With Olympic berths at stake and their league in limbo, Dirk Nowitzki and other NBA stars have flocked home for the EuroBasket to help their nations try to qualify for next year’s Olympic Games in London.
The championship in Lithuania which starts today will be the biggest and perhaps the best continental tournament to date.
The competition has been expanded to 24 teams and only the two finalists will be guaranteed slots at the London Olympics. Four other teams will earn places in a later qualifying tournament.
Nowitzki is just one of the NBA stars back home as the lockout continues. Chris Kaman is also in the Germany squad. Tony Parker leads France, Pau Gasol and his brother Marc are back for defending champions Spain, to name just a few.
Germany’s hopes have received a major boost with Nowitzki coming back to the national team after two years and the return of Kaman, the Los Angeles Clippers center.
Nowitzki comes to the tournament as the MVP of the NBA finals after leading the Dallas Mavericks to the title over the Miami Heat. He and Kaman joined the Germany team only late this month, with the rest of their teammates already having several weeks of preparations behind them.
“It’s fantastic to have Dirk back after two years, but our job at the Europeans remains very hard,” Germany coach Dirk Bauermann said.
Nowitzki experienced some discomfort in his right knee during Friday’s warm-up game against Macedonia, but he still played 26 minutes and contributed 13 points in a 70-68 win.
“It was better in the second half,” Nowitzki said.
Germany have perhaps the toughest of the four six-team pools. They are in Group B in Siualai with France, Italy, Israel, Latvia and Serbia, the runners-up at the last Europeans and semi-finalists at the world championships in Turkey last year.
Without Nowitzki, Germany beat Serbia in a friendly. Serbia won an exhibition tournament of former Yugoslav republics, all accomplished teams, but then also lost to Croatia, Australia and France. Their captain is Nenad Krstic, the former Oklahoma City and Boston center.
“France has much more experience, and so does Spain and some other teams,” Krstic said. “We are an average team, but we always have extra motivation at big championships.”
Serbia coach Dusan Ivkovic said he expected the tournament to be “the best [European] championship ever.”
France are physical and loaded with talent, from Parker, the San Antonio Spurs point guard, to Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah and Portland Trailblazers swingman Nicolas Batum.
Italy also have NBA players — Andrea Bargnani of the Toronto Raptors, Danilo Gallinari of the Denver Nuggets and Marco Belinelli of New Orleans.
Spain should be the team to beat, with the Gasol brothers in a group that has been together for a long time and won the silver medal at the Beijing Olympics.
Rudy Fernandez, the new Dallas Mavericks player, is recovering his form after injuring his arm. Rubio, the playmaker headed for the Minnesota Timberwolves, will be under special scrutiny. Spain also have Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka.
Spain have a tough draw, coming up against hosts Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Britain and world championship runners-up Turkey in Group A in Panevezys.
Group C in Alytus sees four former Yugoslav republics — Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia, go head-to-head along with Greece and Finland. Group D in Klaipeda consists of Slovenia, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Georgia and Belgium.