Veteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. Now, he is in London covering his seventh Summer Olympics and blogging about the men's basketball tournament for Euroleague.net.
Hello from London, where I am privileged to be attending my seventh edition of the Summer Olympics. Once again, we all expect that basketball is going to take center stage at this event. If I go down memory lane - and my Olympics recall stretches as far back as Rome in 1960, when I was a kid watching them - I can say that I have seen a half-century of this men's basketball. That includes the best and the worst from the perennial favorites for the men's basketball gold medal, the United States. I watched all five of the U.S. team's defeats in Olympic tournaments: two on television, the 1972 final in Munich and the 1988 semifinal in Seoul; and in person, all three of their losses during the 2004 games in Athens - to Puerto Rico, Lithuania and eventual champion Argentina, in the semifinals. At the same time, I saw the U.S. in person at its very best, that unforgettable summer of 1992 in Barcelona, with the first and only authentic Dream Team giving us a basketball festival.
Indeed, ever since NBA professionals came to the Olympics 20 years ago in Barcelona the question has become whether the U.S. remains untouchable. Athens 2004 showed that's not true, but in 2008 in Beijing they reclaimed the gold medal despite a more-than-dignified resistance from Spain. A few days ago in Barcelona, I saw the Americans defeat Spain by 22 points, which confirmed their role as favorites, although many of us believe that Spain head coach Sergio Scariolo didn't show all his cards that night. We should find out soon whether that is true. The general opinion continues to be that if any team can challenge the U.S., it's Spain.
But if the basketball world awaits a United States vs. Spain final, for that to happen on August 12, both teams have to overcome plenty of obstacles. Spain will have to face China, Australia, Great Britain, Russia and Brazil in the group phase, while the Americans will have to go against France, Lithuania, Nigeria, Argentina and Tunis. Then come the do-or-die quarterfinals and semis.
While the London 2012 men's basketball tournament will have an NBA flavor, even more players will be present from last season's rosters in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague and Eurocup. Among 41 such players who will defend the prestige of European basketball are some of the all-time greats of Europe, like Juan Carlos Navarro of Spain and Sarunas Jasikevicius of Lithuania, who as of last week are teammates again with F.C. Barcelona Regal.
In the run-up to these Games, as the British say, I have seen several of this year's would-be medalists in person: U.S.A., Spain, Argentina, Australia, Lithuania, France, Great Britain, Tunis and Brazil. Each of those teams has "something" going for it, but the key question is whether or not they can do that "something" at the high rhythm necessary through all 40 minutes. Great Britain and Australia alike played several games at an excellent level for 30 minutes, but after that flagged. Argentina has its own "golden generation" of former Olympic champions, but I fear that London will give that country its last chance to win something big in basketball: of those who earned their international reputations in the Euroleague, Pablo Prigioni is now 35 years old, Manu Ginobili 34, Luis Scola 32 and Andres Nocioni 31.
For me, this tournament will be marked, too, but the absence of any team from the former Yugoslavia for the first time since that first Olympics that I remember following, 1960 in Rome. Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia all failed to qualify through the last EuroBasket, while the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) missed out in this summer's Olympics qualification tournament. So we will be deprived of seeing some other Euroleague stars we are used to watching, but there is still plenty of good basketball to expect.
A super interesting tournament awaits us, I believe. The U.S.A. is the clear favorite before the games start Sunday in London, but no one has ever won a game - let alone a gold medal - before playing.