaluate the first circle. You have already seen that we have moved the continental cups qualifiers to February and not in November. That was an adjustment made after we consulted with our federations and our leagues and we got their feedback”.
The main challenge that the organizers had to deal with during the FIBA World Cup was the constant traveling of teams, press and fans from city to city.
In total, the World Cup was held in eight cities and no team staying in one of them for more than five days. FIBA and Zagklis understand that the result was no the one they were expecting on paper: “It’s not the first time that we went to that many cities, but it was the first time that there were games simultaneously to all those cities. The transfer of the teams was one of the operational challenges, I would say, and it’s something that we will have to look and evaluate after the event and apply the necessary adjustments for next events. We put the best possible conditions, but still, transfers were many, and it was part of a clear strategy to spread basketball all over those eight cities in a huge country, where our sport is so popular. I must say that after having experienced the schedule, even if sometimes a thing on paper looks perfect when you apply it you see the non-perfect aspects of it. It’s something that we want to improve in the future if it’s some more hours of rest for the athletes – we already did move a lot of dedicated flights order to give them more rest – and there’s room for improved”.
Meanwhile, there’s no question that the 32-team format and the tournament system are not expected to change: “The expansion to 32 teams has been a natural evolution, to follow the global nature of our sport. We need to give to what’s now the “rest of the world” to catch up. And those 32 teams should not be seen in isolation but in conjunction to the 80 teams that competed in the qualifiers. Those 80 teams are the focus for us to make the mid-tied bigger and pass some of them to the top-tier. That’s why every game in World Cup matters. In the first round, you play to qualify in the second and even if you don’t make it, then you play for the pre-Olympic tournament qualifications. And even if you miss that, later you play for your FIBA ranking which is the criterion for getting the last eight open spots in the pre-Olympic tournaments. There are no wildcards. So this is what we wanted to provide. A calendar can’t make everyone happy. Tournament dates are the result of compromises. As of now, we are not planning to change the tournament dates for 2023, but we first need to have a debrief of this World Cup”.
The European issues
Zagklis was accused by former Lithuanian national team coach Jonas Kazlauskas of creating a system that “maybe is good for the Philippines, but destroys European basketball.” When asked in the press conference on the fact that traditional powers like Lithuania and Greece didn’t make it to the quarterfinals, contrary to Poland and the Czech Republic, Zagklis explained that in FIBA eyes that can only be good: “Poland and the Czech Republic have built on the experience of the qualifiers. National teams need continuity and a program. They have shown how basketball could expand to new markets.”
In the case of Lithuania, there was a refereeing controversy, and while Zagklis defended FIBA referees, he also repeated that a mistake was made: “It’s the same group of referees that delivered the qualifiers, the continental cups and it’s a huge number of referees. They have been prepared in an excellent manner, FIBA has put great investment in their training. Of course, mistakes are part of the game, and of course, mistakes can have consequences. That’s why after one game we had to make a public acknowledgment of an error, and the three referees who were unfortunately involved in that situation did not officiate any longer in the World Cup”. The top European referees who are calling games in the EuroLeague were excluded from the FIBA World Cup, however, this can be changed in the future, if there’s finally cooperation between the two sides with the FIBA secretary general speaking about possible talks.
There was also a reaction by the Greek federation for the way the referees have treated Giannis Antetokounmpo. Greek federation president Giorgos Vasilakopoulos also called out Zagklis, who is also Greek, for not being present on the games of his country. “Mister Vasilakopoulos is the president of one of the big basketball federations, Greece; he was the FIBA vice-president and FIBA Europe president for many years. Definitely, the most important basketball administrator from my country, Greece”, Zagklis said on the matter. “I also have good discussions with him. I enjoy those conversations, but I don’t have any special relation with no national federation, even those of my country. FIBA has 213 federation-members, those are my 213 kids I would say. I am sure that he understands the role that I have now in FIBA and he was always supportive”.
Zagklis also explained why it still not easy for basketball to have the same set of rules everywhere: “Rules are one of our biggest responsibilities. The first step we have made is to include the NBA and the NCAA in our decision-making process so that we can consult directly with them. You have seen that during the last ten years we have changed some rules, but you also have to understand that we are a global body. The NBA is a league of 30 teams. When they change something, they need to apply it to 30 venues. We need to apply it all over the world, in thousand and thousand of venues. And this comes with a great cost. Of course, we see how the game is evolving because the rules are also there to help the game change and grow”.
And the Chinese market is a vital part of this growth. “I am happy that the right man for the job, Yao Ming, is in charge,” said Zagklis. “We have not come to China to make the tournament and then pack our stuff and leave. FIBA is here to stay. The tournament has left a very concrete legacy, two days ago we inaugurated the first FIBA academy and this is just the first of several activities. We have a FIBA China office, and of course, Yao and I had several conversations about the know-how from other countries, exchanges, and FIBA programs”.
It’s not a secret that FIBA aims for a World Cup that could rival the FIFA World Cup. That’s the end goal, and while there are still plenty of things to get done, FIBA feels that they are in the right direction, while also keeping a strong Olympic tournament in the spotlight. “You asked if we are thinking of upgrading the World Cup against the Olympics”, Zagklis said on the end of the press conference. “I would cut that sentence short in the following way: Yes, we are will continue upgrading the World Cup. Period. Not against the Olympics which are the greatest sporting event in the world and the Olympic basketball tournament has given us some of the greatest moments in the history of the sport”.
Photo credit: FIBA.Basketball