MANILA – The Naismith Trophy is part of the prize package for winners of the Basketball World Cup. It made a whirlwind tour over the last few weeks, including a stop in Las Vegas where U.S. guard Tyrese Haliburton got to spend a little time in its company.
He immediately understood the mission.
“It's nice to see it,” Haliburton said. “It'll be nicer if we bring it home.”
The chance for 32 teams to do just that finally gets underway on Friday, when the World Cup begins in the Philippines, Indonesia and Japan. Consider this a redemption-type opportunity for the U.S., which was seventh — its worst-ever finish — at the last World Cup in 2019, and even saw its 12-year reign atop the men's national-team world rankings end last November.
Yet at this World Cup, the only team with 12 NBA players on its roster finds itself back in the role as the favorite knowing that only gold will be good enough and anything less will be decried as failure.
“We’re going to compete. We’re going to play as hard as we can. We’re going to try to win a gold medal," U.S. coach Steve Kerr said. "If we don’t, we understand there will be plenty of criticism and we’re OK with that. But our approach is, this is incredibly fun, we’re unbelievably fortunate to be able to do this and to compete and know that we did everything we could. We’re putting in the effort. We want to win. But whatever happens happens — and we’ll live with that.”
There are no shortage of challengers. France believes it finally is in position to win gold, after winning bronze at the most recent World Cup at China in 2019, silver behind the U.S. at the Tokyo Olympics two summers ago, and silver behind Spain at last year's EuroBasket. Slovenia has Luka Doncic, maybe the best 1-on-1 player in the tournament and an All-NBA talent for Dallas. Canada has a slew of NBA players, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Australia has savvy veterans like Patty Mills and Joe Ingles. And then there's Spain, the defending World Cup champion.
Just don't refer to Spain as such around coach Sergio Scariolo.
“Honestly, I hate the definition of defending anything,” Scariolo said. “We are not defending anything. Every team is starting a new, fresh competition. Every team starts 0-0. We have been proud to exceed any expectations during the last competitions, winning championships which nobody predicted beforehand. We might win and we are starting from, once again, behind several teams in the expectations of the final result.”
The tournament starts Friday with eight games — there's eight more Saturday, including the U.S. opener against New Zealand — and will almost certainly see history on Day 1. Local officials are hoping more than 40,000 people will attend in Manila when the Philippines meets Karl-Anthony Towns and the Dominican Republic. That attendance figure would smash the previous World Cup record, set when 32,616 watched the U.S. beat Russia at Toronto in 1994.
It'll be a moment of immense Pinoy pride.
“For me, it’s just relishing the opportunity,” Philippines coach Chot Reyes said. “I mean, who gets this chance, right? To coach your national team in a tournament of this magnitude in your hometown? I know there are a lot of detractors, but I just always remind myself that what we have here going on is special. That’s enough for me. That’s enough for us.”
Qualifying for this event started more than two years ago, with 80 hopefuls getting pared down to the 32 nations that are in Asia for the next couple weeks. Teams were placed into a four-team group; the top two teams in each of the eight groups makes the second round. Some nations fully understand that they would need to pull off the upset of upsets to advance.
When Venezuela's David Cubillan was asked how to guard Doncic, who awaits them in their tournament opener on Saturday: “You need to pray.”
There are some interesting pairings in opening games, including Serbia facing China. Sasha Djordjevic stepped down as Serbia's coach after the last World Cup in China, then got hired by China last year — and sure enough, Serbia awaits him Saturday.
“For me, that’s very, very special," Djordjevic said. "Very emotional. It’s going to be a game full of emotions, definitely. But we are professionals and we have to do our best for the teams that we are working for. It’s a detail that probably you guys from the media will like, but for me, it’ll be a game full of pride.”
Kerr is looking for a unique double: He won the World Cup, then called FIBA's world championship, as a college player in 1986 when the Americans beat the Soviet Union 87-85 at Madrid behind 23 points from Kenny Smith. Kerr missed the title game after tearing a knee ligament in the semifinals.
“This experience,” Kerr said, “is something our team will never forget.”
That was among the selling points Kerr, Grant Hill and Sean Ford — the braintrust of USA Basketball's men's program right now — used to lure this roster of players who haven't been on this stage before. There's no shortage of talent, and no shortage of expectation.
“For me personally, there’s no such thing as pressure,” U.S. point guard Jalen Brunson said. “I have figured it out that as long as I continue really working hard on my game, putting everything I can into what I do, there’s no such thing as pressure. Now there are different moments, situations where the stakes are higher than the others, but as long as I keep working hard there really is no pressure. And I think this team is going to rely on each other.”