The Kings of South America

By Gustavo Cardoso

The NBA playoffs and the Euroleague Final Four are definitely the most important basketball events around the world, watched by millions, played by a few. However, in the southern hemisphere, miles away from San Antonio or Detroit, and Athens, Greece, a small city of about 20,000 inhabitants, that goes by the name of Sunchales has also put its name in 2007 basketball history by hosting, yesterday night, the last game of the Liga Sudamericana finals.

Sunchales, Argentina’s main producer and exporter of dairy products, is also the home of the Tigres of Libertad, one of South America’s most successful basketball venues in the last ten years. In an evening when cold fronts from Antarctica hit the southern cone of South America, Libertad defeated Franca Basquetebol, Brazil’s most traditional basketball club, in a very warm ‘Hogar de los Tigres’, packed with 3,500 passionate fans. The Argentineans won by the score of 77 to 68 taking the 5th game of the Liga Sudamericana finals, and winning its second title since the beginning of the tourney in 1996.

The Liga Sudamericana is the most important basketball tournament in the region and serves as ground to several types of players. Some become NBA players like Denver Nugget’s Nenê who once battled for position in the paint across South American hardwood, playing for Rio’s Vasco da Gama. Others, like young talented Argentinean players formed by traditional clubs such as Atenas de Cordoba and Benhur of Rafaela, use the Liga games to improve their overall awareness of competitive basketball before heading to the Italian and Spanish leagues like ACB and LEB.

American basketball journeymen are a third breed of players that shine in Liga Sudamericana league play. Last night three of them were on court and two of them played major roles, dominating the field. I’m talking about Cleotis Brown, a former small forward at the University of Illinois Fighting Illini, Robert Battle, a 2003 Drexel power forward who previously played in France and Spain, and Derrick Lang, a product of NCAA Division II Incarnate World.

While Brown and Battle powered up the Argentineans, Lang strengthened Franca’s backcourt. Brown finished the game as the top scorer with 24 points after having low score outings in the previous games of the series. Battle, on the other hand, was a dominant force throughout the finals, outrebounding Franca’s big men while throwing down powerful dunks over his Brazilian counterparts.

American players have given South American Leagues a great opportunity to develop their own players and, at the same time, help to improve league attendance by showing their flashy style of play. In Brazil, due to financial reasons, clubs have not relied on services from “top-notch” American players, sometimes hiring foreign athletes that aren’t even able to play at the local league level (not the case of Lang who has excelled as one of Franca’s solid contributors).

On the other hand, in leagues like LNB, Argentina’s main professional league, and LUB, Uruguay’s professional basketball league, American players, usually forwards and centers, have distinguished roles and earn good money to do their work (sometimes over US$ 10,000 monthly). TV stations air the games on national TV and basketball grows as one of the favorite sports in a continent where football (soccer) still reigns at the top exporting talents to Europe on a daily basis.

Argentineans changed this scenario and are now exporting basketball players everywhere but still keeping the level of its local game high. One could say that happens due to the Argentinean player European background (lots of English, Spanish, and Italian immigrants in the country) which makes it easier for them to get European passports. However, there are far more Argentinean players playing leading roles in Europe than there are Brazilian, Venezuelan, or Uruguayan players (take Prigioni and Scola as an example). Eduardo Bazzi, president of the Associacion de Clubes de Basquet said last night that Argentina’s teams are on a higher level when comparing to their continent rivals. “It’s with great happiness that once again an Argentine LNB team has conquered the Liga Sudamericana. This shows that Argentinean squads are still at the highest level of international basketball”.

He is right. Argentina is light years ahead and is able to put itself alongside top basketball powerhouses in Europe when it comes down to league organization and player development. Among the top basketball nations of South America (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Venezuela) Brazil is the one that still disappoints its basketball fans. It definitely has the most human resources to develop, but its federations still treat the game with despise using the success of its talented players worldwide to say that the ship is sailing in calm waters. “Not at all” I would say.

Isolated projects like Assis, Brasília, Franca, Rio Claro, and Uberlândia fight against the tides of uncertainty and are able to elevate the country’s game to places like the Liga Sudamericana finals, but for how long will that last? The fact they are doing it on their own. When will Brazilian federation officials look at basketball as a sport and not as a way of flirting with power, and maintaining it through years and years with no plan for actual development? It’s sort of ‘machiavellic’, isn’t it?

With Brazilian basketball organizing itself to the same levels of Argentinean hoops, the continent could see South American league basketball rise to new levels and hopefully, one day, get closer to the dream of having top quality continental basketball leagues like the Euroleague or the ULEB Cup played right here. As of now Libertad Sunchales reigns at the top and will represent the continent in the ‘Liga de Las Americas’, a tournament between North America, Central America, the Caribbean, and South American clubs yet to be seen.

For a complete report of the Liga Sudamericana final game in English click here.

Note: Thanks to Sebastian Riboldi, news writer, and Marcelo Figueras, photographer, for the up to date information straight from Sunchales

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2 thoughts on “The Kings of South America

  1. Thanks for this article! It’s been great to include game recaps from international competitions this week on the blog from you and Tobias. Raptors TV usually runs some of the Euroleague games but for the most part I feel out of the loop when it comes to keeping up with what some of my favourite NCAA players are up to if they don’t stick with a NBA team.

    How does a team with only 20,000 people support a pro team? That fact was amazing to me 🙂

    You mention that American players can earn upwards of $10,000 per month. How many months long are the seasons? Do these players also play in other leagues to help boost their income?

    A big thanks also goes out to Sebastian Riboldi (news writer) and Marcelo Figueras (photographer) for helping out with this article.

  2. Argentineans are just passionate people so in any small town like Sunchales you can find an arena crowded with passionate fans. Actually small cities are the best way to strengthen basketball in Third World Countries. Large cities are ‘plagued’ by soccer so sponsors are unlikely to invest in basketball.

    In Brazil Franca has an 8.000 seat gym that is crowded every night just because the city breathes basketball, and sponsors go along with the idea. You would never believe that happens in Brazil but it does. Franca is far from being a small city like Sunchales but it’s not a huge metropolitan center either. It has over 300,000 inhabitants but most of them love basketball much more than soccer.

    As far as the American players, well, they play in two or three leagues every year in order to have an income throughout 12 months. While leagues leagues like Argentina’s LNB follow the European calendar (October through June), in the summer there are other leagues in South America, the Caribbean, and Central America. Mexico, for instance, with its LNPB, has also become a successful venue for former NCAA players.

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