Posted Oct 27 2010 9:18AM - Updated Oct 31 2010 5:43PM
First of all, the location. Indianapolis, basketball heartland, with its new downtown, and Conseco Fieldhouse as its centerpiece (and the starting point for any conversation about best NBA arenas). Exciting host city for international visitors or not, Indy definitely worked as a backdrop.
It's where history unfolded without anyone realizing it. There's no way we could have. Manu Ginobili hadn't played for the Spurs and Yao Ming hadn't played for the Rockets, but there they were, in a perfectly unplanned moment on United States soil for the 2002 world championships. It was an unveiling before they stamped the league in unimaginable ways. Dirk Nowitzki, who was well established with the Mavericks, was tournament MVP. Team USA lost for the first time since pros were cleared for international competition, and then kept losing.
The developments were significant then, but nothing compared to what the 11 days would come to mean. An eye-opening moment, an entertaining moment, a rare moment as international play on the highest level made a stop in the United States, it became a favorite moment once the years passed and the impact of Indy 2002 could really be measured.
It turned out to be nothing short of a historical crossroads. Those don't come along very often. They certainly don't come along in the summer, partly in an echo chamber of a football stadium, in a host country that barely cared. But as soon as Argentina took the court Aug. 29 with 25-year-old Emanuel Ginobili starting at guard: wow.
He so jumped off the page in those 11 days that it was impossible not to think that the Spurs had turned the No. 57 pick in the 1999 Draft into a larcenous move. Ginobili was everywhere. There just was no way to know the extent of the preview, that it was the first look for most in North America of a unique talent who would play a pivotal role in delivering three titles and making San Antonio, along with the Lakers, the dominant team of the first decade of the 2000s.
Yao was much more of a curiosity to NBA fans, an understandable role. He was the No. 1 pick two months before and most everything about Yao's impending move from China was the stuff of international intrigue. There hadn't yet been the interaction that would reveal one of the big hearts of the game, from a wonderfully biting sense of humor to an ability to remain remarkably grounded.
The Yao of 2002 was good -- the all-tournament center, the third-leading scorer behind Nowitzki of Germany and Victor Diaz of Venezuela -- but not overwhelming. Poor guard play made it difficult for Yao to get the ball in ideal scoring position. Despite obviously being the best talent on the team, despite shooting 75.3 percent to easily lead the team, he had the second-most attempts as China went 1-7. And then he went on to a career that changed the league forever by helping to popularize the game in China, opening up a tremendously rich marketing opportunity for the NBA.
The competition dramatically altered USA Basketball as well, the way hitting bottom often ignites change. Indianapolis became one of the internal rallying points to change a system that demands loyalty in order to build the kind of continuity that wins. The All-Star Game mentality clearly was no longer working.
On Sept. 4, the United States started Michael Finley, Elton Brand, Jermaine O'Neal, Andre Miller and Paul Pierce, used Ben Wallace, Reggie Miller, Shawn Marion, Baron Davis and Antonio Davis in reserve roles, and did not play Raef LaFrentz or Jay Williams and lost to Argentina 87-80 in pool play. Argentina, which started Hugo Sconochini, Ruben Wolkowyski, Fabricio Oberto, Juan Igancio Sanchez and Ginobili and played only two subs at least 15 minutes, although the two were Andres Nocioni and Luis Scola.
The 58-game winning streak of NBA players in international play halted without the United States leading. "There is not a bond like us," Ginobili explained afterward. "We know each other. We know where picks will be, when to cut for a pass. Apparently [Team USA] did not." Pierce said he was "embarrassed to be on the first team to take the loss."
The next day, also at Conseco, the United States lost to Yugoslavia 81-78 in the quarterfinals, ending hopes for a medal.
The day after that, it beat Puerto Rico by 10, only to ultimately collapse across the finish line on Sept. 6 with an 81-75 loss to Juan Carlos Navarro, Pau Gasol and Spain in the fifth-place game.
Yugoslavia -- Peja Stojakovic, Marko Jaric, Vlade Divac and Dejan Bodiroga, a star in Europe who skipped chances to try the NBA -- beat Argentina for the gold. Outside the arena, on the mile walk to the arena, cars rolled past with cheering passengers waving flags and honking horns. Indy-on-the-Adriatic.
The atmosphere remains one of the great memories, even with so many small crowds. Seventeen sessions at Conseco Fieldhouse drew an announced 5,754 fans per. Twelve sessions at the RCA Dome averaged 7,350. Flags flew, though. New Zealand's players did the haka before games, a native dance of foot stomping, hand slapping and chants to inspire the team and delight everyone else.
It was a good time unlike any we see in basketball in the United States. The world came, a party broke out, and the NBA and Team USA was changed forever.
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