The 2023 FIBA World Cup | 'World champion of what?'
“World champion of what?” This was the question that American sprinter Noah Lyles asked the press after winning three gold medals at the World Athletics Championships held in Budapest in August 2023. Lyles was not referring to himself, but rather to the NBA teams’ habit of calling themselves “world champions” after winning the competition. According to the sprinter, he had to compete against people representing countries from all over the world to gain the title of “world champion”. The NBA, on the other hand, was just the US national championship.
Lyles’ comments immediately generated huge outrage among American NBA players. Many renowned basketball stars such as Kevin Durant and Devin Booker openly criticized and mocked their fellow countryman. For them, and for the majority of the public opinion in the US, NBA champions had the right to call themselves “world champions” since the best players in the world competed there.
At this point, all the eyes of the basketball world were on the US men’s national basketball team, which in the same days had just begun their journey in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, held in the Philippines, Japan and Indonesia from 25 August to 10 September. With huge indignation and the will to avenge the slight, Team USA set forth to prove to the world once more that they were the undisputed best.
A legacy to defend
“World champion of what?” This question tormented Team USA throughout the whole competition. They had arrived at the World Cup with a team formed by second-tier players, mostly very young and experiencing their first international competition. The big stars had in fact not taken interest in a competition perhaps deemed to be too easy to win and not very prestigious for the best national team in the world. Despite this, Team USA could boast young players such as Anthony Edwards, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Paolo Banchero. They were almost unanimously considered to be the unchallenged contender for the final win. They were, after all, the country that had invented basketball and that had dominated the sport since its invention.
On the other hand, however, in the last decades, the NBA has genuinely attracted athletes from all over the world. Some of them had written marvelous pages in its history, and in the last years more and more had been dominating the league alongside their American counterparts. Players such as Giannis Antetoukoumpo and Nikola Jokic did not take part in the FIBA World Cup. On the other hand, some others like Luka Doncic and Shai Gildeous-Alexander did, representing Slovenia and Canada respectively. All was set for one of the most intriguing international tournaments of the last decades. Noah Lyles’ words only sparked more fire and debates about an already ignited competition.
A great upset
“World champion of what?” With this question in mind, Team USA did not fail to meet initial expectations, easing past its opponents in the first group stage. Serbia, Slovenia, and Spain, who among the experts were considered to be the next best thing, did the same. Nevertheless, to the huge astonishment of everybody, France, which was considered the only team that could somehow oppose the Americans, failed to get through the group stage after a couple of unconvincing performances. With the Frenchman out of the way, it already looked like there was nobody stopping Team USA. Going forth with the competition, however, the American defense was already showing some cracks in their victory against Montenegro. Cracks that opened wide two days later when in front of an astonished Filipino crowd the USA lost to Lithuania.
For Team USA, the defeat was a wake-up call. Or so it seemed, when in the knockout phase the Americans were paired against Italy. The match proved to be a one-sided All-Star game, and with a final score of 64-100, the Italians were left battered and bruised.
Team USA, on the other hand, was already preparing to hammer another opponent in the semifinal. On their path, they found Germany, a team still undefeated, built around a mixture of solid veterans and young talents. The Germans could rely on the expertise of Dennis Schröder and the talent of Franz Wagner, both renowned NBA players. In the end, however, it was the team’s joint effort that made the difference. With another inattentive defensive performance, Team USA was buried under the shots of Andreas Obst, a Euroleague role player, mostly unknown on the other side of the ocean.
World champions of the world
The answer to Lyles’ question finally came on 10 September, but Team USA was not there to give it. In front of an enthusiastic crowd, Germany faced Serbia in the 2023 FIBA World Cup final. The match was taut and hard-fought in the first half, but in the last two quarters the Germans increased their lead and in the end, secured the victory with another solid team performance.
Despite this, the huge upset served only to spark more discussions about who the real world champion was. Many basketball experts, especially in the USA, claimed that Germany could not stand a match against the NBA champions.
Furthermore, many legends of the game like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant immediately reacted to Team USA’s defeat expressing their will to defend the honour of their country again in the 2024 Paris Olympics. The debate remains open, and many other teams seem willing to take part in it. The 2023 NBA finals MVP Nikola Jokic also confirmed his intention to play in the Olympics, adding a lot of talent to the already powerful Serbian team. Still, it was Germany who won the 2023 World Cup, and it was the German team that was crowned world champion.