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Ask Sports: What is the Basketball World Cup?

What is the Basketball World Cup, and why should I care if Kevin Durant isn’t going to play in it?

While the tournament officially known as the FIBA Basketball World Cup has a new name this year, it is essentially the same event that has occurred roughly every four years since 1950.

It used to be known as the FIBA World Championship, and its purpose, much like soccer’s World Cup, is to determine a world champion among basketball-playing countries.

It does not receive the attention that soccer’s World Cup receives, in part, because many people, and most Americans, would view the Olympic champion as the true “world champion.” The Olympic tournament in soccer is age-restricted, so the quadrennial World Cup doesn’t have to compete with any other tournament for its sport’s supremacy.

Another reason many Americans aren’t interested in basketball’s World Cup is the American team has not been nearly as successful in this competition as it has in the Olympics. Prior to the introduction of professional teams in 1992, the United States won only two of the 11 World Championship tournaments held.

Those teams, mostly made of collegiate players, often lacked some of the best players at the time. The 1984 Olympic team had Michael Jordan. The 1982 World Championship team? No MJ, but Antoine Carr was on it.

Even after NBA players entered the scene, the U.S. teams have only won two of the five tournaments.

Since 1994 FIBA and USA Basketball have tried to elevate American interest in the tournament. The 1994 American team was even billed as “Dream Team II,” as it came on the heels of the Hall of Fame squad that dominated the Barcelona Olympics.

There were some great players on the 1994 squad – Shaquille O’Neal, Reggie Miller, Joe Dumars and Alonzo Mourning – and then the likes of Derrick Coleman and Dan Majerle. Thunder Dan and the bunch were still good enough to win by 46 points in the gold-medal game, though.

The 1998 team returned to a collegiate team because of the NBA lockout, resulting in a third-place finish.

The 2002 team probably represented the nadir of Team USA’s pro teams: Michael Finley, Antonio Davis, Jermaine O’Neal, Raef LaFrentz and company suffered three losses en route to a sixth-place finish. Combining that with a bronze-medal finish in the Athens Olympics two years later, USA Basketball decided to overhaul its team-selection process.

Since 2006 the World Championship has been used by USA Basketball as a warmup tournament for the Olympics – with the play and commitment of team members in “off-years” being used to determine roster spots for the more-coveted Olympic squads. This buy-in philosophy has helped the rosters see players such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and Durant.

That brings us to this year’s World Cup, which begins Aug. 30 in Spain and lasts two weeks. In addition to the title of World Champion, the winner receives an automatic berth into the 2016 Olympics. That’s helpful for Team USA, so that it does not have to spend another summer to qualify.

Durant, the 2010 World Championship MVP, pulled out last week, leaving this team in a bit of flux and without much depth aside from the point guard position. That might be good news for fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder, in that Durant will get a chance to rest before the season begins, but it makes winning this tournament decidedly harder.

Most of the team will lack any international experience, with Derrick Rose, Steph Curry and Anthony Davis figuring to be the team’s best players. Will that be enough to beat host Spain or the next-highest ranked teams in Lithuania, Argentina, Greece or France? Maybe.

The U.S. is still the favorite to win, according to online oddsmakers, but Spain is nearly a co-favorite with NBA stars Marc and Pau Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Ricky Rubio.

Joshua Wood