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Sunday, Sept. 10, 2006

SPORTS SCOPE

FIBA's Baumann encouraged about future of hoops in Japan


SAITAMA -- As time wound down on the final hours of the recently concluded World Championship, FIBA secretary general Patrick Baumann took time out of his busy schedule to speak with The Japan Times.

Jack Gallagher

In an exclusive interview, immediately before the final game, Baumann discussed the success of the 16-day hoop extravaganza, the future of basketball in Japan, and whether his having a higher profile would benefit the sport.

"We are very pleased that the last three days of the World Championship -- the semifinals, bronze medal and gold medal games -- were all sold out in a country that is not so basketball oriented, at this point," Baumann said, in a conference room inside Saitama Super Arena on Sept. 3.

With FIBA announcing before the final that 75 percent of the tickets for the championship in Japan had been sold, Baumann did not conceal his pride in the accomplishment.

"This is a record for the most tickets ever sold for a FIBA World Championship," the Swiss noted. "It has been a great event. There have been a lot of surprises. The two semifinal games (Greece-USA, Spain-Argentina) were played at a level we have never seen before."

Baumann, who acts as the chief executive officer of FIBA at its headquarters in Geneva, is confident that basketball will continue its growth in Asia.

"We are looking forward to the Olympic qualifiers next year, because they won't be that simple," he said. "I think basketball will be the hottest ticket at the Beijing Olympics."

The impending arrival of a second professional league in Japan is a positive development, according to the 39-year-old Baumann.

"I think it is a good sign that there will be two pro leagues (bj-league, JBL) here soon," he said. "That is a sign that there is interest in basketball. Maybe someday it will only be one, but for now, it is OK."

Baumann acknowledged that Japan is still lacking a star player that it can build the future of the game here around.

"They are missing a Yao Ming, a (Dirk) Nowitzki, a (Tony) Parker here, that icon or signature player (who) can bring everyone together for the game," he said.

Baumann, who speaks five languages, admitted the basketball powers in this country need to get their house in order if the game is ever going to prosper on the global level.

"There is still a lot of work to do. The federation (JABBA) needs to slightly modify how they operate and organize," he said. "The federation has been run by the school association. They need to modify who is running the sport.

"I think the federation views this championship, and the Olympic qualifiers next year, as an investment in this project. If that works out fine, I think in three to four years we will see the first signs of growth for basketball in this country."

When asked to reflect on what might have been done differently with this edition of the championship, Baumann was very direct with his response.

"We could have put more emphasis on promoting the event in this country," he said. "That is a responsibility that both FIBA and the local organizers share.

"We lost time between when the championship was awarded (1997) and now to do that. To some extent, the event was awarded too early."

With teams having to play five games in six days in the first round, the idea of making the tournament longer -- like soccer's World Cup -- was broached.

Baumann immediately dismissed the prospect of lengthening the event.

"Reducing the number of days of the tournament is more likely than extending it," he said. "With many of our players coming from a long season in the NBA, it is preferable to go to the knockout stage as quickly as possible.

"We have had players get hurt here, and even on the way here, so we can't make the event longer. If we do this, the players will not come back."

When given the chance to air his feelings on the NBA's talk about putting teams into Europe someday, Baumann was pragmatic with his reply.

"There are existing leagues," he said. "There are existing federations. They want to know what this means for them.

"The European system is quite well structured. If you put another league in there, nobody is quite sure what to expect. It is a mature market.

"On the one hand it would be good for basketball, but setting up a new league would create other problems. I'm sure the NBA is monitoring the market very carefully."

When questioned about whether having a higher profile -- like FIFA's Sepp Blatter -- would give him more of a platform to spread the word about his sport, Baumann smiled and pondered the proposition.

"I guess there could be some positive aspects to it," he said. "But I am lucky to be secretary general of FIBA. The increased profile will come with time."



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