URCHISAR, Turkey -- I have just finished lunch in this town in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, where I was serenaded in one ear by the restaurant's recording of Janis Joplin belting out "Maybe," and in the other by the mid-day call to prayer from a nearby mosque. The effect was quite strange, that being a good word to describe the United States' participation in the FIBA World Championship, which begins in earnest on Monday in Istanbul.
("Maybe," incidentally, represents Joplin at her bluesy best. The song was written by the late Richard Barrett, a Philadelphia-based songwriter/performer/producer, who once did a recording of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," made famous by the Platters but also a tune that Jerry Garcia, of all people, once performed in a video that included Ashley Judd sitting in the background, apparently because the University of Kentucky was idle that night. It's tough to get an iced drink in this rocky and fascinating region, which is located smack in the middle of Turkey, but Google works just fine.)
But back to "strange" and the World Championship. Even some hardcore hoops fans struggle to get their minds around the once-every-four-years-event, which is never prominent on the U.S. sports radar. Before I left on this half-work/half-vacation journey, a friend told me, "Hey, I just saw Kevin Durant playing in some exhibition with a funny-looking ball. It must've been from a summer game in college or something." Actually, it was ESPN's broadcast of the opening U.S. game in the preliminary round of the Worlds, a 106-78 rout Croatia.
The lack of attention paid the Worlds is understandable, given that it generally coincides with the heating up of pennant races and the launch of King Football and doesn't seem to mean much since it is not encircled by Olympic rings. But, actually, it does. With the U.S. preparing for its quarterfinal match on Monday against Angola, now is the time to start watching with a serious eye, it being a lose-and-go-home situation. Herewith a primer on the Worlds:
Why are we here?
We have been a member of FIBA, the international governing body of basketball, since 1934, so we always participate.
OK, but really ... Why are we here?
We have to be. It's a qualifying tournament for the Olympics.
We won the Olympic gold medal in 2008, yet we still have to qualify? Aren't we special because we're, you know, the United States?
We're not special. A gold medal in these Worlds is the path to automatic qualification for the 2012 Games in London.
OK, but don't we usually win this thing anyway?
No. We usually win the Olympics, the grand exceptions being 1972 (when the refs handed the gold medal game to the Soviet Union, and that's fact, not sour grapes), 1988 (the last defeat before the inclusion of NBA players on Olympic teams) and 2004 (when a misfit U.S. team lost to Puerto Rico, 92-73, out of the gate and managed only bronze). We have a much more checkered past in the Worlds.
The 2006 U.S. team -- which featured LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and, with the notable addition of Kobe Bryant, went on to win gold in Beijing in 2008 -- got pick-and-rolled to death by a slick Greek team and finished third in Japan. The 2002 team was a chemical mess and was embarrassed by a sixth-place finish in Indianapolis. The 1998 team -- a loveable band of not-quite-NBA-caliber-players (Trajan Langdon, Michael Hawkins, Kiwane Garris were among the stalwarts) christened "The Dirty Dozen" -- did well to win bronze in Athens since an NBA lockout kept the U.S. from sending a first-line team.
Bottom line: We haven't won the world championship of basketball since 1994 when the so-called Dream Team II, a loaded, chest-pounding group that included Shaquille O'Neal, Shawn Kemp and Reggie Miller, won gold in Toronto.
But we'll win this year with Kobe and all those dudes from the Miami Heat, right?
Well, they're not here. Nobody from the 2008 gold-medal team is here. Due to protracted NBA seasons, free-agent theatrics, injuries and general offseason ennui, most of the big stars opted out. Our best player is the 21-year-old Durant.
Should we be mad at them?
Absolutely not. Several pro stars from other nations, including Germany's DirkNowitzki, Argentina's Manu Ginobili and Spain's Pau Gasol, decided not to play either. That prompted a sigh of relief from their respective NBA teams.
But the U.S. still has the best team, right?
We have the best talent, not necessarily the best team. It was assembled quickly, and hastily assembled teams often don't jell on offense. That was the case in the preliminary round of the Worlds, where the U.S. went undefeated primarily because of its defensive effort.
And if the U.S. doesn't win gold in Turkey?
There will be the usual hand-wringing back in the States about the deteriorating condition of American ball, without the accompanying realization about the depth of talent beyond our shores, the difficulty of NBA players adjusting to FIBA rules (the real underrated difference in my opinion being a 40-minute game instead of a 48-minute game) and the vicissitudes of international reffing. But the major impact is that we will have to enter a qualifying tournament next summer, when the prospect of another lockout looms.
Bonus question: For what American composer was Jerry Garcia named?
Jerome Kern, who wrote "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes." I didn't know that before looking it up. I'm betting that Ashley Judd did.